Sunday, December 09, 2007

No Inn in the Room-- a Christmas Sermon on Lk. 2.1-7

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that census should be taken of the entire Roman world (This was the census that was taken before Quirinius was governor of Syria). And all went to their own towns to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, because he belonged to the line of David. He went there to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the guest room.

A very long time ago I made my first trip to Rome. They say all roads lead there. Among other things I went to see the great art in the Vatican, particularly the Sistine Chapel--- Michelangelo’s masterpiece. It was certainly impressive but the colors of the paintings were subdued even sepia tones in places in the Last Judgment, and some of the prophets on the ceiling. Imagine my surprise when six years ago I went back, having heard reports of the massive cleaning job they had carefully done over many months in the Sistine Chapel, only to discover that now the Sistine Chapel was a riot of color—as if someone had used the whole Crayola Crayon box and colored over the old paintings.

Only as it turns out, Michelangelo had intended the paintings to have these bright vivid colors all along, even though it was a shock to the system and the art critics freaked out when this was first made known after the chapel reopened. The sense of shock, or even outrage was palpable and the ever rabid Italian press endlessly debated the merits of the new Sistine Chapel vs. the Old with great heat and passion. This is what happens when you tamper with a masterpiece.

At the risk of producing a similar response, I am here this morning to tamper with a masterpiece, or better said, to share with you a rather different reading of Lk. 2.1-7, one solidly grounded in the facts, but nowhere represented in the Christmas carols and pageants. I must tell you that I have heard endless sermons on how there was ‘no room in the end’ and wasn’t it typical of a cold fallen world to cast the holy family and Jesus out into the cold, and so on, often preached with great fervor, but producing no ferment at all. We’ve heard it countless times before. We've all been innoculated with a slight case of Christmas, preventing us from getting the real thing, or in this case from reading these texts in a more historical way. The problem with the Christmas pageant version is, this is not at all likely to be what Luke intends to tell us in this much beloved and belabored Christmas tale.

Let’s start with the first oddity of this tale. Jesus was born while Herod the Great was king of the Holy Land. That is to say, Jesus was born before 1-2 B.C. when Herod died in Judea. That is, Jesus was born B.C.—before Christ. How did this anomaly happen? Well its all the fault of Denny the Dwarf a.ka. Dionysius the medieval monk who was vertically challenged and while drawing up our modern calendar miscalculated the date of Jesus’ birth. As Maxwell Smart used to say—‘He missed it by that much’, which is to say about 3-4 years.

Then there is the second anomaly. Notice that Mary and Joseph are not married, they are only engaged. Why in the world would they both travel all the way to Bethlehem to register for the census when Mary was very pregnant indeed? It seems illogical at first, until we reflect again on that bit about her being very pregnant out of wedlock. The tongues were likely wagging back in Nazareth, a small town where one could not hide something like this. Mk.6 suggests that in fact the hometown thought Jesus was--- well... how shall we put it delicately? I once had a bright little six year old girl in a British Sunday school class come up to me during the Christmas season and ask—“If God is Jesus’ Father, and Mary is Jesus’ mother, are God and Mary married? If not, is Jesus illegitimate?” Out of the mouths of babes….

Yes, in Jesus’ culture getting pregnant and having a baby out of wedlock, was consider a major scandal—a huge deal, a big shame and black mark on the family’s name. Our culture does not react this way to such things most of the time, but just the other day I heard the story of a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia who was riding in a car with her boyfriend, and was dragged out of the car and raped by two men. The men did get sent to jail, but the girl herself was to be beaten for having sex outside marriage—even though she was raped! Middle Eastern Law today in that honor and shame culture is not all that different than the practice in the society where Mary grew up. When a betrothed woman got pregnant before marriage and not by her fiance, it was usually deemed to be her fault. One can understand then why even though Mary was very pregnant, Joseph and Mary got out of town to have that baby.

But there is a further factor in the story seldom noticed. Joseph and Mary are registering for a census in Bethlehem, but if we ask what the function of such a census was, it was to count heads so that they could be taxed. Every able-bodied male and female between 13 and 62 had to be registered so they could be taxed. It was a head tax, and they were expected to pay a silver denarius each—yes ‘the render unto Caesar coin” which Jesus was later to say Jews should ‘return to sender’. These coins had the image of Augustus Caesar on them in those days, a ruler soon to be dubbed a deity. But the real deity was Jesus himself the spitting image of his heavenly Father, unlike the poor likeness of the Emperor on those tribute money coins.

