Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Christian new year in a variety of Christian traditions. The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year and leads up to the birth of Christ celebrated on December 25. Every year, sermons are preached, songs are sung and pageants are performed celebrating and re-telling the story of a God who came to earth and was born of a woman in the form of a helpless babe. It is a beautiful tale–of God, humbled and vulnerable.
Unfortunately, due to a host of linguistic, philosophical and historical-cultural reasons, we have perpetuated a story that has been badly distorted, and bears little resemblance to the reality. It’s time we start correcting some of this.
A Quick Note On History And Literalism
First, let’s start with one of the biggest hurdles for those concerned with historical-critical analysis. Several scholars have expressed some rather big concerns with the premises outlined in the Incarnation narratives. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the ones that tell of this event. The Gospel of Matthew mostly seems concerned with making sure the events around Jesus’ conception, birth, and early life match up with Israelite prophecies about the Messiah. The Gospel of Luke claims to be unbiased history and actually spends quite a lot of time with the women, namely Mary, mother of Jesus and her cousin Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist before Jesus even technically comes on the scene. Incidentally, the Gospel of Luke is also one of only two Gospels to pass the Bechdel test (the other being the Gospel of Mark).
Both Gospels contain some historically dubious claims. The Gospel of Matthew tells of King Herod ordering the death of several babies under a certain age in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, there’s no record of this–though it is worth noting that several folks have said that such an act would certainly not be out of character for that particular client king. The Gospel of Luke tries to cement its historical status by tying the timing of a birth to a census but this has some major problems:
-The census of Quirinus took place in 6 CE, 9 years after Herod’s death in 4 BCE.
-There was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus
-No Roman census required people to travel from their home to those of their distant ancestors
-The census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family living in Galilee
So while there are have been several proposed modifications that aim to get around these historical objections, the truth is that any exact historical account is difficult to arrive at. But that’s common for the gospels, so let’s not dwell too long on this. Let us instead go to the content of the text–rather than dwelling on WHY Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus, let us focus more on the CIRCUMSTANCES of the birth itself.
Lonely Birth In A Barn: Fact or Fiction?
The traditional story of Jesus’ birth goes like this: Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem to have their baby–but alas, there is no room in the inn. One lone innkeeper takes pity and says they can bed down in the barn with the animals. And what do you know but Jesus is born in that barn, with only Joseph in attendance–who, being a carpenter, first time father, and man in those time probably wasn’t a whole lot of help in the midwife department. Thus, the birth of Jesus is pretty much as low as you can go–and yet somehow they are still there for a really long time afterwards, so that the magi can come and pay their respects.
The problem with this version of events is that it betrays a very Western European version of life which bears little resemblance to the Middle Eastern culture of the time. Author Kenneth C. Bailey argues for a far more compelling version of events in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. It goes a little something like this: Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem to have their baby and they have a well-planned route and a plan to stay with relatives or friends of the family, who are quite happy to help a family of the line of David, and practice the traditional and respected hospitality. Once they arrive at their relatives house, they find that the guest room (an alternative, and much more suitable translation, of the Greek word for “inn”) is already full–perhaps some other guests arrived unexpectedly, or perhaps they brought a few extra friends thinking it would be alright–either way, the guest room is full. Not to worry though! The central living room will do just fine–in fact, it may even be warmer, since the two or three animals the household likely had would be brought inside and be sleeping by the door keeping the chill air out and the heat trapped nicely inside. When Mary went into labour, the men would have been relegated to a corner while the women in attendance gathered round and saw to Mary’s needs and helped her through the labour. When Jesus was finally born, given suck and cleaned up, he would be wrapped and placed in the food trough (or “manger”) which was right by the stairs leading down to the door and doorwell where the animals spent the night. And then, of course, Mary and Joseph wouldn’t travel anywhere until Mary and Jesus were strong enough to make a journey of at least a few days–giving plenty of time for folks like magi to pop in and say a quick hello.
Why Does It Matter?
When I’ve tried to bring this up to people, I’ve often been challenged as to why it matters, and have sometimes struggled to justify it. As soon as I read this history, I knew it was deeply important–but explaining why (beyond the obvious desire for historical-cultural accuracy) was not always easy. In the past couple of years, I’ve given it further thought, and now I believe I can articulate much more clearly why I think it is deeply important which version of Christmas we hold to be true.
While the linguistic concerns of the inn vs. the guest room are relatively small, and the detached barn vs. animals and mangers located in the home for safety and warmth, are in and of themselves understandable confusions, the concept of Incarnation has caused some discomfort in church circles from relatively early on. Some of the early church men whose writings survived were attracted to ascetism and bodily denial that were startlingly and worryingly Gnostic and NeoPlatonic in nature. Thus, it didn’t take long for some of these men to start suggesting that Mary experienced a completely painless childbirth, that Jesus was a sweet baby who never cried, and that Mary remained a virgin even after Jesus was born–somehow conveniently skipping over the mention of Jesus’ brothers in later gospels, and the idea that a teen mom without contraception would somehow never have kids or sex with her husband after the birth of Jesus. Obviously, this completely sanitized version of birth and married life challenges credibility in the extreme and perhaps betrays these authors lack of experience in such matters.
While it may not seem like there’s anything inherently wrong in the traditional story of Jesus’ birth we perpetuate in our pageants and songs and sermons today, it’s really the same old discomfort in new packaging. The story of Joseph and Mary all alone in a barn is compelling in a culture that has embraced individuality as much as Western Europe and North America have come to. The system is against them, they’ve had to travel all this way due to government orders, and to top it off there’s no accommodations until they’re grudgingly offered a barn. They don’t have any choice so they rough it and make due–and somehow, despite an inexperienced, clueless guy for a midwife and a teen mom who hasn’t even had sex yet, the birth goes off without a hitch. And then people come and give them gifts and warn them to get out of dodge, and the small family of three go on the lam until ol’ King Herod kicks the bucket and they can sneak back into a poor farm village. The fates have aligned, the family’s been resilient and mostly handled things on their own, with only the occasional, absolutely minimal support of those around them. Is it any wonder that our hyperindividualistic culture loves this story? So very much like “pick yourself up your bootstraps”, “help your neighbour out a little bit if it doesn’t inconvenience you too much”, and “cut down on government overreach”.
In contrast, the version Bailey puts forward is far more communal than we are raised to expect. A household that doesn’t have a lot of room cheerfully takes in another family in an already full house making it even more overcrowded; the birth is attended to by numerous capable and knowledgeable midwives, and the baby Jesus is welcomed into the world by several women and girls. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are given time to rest and recuperate, adjusting to a life together with the support of an entire community before getting a visit that warns them they need to get moving. So is it any wonder a culture that warns of “stranger danger” and “overstaying your welcome” and fears “handouts” is so reluctant to accept that version of events?
So while the stories seem to matter little–after all, the infancy narratives only appear in two gospels and a relatively small amount of each gospel at that–the choice is actually quite important. This Advent we must choose whether to tell the traditional story that prizes individualism and independence, that stretches credibility, and that is born out of a history of bodily denial and a strict patriarchal hierarchy again. Or, we can choose a different story–a story of communalism, of generous hospitality, where women are an integral part and even given primary roles, and compassion is offered freely and support is given even at one’s own inconvenience. I know which story I choose to tell–you must answer for yourself which once you will share.