by Brent Niedergall | Youth Pastor, Catawba Springs Christian Church
Our minds are full of false memories.
For example, many of us remember the popular “Berenstein Bears” storybooks. Except not quite, because they are actually the Berenstain Bears. Another segment of the population confidently remembers the 1990s film Shazaam, where actor and comedian Sinbad starred as a genie. This should not be confused with a 2019 film superhero film called Shazam! that has nothing to do with Sinbad or genies. Others dogmatically insist the name of the Kit Kat candy bar used to be hyphenated (and to be perfectly honest, I thought it was, too).
These are benign, but they raise the question: What other false memories affect us?
Perhaps our understanding of the nativity story could be influenced similarly. In fact, we know it has been. People remember details that just aren’t there. Search in vain for Mary riding a donkey. Hunt for an innkeeper or stable and you’ll find neither. Not even your angel memories are sacred. We sing “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plain” year after year, but there’s no mention of the angels at Christ’s birth being sweetly singing.
So where do these false memories come from? Is there a parallel universe where Kit Kat is actually hyphenated and where Mary and Joseph were turned away by an inhospitable Bethlehem innkeeper? Doubtful. Is it possible the enduring memory of Mary on a donkey originated from an apocryphal infancy narrative? Maybe.
You can read the second-century Protoevaengelium of James and decide for yourself. But I think we can generally say that our erroneous importations stem from simple but misguided assumptions.
We assume Jesus was born in a stable because Mary laid him in a manger. And everyone knows mangers are in stables. We assume Mary rode a donkey because she was pregnant—and who would want their pregnant wife to have to walk the three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem? But, if we’re not careful, our sanctified inferences can lead us astray. As Kenneth Bailey asks in his valuable book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, “Is there a critical distinction to be made between the text and the traditional understanding of it?”1 In other words, where have we misunderstood Scripture?
In studying the Bible, a big part of our goal is to understand the text in its original historical and cultural context. This means we have the difficult responsibility of trying to read God’s Word with “Middle Eastern eyes” instead of our innate Western eyes. That’s a tall order for the majority, but Kenneth Bailey can help. He spent forty years living and teaching in the Middle East, which gives him the cultural and historical understanding we may find ourselves lacking. Just look at how a “de-westernization” of the events surrounding Christ’s birth can adjust what we have always assumed.
II. A textually faithful and culturally informed harmonization
Harmonizing the Christmas story data found in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 is notoriously tough. But when we scrape away our misconceptions—especially those and traditions lacking biblical support—it is possible to sketch a harmonization of the nativity narrative that actually works fairly well. Now, I make no claim that this is exactly how events transpired. The sheer amount of action I want to squeeze into such a short period of time will no doubt cause a few to spew out their hot chocolate in consternation. At the same time, this ordering of events is not necessarily impossible. In fact, it satisfies every requirement and resolves every possible conflict I can find in harmonizing the two accounts of Christ’s birth.
A. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for a while (prior to the birth of Jesus)
If you’ve ever enjoyed the thrill of rushing to the hospital with your wife in labor, maybe you’ve found a kindred spirit in Joseph. We typically picture the couple arriving in Bethlehem in just the nick of time before Mary delivers baby Jesus. But hold on, have we located our first false collective memory? Bailey helps here by pointing out, “In the text, the time spent in Bethlehem before the birth is not specified.”2 It doesn’t help that some Bible translations encourage this mental image of Mary and Joseph rushing into Bethlehem in search of somewhere to deliver their son. Our English translations can even empower our western eyes. The KJV in Luke 2:5 tells us Mary was “great with child.” But the adjective ἔγκυος (enkyosegkyos) that describes her only conveys the sense of “pregnant.” It provides no indication whatsoever that Mary was on the verge of delivery. Take this detail in stride with the following verse that says while they were in Bethlehem “the time came for her to give birth.” This being the case, doesn’t this make Joseph seem kind of like an incompetent husband who can’t even take care of his wife? Even if the local inn was full, were there no better options available? You would imagine so. What we see here is that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem before her delivery for a longer period than we typically allow. For just how long we can’t be sure, but a follow-up question emerges: If they were in Bethlehem already, what’s all this business about the inn?
