The Christmas Story—When Tradition Trumps Text

Bible study lesson 14

By Reta Halteman Finger

Tradition rules! Inside the Church of the Nativity is the traditional spot where Jesus was born. A stone under the silver star on the floor marks the exact spot!
Tradition rules! Inside the Church of the Nativity is the traditional spot where Jesus was born. A stone under the silver star on the floor marks the exact spot!

Let’s take a break from 1 Corinthians to talk about Christmas. Ever since the second century, stories embroidering the canonical accounts of Jesus’ birth have become embedded in our celebrations. Every crèche gets so much wrong. Maybe we should worry less about our culture “taking Christ out of Christmas” and more about accurately reading our texts. I’ll warn you ahead of time—there was no stable, no inn, and no innkeeper.

A Visit with Unintended Consequences
But first, let us reflect on the terrifying end of the Christmas story (Matt 2:1-18) in light of our American Massacre of the Innocents on Friday, December 14. Probably around 6 BCE, astrologers (magi in Greek) living hundreds of miles to the east of Palestine, found an unusual conjunction of planets. They interpreted this to mean a new king of the Jews was rising. These magi are assumed to be Gentiles, but it’s more logical to view them as Jews from the large community living in Babylon (now in Iraq) since the Judean Exile six centuries earlier. (Several ancient Jewish astrological books have been discovered there.) Not being very worldly-wise, these magi headed straight for the murderous King Herod, who didn’t take kindly to a rival. Since his “CIA” had not yet connected the dots, the magi did it for him. You can read the rest of this gory tale in verses 12-18.

Bethlehem and Wall
Bethlehem today is part of the Palestinian West Bank. A 16-foot Israeli wall surrounds it, cutting it off from its olive trees in the foreground.

There is no external evidence that Herod arranged to have all babies two years and under slaughtered in the region in or around Bethlehem, but historians agree that it fits his character. Bethlehem was then an insignificant town, and babies did not count for much in that world, so who would record such an event? Matthew, however, with a theme of “little ones” running through his Gospel, pays attention. Note that both boys and girls were murdered (2:16). The Greek word for “young child” is a neuter term, paidos, and is used for both boys and girls. (The masculine article is used here in a generic sense; hence, the NRSV and other inclusive language translations say “children.”) No soldier took the trouble to rip clothes off a baby to check its sex before running a sword through it. Keep that in mind as you weep for the 12 girls and 8 boys who perished in our gun-saturated society for no motive that anyone can yet figure out.

The Way It Wasn’t…
Now for the timeworn text of Luke 2. The manger scenes I grew up with were the same as yours—a stable with all main characters—human and animal—sitting or standing in the right places. A haloed Baby Jesus looks about 9 months old, sitting in the manger.

Though the crèche is sanitized, we know how they ended up in that stable. Mary and Joseph are homeless, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, arriving at night while Mary is in labor. Joseph goes from inn to motel, desperately looking for a room, but they are all full because of the Roman census (Lk 2:1-3). Finally, one kindly innkeeper offers his stable—just in time for Jesus’ birth.

Lost in Translation
But the text never says that Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem in Mary’s ninth month of pregnancy. No honorable man would take his wife on a 75-mile journey at that time. Despite tradition, no donkey is mentioned; they likely walked, as did everyone else. And tiny Bethlehem—perhaps with 100-200 inhabitants—would not have had an inn. Since Joseph was from the “house of David,” he had relatives in Bethlehem and could find local work as a craftsman. Some family would have taken them in, probably weeks or months earlier. Perhaps they left Nazareth early because of the neighborhood gossip. Women pregnant while betrothed are divorced and publicly shamed.

A manger similar to what Jesus may have been placed in.
Hay for animals was placed in the box under the arch. From a house in 1st-century ruins in the Negev desert in southern Israel.

Luke notes that after Mary gave birth, she wrapped Jesus in cloths and “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the kataluma” (2:7). Houses at that time often had a lower level where the family’s few animals were kept safe for the night. A stone wall with a manger built into the wall separated the animal quarters a few steps below from where the family lived. Each morning the animals went outside and the room was cleaned.

On the roof of the house, a guest room (or upper room) was sometimes built—in Greek, kataluma. In other words, someone older or of higher status was staying in the upper room of this house, so Mary and Joseph had to stay in the room with the animals. The manger made a nice, warm baby bed. (Luke knows the correct word for “inn”—pandocheion—which he uses in 10:34, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when Jesus wishes to eat the Passover with his disciples, he asks for a kataluma—an upper room of a house [Lk 22:11; Mk 14:14].)

