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Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas Inferences

 As accounts of a person's birth go, the story of Jesus contains minimal details.  Of the four gospels, two of them do not refer to the circumstances of Jesus' arrival on earth, and the two that do talk about the nativity focus on somewhat different aspects.  Due to the brevity of both accounts, we have made inferences by taking the details that are mentioned and then filling in the gaps based on our best guesses of how things must have been in those days.  Those inferences we make are based on our cultural practices as well as traditional ideas passed down over the centuries through religious songs, art and habits.  Many of these traditions are rooted in Western Europe before much archaeological study was done about the Middle East and the way of life in Palestine.  For example, the Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti entitled "A Christmas Carol" (1872) makes assumptions about the weather at the time of Jesus' birth based on the climate of the United Kingdom in December:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.
Today, we are quite certain that Jesus' actual birthday was not in December.  No matter what the season, there would not have been snow and ice due to the moderate climate of Bethlehem.

The Manger

   Besides being in Bethlehem, we know very little about the place where Jesus was born.  It is stated in Luke 2:7 that "there was no room for them in the inn," so we know he was not born in a lodge or guest house.  The details that the baby was "placed in a manger" has led to an inference that most people may not realize is absent from the text.  For many, the word "manger" and "stable" are synonymous, but this deserves a second look, according to Dr. Kenneth Bailey.  This man of God passed away in 2016, but he left a significant book entitled Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.  By living in the Middle East for forty years he became familiar with customs and practices that made him see the reference to Jesus being placed in a manger differently.

  • When we hear about an animal's feeding box, we automatically think of a barn, where animals live separately from humans.  However, Middle Eastern families in small villages shared space in their home with their small herds of sheep and goats.  Therefore, access to a manger could have been close to where people were living.  It is not inconceivable that Jesus was born in a private home that had one wing where animals could get shelter when needed.  The resourcefulness of using a manger to house a baby does not mean that there were donkeys, cattle and sheep surrounding the birthplace of the Lord.
  • Middle Eastern hospitality is extreme.  Welcoming a stranger, especially one who is about to give birth, is expected in Middle Eastern culture.  When we imagine the innkeeper offering a stable to Mary and Joseph, such a thing is unthinkable to the Palestinian person.  If the shepherds had found the infant Jesus in a place we see depicted on Christmas cards, cold and dark and smelly, they would not have left rejoicing as they did.  Instead, they would have taken Jesus to a better and proper location or petitioned home owners nearby to have compassion and welcome the holy family.  Recently, a children's Christmas play was shared in which the child playing the innkeeper breaks character and calls after Mary and Joseph, "You can have my room."  If a child would offer them her bedroom, would not someone steeped in the culture of hospitality have opened his home to those displaced because of the census?

The Magi

   While the gospel of Luke tells about humble shepherds coming to see the Christ child, Matthew's account tells of Magi from the East.  Our inferences regarding the Magi have led to fanciful speculations:
-The song "We Three Kings of Orient Are" names Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar/Caspar, based on a traditional text dating to about 500 A.D and considers that they were kings of Persia, Arabia and India, respectively.
-Because there were three gifts, it is presumed that there were three Magi.
-Nativity scenes place the Magi around the manger with the shepherds.
-The mode of transport was by camels.

   A few corrections to these ideas can be found by better understanding the times. Magi were not royalty, but they were a class of people who were well educated and influential.  Perhaps the title of "professor" helps us better understand who they were, as this word is used in the Chinese Bible to designate these men of the East.
   Any long journeys to be undertaken by men of rank like the Magi would have involved a complete entourage of servants.  Three men travelling this distance would want others with them to provide security, food, animal care and other logistics.  They may have used camels, but we don't know for sure.
   If we believe that the Magi and the Shepherds both came to adore the infant Jesus together, we would note that Matthew 2:11 says "On coming to the house..."  Jesus was staying at a house when the Magi arrived.  As I suggested earlier, he was also likely staying at a house when the shepherds came.  
   The fact that Herod decreed that all infant boys below the age of 2 years were to be killed to ensure the baby Jesus, the one "born King of the Jews" would be among the victims seems to suggest that Jesus was no longer a newborn when the Magi came to see him.  However, the ruthlessness of Herod that is documented in other history books means it would not be surprising if he chose the round number of 2 years of age as the cut off just to be sure this threat to his throne would be disposed of.


   My notes here about the manger and the Magi are not meant to dismiss all of the traditions and songs based on questionable inferences.  However, I hope that was we read and hear the accounts from Matthew and Luke, we can remember that they happened in a time and culture different than our own.  When we read between the lines of Bible stories it is good to be informed about what the original readers would have understood by it.  I am grateful to scholars like Dr. Kenneth Bailey, Dr. Paul Maier and Joe Amaral who have most recently enlightened me in this way through their books and published interviews.

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