It’s Christmastime. A season full of traditions. As is probably common for a lot of families at Christmas, my family bakes cookies at my Mom’s house. One of our must-have’s are buckeyes (peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate). The recipe came from my 6th grade home economics class. As best as I can recall, we’ve made them every year since I was 12 years old. My wife’s favorite are apricot fold-overs—a recipe from my maternal grandmother. Every year, my sister attempts to make Grandma Kranz’s cheese marbles. As hard as we try, they never come out quite like Grandma used to make.
Personally, I love traditions. They provide a constancy to the rhythms of life and act as anchor points upon which we build memories and connections between generations. Yet, traditions have a funny way of morphing over time. Sometimes, the original meanings get lost or adapted to fit new circumstances. They end up taking on a life of their own. Such is the case with the Christmas story.
The narrative of Jesus’ birth is only discussed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s account is brief and can be summed up as follows: it happened in Bethlehem and wise men came looking for him—and Mary and Joseph didn’t have sex until after Jesus was born (now you know). Luke’s account provides a little more detail. The second chapter of Luke gives us the familiar story of the birth of Jesus:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV)
In his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Dr. Kenneth Bailey provides some important cultural details that we may have missed in our familiar reading of the birth of Jesus narrative that I think bring deeper meaning to the story. First, Bethlehem is referred to as the “city of David.” What’s odd about this is that everyone knew that the City of David was Jerusalem. That’s how the Hebrew scriptures referred to it. That’s even how it is known today. Yet, Bethlehem was David’s hometown. It seems as if Bethlehem wasn’t going to let anyone forget where Israel’s greatest King was really from. They were the original City of David—and don’t you forget it!
The second interesting point Luke tells us is that Joseph was from the line of the great King David. According to Dr. Bailey, families and lineages are important in near Eastern culture. In some sense, Joseph would still have been considered royalty—at least within a small town like Bethlehem. Incidentally, how big of a place was Bethlehem at this time? Archaeologists have estimated that it had a population of 100-200 inhabitants. This was not a big place—certainly nothing like the Bethlehem of today. The fact that Joseph was from the royal line of David is important for reasons we will come back to in a moment.
The question we need to answer first is what was this “inn?” In the original Greek, the word Luke uses is katalyma. What’s interesting is that this is not the Greek word for a commercial lodging establishment. That word is pandocheion and Luke uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan to refer to the inn where the Samaritan takes the injured Jew (Luke 10:34). The word katalyma actually means a guest room. Contrary to what most of us hear when the story is told, Luke does not say there was “no room at the inn.” He says there was no space (topos) in the guest room. In other words, the guest room was crowded.
Bailey goes on to say that Joseph would have had time to plan this trip to Bethlehem and make arrangements for them—especially given that he had a very pregnant wife/fiancée. A trip of 5-7 days covering more than 80 miles would require some advanced planning. Joseph was a Tekton—a construction engineer/architect. If he was like most engineers I know, he would have planned that trip down to the minute—including potty stops. The idea that they would have come to Bethlehem without making plans just doesn’t hold water.
Where was the Manger?
For just a moment, I would like you to imagine yourself as a resident of Bethlehem around 6 BC. The young couple you are expecting arrive at your home and she is VERY pregnant. In fact, she could give birth at any moment. Would you send them to the barn? Most of us would send our own kids to sleep in the barn so that this couple could have their room. Quite simply, a pregnant woman trumps everyone.
But wait! Luke says they placed the newborn baby in a manger. Yes, he does. But he doesn’t tell us the location of the manger. In our mind and culture, we immediately think barn or stable. That’s where we find animal feed troughs. That’s where we find them in our culture, but is that where we would find them in first century BC Palestine?
Israelites had developed a unique house layout that is known today as a 4-room house. These floorplans have been found in excavations throughout Israel. These homes were often multi-generational and included an open courtyard, a room for sleeping, a room for working, and a guest room—often an upper room with separate entrance. Below is a photo of some of my fellow JUC students standing in the remnants of a 4-room house at Gezer. Following that is an artist’s reconstruction of a slightly different style 4-room house found in the City of David in Jerusalem.
Animals would be kept in the courtyard or stable area within the house. According to Dr. Bailey, the feed troughs (“manger” in French) were placed inside the house. The animals would access them through windows/openings in the wall. If this is correct, then it puts the whole story in a different context. There are other reasons why this understanding of the manger placement makes more sense than putting it in a barn—or even a cave, as some have suggested, as I’ll discuss below.
