Wednesday, 07 December 2011
There are a few assumptions about the story of Christ's birth held by many Western Christians. They are 1) Jesus was born in a wooden trough in a barn, and 2) The inn Mary and Joseph couldn't find room at was a motel like dwelling. Our nativity scenes and church productions have often mistakenly presented untruths to us about this story. Not being Middle-Eastern, many of us have no way of knowing the more probable truths. With these three traditional assumptions in mind I ask:
Did you know...
That Jesus probably was not born in a barn but in a common house and the manager was most likely not a wooden trough? Rich folks may have head separate facilities for their animals (or storehouses for grains) but not the common Palestinian.
The average Palestinian home had 2 rooms. 1 for guests, which was either attached to the back of the house or on the roof, and the main "family" room where sleeping, eating, visiting, and all home life took place. The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. At night the family's animals would reside there, keeping the home warm and the animals safe. The first morning activity was to open the door and let the animals out so they could be tied and given water. This type of home can be traced from the time of David up to the 20th century. Below are two diagrams of the average home.
From the side (A) and from above (B).
The circles in Figure B are dug out portions of the living quarters and act as feeding mangers for the large animals like cows in case they get hungry in the night. There was also typically a small wooden one on the floor of the entrance for the smaller animals such as sheep. This type of 1 room is assumed in the stories found in 1Samuel 28 and Judges 11:29-40. It also makes sense for when Jesus speaks of lighting a lamp so it gives light to all in the house. That's only possible in 1 room homes. This house structure and these practices of keeping the animals inside at night (and thus having the carved out mangers) was absolutely common in Middle-Eastern villages like Bethlehem. For more than 100 years scholars resident in the Middle East have understood Luke 2:7 as referring to a family room such as this.
Did you know...
The phrasing "...there was no room in the inn" in Luke 2:7 doesn't actually mean there were no available rooms in the motel? The word often translated as "room" is the Greek word topos (τοπος) which means space, as in there is no space on my desk for a computer. That means the "inn" was so filled you couldn't fill another speck of space! The word often translated as "inn" in the Greek is katalyma (καταλυμα) which does not mean a commercial inn like as in the story of the Good Samaritan. The word in the parable is pandochein (πανδοχειον) which means "to receive all" and it transferred over into Armenian, Coptic, Arabic and Turkish with the same meaning of commercial inn. Katalyma literally means "a place to stay" and can refer to various types of shelters.
The three possible shelters for this word in this story are inn (English traditional translation), house (Arabic biblical tradition of more than 1,000 years), or guest room (Luke's choice). The other time Luke uses this word in his gospel is 22:10-12. Why would Luke not be consistent with his use of the word? If he wanted to communicate a commercial inn why wouldn't he use the commonly used term instead of a term he uses later to mention a guest room? We know now that this is defined as an "upper-room" which means it is a guest room. Luke tells us that Jesus was placed in a manger (in the family room) because the guest room in that home was already full. Since many simply homes in traditional villages began in caves and were then expanded this understanding can fit within the Middle Eastern tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. If that's not persuasive then The account in Matthew 2 seals the deal by saying "And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him" (v.11).
Did you know...
If Mary and Joseph had been rejected from an inn or housing the city would have been dishonored, that Joseph was a bit of a hero, that the way Jesus was wrapped after birth is a sign of poverty, or that shepherds were unclean people and it was strange that God would send them to the child? I'd expand on these things normally but I'm going to plug my source instead.
The above information was mostly taken from an excellent book entitled Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes; Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey from InterVarsity Press (with permission). This book is one of the best books I've ever encountered when it comes to understanding the cultural context of gospels and Bailey covers far more than the Nativity. This is only part of the first part of the first chapter. I recommend it to every westerner interested in the gospels because Bailey gives refreshing examination of many scriptures from a Middle-Eastern perspective that is hard to find in the common Western church. He has a follow up book out now entitled Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes which I am excited to read at some point.
Did you know these things about the culture and living situation of the people at the time of Jesus' birth? Do you have any information to add to the explanation?