B. There was no inn, and maybe you can move the magi closer to the manger
The “magi” or “wise men” have become a Bible knowledge class divider. This is a real test that separates the sheep from the muttonheads. Any sophisticated Bible reader will superciliously inform you that there were almost certainly not three wise men, and they were absolutely not present the night Jesus was born. (You could graciously point out to them that neither does the text state Jesus was born at night, only that the angels appeared to the shepherds that night.) Most are probably well aware of this false collective memory. Does this mean you should boycott the purchase of those unbiblical nativity sets and relish not having to pay those exorbitant camel rental fees for your church’s annual live nativity? Perhaps, but the wise men may have been closer to Bethlehem at Christ’s birth than we realize.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two good reasons we might be tempted to go with the typical later arrival of the wise men. First of all, Herod determined to kill babies two years and under based on when the wise men marked the appearance of the star. But that doesn’t really tell us anything about Jesus’ age. He could have been any age less than two. And second, the wise men find Jesus in a house. The line of thinking is that enough time had transpired for Joseph to secure more suitable lodging for his family than a stable. But, after some helpful de-westernizing, we can conclude that it’s possible, nay probable, that Mary and Joseph were still in the same building where Jesus was born. We’ve uncovered another collective false memory! Bailey comes to the rescue again to aid in interpreting Luke 2:7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Make a note in the margin of your Bible and tell all your friends, there was no inn. The word κατάλυμα (katalyma) is the same word translated “guest room” in Luke 22:11. It’s a “dwelling place” or a “place to stay.” The word for a “commercial inn” was a different word, a word Luke, in fact, uses in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).3 Taking all this into account, Mary and Joseph were probably in a family home (it was Joseph’s town after all according to Luke 2:3), but the guest room was occupied or of insufficient space to accommodate a birth, so Jesus was delivered in the central dwelling area of the home. This makes perfect sense when we throw in the manger because as Bailey relays, “Doesn’t everybody have a manger in the house?”4 Animals were often brought inside and mangers were built or cut into the floor. So when the wise men found Jesus in a home, he had probably been there since his birth. And just to answer a potential objection: yes, when the wise men arrive, Jesus is described as a παιδίον (paidion). This word is commonly translated as “child,” but it can mean “infant,” too. So the wise men could have arrived to find the newborn Jesus. They probably didn’t show up the same day Jesus was born; they are conspicuously absent when Luke describes the shepherds’ arrival, but the wise men could have shown up on the doorstep as early as the next day. How does this de-westernization affect our traditional understanding of the Christmas story as a whole?
C. A whirlwind of activity: flight to Egypt, Nazareth, and the temple
This last section will probably be tougher for some to swallow than a dry sugar cookie, but I can’t find anything to rule out this proposed harmonization. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the wise men appeared sometime between Jesus’ birth and circumcision. In fact, let’s say they were present on the day of his circumcision. All we know for sure is the family’s nighttime departure to Egypt followed quickly on the heels of the wise men’s departure (Matt 2:13–14). Joseph could have had his dream the same day the wise men left, but now the clock is really ticking. Joseph and his family have only 32 days to flee to Egypt, catch wind of Herod’s death, travel to Nazareth, and then show up in Jerusalem to keep the law (Luke 2:22–23; cf. Lev 12:1–8). We cannot say with certainty where in Egypt Joseph took his family. The closest option may have been a place called Pelusium, the easternmost major city of Lower Egypt.5 Such a trek would require perhaps a 10-day journey. But don’t forget, they had gold, frankincense, and myrrh to cover expenses. They could have taken 10–12 days to reach Egypt, stayed there a good week, and then made their return journey after hearing news of Herod’s death. Of course, they were rerouted to Nazareth, which would have added several more days, but that’s still sufficient time for them to do all that and make it to the temple on day 40.
Why try to squeeze so much activity into such a short span of time? Don’t poor Mary and Joseph already have enough on their plates without us trying to make them do more stuff in less time? What I like about this slightly unconventional proposal is that it offers a solution to handling the “harmonization monkey wrench” of Luke 2:39: “And when they had completed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” How does this verse fit in with our known parameters? We know from Matthew 2:8 the wise men found the family in Bethlehem. We also know that to keep the law they must have been in Jerusalem 40 days after the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:22). And according to Luke 2:39, they returned to Nazareth from Jerusalem. That fits with what I’m cautiously suggesting here as a plausible hypothesis, and “de-westernizing” our reading of the Christmas story shows us that it’s possible. How else have we westernized our reading of Scripture?
Brent Niedergall is the Youth Pastor of Catawba Springs Christian Church, and blogs regularly at https://niedergall.com/.
The Lexham Geographic Commentary (2019 Christianity Today Book Award Winner for Biblical Studies) is a superb resource for your research and preaching in the New Year.
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- Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 25.
- Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 26.
- For a fuller explanation of this explanation see Paul H. Wright, “The Birthplace of Jesus and the Journey of His First Visitors,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, ed. Barry J. Beitzel (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2017), 3.
- Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 31.
- The Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels also notes Pelusium as a possible destination but suggests this journey of 200 miles could have taken up to 30 days one way. Benjamin A. Foreman, “Matthew’s Birth Narrative,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, ed. Barry J. Beitzel (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2017), 27.