The Christmas story through Middle-Eastern eyes

Every significant story changes over time, often to suit the needs of the latest storyteller, while many of the original details are forgotten.

The Christmas story is one of these, having lost much of the context surrounding the original largely, I believe, due to the fact that it has crossed time and cultures to get to us. This has caused the story to lose much of the impact that its native culture provided, to our detriment.

By and large, people in the western world, Christian or not, are familiar with the story of Christ's birth. It's celebrated in story, song, picture and video. Joseph and his pregnant fiancee Mary travel to Bethlehem for a census. They arrive at an inn, and because there is no available space, must spend the night in a barn-like structure, where Jesus is born on the night of 25 December. Also that night, the shepherds and wise men appear.

Some errors in our version are fairly well known. For example, most accept that it's unlikely the date was December 25. Further, he was not born in 1 A.D. or even "zero" A.D. How could Jesus be born in a year "Before Christ"? Even Pope Benedict XVI admitted that the sixth-century monk who came up with the year scheme we use made an error in calculating the year of Jesus' birth.

I love having historical context because it can change my understanding. Sometimes in minor ways and sometimes in major ways but always for the better. That is what drew me to the book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The author, Kenneth E. Bailey, says in his introduction:

For sixty years, from 1935-1995, my home was in the Middle East. With a childhood in Egypt and forty years spent teaching New Testament in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus, my academic efforts have focused on trying to understand more adequately the stories of the Gospels in light of Middle Eastern culture. This book is a part of that continuing endeavor.

His analysis of Jesus' birth was a bit of a revelation to me (no pun intended).

The lack of accommodations

Joseph had adequate time to make housing arrangements in advance. This was in the days before rapid telecommunication and transportation. Word had to go out well in advance, and people were required to go to their home towns to register. All of that took time. When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, they were going to a small town, his home town. He would have known people and probably had friends there. Not only that, Joseph was going to Bethlehem as a descendant of King David to David's home town, a fact that would have gotten attention there. So chances are remote he and Mary would have been callously turned away at the door. In addition, Mary had family in a nearby village; they could have gone there in an emergency.

The "manger"

The word translated "inn" is not used for a commercial establishment. In the Middle East, it is understood to mean "house" or "guest room" in a private home. The word for "manger" indicates it would have been a space at the back of the house, inside the house. This was a space where animals were kept for the night.

According to Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary,

Stables and mangers in our modern sense were in ancient times unknown in the East. The word here properly denotes "the ledge or projection in the end of the room used as a stall on which the hay or other food of the animals of travellers was placed." Dr. Bailey has seen functional mangers like this firsthand in Upper Galilee and in Bethlehem. For me, this is the most startling clarification of the story.

Poor accommodations would have dishonored the residents of Bethlehem

Had the shepherds come upon a mother with newborn in a lean-to type of structure, they would have insisted on offering better accommodations at their own homes. Otherwise, such treatment of this family would have brought dishonor to Bethlehem. They went away "praising God for all that they had heard and seen." Would they really have done that if the child they believed was their messiah was truly living in a shoddy, drafty old barn?

Are these points essential to appreciating the Christmas story? No. But adding this kind of context only enriches it and, in my opinion, makes it one I can better appreciate and understand.

Merry Christmas!