Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Notable Event

A classic Christmas scene - But how accurate is this?

Tradition Reigns

We know the scene: Mary and Joseph staring down at a serenely sleeping baby Jesus, surrounded by animals, shepherds, angels and three kings - And all in a stable, because some innkeeper was a jerk. Joseph has a staff, of course, because he's like Gandalf facing the balrog better known as Herod: "You shall not pass!" Jesus lay sleeping soundly, because being God, he would never fuss. Mary is radiant, of course, showing no signs of just having given birth. All the animals would naturally be facing their Creator, and the three kings would stand pondering the newborn wisely.

This is that classic creche scene, isn't it? Even many churches that put on Christmas pageants have all these characters together. Since that's the tradition, why question? If that's how our churches portray it occurring, why doubt? Even many of our favorite Christmas carols reinforce these concepts, for Kringle's sake!

The problem is that very few of these classic scenes are confirmed in Scripture. What's more, the Bible in its entirety actually puts a bit of an unexpected spin on quite a few dearly held assumptions. In these next few articles leading up to Christmas, I'd like to share some of these spins with you all. Nothing contradicts or invalidates the Word of God - But much of what we thought we knew about the Christmas story is about to get shaken up.

Setting The Scene Correctly
Here is a more realistic setting for the Nativity scene.

One of the first things that ought to be understood is that we've been assigning blame to some poor schmuck who likely never existed. There are only two accounts of Jesus' birth in the Bible, and neither mention an innkeeper. Yet for who knows how long, we've been blaming some random proprietor of some ancient hotel, motel or Holly Day Inn for Christ being born in a stable.

As a matter of fact, the original language in Matthew suggests that there wasn't an "Inn" at all. The word in Greek is kataluma, and suggests a set place of rest for travelers. Interestingly, there have been archaeological finds showing such public shelters, often built above a cave. There was no topos, or space, for them in the kataluma, or shelter. Because of this, Joseph took his pregnant wife to the closest protection he could think of: The cave beneath the traveler's shelter which housed the livestock.

Another aspect of this scene? An exhausted Mary. You see, while she had been promised the honor of carrying the Son of God, she had not been promised a painless pregnancy or an easy birth. The classic vision of her kneeling beside her newborn son is likely less than accurate. If she was cradling her son as she lay on her side, or slightly reclined, this would be more realistic.

That being said, it is possible that Mary was simply able to give birth and bounce back almost immediately. It was also extremely unlikely. The swaddling cloths that Jesus was wrapped in were quite possibly meant for Mary in the case of her death. According to historical record, the mortality rate of birthing mothers was high; and Jews could not come into physical contact with the dead. Thus, strips of cloth were carried to enable the safe movement of a body. In this case, Christ was wrapped in such cloths at the beginning and end of his earthly life.

The Baby Jesus

One of the biggest issues I have found with the traditional scene is actually that of the baby Jesus. In carols, in Nativity scenes, and even in some sermons, this newborn child is depicted as being some serene sleeper. A no tears infant of incredible understanding and comprehension. There's just one problem with this: That's not the picture given us by Scripture.

In Matthew 1:25, we're only told that Mary gave birth to Jesus before Joseph consummated their marriage. In Luke 2:7. we're given a little more detail: She gave birth to a Son, wrapped him is swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger. In verse 16 of the same chapter, we're told that the shepherds came to find Mary, Joseph and the baby laying in the manger.

Notice that nowhere does it tell us about the behavior of the infant Jesus. However, we are told that "He learned obedience through the things He suffered." (Hebrews 5:8) We see that he behaved just like any other headstrong 12 year old, deciding what he thought to do was more important than following his parents home from the Temple. (Luke 2:41-52) Thus, he was as much human as God. This suggests to me that Jesus probably cried in the manger; that Mary and Joseph probably changed their equivalent of diapers; that they had their share of sleepless nights as a family; and that the boy Jesus probably had to practice measuring and cutting in Joseph's shop before he got it right.

Bottom Line

There's nothing heretical or apostate in looking at likely realities where the Bible and Scripture do not inform, so long as these do not contradict the Word of God. Pointing out, for instance, the fact that Jesus was probably just like every other newborn is not a violation of Scripture- Perhaps traditions, but when tradition and Scripture collide, tradition must bow to the Bible.

Pointing out the historical unlikelihood of them trying to stay at an inn may seem to contradict Scripture at first. However, when the original Koine Greek is examined, it's easy to see how the two words topos and katalumas have been misinterpreted in our modern day. Even King James Only advocates have little to complain about when it comes to this, as in the early 1600's, such shelters were still present here and there throughout Europe and Middle Eastern countries. It is simply the definition of words, and thus our understanding of those words, which has changed.

Stay tuned for the next examination.