Away in a manger…
How’s your Christmas Eve going? I’ve finished the last bits of Christmas shopping and have a little time before my set of seasonal nightshifts in A&E so I thought I’d share some Christmas knowledge, gleaned from Kenneth Bailey’s fantastic book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”. It was also inspired by watching the first episode of the BBCs “The Nativity”, which I very much enjoyed.
This will be most people’s idea of the nativity. Joseph. Mary. The baby Jesus. A donkey (presumably the little one that carried Mary on the dusty road). Some sheep, maybe an ox. Probably not any pigs, given the Jewishness and everything. Perhaps an angel, a few shepherds and specificially three wise men. All taking shelter in a ramshackle wooden shed, because “there was no room at the inn.”
It all looks lovely on the front of a Christmas card, but what actually was this shed in the middle of nowhere? And were the people of Bethlehem really so cruel as to refuse even floorspace to a woman in the throes of labour? Dr. Bailey enlightens us in his first chapter. “Simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests… The main room was a “family room”, where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door was either a few feet lower… or blocked off with heavy timbers. Ever night, into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven.”
It wasn’t that Mary, Joseph and The Bump were banished to an outhouse with the animals; on the contrary, the animals were already in the house of the family with which they stayed! This was common practice, for reasons of warmth and safety.
The “inn” of which the story speaks was not some B&B with no vacancies either. Luke uses the word “katalyma“, meaning “a place to stay”. This refers to the guest room or “prophet’s chamber” attached to the house either at the end furthest from the animals, or on the roof. This is the area in which there was no room for them (the term used refers to space in your garage, rather than “a room” at a hotel), the same type of room Jesus would famously eat with his disciples towards the end of the gospel. But it was all part of the same house.
And the manger? Well, small mangers were provided for the smaller beasts at the animal end of the room, but more likely is that Jesus was laid in one of the eating troughs sunk into the floor in the family room, which would normally be for the cattle to feed from as they poked their head over the timbers into the family area of the single room.
Why does any of this matter anyway? Whilst these corrections make no theological difference as to who Jesus was and why he came, I think it’s not only fascinating but helps us to build a picture of the historical Jesus. If we happily let our minds settle on chocolate box images, we run the risk of relating to Jesus’ birth as a mawkish cartoon fairytale, robbing it of it’s power – a real life event that changed history.
Still no pigs though, sorry.