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Why the “inn” is a Christmas myth

December 16, 2016

Christmas

If you have been to church in some point in your lifetime during Advent or Christmas, you’ve most likely seen an adorable Christmas play or pageant.  Poor Joseph and Mary, often in bathrobes, are portrayed by children who  are turned away by an “innkeeper” who lacks compassion. “No room!” is the line. The problem is, when you read the Gospel of Luke or Matthew, there’s no innkeeper or an inn. Such things are a Christmas myth.

Putting aside the adorable nature of children’s Christmas plays, the account of Jesus’ birth must be placed into context of where the birth of Christ took place: Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, thought to contain around 1,000 people at the time, was David’s hometown. Since it was David’s hometown, there was sure to be family present because Joseph, along with other family, had to return to be counted for the census. We read from the King James Version of Luke 2:

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 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.

From the passage, we learn two things. First, Mary gave birth while in Bethlehem. Apparently, Mary and Joseph were there for some length of time. Second, Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the “inn”. The trouble here is that the King James Version translates the Greek word katalumati as “inn”, but the translation of “guest room” is more accurate – as the New International Version renders the word.  The interpretation of katalumati is more of a product of 16th and 17th century European understandings of a guest room when the KJV was first published. Generally, “inns” in the time of Jesus were found in larger cities, not small towns, and inns were no place for a woman in childbirth.

We read later in Luke when Jesus eats his last supper the disciples gather in a katalumati – guest room, also translated, “upper room”:

As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you.  Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, “Where is the katalumati where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11)

In all reality, Jesus was most likely born in a house.  Many assume that Jesus was born in some sort of stable, where animals were kept. However, in the time of Jesus, humble folks lived with their animals. According to ancient Near East culture expert, E. F .F. Bishop notes the the arrangement of people and animals:

“One of the Bethlehem houses with the lower section provided for the animals, with manger ‘hollowed in stone,’ the dais [or raised area] being reserved for the family. Such a manger being immovable, filled with crushed straw, would do duty for a cradle. An infant might even be left in safety, especially if swaddled, when the mother was absent on temporary business” (“Jesus of Palestine“, p. 42)

When I visited Israel in 2012, I went to Bethlehem to a site that recreated, based on historical evidence and archeology, a house that included a lower section for animals and an upper section for living quarters. At the lower portion of the house was a manager, or feeding trough for the animals. After seeing such a home, the birth story of Jesus made sense – sans the inn and innkeeper.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the myth of an “inn” in the Christmas story is that Luke uses another word for a rental inn. Luke used the Greek word, pandocheion, to describe a place one could stay for a price.  In the story of the Good Samaritan we read in Luke 10:34:  “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an pandocheion (inn) and took care of him.” If there was truly no room in the “inn”, Luke would have used pandocheion in the Christmas story.

Imagine for a minute, everyone of Joseph’s family is in town for the census, the house is full with guests and relatives, and Mary has to go through the very painful and messy delivery of a baby. With the guest room and main living areas full, Jesus was placed in a manager to sleep – as Luke describes.  Ancient Jewish customs and cultural behaviors were not have allowed Mary to stay in an ancient version of a Motel 8. Mary was most likely cared for and surrounded by people in a time of great expectation of Jesus’ birth.

With this perspective, your Christmas nativity scene in your home or church is still accurate, but imagine it as a home – not a stable. It should give us comfort and relief knowing that after everything Mary and Joseph had been through, they were among family, and well cared for with all the extended family around to hold the newborn Christ child.

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The Bethlehem you don’t know

December 12, 2016

 

The wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. In the background right, you can see the Mount of Olives , which overlooks the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem.

As millions of Christians around the world sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this Advent and Christmas. If you visit Bethlehem today, you would see that it is indeed still, but not in that Christmas-y way. The hopes and fears of all the years are real and have been made worse by a years of conflict and a massive concrete wall.

Four years ago this week, I journeyed with a group of fellow American Baptists and a group from the Church of the Brethren on a goodwill-peace and perspectives trip to Israel and Palestine, which was organized by The Telos Group.  It was a trip that went beyond visiting holy sites but sought to understand the conflict in Israel firsthand. If you enter into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, you are greeted by a Cold War like military wall complete with lookout towers, rusted fortifications, armed soldiers, and checkpoints. The Berlin Wall was about 12 feet high, but the wall that separates Bethlehem is 25 feet high. To the Israeli government, it’s not a wall, but a barrier to protect against suicide bombers and attacks. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the terrorist organizations that operate in the West Bank are equal to the average Palestinian. However, not all Palestinians are Muslim. They are Christian as well – and of other faiths.

