|The Shepherds Visit the Stable|
With Christmas Eve just a day away we take a look at the events surrounding the birth of the Mashiach, or the Christ.
An interesting thought crossed my mind the other day as I though about the Nativity and our habit of celebrating it on Christmas Eve with midnight Masses, etc. We measure our days from midnight to midnight. However, the Jews measured their days from sunset to sunset, hence in modern times the Jewish Shabbat, which is Saturday, begins at sundown Friday. So, if Jesus was born on Christmas night as depicted in Luke's story of the shepherds, in reality he was born on what we call Christmas Eve. But I digress...
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem…”— Luke 2:1-4
Bethlehem is located about five miles south of Jerusalem, on the east side of what was called the Patriarch's Highway that ran along the ridge between Shechem and Hebron. The city is the birthplace of one of Israel’s greatest kings, David. It was in Bethlehem that he was born, raised and tended his father's sheep.
Three miles to the southeast of Bethlehem is Herodium, an elaborate retreat, residence and fortress constructed by Herod the Great. Following Herod’s death, a procession of his servants, the Temple priests and his private guards, escorted his body from Jerusalem to Herodium for burial. Ironically, Herod was buried within sight of the spot where Jesus, whom he tried to kill, was born.
TRADITION MEETS REALITY
Upon further research and reflection, many of the traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus are found to have little basis in fact. For instance, Jesus was most likely not born in a barn, but in the home of a member of Mary and/or Joseph's extended family in Bethlehem. This misconception results from a mistranslation of the Greek word kataluma (κατάλυμα). It should have been translated as guest room, rather than inn. This creates problems when the story is interpreted based on Western culture rather than a Middle Eastern viewpoint. This error is easily verified by comparing Luke’s use of the term kataluma in the Nativity story and his use of pandocheion, a place of public lodging, when he referred to the inn where the Samaritan brought the wounded Jewish traveler in the story of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:34).
Mary and Joseph would have returned to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census/tax because it was the ancestral home of their families, which traced their lineage back to David and the tribe of Judah. Although they had settled in Galilee, their tribal roots remained in Bethlehem. Recent research indicates that a group of Judeans had returned from Babylon about 100 B.C., establishing such towns as Nazareth, following the Maccabean reclamation of that region.
Luke also tells us that when Mary went to visit Elizabeth she “went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah…” (Luke 1:39). With many relatives living in and around Bethlehem, it would have been unthinkable for Mary and Joseph to seek public lodging, if indeed any existed. In such a small village, family members would not have expected. or accepted, such a rejection of their hospitality especially in view of the imminent birth of Mary’s first child.
There is also no indication that Jesus was born immediately after Mary and Joseph arrived. The text, “…while they were there, the days were accomplished for her to give birth,” (Luke 2:6) could just as easily be interpreted to mean that His birth took place at a later time, perhaps days or even weeks after their arrival.
|Typical Home In the Time of Jesus|
THE WAY THEY LIVED
Most homes at the time of Christ had an interior guest room as can be seen from the above schematic. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they may have found the guest room in a family member's home already occupied, perhaps by other relatives who had also returned to register for the census. Arrangements would then have been made for Mary to give birth in another part of the house, presumably the family living area. Or more likely, whoever was occupying the guest room would vacate so she could deliver her baby with complete privacy. Either way, it’s safe to assume Mary gave birth to Jesus inside a family home. She also would have had a midwife in attendance along with some of her female relatives. It would have been unthinkable not to provide her assistance at a time like that.
Luke most probably mentioned the availability of a manger not to suggest any inadequacy in the conditions of Jesus' birth, but to provide a transition to the shepherds. Animals were usually brought into the lower level of rural and small town homes at night for safety, and in the winter, to provide warmth. If the house was truly overcrowded, the animals could be left outside and the area swept and cleaned. With fresh straw and a few utensils it would make an adequate overflow area. Recall how often travelers are shown bedding down in the barn in shows such as Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, etc.
By the way, if the idea of having a stable area attached to the family home seems a little odd, even primitive, it isn't. A number of years ago while visiting the New England area, I noticed that many of the older homes where connected to the barn. It was a way to insure access to the animals, which needed to be fed, milked, etc., during inclement weather. At the time of Christ, the animals were probably stabled close to the residence for security against predators.
Returning to the Biblical narrative, the angels identified the manger as the place where the shepherds would find Jesus. Mangers were typically carved from stone and measured three to four feet in length. Its cavity, cleaned and filled with fresh straw, would be just the right size for an infant.
Since they also mentioned the cloth wrappings used for newborns, the angels might have simply been emphasizing the normalcy of His birth circumstances rather than providing a means of identifying the baby. In any case, finding the baby lying in a manger, wrapped according to common practice, seems to have caused no surprise to the shepherds or problem for the family members present. Jesus’ birth, surrounded by loving family members, reflected the customs of humble, First Century life.
Jesus entered this world in conditions similar to those common in his time and much of the world today. It was not the picturesque setting that is often portrayed in the Carols and Christmas cards, but it was also not unusual or squalid conditions either. To impose a Western interpretation on the circumstances of Jesus' birth distorts the reality of the event, the people, and the times. Jesus' birth in a local family home and his being found in a manger by shepherds is symbolic of his availability to all people, even those whom many of that era would exclude as we will find out in our study of the shepherds next week.
I'm repeating the link in case you missed the opportunity to read the Christmas chapters from my book WITNESS. Young sheperdess, Rivkah, accompanies her father to Bethlehem where she holds the newborn Yeshua. We have offered visitors to this blog an opportunity to read an excerpt from WITNESS, but it starts at the beginning of the book and ends with the shepherds heading off for Bethlehem. My Christmas present to you is a special excerpt that covers just the Christmas chapters. Combining the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, it begins as Rivkah prepares for her first lambing season and spending the night in the fields with her father. (She's especially excited because she now has a sheep of her own and this will be its first lamb. And, as if this is not enough, Shemu'el, the young man she believes she is destined to marry, will be there too.) The story continues through to the Flight into Egypt when Rivkah and her father encounter Miryam and Yosef as they flee, and into the following morning when they meet the Wise Men who are returning "to their own country by another way." Read it HERE.
Our Christmas post continue Monday of next week when we look at The Twelve Days of Christmas. By the way, I've assembled all of these Christmas posts -including several that haven't gone up yet - into an Ebook. If you'd like to have this material to refer back to in the future, it's only $3.99 in formats compatible with all popular Ereaders as well as for on-screen reading. You'll find it HERE.
Until next time, we wish you a Merry Christmas!
If you reached this post via a link, click the HOME tab above to see other posts and our archives.