Rethink Christmas Cards

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 9.10.12 AMBy John Frye

Recently Scot McKnight linked an article by Ian Paul titled “Jesus was not born in a stable.” Paul’s essay jousted with the commonly accepted version of the-birth-of-Jesus story in the West. Referencing scholars like R. T. France, Kenneth Bailey, and Alfred Plummer, the main point of the essay is that Jesus was born in a typical Palestinian house surrounded more than likely by relatives of Joseph. While even the NIV translates kataluma (Luke 2:7) as “inn,” the historical and cultural background suggests that word refers to the portion of a Palestinian house used to keep traveling guests or visiting relatives. Yes, the LXX does use the term kataluma for something like a hostel or inn, but that definition does not fit the Lukan story. Joseph and Mary were not rejected by an inn-keeper and shuttled off to a distant stable. Stables were, in fact, not separated from family living quarters. Joseph and Mary were included in the family living portion of the house, suggests Ian Paul, where she gave birth to her firstborn son and placed Jesus in a manger, a normal feature of a Palestinian “living room.” This understanding of the birth of Jesus makes sense to me.

Joseph has returned to Bethlehem, the city of David, because “he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:4). Joseph would not have been a total stranger to some people in Bethlehem. Who knows what relatives of Joseph lived there? It is most likely he sought out those who knew him and his relatives. He and Mary would have been welcomed in true first century Palestinian style into someone’s home. Because the guest portion (kataluma) was already filled (maybe because of the decree of Augustus Caesar), Mary and Joseph were brought into the family’s living quarters where she gave birth to Jesus. Not alone. Not exiled. Not surrounded only by animals.

Reimagine, then, the shepherds’ arrival and their testimony to Mary and Joseph, to relatives and guests. They arrive at a home crammed with people. The shepherds announce the Angel of the Lord’s words, the chorus of the heavenly hosts, the importance of the “sign”— a baby lying in a manger. As Luke writes, “…all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them… .” Mary, on the other hand, pondered in her heart the meaning of this dazzling declaration. The shepherd’s did not arrive to a tiny threesome—Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus— and a smattering of animals. “All,” a sizable audience, who heard the shepherds’ story were startled! Doesn’t it seem that heaven went to a lot of fuss to announce Jesus’ birth only to have the shepherds tell only Joseph and Mary? Yes, the shepherds did tell others but only after announcing the good news to the household (Luke 2:20).

Americans like “rugged individualism.” Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus on his own in a stable away from the chattering class fits our psyche. A superman doesn’t need people. A hot Palestinian room noisy with talk and laughter, cooking fire smoke, aroma of food and animal smells. A young, tired girl in labor with fussy older women taking charge of the birth. Really?How do you get all that on an American Christmas card? Oh, “sweet little Jesus boy” on the very first night when you arrived we knew who you were. Angels and shepherds told us so. Savior, Messiah, Lord.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.