Most people realise that there are a number of problems with the traditional interpretation of the Christmas story. For example, Mary and Joseph were almost certainly not condemned to sleep in a cattle shed by a heartless innkeeper. Joseph’s family were from Bethlehem, he had relatives there who would certainly have put him up. However, because there was no space in the guest room (translated as “inn”, in many English translations), Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the downstairs space that some of the family shared with the animals. A strange setting to us, maybe, but not at all unusual in the context.
If you’d like to know more about this you could read Kenneth Bailey’s books on the subject (linked to below), or you could watch these four excellent half hour talks.
However, I’d like to pick up on another aspect of the story; the idea of Mary, a poor teenage-girl, giving birth to her first child alone in a town far from friends and family. There is a problem with this image. In a communal culture, like first century Palestine, no one would have left a girl on her own in this situation. The local women would have rallied round to support her and there would be experienced midwives there to advise Mary and to help out when help was needed. It wasn’t a modern-day hospital, with formally trained staff, but these women would have seen lots of babies born and they knew what to do. Meanwhile, Joseph as a mere, useless male, would have been dispatched somewhere out of the way, probably to share some wine with the local men who would tell stories about the birth of their children.
How do I know this happened? Well, the details might be wrong, but this is how people act in community based societies. They rally round to help and no one is left on their own when they need support – even if they are foreigners. In fact, you can’t always get solitude even when you want it. The women of Bethlehem would never have left a woman to give birth on her own; much less a young woman having her first child.
We read the story of the Nativity from the point of view of our individualistic society and we read into it on the basis of our own experience. The problem is that the Bible was written a long time ago in a country far, far away. We need to read and understand the Bible in its own context before applying it to ours.
This goes much further than just rethinking the Christmas story. It applies to how we should read the whole of the Bible. Let me give you an example; the famous passage in Ephesians 6 where Paul tells us to put on the whole armour of God, is written in the plural. He is telling us to prepare ourselves like a squad of soldiers, a legion, to face the challenges of the world. We tend to read this as an individual command, for each of us to be prepared, on our own, to face down the forces of hell. Roman armies were incredibly powerful because they fought as groups, supporting and protecting each other as they advanced. An individual soldier who broke ranks and fought on his own would be in all sorts of trouble; but together, they could beat much larger armies. When we read this passage in its original context, it challenges the values of our individualistic society and gives a very different picture of the church.
Reading the Bible in its own cultural context is for life, not just for Christmas.
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