In a Stable, ‘Tis a Fable

From Psephizo (hat tip: Cory Schantz):

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Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable

December 3, 2018 by Ian Paul

I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up—though perhaps it is better to do this now than the week before Christmas, when everything has been carefully prepared. But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.

So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture.

The elaboration has come about from reading the story through a ‘messianic’ understanding of Is 1.3:

The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept? (Answer: not necessarily!)

The second issue, and perhaps the heart of the matter, is the meaning of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2.7. Older versions translate this as ‘inn’:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (AV).

There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (eg in Ex 4.24 and 1 Samuel 9.22). And the etymology of the word is quite general. It comes from kataluo meaning to unloose or untie, that is, to unsaddle one’s horses and untie one’s pack. But some fairly decisive evidence in the opposite direction comes from its use elsewhere. It is the term for the private ‘upper’ room where Jesus and the disciples eat the ‘last supper’ (Mark 14.14 and Luke 22.11; Matthew does not mention the room). This is clearly a reception room in a private home. And when Luke does mention an ‘inn’, in the parable of the man who fell among thieves (Luke 10.34), he uses the more general term pandocheion, meaning a place in which all (travellers) are received, a caravanserai.

The difference is made clear in this pair of definitions:

Kataluma (Gr.) – “the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village […] where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected” (ISBE 2004). A private lodging which is distinct from that in a public inn, i.e. caravanserai, or khan.

Pandocheionpandokeionpandokian (Gr.) – (i) In 5th C. BC Greece an inn used for the shelter of strangers (pandokian=’all receiving’). The pandokeion had a common refectory and dormitory, with no separate rooms allotted to individual travelers (Firebaugh 1928).

The third issue relates to our understanding of (you guessed it) the historical and social context of the story. In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives. Kenneth Bailey, who is renowned for his studies of first-century Palestinian culture, comments:

Even if he has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?” If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honor-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.

Moreover, the actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story. As Bailey explores in his Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, in the living area, where the animals would feed.

This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels. In Matt 5.15, Jesus comments:

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

This makes no sense unless everyone lives in the one room! And in Luke’s account of Jesus healing a woman on the sabbath (Luke 13.10–17), Jesus comments:

Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the manger [same word as Luke 2.7] and lead it out to give it water?

Interestingly, none of Jesus’ critics respond, ‘No I don’t touch animals on the Sabbath’ because they all would have had to lead their animals from the house. In fact, one late manuscript variant reads ‘lead it out from the house and give it water.’

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More at the link.

A Post

Apologies for my blogging silence of late. A cartoon shared by Kennesaw State’s David Parker sums it up well:

Although, I am pleased that I got to have dinner tonight with Dan Audia ’08, who has recently been promoted to Assistant Director of MBA Programs at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. Dan says that he:

currently manages enrollment for the KSU MBA and WebMBA programs, specifically the areas of admissions and academic advisement. Our team provides top-notch customer service from prospective student inquiry to current student graduation. Our efforts for recruitment, retention,and progression to graduation are aimed at maintaining the high quality of the programs as demonstrated by several national rankings.

Dan told me about an interesting blog entitled Faith and History: Thinking Christianly about the American Past, run by Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor of history at Wheaton College in Illinois. He hasn’t updated it in a while, but I quite enjoyed perusing his back catalogue, including this post:

The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

More at the link.

Jim Jones and Harvey Milk

In City Journal, a review of an interesting new book: Daniel J. Flynn’s Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. Excerpt:

Having moved his flock to northern California in the 1960s, [Jim] Jones began leveraging their labor toward political ends, volunteering them for protests or electioneering on behalf of friendly aspirants to public office. Gaining the respect of San Francisco’s political class, Jones became a player in his own right. Many gave him credit for Moscone’s tight victory in the 1975 mayoral runoff, and he was appointed head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Praised as a hero of social justice and a crusader for racial equality, Jones became an important figure in Democratic politics.

Among his advocates was Harvey Milk, also a newcomer to San Francisco. Milk, formerly a Goldwater Republican, became politically radical in California and repeatedly sought election to office as an outsider to the political machine. Milk attended services at Peoples Temple dozens of times, and wrote effusive letters to Jones. “Such greatness I have found in Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple,” Milk proclaimed.