Wealthy Landowner's House
On a hillside in present-day Nazareth, archeologists have re-created Nazareth Village, what the area would have looked like during Jesus’ day. This photo shows the outside of a wealthy landowner’s house, complete with an upper room and a storage room with a manger for animals. For more information, see the Nazareth Village website.

For centuries Christians have been reading the Bible in light of their own cultural assumptions about domestic animals kept in stables separate from a house. Then the “upper room” shape-shifts into an “inn” run by an innkeeper. If translators corrected the text now, think of how many Christians would scream, “You’re changing the Word of God!”

Night Work for Shivering Shepherds?
While teaching at Messiah College, I had a colleague, Gordon Brubacher, who had lived for several years in Palestine. He was quite surprised that I did not know that Jesus was born in June. He explained that there are only two weeks in June during which shepherds would be spending nights with their flocks in fields—the term agros means “cultivated field” (from where we get “agriculture”). The barley crop is harvested in early June. Then, for two weeks only, the Bedouin shepherds are allowed to bring their flocks onto these fields to eat the stubble and fertilize the fields with their manure. Naturally, the shepherds must stay with them during this time. When they leave, the field is replanted.

What theology can we draw from this rather pitiful, small-town story? An extended family squeezed into a little stone house, a room with a manger used for dual purposes, a chorus of angels singing to subsistence shepherds, a child conceived under irregular, if not scandalous, circumstances… what kind of Incarnation is this?

Think about that as you open your gifts on Christmas morning.

Question: Do you think church congregations should revise their Christmas pageants and Epiphany reflections?

(Note: some information in this lesson can be found on the BBC 3-part DVD titled “Jesus – The Complete Story” which tells the story of Jesus through archeology, sociology, and science.)

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Delighted to learn that Jesus was born in June–not for any reason except that I love to learn new facts. Thanks for this enlightening article, and for all the enlightenment you have brought to us in EEWC through the years.

  2. Appreciate your clear presentation of material well known in scholarly circles but overshadowed by the “traditions”–hymnody, popular pageants….in the church.

  3. Reta, Thanks for adding some historical and archaeological (and basic biblical-textual) awareness to our Christmas reading lenses. The current way the vast majority of us contemporary North Americans visualize the elements of the Nativity accounts is a great example of how our lenses for viewing scripture add significant details that simply aren’t part of the actual text (e.g. animals and a tearless baby, inns & inkeepers, Mary on a donkey, giving birth the first night of arrival in Bethlehem, Magi present at the same time as shepherds, “three” “kings” and so on).

    If you do this in a small group, youth group or Sunday school, or just around the dinner table, a great intro activity is to have folks take a great quiz that unveils some of our unrealized accretions to Christmas accounts. You can find a PDF version at http://www.orlutheran.com/Christmas_Quiz.pdf and the answers are http://www.orlutheran.com/Answers.pdf

    It’s a great little Christmas quiz right in line with what you are pointing to. While some of his answers are debatable, the main point is still clear: much of what we suppose and visualize about our sanitized Nativity stories is not really part of Matthew, Luke or broader history. Thanks Reta for this post. Hope things are well in VA and with the CMC congregation!

    Christ has come!
    Nicholas DS

  4. Even though we believe it happened, it is great to have a more accurate account of how things actually happened. It would be even better if congregations, etc were able to revise their pageants/epiphany reflections. But I am sure that would be a very small minority. Anyway, I truly appreciate being enlightend [as I am sure others do] even if we may not be able to change the way the story is portrayed. Thank you Reta for passing along your knowleged!

  5. Reta, I’ve finally found your blog and am enjoying it. I was told about Jesus’ June birth long ago by Mom who said that Daddy “didn’t make much of Christmas” for this reason.

  6. Reta, What would I do without such a knowledgeable friend! I would remain ignorant, no doubt. I finally read your blog. And am hooked. This is how I’ll get my Reta-fix in between your visits!

  7. Phil,
    It was determined a long time later! I can’t speak for exactly when this spot in Bethlehem, now covered by the Church of the Nativity was determined as the place of Jesus’ birth. Generally, it was not until the early 4th century, when Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, began identifying places in the life of Jesus as pilgrimage sites. It was a good way to promote the new state religion and encourage piety. Some of the chosen sites were probably more accurate than others. We have no way of knowing the exact place where Jesus was born, and who would have cared at that time? We only know the possible date through the death of King Herod and perhaps, as stated above, the conjunction of planets and astrological phenomena in 6 BCE.

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