Matthew informs his readers that the wise men entered the house where they saw Mary and the child (Mt 2:1-12). The story in Matthew confirms the suggestion that Luke’s account describes a birth in a private home.
With this understanding in mind, all the cultural problems I have noted are solved. Joseph was not obliged to seek a commercial inn. He does not appear as an inept and inadequate husband who cannot arrange for Mary’s needs. Likewise, Joseph did not anger his wife’s relatives by failing to turn to them in a crisis. The child was born in the normal surroundings of a peasant home sometime after they arrived in Bethlehem, and there was no heartless innkeeper with whom to deal. A member of the House of David was not humiliated by rejection as he returned to the village of his family’s origins. The people of Bethlehem offered the best they had and preserved their honor as a community. The shepherds were not hardhearted oafs without the presence of mind to help a needy family of strangers.
Our Christmas crèche sets remain as they are because “ox and ass before him bow, / for he is in the manger now.” But that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Looking at the story in this light strips away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around it. Jesus was born in a simple two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years. Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them, the story is enriched, not cheapened.
Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (London: SPCK, 2008), p. 36.
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