If you travel along the wall in Bethlehem you’ll read stories and see art work of how the wall has impacted people in Bethlehem…

The stories are stories of death, oppression, injustice, rape, injury, and violence, that accompanies the wall, checkpoints, and military security. There are messages of hope as well.

At one of these checkpoints, our small bus was boarded by four Israel Defense Force soldiers. We were asked by soldiers the nature of our visit from the West Bank into Jerusalem. They asked for our passports. Our bus driver and guides explained that we were Americans on a Christian pilgrimage and visit.   As the soldiers pointed their loaded M-16s in our faces, one announced that all the men would have to come with them to be questioned. Our guides were stunned. In all their years of traveling with American groups, such a thing never happened. As the bus driver and soldiers discussed our entry, we sat waiting to hear what was going to happen next. It was extremely tense situation. Thankfully, the lead soldier discovered that our driver had family in the soldier’s hometown and the two continued to talk. This enabled the out-ranking soldier to release us on our way. As we talked to Israelis, Palestinians, and other non-nations on our trip, we found that this checkpoint interaction is common.

The Israeli government is understandably concerned with security. Between rocket attacks, shootings, bus bombings, and other mass casualty attacks, the country has a duty to protect. Certainly, there are enough instances of Palestinian aggression and violence. The unfortunate reality is that some Israeli protection policies fall within a gray area. Due to the vast restrictions on Palestinians, even those Christians from Bethlehem, it has led to border crossings that have included shootings and “harsh conditions of overcrowding, long lines, and cases of humiliation during inspection.” Due to years of persecution, most Christians have left Palestinian towns like Bethlehem for better economic opportunities and basic freedoms.

For some, to object to the treatment of displaced peoples in Bethlehem is to object to Israel. To question any policy of the Israeli government can be seen as anti-Israel or even anti-Christian.  We know that Americans question American government policies everyday, but that does not make someone automatically anti-American.  It is easy to treat this Middle East challenge as a binary issue, but it is not.  For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there can be a third way. There can be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace solutions. However, it is hard work to find a third way. It is easier to draw lines and pick between two options. The more we draw lines the more we separate ourselves from our neighbor. At the basic human level, all three major world religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all have some form of teaching or instruction for respect and love for neighbor. This must be considered as a way forward.

For people living in Bethlehem this will be another Christmas that sees continued divide among neighbors. If you sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem… How still we see thee lie…” remember that modern-day Bethlehem is far from peaceful or still from the imaginary Hallmark Christmas card version. The Bethlehem you do not know and the complex conflict around it requires our prayers, attention, action, and support.

Advent, Christmas

Kirk Cameron, Chuck Norris, and War on Christmas

December 16, 2014

It seems every year there is an outcry from Christians who bemoan culture’s lack of acceptance of Christmas displays and call it the War on Christmas. Kirk Cameron is the latest to defend Christians from a supposed secular atheist attack with a candy cane and Jesus snow globe. Even Chuck Norris is getting in on the War on Christmas with a drop kick of truth!

If there is a War on Christmas, then there must be casualties.

A War on Christmas means that people are not free to worship or celebrate Christ’s birth, right?  Where are the storm troopers coming into churches and shutting the place down? Why use such charged language of “war” like “war on terror”, “war on drugs”, and now “War on Christmas”? Rumor and speculation of a “war” via talking heads does not make a War on Christmas.

The truth is that there is no War on Christmas.

Continue Reading…

Christmas

How Jesus and Santa can get along

December 3, 2014

jesus-vs-santa-armwrestle

Every year I struggle with a Christmas ritual that millions of parents have no problem with: a visit with Santa Claus in a season that is about Jesus. How can Jesus and Santa get along?

Why do I struggle? For some parents, Christmas and Santa Claus go together like white and red striping on candy canes. You cannot separate the two. Santa is everywhere and just about every culture. For others, Jesus and Santa are a clashing pair like fruitcake and tofu. Many Christians lament telling the myth of Santa Claus to their children because they believe it sends the wrong message of Christmas: The holiday is about getting presents from a jolly fat guy and not the celebration of Christ’s birth.