Milk wasn’t Jones’s only fan. Many powerful people—Governor Jerry Brown, columnist Herb Caen, and Vice President Walter Mondale, to name a few—sought Jones’s blessings and expressed admiration for his dedication to racial equality and a better world. Flynn does a good job of laying out the social and political landscape of the Bay Area in the late seventies and situating the bizarre respect that the Jones cult received within the general fruitiness of the era. Jim Jones’s Bay Area was the same milieu that gave rise to the Zodiac killer, the lost-in-time Zebra murders, and the depredations of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In that context, a wacky preacher who healed the sick and ran drug-treatment centers while promising a racially unified heaven on earth seemed like a salutary influence by comparison.

Read the whole thing, or buy the book.

November 5

On November 5, 1605, the House of Lords was supposed to have been blown up by a group of Roman Catholic conspirators who were disappointed that the newly-crowned King James had not relaxed the anti-Catholic policies of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth. Had the plot succeeded, James would have been killed at the State Opening of Parliament, along with a good many other English grandees. But the plot was exposed, and the principal conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, who was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in the House of Lords, were all arrested, convicted, and executed.

“A late 17th or early 18th-century report of the plot.” Wikipedia.

Since that time, the Fifth of November has been celebrated as a triumph of British Protestantism against the wicked forces of papistry. To this day, it serves an excuse to throw a stuffed “Guy” (or even a pope) onto a bonfire, or at least set off fireworks (I lived in London once, and can attest to this). I assume that the anti-Catholicism of the celebration has been downplayed in recent years, and that the fifth of November is simply the British equivalent of Hallowe’en – an occasion of autumn revelry.

“A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and Tresham.” Wikipedia.

I have always been curious why the Fifth of November fell out of favor in the American colonies. Why don’t we celebrate it here anymore? Why did the Irish custom of Hallowe’en take off in from the nineteenth century? Apparently George Washington found it embarrassing. As he wrote in 1775:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

Alas, such consideration was not enough to win the French colonists to the cause of Revolution (thus does Canada exist today!), but apparently it had a permanent effect.

But as I wrote before, the casting of Guy Fawkes as a sort of anarchist freedom fighter has been one of the more remarkable transformations I’ve ever witnessed.

Sacraments

I thought of something today while lecturing. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the church tended to downplay the importance of relics, and to play up the importance of the sacraments. I suppose the obvious fraud involved in the relic trade might have been embarrassing, but the main reason for the shift is because sacraments were performative, and required a priest to deliver them. Thus, they were easier to control than relics. You could cut someone off from the sacraments in a way that you could not prevent him from acquiring relics, or gifting (or selling) them to someone else.

It reminded me of the current movement to digitize everything and to deliver it wirelessly. If I buy a codex, the publisher and the author get their cut. But the book, as an object, is mine forever – or until I sell it on to someone else, at which point originators don’t get a cut at all. CDs and DVDs are dead media – songs and movies now exist mostly in cyberspace, and you have to pay to download them – and you can’t sell them on, and they can disappear from your “library” if you’ve watched or listened to them too many times, or you somehow violate the terms of service. My hunch is that the secondary market for content has always been highly annoying to its creators, and they will do anything they can to delegitimize it. Having everything electronic, and under their control, must be a godsend to them.

Mass was probably the most important sacrament, since it represented spiritual sustenance. The medieval Catholic understanding of this was that “this is my body” meant exactly that: that when a priest uttered these words in a liturgical context, the bread transubstantiated into the actual flesh of Jesus, and the wine into his actual blood. Even though these elements retained the forms of bread and wine, their essences had been fundamentally altered, and to consume them meant that you were physically united with your lord and savior. It also meant that wine was optional: if you were to tear off a hunk of your flesh, it would have some blood in it. Thus does the consecrated bread “count” in a way that the wine doesn’t (although I’m sure there was also a practical, cost-saving impulse behind this custom).

Since consuming bread and wine “in memory of me” had been instituted by Jesus himself, Protestants are not free to disregard it, as they did monasticism and extreme unction. However, what it actually meant was a topic of great debate during the Reformation. Generally, the more Protestant you were, the less frequently you took it, and the less miraculous it was. This has led to a great variety of Christian customs, which I have jotted down. When you go to consume bread and wine as part of a church service:

What will you call it (Mass, Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper, etc.)?
What is the nature of the bread and the wine once consecrated?
Will your altar be made of stone or wood? Will you even have one?
Will you take it standing, kneeling, or sitting?
Will you take it at the altar, or in your pew?
How often will it be served (weekly, biweekly, quarterly, etc.)?
Will you take bread alone, or both bread and wine?
How old will you need to be before you can take it, and will you have to pass through some other rite (e.g. confirmation) before you can?
Will your bread be leavened or unleavened?
Will wine be served, or grape juice?
Will the wine/grape juice be served in a chalice, or in little cups? Will you allow these things?
If you serve wine in a chalice, will you allow intinction (dipping the bread in the wine)?
Is it an expression of sectarianism, i.e. do you have to be a formal member of the denomination in question, before you can take it?