In other words, this was all about going to see the I.R.S. boys in Bethlehem. Mary likely was just old enough to be registered, as Jewish girls usually got engaged between 12-14, immediately upon their getting their menstrual cycles. Remember as well that Joseph required some coaxing from an angel before he agreed to go ahead with this marriage, once he discovered Mary had a bun in the oven, and it wasn’t his. Joseph must have truly wondered what he was getting himself into with Mary.

Now I have to tell you, this story is too improbably NOT TO BE TRUE. I mean, no one would make up a story like this which suggested to the skeptical in the home town and to latter day skeptics ever since that Jesus the Son of God was illegitimate. The story of the virginal conception must surely be true, for an evangelistic religion in that honor and shame culture would never make up a story like this about the birth of their Savior if they wanted to convince a patriarchal world of its truth. It’s too improbable not to be true!

But there is one more surprise at the end of the tale. When it came time for Mary to deliver the baby, the Greek of Luke’s text says--- “she wrapped him in cloth and laid him in a corn crib, as there was no room in the guest room”. Yes, you heard me right. Luke does not say there was no room in the inn. Luke has a different Greek word for inn (pandeion) which he trots out in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The word he uses here (kataluma) is the very word he uses to describe the room in which Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples—the guest room of a house.

Archeology of the area shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves as the back of the house where they would keep their prized ox, or beast of burden, lest it be stolen. The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the relatives did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house. Bethlehem was indeed a one stoplight town off the beaten track, and we have not a shred of archaeological evidence there ever was a wayfarer's inn in that little village in Jesus' day.

In other words, all this silliness about ‘no room at the Holiday Inn’ for the Holy family, is not at all what Luke is talking about. This is not a story about ‘no room in the inn’ or about the world’s giving Jesus the cold shoulder. It's a story about no inn in the room! It’s a story about a family making do when more relatives than expected suddenly show up on the doorstep. It’s a story most of us can relate to in one way or another. Jesus was born in his relative’s home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell in that room, and probably the shock of the Magi when they saw where the King was born.

But this story is not meant to meet our expectations or desires about what a Christmas story must be like. Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or desires—he came to meet our needs. George MacDonald puts it this way—‘We were all looking for a king to slay our foes and lift us high, but thou camst a little baby thing, that made a mother cry.” Jesus came as he did to make clear that no one and no place however humble was beneath his dignity, and every age and stage of life he would hallow, and save and sanctify.

John Donne, the great English cleric summed it up well when he said--- “Twas much that we were made like God, long before, but that God should be made like us—much more.” And the Word, took on flesh and dwelt for a while in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God. It was a strange glory, a glory in humility, a glory without royal robes, a glory without a proper bed.

The question for us this day is—do we still have the capacity to be surprised, enthralled, by this remarkable Christmas story? Do we still have the capacity to see all things new, once more? Can we approach the story like a child—eyes wide open, mouth agape? Can we make him room in our homes, even if the calendar is full, and the head count high on the homefront. I certainly hope so. Jesus traveled a long way to dwell with you Immanuel, especially at this season. Will you not kindly make him room in your abode, however humble?

The old medieval Christmas poem said 'though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he's not born in you, your heart is still forlorn.' Let me just tell you however, if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course.



Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for sharing this post with us. I have actually heard it taught this way by Kenneth Bailey (author of 'Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes') in one of his DVD lectures. It astounds me to know how many people actually look over this. Due to modern, and even ancient exegetical practices, picking up on the words used for "inn" and "guest-room" should have been a no-brainer. Even BDAG defines "kataluma" as guest-room.

However, how, if in any way, do you think this changes the story theologically? Bailey suggested it came to confirm how Jesus came for the lay people and as a lay person as opposed to a king. However, couldn't the other story about no room for Jesus at the inn imply the same message? What theological differences do you think there are in the 2 different views of the story?


Ben Witherington said...

No good theology can be built on bad history, especially since ours is a historical religion, so the history is important in and of itself. Having said that, theologically this re-reading of the story makes clear that Luke is not interested here in suggesting that the world turned a cold shoulder to Jesus, even in his hometown. Indeed, Luke is going to go on and show how the least,last, and lost, and also the first, the most and the found are all interested in Jesus in one way or another, and more to the point, Jesus cares about them-- all of them. I quite disagree with Bailey on the issue of Luke not wanting to portray Jesus as a king here. To the contrary, he is portraying him as a king shepherds would recognize-- remember David and his previous profession. I like some of the things Ken Bailey says, but a good deal of it is incorrect as well. It cannot be used uncritically. One of the real problems with his work is that while there are many parallels between the modern Middle Eastern culture and the ANE, there are also many differences. What Bailey does is read the Bible through the lens of modern Middle Eastern folk culture-- this leads to some good insights, but also some mistakes.



