Finding the “real” Christmas story

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Delving into the “I-wish-we-knew” questions deepens understanding of the Christmas narrative

By Jared Burkholder

As we study the Christmas story there are hundreds of interpretive questions that come to mind. I call them “I-wish-we-knews.”

Why don’t Joseph and Mary wait until Jesus is born to travel to Bethlehem? I wish we knew if Caesar Augustus’ decree creates a sense of urgency by setting a deadline? Is Mary and Joseph’s only plan to stay in Bethlehem’s inn and deliver Mary’s first baby themselves?

I spent most of my adult life searching for answers and solutions to the many questions I have about the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke. My quest has convinced me that we need to take a fresh, new look at this old, old story. The “real” Christmas story should be a narrative that is solidly rooted in the biblical text, consistent with common sense and up front about what historically we do and do not know with certainty. It should be a narrative that reflects first century, Middle Eastern values and culture and a story that is supported by archeology, geography and linguistics.

One does not have to probe too deeply to discover the difficulty 20th century Western civilization has understanding the power of community and hospitality, obsessed as it is by individualism and pulling one’s self up by his or her own bootstraps. First century Middle Eastern hospitality was a badge of honor, and that part of the world became renowned for its depth of commitment to welcoming guests. Hospitality was an act of kindness that involved a commitment to house, feed and protect family, friends and strangers.

Hospitality is the value that prompted someone in Bethlehem to open his or her home to Mary and Joseph. So who is this family? We can’t discover their names, but what about their identity by category? Were they relatives or non-relative residents?

Since hospitality in general and staying with relatives in particular were first century cultural norms in the Middle East, it is reasonable to conclude that Mary and Joseph plan to stay with relatives once they get to Bethlehem.

After all, Bethlehem is the hometown of those from “the house and line of David”—Joseph’s lineage (Luke 2:4). Joseph undoubtedly has plenty of relatives with whom he and Mary can stay while in Bethlehem. It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph knows his extended family in Bethlehem and is confident that he and Mary will be well attended to by family in Bethlehem.

To ignore the high value Middle Eastern culture places on family and hospitality makes Mary and Joseph and their families appear shortsighted, incompetent and rather foolish for not thinking through the implications of sending pregnant Mary and Joseph off to Bethlehem by themselves to have their first child.

The fact that the traditional Christmas story replaces this Middle Eastern commitment to family and hospitality with Western individualism and isolationism illustrates how far the Christmas tradition has strayed from reality.

Though the text does not explicitly mention the involvement of relatives, first century readers would assume their involvement. Jesus’ birth in the home of a relative assisted by a midwife fits harmoniously with both the culture and the text as the story unfolds.

While the Bible does not mention who hosted Mary and Joseph, it does tell us some things about the place where Jesus is born. “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7).

Over the years, Bible interpreters have concluded that it is reasonable to assume that because Mary places Jesus in a feed trough, she and Joseph are homeless and have sought out the protection of a stable because they have no other place to stay—the inn is sold out. But a closer look at these verses supports the idea that the couple is staying with family.

The Greek word “kataluma” is translated as “inn” here in Luke. This word appears two other times in the New Testament (Mark 14:13-15; Luke 22:8-12) and both are translated as “guest room” in most English translations. So it seems that a better translation in Luke 2 would be guest room.

If the translation “guest room” is used, we are then more apt to conclude that Joseph and Mary’s plan is to find lodging in the guest room of a private home, probably that of a relative. When the baby is born, however, Mary and Joseph are not in the privacy of the guest room as one would have expected, and the text tells us why. It is because the guest room is occupied.

Although I have never seen a Christmas pageant that has a group of people already visiting Joseph and Mary when the shepherds arrive, that is exactly the picture Luke paints for the reader in Luke 2:16-20. After the shepherds tell their incredible story, Luke adds, “and all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary…”(Luke 2:18-19, KJV). So instead of Mary and Joseph being isolated and all alone, they are literally surrounded by family and friends.

Another reason we often picture Jesus as born in an isolated stable instead of in the home of relatives is because Mary places her newborn in a manger, and we assume feed troughs are only found in stables.

However, not all but many houses in the Middle East were designed with a small, lower level for the animals at one end. About 80 percent of the single room is a raised terrace, often about four feet higher than the level for the animals. The two levels are connected by a short set of stairs. Feed troughs are built into the floor of the raised terrace where the animals eat. The family cooks, eats and lives on the raised terrace. Nearly one hundred photographs have been taken and scale drawings made of a variety of such peasant homes.

So by (1) understanding the cultural expectation that Joseph and Mary would stay with family while in Bethlehem, (2) changing the translation of “kataluma” from “inn” to “guest room,” (3) knowing that homes at the time of Jesus’ birth included a place for animals (4) remembering that feed troughs can be in a house, not just in stables and (5) observing that there were others with Mary and Joseph when the shepherds tell their story, we come at least a giant step closer to the real Christmas story.

Reevaluating the Christmas story, however, is more than some kind of biology lab experiment to be dissected and analyzed intellectually like a “pickled” frog. Bible study is about life change. Bible study calls us to respond, challenging us to integrate faith and life. To paraphrase I Corinthians 13, if I have all knowledge and understand the Christmas story better now than I ever have before, but do not demonstrate God’s sacrificial, gave-his-one-and-only Son kind of love, then I am no more than a beautifully wrapped Christmas present with nothing inside.

The gift of family is one point at which this new reading of the biblical account of Jesus’ birth challenges us to live out God’s great love. Just as God places his son Jesus in a family, God, in his sovereignty, has placed us in families that bless us and shape us through both positive and negative experiences. How will you celebrate God’s gift of family this Christmas season?

Consider thoughtfully preparing an individualized blessing for your spouse and each of your children and/or grandchildren. Capture in figurative language qualities in their lives that you believe God has given them to be a blessing to others. Be intentional about giving this gift: pronounce the blessing upon each one in a family setting.

On the brink of divorce this Christmas? Finding it difficult to forgive someone in your family or to give someone a second chance? Ask God to help you unconditionally love others the way he loves you. Wait patiently for God to do what only he can do.

Thank God this Christmas for your biological parents, as well as, perhaps, your adoptive or foster parents. Joseph, Jesus’ non-biological father, profoundly influenced him.

Thank God for your relatives. Proudly represent your family name. Ask God to help you continue, or perhaps by his grace begin, a godly legacy for future generations.

Jared Burkholder is the author of Closer to the Real Christmas Story, from which this article is adapted. Burkholder was pastor of Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kan., for nine years and was a college professor and administrator at Grace University, Omaha, Neb., for 20 years. Closer to the Real Christmas Story was published in 2012 by Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc., of Pittsburgh, Pa. Heather Marx illustrated the book, intended as a discipleship tool for families, small group leaders and Sunday school teachers.

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