Honor and Shame
Middle Eastern culture—even during Bible times—is an honor/shame culture. At the core of an honor/shame culture is family. By family, I don’t just mean parents and children. Family can have a much broader context and has a long memory. Actions taken by an individual can bring honor or shame to the entire extended family. There is nothing worse than bringing shame to your family. Attempts to restore honor may often incur violence against the offending party (or their family).
In an honor/shame culture, a person’s reputation is one of their most important assets. Managing relationships and building social capital is the means by which things get done. Success is often determined by one’s ability to manage the complex web of social interactions to build social capital. Actions like providing assistance, sharing meals, or giving gifts are some of the ways that social capital is earned.
In an honor/shame culture, hospitality to guests is of prime importance. In fact, protection of guests even superseded protection of your own family members. We see plenty of examples in the Bible where strangers were housed and fed by the likes of Abraham, Lot, and others. Some of the worst stories in the Bible have to do with violation of this code of honor and protection of guests (think Sodom & Gomorrah and Gibeah).
So let’s consider the plight of Mary and Joseph in light of their honor/shame culture. As we saw earlier, Joseph was from the line of King David. Luke is specific: he says Joseph was from the family of David. In a town like Bethlehem, there is simply no way that he and his pregnant wife/fiancée would have been turned away by anyone in that town. To turn them away would have been a shameful act that would bring dishonor their own families and the entire village of Bethlehem. To provide them with assistance, would have been the honorable thing to do that would also build social capital. Putting them out in the barn (or cave) would have been dishonorable. There is further proof of this when the new family received their first visitors.
I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas?
The first people to learn of Jesus’ birth are a group of shepherds. Some rabbinic traditions considered shepherds to be “unclean.” For certain, they were poor and probably uneducated. They were close to the bottom of the social ladder. Luke 2:8 says, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” These shepherds received the proclamation and celebration of Jesus’ birth from a host of angels. They decided to quickly make their way to Bethlehem to see this baby in the manger.
Before we look at their visit, this simple verse in Luke is packed with information that tells us something about when this birth took place. He records that the shepherds and their flocks were in the fields at night. In the land of Israel, there are two seasons: a rainy season (Oct-Mar) and a dry season (Apr-Sep). During the rainy season, shepherds and their flocks reside in the wilderness where there is sufficient water and plant growth to sustain the animals. It is during this season when the grain crops are planted in the fields. Once the grains (wheat and barley) are harvested in April and May, the shepherds move the flocks from the dry wilderness into the fields where they eat the stubble and fertilize the fields. From Luke’s description, it is clear that the birth of Jesus took place sometime between the middle of May and early October. Definitely not in the middle of the rainy season in December.
When the shepherds found Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger, what was their reaction? Luke doesn’t tell us. However, I think we can safely assume that if they had found the baby in the squalor of a cave or barn their honor/shame culture would not have permitted them to let the dishonor go uncorrected. They would have taken them to their own homes/tents in order to provide them with more suitable accommodations. The fact that Luke records no such action is further evidence that the manger was located within a home in the main living area of the family.
Where Did Our Tradition Come From?
According to Ken Bailey, we owe our tradition to an anonymous document written around 200 AD. The document is called The Protevangelium of James. It is full of fanciful details and was clearly written by someone that had no understanding of the local geography or Jewish culture. In fact, early church fathers, like Jerome, attacked it. In this account, Mary was about to give birth as they were getting close to Bethlehem. Joseph placed her in a cave and then ran get a midwife. By the time he returned, the baby had been born. Even though this story was discounted from its inception, remnants of it seem to have persisted in our modern traditions.
The Meaning of Christmas
So, what do we do with the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth? What are the gospel writers trying to tell us? I like how Dr. Bailey explains it:
- Jesus’ incarnation was complete. At his birth the holy family was welcomed into a peasant home. These people did their best and it was enough. At his birth the common people sheltered him. The wise men came to the house. When Jesus was an adult, the common people heard him gladly.
- The shepherds were welcome at the manger. The unclean were judged to be clean. The outcasts became honored guests. The song of the angels was sung to the simplest of all.
I think I like this tradition better. Jesus comes first to the least. The lowest on the social ladder get to hear the good news before anyone else. He was born into the welcoming arms of a poor home and provided with the best they could give—and it was sufficient.
May God bless you during this Christmas season remind us that what he has provided (whether great or small) is sufficient.