Some of these are arbitrary, but others are of great significance indeed.

Mormons

I just discovered an insightful TNR review essay by Jackson Lears, a relic of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012. A choice quotation:

In many ways the history of the Mormons follows the classic pattern described by Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and other sociologists of Christianity: the routinization of charisma, the transformation of an ecstatic sect into an institutional church, and of the Mormon Ethic into the Spirit of Capitalism. But such an account neglects the persistence of Mormon beliefs, which mix familiarity with strangeness. The familiar parts evoke central themes in popular American evangelicalism—the faith in bodily resurrection and the reunification of families in heaven; the waning but still powerful sense of millennial expectancy, which encourages the stockpiling of goods for Armageddon; the conviction that America has a divinely ordained part to play in the sacred drama of world history, with Mormons themselves cast in the leading roles. Even Smith’s beliefs that Mormons were a covenanted people like the ancient Israelites, that America was the new Holy Land, that when Christ returned he would show up in Jackson County, Missouri—all of this was a more specific and literalist version of themes evoked by Puritans from John Winthrop to Jonathan Edwards.

Read the whole thing.

William Blake

From Colby Cosh in the National Post:

How two amateurs recovered the long-lost resting place of William Blake

If you look at any recent biography of the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827), you will learn that his mortal remains lie in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields, London, but that their exact location is unknown. Bunhill Fields, in the borough of Islington, is a remarkable piece of London history. “Bunhill” was originally “bone hill,” and that is just what it is — a very ancient burial-place, already built up slightly with the volume of human remains by the time of recorded history. A property owner made the site available for nondenominational interments and pauper burials in the 17th century; since most cemeteries observed religious exclusions, this made it a popular place of repose for the “nonconformist” dead of London.

Read the whole thing.

Medievalism

An interesting discovery by Tim Furnish in a local Starbucks:

The website of Young Templar Ministries gives no indication where it is physically headquartered save for the Atlanta “770” area code in the founder’s phone number, and that they’ll be having a rally at 6835 Victory Lane in Woodstock, Ga. They don’t claim to be associated with any Christian denomination, but their beliefs section (“The Holy Bible is the inspired Word of God… Jesus was the final and complete sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Salvation is Given, not earned. It is freely given through Grace because of faith in Jesus Christ,” etc.) suggests fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

This seems a little odd. Why should a medieval crusading order serve as inspiration for a twenty-first century American youth movement? Christian warfare (the website references “Young Soldiers” and “God’s Army”), even of the metaphorical kind, is not exactly hip these days. The Templars, especially, are supposed to be inspirational to the alt-right and thus even more dodgy. And let’s not forget how they ended, and consequently how inspirational they were to esoteric and/or dissident groups.

Or is that the point – that anyone persecuted by the medieval church can’t be all bad? Or (more ominously) is Christian warfare really coming back into fashion?

Catholics and Evangelicals

My friend Andrew Reeves makes his popular-press debut:

In 1960, Billy Graham visited Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and rose again. As far back as the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians had held that a hill where the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who ruled from 117–138) had constructed a temple to Venus was the site of Christ’s crucifixion and death, and a nearby tomb, the site of his burial and resurrection. Shortly after Constantine legalized Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was erected on that site. Although this church would endure several periods of damage and reconstruction, for the entirety of its history Christians throughout the world have regarded it as the site of Christ’s tomb.

Billy Graham did not visit the Holy Sepulcher. In the 19th century, the celebrated British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon carried out his own investigation of the areas in the environs of Jerusalem, believing that the Holy Sepulcher’s claim to be the site of the Easter event was incorrect. Through his investigation, he found what he believed was a hill that seemed closer to the New Testament’s description of Calvary and an adjacent tomb. This hill and tomb, generally known as Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, have served as a site of pilgrimage for evangelicals who wish to avoid the Holy Sepulcher’s associations with Catholic Christianity. When the Reverend Billy Graham, the most prominent Baptist in recent history — and indeed the face of American evangelical Christianity through the 20th century — made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he went not to the Holy Sepulcher, but to Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb.

Read the whole thing (at Arc).