Bashing Bethlehem?

Christian recording artist Casting Crowns performs a Christmas song called “While You Were Sleeping.” In an attempt to highlight society’s unwillingness to recognize Jesus as God and Savior, songwriter John Mark Hall starts with the example of Bethlehem:

Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King

This is based on the very familiar passage from Luke 2:7 – “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (KJV) We have played this up in our Christmas pageants, too, adding an innkeeper who shoos the laboring Mary and a frantic Joseph away. (I have been the innkeeper in such a production.) Or, perhaps, the innkeeper does the best he can, offering up his stable. But we have gotten this all wrong!

Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, explains both the cultural misunderstanding and the poor translation that have caused our confusion. We do not understand first century housing and hospitality. We also do not think about the details that the Scriptures DO give us. Joseph, a member of David’s royal line, would have had family in Bethlehem who would have received him and his pregnant, betrothed wife. Despite some modern (and ancient) depictions, this was not a case of a last minute journey and labor gone wrong. In fact, Luke says, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” (2:6) There was plenty of time to find a place to stay and people to help with the birth. The culture of hospitality demanded it.

Where Was the Manger?
In western thought, we equate “manger” with a feeding trough in a stable or barn. However, in a typical middle eastern home of the time, animals stayed in the house, not in a separate structure (or cave as the eastern tradition says). They stayed in a lower section of the home and mangers were stone structures on a higher level – right at feeding height. Thus, the mangers were in the main living quarters used by the family. Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus were guests in a house, not outcasts in a stable.

Shameful Shepherds?
Shepherds were not the pillars of ancient middle eastern society. In fact, by the first century, they had an unsavory reputation. Yet, the Luke 2 shepherds were visited by angels and given the good news of Jesus’ birth. They rushed to see Him and went away praising God and telling everyone what they had seen. However, even shepherds would not risk the reputation of their village by refusing hospitality. If this couple and their newborn Child (whom they heard is Messiah!) were stuck in a stable, surely one of the shepherds would have offered his home for them. They certainly would not have walked around town telling everyone about it and rejoicing at the family’s meager shelter. The only reasonable explanation is that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had accommodations as good as or better than what they could offer. This also suggests that they were guests in a normal household.

What About the Inn?
This is where the poor translation comes in. The word translated “inn” is kataluma. It is not the word for a commercial inn. That word, which Luke uses later in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is pandocheion. Kataluma was a guest room built on above the main family room (see diagram below). In fact, this same word is used for the “upper room” that Jesus and His disciples used for the Passover on the night before His crucifixion. In the home where Jesus was born, there were other guests in the guest room. So, they stayed with the family in the main living quarters.

1st century Palestinian home

1st century Palestinian home

No Room?
John Mark Hall is correct when he accuses America of having no room for a Savior at Christmas. We are distracted with everything but Jesus – shopping, Elf on a Shelf, a secularized Saint Nicolas, celebrations of winter, and more. However, it is not accurate to bash Bethlehem for the same neglect. Jesus was born and sheltered by a modest family (probably related to Joseph) who demonstrated the expected hospitality of their culture. While that is less dramatic, it should help us focus on the real excitement: “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” May your family invite Him into your home this Christmas.

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2013: The Reading List

Our family uses the new year as an opportunity to set goals for the next year. I assess my reading list, too, to wisely plan my scarce reading time. I am publishing this here as a way of building accountability and starting a discussion of these (and other) great books. Here goes:

1) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels – Kenneth Bailey. I freely admit that I am a Bible geek. I am always intrigued by historical or cultural studies that aim to shed more light on the Scriptures. I don’t remember how I came across this book, but I put it on my Amazon wish list and received it for Christmas. I can’t wait to start this one.

2) The One Year Christian History – Rusten and Rusten. Another Christmas gift, this is a daily devotional using events throughout history to demonstrate God’s character and interaction with us. So far, I have been reading this each day and enjoying it. Some of the stories are familiar (Jim Elliot and Auca people), while some are new to me (J. Gresham Machen). In the fall, I am hoping to be teaching a class on Christian history since the New Testament. This is just fueling the fire.

3) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church – N.T. Wright. I was introduced to this book on David D. Flower’s blog, The Centrality and Supremacy of Jesus Christ. I realize that Christians are often lazy or just wrong in our terminology and vocabulary of heaven and the life to come. I look forward to thinking theologically through this. I expect it to add the inspiring works on heaven and the new earth I have enjoyed by Joni Eareckson Tada and Randy Alcorn.

4) Hosea, NICOT commentary on Hosea (J. Dearman) and BST commentary on Hosea (Kidner) – our LifeGroup is studying Hosea, Jonah, and Amos in the coming quarter. I have just started my study on Hosea. I have already been touched and educated about this difficult prophet by these two writers. Looking forward to more!

5) Not a fan – Kyle Idleman. Our church is going to be reading and studying this book together in February and March. I don’t know much about it yet.

6) Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis. While I do not enjoy science fiction as much as the fantasy genre, I decided to at least try the first book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I am about half way through this relatively short first book. I have been distracted with other reading (and getting some sleep!), but it shows promise.

So, what are you reading (or planning to read) this year? Are the books above worth the time? How will God use the books you read to change you?