15 April 2009

The Nativity Myths? What Was the Manger?

As I continue to occasionally delve into cultural and historical studies behind the wording and understanding of Scripture, it shocks me often just how our "modern" cultural understanding and definitions can radically change the understanding of things. One such interesting understanding was revealed regarding the surroundings of the birth of Jesus and our common representation in the various nativity displays we see each holiday season.

In the 2008 book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey (published by IVP Academic), he takes a more in-depth look at the culture and living conditions at the time of this event, peeling away centuries of debris and mythology that has been built up surrounding this scene. Was all of the lodging in town full? Were Mary and Joseph forced to seek shelter in a barn basically? These are just a few critical questions that get answered here. While I don't want to spoil all of the great work and detail expounded in the first chapter of this book, I do wish to share the general overview of it.

A couple things worth pointing out that seem to be very key points that seem to have been overlooked in our day, include:
  • Luke 2:1-6 tell us that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Normally, the story goes that they have just arrived in town, when she goes into labor and they can't find lodging so she gives birth in a stable. All the verse says is that she is expecting, but then (v.6) tells us that "while they were there" she went into labor. The understanding can be taken two ways I suppose, but seems to simply be saying that during their time in Bethlehem (not necessarily upon their arrival) she went into labor, giving the impression they had been there a while already when it happened.
  • Joseph is of the royal line of King David. Bethlehem was commonly referred to by the locals as the "City of David" giving high regard and honor to that heritage. To think that Joseph, a descendant of King David could come into such a town and not be treated with respect and honor and taken in by any number of locals, seems kind of hard to imagine.
  • In the culture of that day, a women with child was highly respected and cared for by just about all people. To think that Mary, being not only great with child, but also being the wife of Joseph of the line of David, would have had any trouble finding care and lodging in the very City of David, seems near impossible to imagine for that culture.
  • Bethlehem was located in the middle of Judea. Mary's cousin Elizabeth (and more than likely other relatives) lived in Judea. If by some strange course of actions, against all odds, Joseph had failed to find adequate lodging, it would have been a simple matter to go stay with Mary's relatives.
The background for the original of the birth-upon-arrival and other specifics we see today are discussed by Bailey as starting a couple hundred years after the birth event, and have snowballed since then into what we have today.

So, what are we to make of the "no room at the inn" and the manger portion then? Well, he goes on to describe the common living quarters at the time, which was common place since the time of David through even the twentieth century time frame. Most common folk had small living quarters that consisted of mainly three sections in a house. The main room, the family room, was the large area where all daily life living took place, from eating to sleeping. There was usually a second room attached in the back, or sometimes on the roof, which was considered basically a guest room.

The family room portion was most often a few steps higher, off of ground level. As you entered into a home, on ground level, you had a small pinned off area, like a modern day "foyer" we'd have today, and then you would step up a few steps into the actual living area. That entrance was foyer area was where common folk brought in and stored their few family animals at night for warmth and protection. In the morning, they were taken outside and tied up in a courtyard area of the property, and that nightly stable area was cleaned for daily use.

At the edge of the living room area, within reach of the stable area, were elongated circular pocket style recesses in the floor where food for the animals could be stored and easily reached by them at night. These areas were referred to as mangers. So, if Joseph and Mary were staying in the house of someone that took them in, and Jesus was born in the family room and laid to rest in this recessed manger area, that would perfectly match the cultural scenario of the living quarters.

When it comes to the idea of the "inn" the original language gives us much insight on it's own, but the cultural understanding makes it even more clear. Most understand this verse in Luke to be referring to a common hotel type place that had the no vacancy sign lit when Joseph arrived. However, the Greek word used here does not refer to a public lodging place. A public lodging facility, a lodging place for strangers, was a pandocheion (see Luke 10:34). The word used here in Luke 2:7 is the Greek word kataluma, which more properly means the guest chamber (and is translated as such in the Young's Literal translation). We see this same word being used exactly as that in Mark 14:14 - and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ (see also Luke 22:11).

This guest room was, as mentioned before, the second major room of a common dwelling. So, in this case, if the family that took Joseph and Mary in, already had additional guests in the guests room, then we find Mary and Joseph sharing the front family room with their hosts, and therefore, when Jesus was born, he was laid in the manger portion of that family room, because the guest room was already taken.

There is so much more detail and historical as well as biblical backing for this explanation in his book, but this in essence is the overview of what would have been culturally understood at the time of Luke's writing. All of this to say that Jesus wasn't necessarily born in a barn, out in the cold, rejected by all the local living places, but was rather, born in the family room of a family who already had additional guests in the guest room.

UPDATE: 12/23/2011

Just ran across this video that teaches that which I spoke of above. Interesting

UPDATE: 1/3/2017
A few more other sources all saying the same thing, in much more detail often: