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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Thursday, January 06, 2011

    Reconciling the Nativity Accounts

    A number of people have commented (both on this site and, in particular, at the end of my rejesus review) about the way that BBC1's recent The Nativity showed the magi arriving at the stable very shortly after the birth and the appearance of the shepherds. Whilst this is the most popular view (taking the nation as a whole) the majority of these comments considered this depiction to be incorrect. So seeing as today is the day traditionally associated with the arrival of the magi, I thought it would be a good time to tackle this particular question.

    To start with I want to define three possible interpretations, and, despite what some might say, they are definitely interpretations.

    What I'll call the popular view is the one that the average person on the street might describe, particularly (though certainly not exclusively) if they were not given the time to look at the texts or think it through. Essentially this pictures the shepherds and the magi arriving in the stable in the same evening - the night Jesus was born.

    The traditional church view (which is something of a simplification) is that the shepherds arrived on Christmas evening, but that the magi didn't make it until Epiphany twelve days later.

    The modern church view (and again this is just a name, though I deliberately use "modern" rather than "contemporary") is that Luke's shepherds arrived at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth but then Mary and Joseph stayed on in Jerusalem for a while. Eventually, when the census had passed and the inns had cleared a bit, they moved into a house and were visited by the magi some time (perhaps up to two years) later.

    Those have objected to Jordan's portrayal of the popular view have, it seems, tended to come from either the traditional church view, but, in the main from the modern church view. Indeed this was a view I first heard when I was a child and it wasn't until 2001 when I heard any serious alternative interpretation.

    It does make good sense. Luke's shepherds clearly visit on the night of the birth ("this day" v11, "with haste" v16) and, to modern eyes at least, there does seem to have been a change of scene by the time the magi arrive. Whether this change occurs within 12 days, or 2 years is seemingly less critical so the two church views are actually fairly closely linked.

    The basis for the modern church interpretation rests on three critical points:

    1 - Matthew (in English translations) uses "house" whereas Luke (again, in English translations) says there was "no room in the inn" and that the baby was laid "in a manger".

    2 - Herod orders the deaths of not just the newborn babies, but also all infants two and under. This suggests either that there was some doubt in Herod's mind as to Jesus' precise age, or that the events were happening some time later (say one year) and Herod wanted to be certain that the child wouldn't escape simply because his soldiers couldn't tell the difference between a one year old and a two year old.

    3 - The use of "child" in Matt 2:10 opposed to Luke's "baby" (2:16).

    (There are potentially other supporting evidence such as the appearance of the star and travelling time, time consorting with Herod and so on, but these, even in the English translations, don't really present any difficulty to one side or give much support to the other).

    In my opinion none of these create too much a problem. I'll take them in reverse order.

    3 - Even in English the meaning of the word "baby" is a subset of the potential meanings for the word "child". Indeed Luke himself, in verse 17, switches to using "child" (paidiou).

    2 - It doesn't take much to see that the logic of this point suggests that a cautious/paranoid Herod might command death to the twos and under even if he knew that Jesus was much younger. How big a margin of error would a paranoid, violent king want to ensure the threat to his power was removed?

    1 - So this is really where the weight behind the interpretations lies, but, as is often the case, it comes down to our understanding of the culture and the Greek words used. And here we start to see both the popular view of the birth in the stable with everyone arriving together, and the two church views converge.

    The first point is that neither gospel writer mentions a stable. You can see that even in the English.

    Secondly the word translated "inn" (katalyma) covers a range of meanings. In the NT it occurs three times here and in Mark and Luke's accounts of the Last Supper (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11) all of which could be translated "inn", but in the latter two cases it's usually translated "guest room". Outside the New Testament it is more usual to find it translated "guest room", and conversely when Luke wants to talk about what we would call an inn, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he uses an other word entirely.

    Thirdly, these varying translations of the Greek are bolstered by what we know about houses in those days and in that place. Rather than our prim and proper houses with neat, tidy and clean living rooms, things in first century Palestine were rather different. The houses often used to have two areas, an area where the animals lived, and an area where the humans slept. The advantage of this was that not only did you give your animals somewhere safer and warmer to sleep, but they also gave a bit of heat to your house in the middle of the night.

    It's not hard to draw up a scenario, then, which joins all this together. Mary went with Joseph to his home town. As it was Joseph's ancestral home it's likely that they would be expecting to stay in their relatives house, as would generally be the case today. But when they arrive they find that the guest room is already taken (perhaps with other relatives harbouring the same idea) and so they bed down with the animals. This would be far more normal to them than it is to us today, after all they let their farm-type animals sleep in their houses. It's the modern equivalent of going to see some relatives and sleeping on the sofa bed in the lounge. In the middle of all this the baby came.

