Beyond Christmas Card Theology
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” ––Luke 2:7 (ESV)
Just as it is pictured on many a Christmas card; Jesus lying in a barn with animals away from people, because Motel 6 didn’t leave the light on and the Holiday Inn had no vacancies. Isn’t this correct? Actually, no.
When the Greek language of Luke 2:7 and the historical and social context of the Luke’s birth narrative are examined more closely, quit a different picture emerges. For example, the Greek word often translated "inn" (κατάλυμα) actually refers to the upper living area of a house and should not be equated to a modern hotel. In fact, it is the very same word used in Mk 14:14 and Luke 22:11 in reference to the "upper room" where Jesus held his "last supper" with the disciples. When Luke does mention an "inn" in a parable in reference to the modern sense of a hotel (Luke 10:34), he uses a different term (πανδοχεῖον).
When the social and historical context is considered, a much different picture than the one portrayed on many modern Christmas cards develops. According to the cultural practices of hospitality as well as the honor and shame expectations of ancient Mediterranean culture, the far more likely scenario, and one in keeping with Luke’s word choice, would be that Joseph and Mary stayed in the home of relatives. That most ancient Mediterranean families lived in one-room houses that included a lower level for the animals as a part of that one-room living space along with a second guest room also should be noted. As a result, due to the unusually high number of family guests, Mary had to deliver Jesus in the main family room, where the animals were kept at night rather than the front guest room. In other words, the family guest room was full. Jesus was not born ostracized from humanity welcomed only by the donkeys and cows (of which neither is technically in the text either), but rather, and more inline with Luke’s larger narrative theology, right in the midst of downtrodden humanity. Jesus is never remote from the hustle and bustle of life but always in the thick of it.
In commenting on the reasons for the persistence of the wrong interpretation of Luke’s birth narrative in modern western culture, Dr. Ian Paul wrote: "In the first place, we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life. Where do you keep animals? Well, if you live in the West, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been. Secondly, it is easy to underestimate how powerful a hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture."
To Paul’s comments I would add that deconstructing Christmas card theology is an uphill battle largely due to the cultural climate of the modern evangelical church itself. As I have often said, "If I could only teach one subject in church, it would be hermeneutics" (i.e., interpretation). Because we are naturally prone to read the Bible through our own cultural and social lens, we tend to get much of the text incorrect. Unfortunately, I have found that church life, practice, and expectations are structured in such a way as to make historical and cultural explorations of the biblical text as a community difficult. These sort of historical, language, and cultural details just don’t fit nicely into “three easy steps to walking closer with Jesus” type sermons and studies. The Church as the people of God is called to move beyond Christmas card theology as she wrestles deeply with the profound historical narrative of God’s holy writ.
(Thanks to Dr. Ian Paul for his more detailed blog post on the subject, which can be found here: Ian Paul Blog Post)