Did you know that a person steeped in Palestinian culture would understand the Christmas birth story very differently from the way I always have? I’m a bit chagrined to have found this out, and I’m wondering if I should keep quiet about it, because it will ruin a lovely story.
You know how you hear the story of an event, a marriage, a journey, and you think to yourself, “That’s a great story. What really happened is more complicated, but if I say anything that will take away the sweet shape of its telling, that kicking punch line, the moving moral at the end.” The truth is still compelling to most of us, though. We want to know.
In churches all over the place the kids are dressed as shepherds, the angels have their wings on, the kids playing Mary and Joseph are ready, and this year’s baby Jesus has been chosen. The narrator tells the story about Joseph and Mary traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem for the census, and the couple goes from one inn to the next only to be told there is no room for them to stay. They end up in a stable with the animals, far from any other human contact, giving birth alone and far from home. Sermons are preached that go like this:
“Don’t be like the mean old innkeeper who wouldn’t give Jesus a place. You make room in your life, your heart, etc., for the child.”
We do need to hear the message of making room in our lives for Spirit, and it’s a moving commentary about the comfortable and the safe having a harder time making room for the Light than the outsiders and the lowly.
But I’ve been reading the lectures of Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey, a lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies. In addition to a doctorate in New Testament, he holds graduate degrees in Arabic language and literature as well as systematic theology. He spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He is the author of books in English and in Arabic. In dialogue with Palestinian Christian Bible scholars, he has illuminated the cultural context of the story behind our children’s pageants. Palestinian culture is much the same now as it was in the time of Jesus’ birth, so most Arab believers have always understood the nuances of the story.
The first thing you’ll want to know is that hospitality is the highest value of the Palestinian culture, and that has been so for thousands of years. Joseph returning to the city of his ancestors would never have stayed in a commercial inn, even if Bethlehem had been large enough to sustain one. He would have stayed with family. For a descendant of David to be turned away from staying with family in the City of David would have brought unthinkable shame on the whole town.
The word in the text translated as “inn” is the Greek word kataluma. This is not a commercial building with rooms for travelers. When Luke meant to talk about a commercial inn, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), he used the Greek pandocheion. Kataluma is a guest space, typically one of the two rooms of a common village home.
“A simple Palestinian village home in the time of King David up until the Second World War had two rooms—one for guests, one for the family,” Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. “The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower, for the family donkey, the family cow, and two or three sheep. They are brought in last thing at night and taken out and tied up in the courtyard first thing in the morning.”
“The days came for her to be delivered,” the Gospel writer says. Nothing in the text says Mary was in labor as they were looking for a place. Mary would have spent the last part of her pregnancy in the home of whatever cousins they were visiting. There wasn’t room in the guest room, so the baby was laid in one of the mangers dug into the stone floor of the family room or made of wood and stood up on the family room floor, surrounded by animals, aunties, uncles, and cousins.
Bailey has written a Christmas pageant, if telling a more culturally accurate story is important to you. In the old story we are told to make room for strangers, to make room for the Divine. We are told the Divine is an outsider, despised and rejected from the beginning. We should be ashamed of ourselves for being selfish and uncaring.
In the version that is congruent with Palestinian culture, though, it seems the Divine comes to birth when you have finally found your people, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, animals, warm, noisy, and crowded. There is no shame for me in the story, no scolding tale of humans failing yet again, just a family doing the best it can.
The stories we tell in our families and in our faith communities shape our experience. They signal to us who we are, where we come from, what we can expect. If I tell the story that I’m unlucky, I am more likely to notice the times when things don’t work out my way. If I grew up on the story that my people get their value from being smart, when I make a mistake or forget something, or when I fail, I feel cast out of the warm circle of belonging. If I go to a church where the story is told that a father killed his son so that the father could forgive us for our sins, and that this father loves me but would send me to eternal hellfire for making a mistake, I might feel like an overly soft parent if I don’t take my children’s mistakes out of their hide.
I like the story with less shame in it, with less loneliness surrounding the light at its birth. What changes might ripple out from the new story? I’m pondering this in my heart.
- Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. By Kenneth E. Bailey. IVP Academic, 2008. (Amazon.com)
- Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Musical Drama. By Kenneth E. Bailey. Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. (Amazon.com)