Monday, December 22, 2014

Inns, Stables, Upper Rooms, and the Holy Family

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question about the details of the stories of Jesus' birth:

Q:  How accurate is the Christmas story that we hear read and see performed in churches around this time of year?  Does the Bible say anything else about the events of Jesus’ birth? 

The Bible offers a surprisingly small amount of information regarding Jesus’ birth, preferring to devote more attention to the crucifixion and resurrection than to the birth stories.  Mark simply quotes three Old Testament prophesies, then moves directly to talking about Jesus as an adult.  Rather than telling a birth story, John provides a chapter-long theological discourse about the fact that Jesus is True God in human flesh. 

Matthew provides some information on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception, along with telling the story of the Three Wise Men (which, contrary to popular art, probably occurred well after Jesus’ birth) and the family’s escape to Egypt to flee from murderous King Herod, but he only casually mentions Jesus actual birth in less than a half-sentence.

Luke’s Gospel stands out in its detailed description regarding the events of Jesus’ birth, and thus, is the source for our well-known version of the Christmas story.  It also stands out for its reliability, because, while we honor all of the Bible as accurate and true, we can have a particularly high degree of confidence in Luke’s historical account, because he would have obtained it by interviewing Mary herself – as he mentions when he lays out his method of collecting the historical facts in the first verses of His Gospel.

However, much like when a book is made into a movie, things often become distorted; our perception of the birth story often tends to differ from the version actually authored by St. Luke. 

An excellent example of this is the way we often think of the “inn” in Luke’s story, as we imagine an inn-keeper (a common Christmas pageant character who isn’t actually mentioned in the story) stoically turning away Jesus’ mother and Joseph because there was no place to stay.  Instead, though, the “inn” mentioned in English translations of the story is not what we would think of.  Instead of an establishment that commercially rents rooms to several travelers, the word Luke records indicates the second-story guestroom of a private home – the same sort of room Jesus would use later in life when He gathered with His disciples for the Passover the night before He was crucified. 

Similarly, the place where Jesus was born was not a barn, stable, or cave as popular imagination would suggest.  Instead, homes in that part of the world at that point in history were typically composed of 3 rooms – the main room where the family would cook, eat, and spend the night, the guest room mentioned previously, and a third room, often a half-story lower than the rest that would be used for living space during the day and a shelter for the family’s animals during the night.  Because the guestroom was already taken, this unnamed family would have tied up the animals outdoors and allowed Mary and Joseph to lodge in this room, where Jesus would be born, and the manger that is mentioned would be a ledge dug out between the home’s main room and the lower room where Mary and Joseph would have been staying.

It is highly unlikely that the real events included an overwhelmed Joseph alone with his wife in inadequate shelter as she goes into labor promptly upon arriving in town.  Instead, from what we know of the customs of the time and Luke’s text, Joseph and Mary probably arrived as much as two weeks prior to Jesus birth, found lodging with a relative of Joseph or another citizen who was willing to treat Joseph well because of his royal heritage as a direct descendant of David, and the women of the household and their neighbors – common people like the Luke’s shepherds and their wives - likely assisted Mary with Jesus’ birth. 

Those shepherds would come back from the fields to worship Jesus at the angels’ invitation, Jesus would have been circumcised on his 8th day of life, and they would then travel to the temple for His presentation and Mary’s purification from childbirth when He was 40 days old before returning home to Nazareth. 

Information in this article was summarized from the interview with Ken Bailey found at:

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