    Of course whilst that means that the BBC don't necessarily lose points for having everyone arrive together, you could argue that they lose them instead for resorting to having the birth in the stable as per tradition, particularly as their 2001 documentary Son of God made this precise point. I think that would be churlish though, apart from the fact that it would probably alienate much of the general public, the film gives a massive nod in this direction by having Joseph go first to his relatives only to be rejected because of his pregnant not-yet wife.

    So whilst I'm hoping that one day there will be a film which shows the scenario I've described above I don't think this was the project to do it, and the way that they did it broke new ground in a way that will make it easier for future versions of the nativity story to build upon.

    All this does of course raises the question of whether this was what actually happened, or merely what Matthew and/or Luke had in mind when they wrote/edited it, but that would be another long post in itself.

    Lastly, Sacrificium Laudis gives a more detailed and more informed perspective on what I've written above. Feel free to suggest any other relevant links in the comments.



    • At 3:01 pm, January 06, 2011, Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said…

      I published an article on katalyma in Luke 2.7 last summer in NTS. It substantiates that the term is a broad one, meaning "a place to stay." It also documents that your "modern church view" has been around for more than 400 years.

      A PDF of the article is available on-line here: The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7.

    • At 5:33 pm, January 06, 2011, Blogger Patrick said…

      Thanks for linking to that little post on my blog!

      BTW, I actually rehashed that post for Christmas of 2010: Sacrificium Laudis - A Sacrifice of Praise: The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 8: The Birth of the Messiah, Part 1: Katalyma, Pandocheia, House and Cave

    • At 5:57 pm, January 06, 2011, Blogger Patrick said…

      And while we're at it:

      The "traditional Church view" you describe is itself pretty ambiguous, as in early ages, the Nativity itself was also commemorated in January 6 (the Armenian Apostolic Church still commemorates Jesus' birth on this date), along with the visit of the Magi (which is what the West came to emphasize), the Baptism (which is what the East came to emphasize), and even the Wedding at Cana. All these commemoration explain why the feast is called "Epiphany" or "Theophany": because it was in these events that they believed that Jesus was 'manifested' to the world.

      And another thing: the Magi are often depicted as riding on camels nowadays, but Eastern icons actually show them on horseback!

    • At 4:44 am, January 08, 2011, Blogger Loosed Mind said…

      I haven't had a chance to catch this BBC flick but was intrigued if not utterly heartened by what I glean from your post. I have been working on a nativity scean (first of a couple I have been imagining for some time now) in which I seek to show the magi arriving some months later with Mary and Joseph out of the stable and staying on possibly in the "inn" or guest house we can imagine having been a part of the family holdings. In the mulling over these and other aspects of my non-manger scene I was struck at how widely accepted some of what you describe as the modern take seems to be. As examples you have Pope Benedict who ordered the nativity scene in St. Peter's square to be portrayed with the wisemen arriving to find Mary Joseph and the Baby in a two story home rather than a stable. Inside St. Peters itself there is a scene showing the part of the story as told by Luke with the manger and shepherds. Then I read that this Chruitmas the folk at the Museum of Creation Science (not my first pick for the educational school trip if you know what I mean) did to their credit present a Christmas scene as part of a recontructed home as might be found in Bethlehem or Nazareth. The scene is to show Mary and Joseph on the first floor where a manger would be found and some animals brought in to help warm the home in the chill of evening. They also had a third story rooftop room, clubhouse, guestroom, inn and explain that the family who had arrived first and taken up spots in this srea is likely what is being refered to when we read that there was no room in the inn. I was glad to be pushed since the vatican and an neotraditionalistic evangelical parachurch institution where not the ones I would have pegged to be embracing what could be seen as a revisionist look at Christmas. However having been corrected in my assumptions I am led to suspect that there is a wider willingness to clarify things as new insights and schoolarship comes to light.

      Feel free to see some of where I went with my nativity telling on my site, and thanks again for this post and others you have shared.

    • At 7:11 pm, January 09, 2011, Blogger Mark Goodacre said…

      Thanks for the most enjoyable post, Matt. I liked what Tony Jordan did with Bethlehem. At least there were relatives of Joseph living there, which we would expect giving Luke's description of Bethlehem as "his own city". I would have liked it even more, of course, if he had adopted Stephen Carlson's view in the article he mentions above.

      My own comments on the stable issue are found in my most recent NT Pod, "Was Jesus born in a stable?", http://podacre.blogspot.com/2010/12/nt-pod-46-was-jesus-born-in-stable.html

    • At 9:33 am, February 07, 2011, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Apologies for the incredibly slow reply everyone (though I don't imagine many of you will come back to read this).

      Many thanks for all your links, and the further insights from Patrick and Loosed Mind.

      Mark, as ever, your podcast was very much in mind as I wrote this (as well as episode 1 of "your" Son of God().

      Stephen, that was just the kind of thing I searched around a bit for, but didn't quite find in the brief time available before posting this. Thanks.



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