CHRISTMAS – TRUTH?
There are a number of things that are not explicitly stated in the Bible, and there are good reasons for that. It is not typical for biblical authors to think to themselves, “Oh, I should really explain this concept in depth to my audience.” It is not necessary for him to do so since he is certain that the people in his audience will already be familiar enough with his concept that he will not be required to elaborate on it for them. After all, his audience is comprised of people who share the same culture and worldview as him, therefore it is likely that they will comprehend every word that is spoken to them.
But when we read the same paragraph now, thousands of years later, through the lens of the western worldview, we have no idea of what it means because the passage does not provide a straightforward explanation of what it means. We read the same verses, but since we did not live during those times, we are unable to fully understand everything that is being spoken. We just do not understand what the author was trying to get over to us, so instead, we invent our own interpretation of what we believe the passage to mean genuinely.
THE STORY OF CHRISTMAS IS A WONDERFUL ILLUSTRATION OF THIS POINT
We may have all attended our children’s school Christmas plays or at church when we have accepted the “conventional” version of the biblical story as they acted out roles such as Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, or a wise man. But what if I told you that the story that has been passed down from generation to generation is not even true? What if I told you that challenging what is considered to be the “traditional” understanding resulted in someone being tried by the Spanish Inquisition?
That story is one that we read over and over again. Simply put, we are very accustomed to it. But could the fact that we are so used to hearing this story be what is actually hiding it?
WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS
Luke, however, does not tell us that Mary gave birth the night that she arrived in Bethlehem, as this is the story that has been passed down down the generations.
Luke 2:4-7 — So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, 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 strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
According to Luke, Mary had plenty of time to be ready for the birth of Jesus because she had been residing in Bethlehem for some time before the baby was born.
THERE WAS NO AVAILABLE ACCOMMODATION IN THE INN
There is not a single public inn or innkeeper to be found in Bethlehem, and neither of these things is ever mentioned in the account of the Bible.
What comes to mind when you use the word “inn” to most people is something very different from what Luke had in mind. Because of our western worldview, if we come across the word “inn” in a piece of writing, the first thing that comes to mind is either a public inn or a motel. Then, when we perform our nativity plays and preach our sermons, we make fun of the unfortunate innkeeper who was so callous as to turn them away.
If Luke wished to show that Joseph had gone looking for accommodation at a public commercial inn, he would have used the same Greek word that he uses in the story of the Good Samaritan. The word in question is “kataluma,” which literally translates to “guest room.” Luke is well knowledgeable about public commercial inns, as evidenced by the fact that he employs the Greek word “pandocheion” in that parable. A “pandocheion” is a facility where travellers can find refuge from the elements.
Luke 10:34 — He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
When Luke tells us about Joseph and Mary, he does not use the word that signifies a public inn for strangers because he did not use that word. He employs the Greek word “kataluma,” which can indicate a wide variety of things depending on context. The Greek term that he used can be translated as “a place to loosen,” “a place to rest,” “untie sandals,” “wind down,” or “relax.”
He was referring to a place where one can rest. It referred to a separate guest room that was typically located on the roof of a middle eastern home. This was an upper chamber that served as a place for family members, relatives, and guests to relax while they were in town.
Luke 2:7 — “…and she brought forth her son–the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” (Youngs Literal Translation)
Luke uses the same phrase again in Luke 22:11, when he is recording details about the Last Supper that took place in the upper room, we can conclude that Luke has not made a mistake.
Luke 22:11 — and tell the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room (kataluma) where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’
Luke did not need to go into a lot of depth when explaining things because the people he was speaking to understood exactly what he meant.
THE FRIENDLINESS OF MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRIES
The story of Jesus’ birth is not about an innkeeper or the people of Bethlehem not having a place for Jesus to stay when He was born. Due to the fact that David sprang from Bethlehem, the city was also referred to as the City of David. Because Joseph was a direct descendant of King David through Solomon, it seems inconceivable that anyone in Bethlehem would have refused to provide lodging to a member of that lineage.
As was the practice in the ancient Middle East, Joseph and Mary would have been greeted with joy and excitement upon their arrival, and their entrance would have been marked with a festival. They would have been honoured as visitors by being anointed with oil, having their feet washed, and receiving an official welcome into the community.
In any case, even if the unthinkable were to occur and they were unable to find a place to stay, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth lived in Ein Kerem, which is around 5 miles or 7 kilometres away from Bethlehem.
Because Mary had spent a significant amount of time with her early in her pregnancy, she was able to accurately predict when Mary would give birth. Elizabeth would have made sure that there was a place for them to stay in Bethlehem prior to their arrival by making arrangements in advance. They also had the option of staying at her home with Zechariah and their own child, John the Baptist, but they chose not to.
The importance of hospitality could not be overstated in that society.
Hebrews 13:2 — Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it.
