Christmas: Lost in Translation

Living in a culture far removed both in time and distance from that in which Jesus was born, we are unfamiliar with life in biblical times and it is easy for us to accept without question the traditional romanticised images that have come down to us about the events surrounding the birth of Messiah and persons who appear in the Gospel accounts. Our lack of knowledge can leave us vulnerable to all manner of alternative and bizarre teaching. For example, I once heard a writer state that he knew "Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem" who were descended from the shepherds to whom the angels appeared!

Although some of Israel’s greatest men – including Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, in the great collections of rabbinic law The Mishnah and The Talmud, shepherding was a despised profession. According to tractate “Kiddushin” in The Mishnah, “A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.”

Because many shepherds were hirelings and the flocks they tended were not their own, it was easy for them to steal wool, milk and goats and blame the loss on bandits. Therefore tractate “Baba Kamma” forbids buying wool, milk or goats from shepherds. A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23:2 says: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.”

New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias describes a biblical shepherd’s life as independent, responsible and – in view of the threat from wild beasts and robbers – dangerous. Although some sheep owners looked after their flocks personally, the job was usually was done by hired shepherds, who often did not justify the confidence reposed in them, as Jesus indicates in John 10:12-13. Also, shepherds couldn’t help but tread in sheep excrement and touch dead animals which, according to the book of Leviticus, placed them in a permanent state of ritual impurity and ceremonial defilement. Because of that, shepherds were excluded from the temple and the synagogues.

But it was these lowiest of people to whom the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world was first revealed. It is true, as the Christmas slogan has it that "Wise men still seek Jesus" but it's also true that the holy Saviour continues to live on earth with" the poor and mean and lowly"!

No room in the inn

One of the most enduring images of the birth of Jesus, perpetuated through paintings, literature, Christmas carols, nativity plays and sermons, is that of the Lord of glory was born in a stable because there was “no room in the inn”. However, though the carols and some of our English Bible versions call Bethlehem a “town” or “city”, in New Testament times it would have been a village too small to support an inn. Also, inns were normally found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones, but Bethlehem was not on a major road.

The misunderstanding is due to our English Bibles. The Greek word katalyma should never have been translated “inn”, as it is in Luke 2:7. The 1395 edition of John Wycliffe’s translation of Luke 2:7 reads: “And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir” (And she bore her firstborn son and wappled him in cloths and laid him in a crèche because there was no room for him in the chamber).

For reasons known only to themselves, William Tyndale and the translators of The Geneva Bible and The Authorised Version opted for “inn” rather than “chamber”. And so it has continued. The only exceptions to this translational custom known to me are The New English Bible and David Stern’s The Jewish New Testament.

The NEB translates Luke 2:7: “She wrapped him in his swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house.” The JNT renders Luke 2:7: “She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living quarters.”

In Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14 (the only other places in the Greek New Testament where the word katalyma appears) clearly does not mean an inn: “Then he shall show you a large, furnished upper room [katalyma] ...” (Luke 22:11.) If Luke had intended to refer to a commercial hostelry in chapter 2, he would have used pandocheion, the very word he uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan in 10:25-37: “... he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn [pandocheion], and took care of him.”

The 1915 edition of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia observes that “Luke with his usual care distinguishes between [katalyma] and pandocheion, and his use of the verb katalúō (Luk 9:12; Luk19:7) makes his meaning clear... It is the word used of the ‘upper room’ where the Last Supper was held (Mar 14:14; Luk 22:11, ‘guest-chamber’), and of the place of reception in Bethlehem where Joseph and Mary failed to find quarters (Luk 2:7). It thus corresponds to the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village...” a lowly cattle shed?

In Luke’s birth narrative, the Messiah was laid in a manger from which animals ate. Does that not strongly suggest a birth in a stable? According to the Biblical and Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey, from the time of King David until the mid-twentieth century, most village homes in Israel and the Middle East consisted of two rooms; one for the family and the other for guests. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower than the living space, in which the family donkey, cow and two or three sheep spent the night. The animals were brought into the house last thing at night and taken outside first thing in the morning. In the house they ate from mangers dug out of the stone floor of the raised family living area.

The katalyma was the room reserved for guests and visitors. Contrary to the traditional Christmas story, Mary was not in labour when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. Luke 2:6 records, “So it was, that while they were there [not upon arrival], the days were completed for her to be delivered.” The ESV reads, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” How could we have ever concluded from the biblical text that Mary was in labour at the time she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem? The idea may have originated with a second-century apocryphal work of fiction, The Infancy Gospel of James: “And they came to the midst of the way, and Mary said unto him: Take me down from the ass, for that which is within me presseth me, to come forth. And he took her down from the ass and said unto her: Whither shall I take thee to hide thy shame? for the place is desert.” (The Infancy Gospel of James 17:8)

No crib for a bed

Matthew records that when the magi arrived in Bethlehem they entered “the house”, not “the stable”, and there they “fell down and worshipped Him” (Mt 2:11). Jews and Arabs have traditionally placed a high value on family and hospitality, so when Caesar Augustus decreed that the Jewish population of ancient Israel had to return to their home towns to register for the census, Joseph went to Bethlehem “because he belonged to the house and line of David”(Luke 2:4).

"To turn away a descendant of David in ‘the City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village,” writes Kenneth Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (p. 26). Even if there had been no room to stay with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, no village in the hill country of Judea was more than an hour's ride on donkey from Bethlehem, so Joseph could easily have taken his betrothed to her relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

From these considerations, we can construct a more accurate scenario of the events surrounding the birth of Messiah. Joseph and his expectant fiancée Mary made their way this ancestral village of Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar. There, he and Mary stayed with Joseph’s relatives for the remainder of her pregnancy in a home which was crowded due to the census being taken and where there was no longer any space in “the guest room”. Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child in the family room and the baby was placed on clean straw in one of the stone mangers. The birth of the Lord of glory was indeed humble but the manger in which he was laid was in a warm, friendly family home, not in a cold, dirty and lonely stable.

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