Re-thinking the Nativity scenes with Kenneth Bailey

Top-notch Biblical scholar + living in the Middle East for over 50 years + speaking Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Syriac + a love for contextual truth and relevance = Sheer genius (aka Kenneth Bailey).315tyVpzbkL._UX250_

So when Kenneth says something about the context of Jesus’ life and words – as he does a lot here – I listen, and you should too. (In fact the quality of your life would increase a hundredfold if you sat down and read everything Kenneth has written..trust me).

Turns out most of the ‘nativity story’ that we all know and celebrate comes from an odd third century AD book called the Protevangelium of James (the James of scripture has nothing to do with it of course). It is largely a fable/mythically constructed tale of Joseph and Mary (and other things), and it is from here that the details concerning arriving in Bethlehem the night of the birth, with Mary in stress and no-where to go, so Joseph leaves her in a cave and goes to look for space and when he returns, she has already given birth…etc.

Well, Kenneth Bailey does a good deal to help us out on understanding what the original ‘nativity’ would have really been like, and it turns out it is a lot different – and a lot more wonderful than we had previously imagined. I’ve condensed his explanation for your ‘on the go’ reading:

  1. First and foremost – keep in mind that in the Middle East (as in Africa), family lineage is of utmost importance – as is general hospitality to anyone, most certainly to a woman about to give birth. Are we to assume that Bethlehem was unlike every other town in the world – and could care less about a family from their town and a woman about to give birth? Of course not. Rejecting Joseph and Mary would bring unspeakable shame on the whole village.
  2. Secondly, we forget that Joseph was of ‘royal family’ – the house of David. This family was so famous in Bethlehem that local folk called it the “city of David” (even thought that is the title for Jerusalem). Again, to turn away a descendent of David would be the worst thing a household could do.
  3. Thus, Joseph only needed to say “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi” and he would have been welcomed into any home instantly!
  4. More than this, Mary had recently visited Zechariah and Elizabeth (“in the hill country of Judea”) which was near to Bethlehem. If Joseph had failed (somehow) to find shelter in Bethlehem he could have just gone over to Zechariah’s house.
  5. Lastly, Joseph certainly had time to make arrangements. Luke 2:4 – “while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered”. Whereas traditional re-tellings suggest they were in a hurry so they accepted a ‘barn’…
  1. But now for the big questions:
    1. Where did they stay?
      1. Most homes in Palestine (same as today in Africa and the Middle East) had only two rooms. One was exclusively for guests, and the other was the ‘family room’ where the whole family slept, ate, cooked and lived. This was most often connected to a slightly lowered part of the house where the animals were kept “inside” (due to theft and cold), and the animals could still eat from the “mangers” (in the family room) if needed during the night. (see photo below).Floorplan_House10142013
      2. What does Luke mean by “no room in the inn” in Luke 2:7
        1. The word for room here is topos (literally space), which does not refer to a ‘room’ but to ‘space’ (like, no space on my desk).
        2. Two words for ‘inn’ in Greek. One is pandocheion, used in Luke 10:25-37 when the Samaritan takes the hurt man to the ‘inn’. This is a commercial inn.
        3. The other word is katalyma, which means “a place to stay” or most often, a “guest room”. Luke uses this same word in Luke 22:10-12 when Jesus asks for the ‘guest room’ to eat the Passover in..
        4. A katalyma is thus a guest room attached to a private home.

Summary: Thus we can say that Joseph and Mary were absolutely accepted into the “family room” of a private home as there was no “space” for them in the “guest house”. So they stayed with the family in the “family room” and Mary gave birth there (which was traditional, with the men outside and the women – including midwife – inside helping). From there, the baby was then put to bed in the manger (which was in the family room with everyone else, and a common place to lay a baby).

  1. What about the shepherds?
    1. Shepherds were on the bottom of the social scale in their society (lowest level job).
    2. In many early texts, they were also considered “unclean” (most likely because of dealing with the animals but also because their animals ate private property grass often, thus the sheep engaged in theft – ha! foolish sheep).
    3. They were visited and were afraid – especially upon hearing that the Messiah was born – why should they (the lower class and unclean) go and visit the Messiah? Would they not be rejected on account of their status?
    4. But the angels pre-empted this and told them he was in a ‘manger’ and in ‘swaddling clothes’ (which is what ordinary peasants like themselves would have done and (probably) placed their babies at their homes…)
    5. The shepherds are then thrilled to hear that the Messiah is in a home like theirs!
    6. Then then arrived – and are accepted as guests (even unclean guests) and reported what had happened – and then “left Praising God for all they had heard and seen”. This obviously means they found the baby in good conditions in an ordinary home (not a stable or barn) or else they would have said, “this is crazy, come home with us and we’ll take care of you!”…

Well, with these few details back in order, if you are like me, you can see how it is enriches the story, rather than cheapens it. This is a genius story of both – usual circumstances and events coupled with the singular event of the Messiah’s coming which – from the very beginning – overturned cultural norms concerning who is “in and out”. With this, lets find even more reason to be people of the Messiah – recognizing the divine in all of the mundane events of life – and welcoming all people – clean and unclean alike into our lives. Who knows that you aren’t welcoming the Messiah into your home?

Published by Ryan Hayes

Ryan Hayes is a development practitioner, teacher and co-author of his first book of poems, Paralipomenon. Being born in Nairobi, Kenya and living most of his life in Africa, he has a wealth of experience and understanding into the cultural and linguistic factors of South-East Africa. Ryan is happily married to Justine with whom they have begotten three beautiful girls – Amelie, Lily and Rylee. He is a lifelong learner and devoted student of Jesus, mysticism, quantum physics and the human psyche.

2 thoughts on “Re-thinking the Nativity scenes with Kenneth Bailey

  1. Outstanding article and reflection and only shows once again how culture (though important) combined with tradition (which is many times good) can hide truth (which is always right)!

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