1 Peter 4:9 — Show hospitality to one another without complaining.
THE RELATIVE’S HOUSE
If Joseph had made the decision not to stay with his relatives, it would have been a very rude thing to do toward them. When Joseph and Mary arrived at his relative’s house, the narrative recounts that Joseph discovered that there was simply no place in the guest quarters or the top room. This was the case since there was already someone staying there. Because his relatives were unwilling to ask their other guests to leave the guest section, they invited Mary and Joseph into their own living quarters on the ground level instead. Mary and Joseph remained there until the birth of Jesus.
This living area was located on the ground floor and comprised one enormous room that was built on two independent levels. On the upper floor, which also served as the family’s sleeping area, they lived. In order to ensure the well-being of the family’s prized oxen, mule, donkey, and goats, the bottom floor served as a secure enclosure for them throughout the night.
Because animals were of such high value, it is inconceivable that anyone would have left them outside overnight. The fact that the animals were kept inside during the night helped to keep the ground level warm.
1 Samuel 28:24 — Now the woman had a well-fed calf at her home that she quickly slaughtered. Taking some flour, she kneaded it and baked bread without leaven.
The animals would be let out of their chains and brought outside first thing in the morning, while the lower area would be cleaned.
Luke 13:15 — Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from its stall, and lead it to water?
The droppings of any animals that were found would be collected, formed into “cakes” with the addition of straw, and then left out in the sun to dry for the purpose of being used as fuel to heat their oven.
The account of Jephthah can be found in Judges chapter 11. He took a solemn oath to offer as a sacrifice to the gods whatsoever person or thing emerged from the front entrance of his home to meet him. He was shocked to see that it was actually his daughter since he had anticipated that it would be one of his animals.
The manger was a feeding trough that was common in all of the living quarters that were located on the ground floor in Middle Eastern homes. It was constructed such that when the animals stood up, they could reach up and eat from the manger even though it was built into the edge of the higher level of the ground floor. In many parts of the Middle East, you might still come across dwellings as uncomplicated as this one.
THERE WAS NO PEACE AND QUIET ON THAT NIGHT
When Jesus was born, it was not an entirely peaceful night. In point of fact, men in that culture were required to wait outside the house while the women helped bring the baby into the world inside. Then, as soon as one of the women proclaimed that a son had been born, and especially more so if it were a firstborn son, the festivities with music and drums would commence outside with extended family members.
Jesus was found by the Shepherds resting in a manger in the family living area, with the animals on the lower level of the same room as the Shepherds. Because of the culture of hospitality that existed at the time of the Bible, the nearby shepherds, if they had known that a child had been born in the desolate and uncomfortable stable that was located outside of the community, would have invited the new parents into one of their own homes.
Because of the highly popular account that was written about it in the Protevangelium of James, which was published somewhere around the year 145 AD, the traditional story that we all know and love so very much has been with us for generations.
This is a classic illustration of how tradition has come to replace the truth found in the Bible.
In 1584, Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas was reported to the Spanish Inquisition to criticise the nativity myth’s conventional account. His comments were deemed to be heretical. He had expressed his displeasure to his class on a picture depicting a stable scene, and one of the pupils had reported the matter to the proper authorities.
According to him, Jesus was not born in a stable, Joseph and Mary were not turned away from an inn, and Mary did not give birth in the home of an innkeeper; rather, she gave birth at the home of a relative of Joseph’s. Although he was not sentenced to death, he was punished for having the audacity to go “against tradition,” and the particulars of the trial are still documented to this very day.
TRUTH CONTRASTED WITH TRADITION
The traditional account that Jesus was born in a remote location away from all human eyes and in a supposedly miraculous manner in which the Virgin Mary gave birth all by herself is one that, in my opinion, was aided and encouraged by the piety that was prevalent within religious communities. It was a secret, something that was too precious and sacrosanct for other people to see or even think about for an extended period of time.
They simply were unable to comprehend the fact that Mary had given birth in the same manner that all other women did. In those days, giving birth was not considered to be a taboo topic. The village midwife and all of the ladies in the home would have been present to offer assistance, encouragement, and support to the woman giving birth as there would have been no such thing as a pain treatment. Following the birth of Jesus, there would have been a joyous gathering of friends and relatives, and the shepherds would have been invited to participate.
It is only when we view the tale of Jesus’ birth through the prism of cultural norms prevalent in the Middle East that its full splendour is brought to light. We don’t see a baby who was turned away from an inn by the proprietor as well as the entire community and was instead made to give birth in a cold stable outside of the hamlet.
However, we witness the Son of God being welcomed into the world, where He is cared for and surrounded by loved ones in the setting of a family home. Even though it was inconvenient for Joseph’s relatives, they nonetheless showed the engaged couple their hospitality, welcomed them with open arms, and included them as members of their own family. This is the truth of the Christmas story, which differs greatly from Christmas traditions.
If we want to have a complete understanding of the scriptures, we need to view them through the same lens as the people to who it was written in the first place. This is of the utmost importance. This is something that people in the past were unable to do to the extent that it is now possible. The internet has provided us with access to a vast amount of useful material that was previously reserved exclusively for researchers in academic institutions and serious biblical scholars.