At the same time, parents do not want to be a Grinch about Santa. Nobody likes that kid in school going around telling everyone that Santa isn’t real. Parents are then confronted with the reality of explaining how and why Santa is not real. Either parents go with the flow of Santa or become Santa haters.

There is a better way to involve Santa Claus into the Christian mythos that does not sacrifice the person of Jesus Christ.

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Christmas

Christmas trees, for Christians only

November 30, 2012

My friends over at the Unvirtuous Abbey (read my interview with them) posting this very interesting picture:

xmastrees

I’m thinking that this cannot be real. It has to be a joke. It has to be photoshopped. I posted this on Facebook and it immediately drew laughs and a few disapproving comments.One commenter said he would not be able to buy one since he doesn’t carry his baptism certificate on him.

The crazy part is that there are Christians out there who think a Christmas tree is quintessentially Christian. Christmas trees, or more specially, the bringing in evergreen or an evergreen tree, comes from pre-Christian pagan practices. Germanic tribes would often observe the transition into winter using a Yule log or so type of tree.

So, is this a hoax or a real picture? Anyone have any info?

Advent, blog, Christmas

Mary’s Baby Bump: A Divine Scandal?

December 18, 2009

Much is made about Jesus’ birth in the Christmas story, but often preachers do not comment on Mary’s “situation”: an unwed mother who is pregnant.  Culturally, this would have been disastrous. Mary, most likely just a teenager, is visited by the angel Gabriel to bring Good News: she is to give birth to the Anointed One of Israel. Luke chapter 1 reads:

“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

It has been well documented that Mary’s pregnancy would be cause to shun Mary out of her community.  A scandal!  To be pregnant before marriage was grounds for divorce in the Old Testament.  Even Joseph thought about leaving Mary, but a divine message changed that.  However, apparently there has been some scholarship to suggest that Mary’s pregnancy may have not been that scandalous. Christianity Today‘s blog for women features a new perspective from Lynn Cohick, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.  Cohick’s take on Mary’s situation:

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture. All that awaited the couple was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm. Later rabbinic writings allowed that a future groom who had sexual relations with his bride-to-be at her father’s house was not guilty of immoral behavior.

If pregnancy occurred before the wedding, this was not a problem because the parentage of the child was secured. What is shocking is that Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. The problem is not that a betrothed couple had sex, but that presumably Mary had sex with another man — she committed adultery.

This insight, the author contends, in no way diminishes Mary’s faithfulness and strength.  For decades, scholars and seminaries have taught students about the negative moral implications of Mary’s situation.

I’m not sure what to think about this new perspective.  Much of the argument of the author hinges on “later rabbinic writings”, which were after the time of Jesus.  Mary must have experienced some sort of tension with her family and Joseph’s. Even though the marriage was a legal contract, sex and pregnancy before marriage was still a serious issue.  Besides, the contract did not start until the marriage ceremony. I agree with one blogger’s take on it:

So, at this point I’m straddling a fence. I don’t think Mary’s family, however many knew, were jumping for joy at the news of her pregnancy but I think Cohick’s point is that the shame motif has been perhaps pressed too far. I have no idea what kind of relationship Mary had with her family to surmise what kind of reaction she would have received. I imagine the story of a virgin birth would not have been received well (no matter how close they were).

Some background on divorce and marriage may be helpful from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

The advantage was always with the husband, and yet a wife was not utterly helpless, for she, too, though practically without legal rights, could make herself so intolerably burdensome and hateful in the home that almost any husband would gladly avail himself of his prerogatives and write her a bill of divorcement. Thus, though a wife could not divorce her husband, she could force him to divorce her.

Joseph had two options:

  1. Joseph could continue the engagement and join Mary in her shame and marry her.
  2. Following the law, Joseph could accuse Mary of sexual immorality and releasing her from their betrothal contract. The penalty for adultery was  stoning a woman.

Despite all the social and cultural implications, Mary literally becomes the bearer of good news.  Mary’s faithfulness and strength are to be admired. Her story is a story of how God uses very unlikely people to accomplish his wonderful plan for salvation. No matter what shame she did or did not feel, Mary still proclaimed of God’s goodness in Luke 1:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has been mindful  of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

May you, in this last week of Advent be a “bearer” of God to others.

Advent 4C