Unknown said...

i have a question about this "guest room" thing as well. do you really think that mary and joseph were staying with family or maybe just some randoms that had some room to rent? i know i am looking at this from a modern standpoint but what family (no matter how distant or what century) in their right mind would stick the ready-to-pop pregnant woman out with the animals. seems a bit strange to me.

wnpaul said...

Thank you, Dr. Witherington, for this very thought-provoking servmon.

May I translate it and post it on my site "Evangelical Churches in Austria"?

If so, could you give me a specific reference for the George McDonald quote so I can find an official German translation?

Thank you!

Wolf Paul

Ben Witherington said...

Two things: 1) the family would have had to move the beast of burden out of the room where the holy family stayed. Don't picture them in their with animals-- the animals would have been left outside for the time being; 2) it is not at all likely in that sort of extended family culture that they would have stayed with anyone but relatives of some sort.

Wolf you are welcome to copy and post this. You will need to Google the quote from MacDonald, I don't remember where it came from since I read basically everything he wrote.

Falantedios said...

Also, I would suggest that since the shepherds were keeping their flocks out on the pasture at night during this season, it is quite possible that the 'barn' room was not being used and might have been as clean as could be expected.

Also, since Bethlehem was going to be tremendously crowded during census time, I doubt that ANYONE was keeping their livestock at home during this period.


Michael Gilley said...

Hey Ben:

This was one of the most interesting topics we went through in my Life and Teachings of Christ class. Not but a few weeks ago I found a Spanish picture Bible that went through the narrative and it showed several inn-keepers turning the poor Joseph and Mary away until one pointed to his stable out back where they could push all the animals aside. Joseph was even feeding them. It also showed Jesus playing with a Kitty just before the "3" Magi came. It was good for laughs and the caricaturistic nature of the drawings didn't help much.

Anyway, I remember from class talking about the guest room. We had concluded that Joseph and Mary probably wouldn't have stayed with relatives (not exactly their decision) because of the shame surrounding her illegitimate pregnancy. This was helped along by the fact that there were often public rooms located in towns for travelers and the like, that is to say, visitors with little to no honor. Those with an honorable stance could easily enough find a place to stay. They would often go to the "town square", which was really the town well, and people would invite them in to their homes based on the honor and shame system. The fact that Mary and Joseph didn't have the honor to stay in a home and they couldn't even stay in the guest room because there was no room for them (possibly because of the census) they had to stay out back, in the small room for the visitor's animals. This just evermore adds to the dark and mysterious account of the birth narrative given by Luke.

Have you run across this (as I'm sure you have) and, if so, why do you go with relatives? Thank you!

PS. The sermon seemed (forgive me if I am wrong) to be written for people in the pews. I believe this is highly admirable that you wouldn't talk over their heads as some try to do. The sermon was well crafted.

Matt said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. Since you mentioned the dating issue (Jesus being born in 3-4 BC), I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the OTHER dating issue in this passage, namely reconciling the reign of Herod with the date of the census and the governorship of Quirinius. I notice that your translation says "before Quirinius was governor", while many other translations say "while Quirinius was governor". Can you shed any light on the choice of wording here? Maybe this is a can of worms you'd rather not open right now - but I'd love to hear your thoughts if you are willing.


Terry Hamblin said...

Thanks for that Ben. I first heard the Guest Room idea a couple of years ago and thought it read true. I doubt that it will be popular with those who stage Nativity plays. I hear that the BBC are planning to stage one with a black Joseph to emphasize the need to give hospitality to illegal immigrants.

Some years ago there was a story of a little boy who wanted to play Joseph because he rather fancied the girl playing Mary. Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper.

When the Holy Couple knoocked on his door, he elbowed Joseph aside, grabbed Mary's wrist and drasged her in. "You can come in," he said, "but there is no room for you." and slammed teh door in Joseph's face.

Ben Witherington said...

You will find my comments on Quirinius in my Acts commentary, and in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Luke clearly knows, since he references the matter in Acts, when Judas the Galilean led the revolt (A.D.6). The matter is complicated because Quirinius was the ruler over the whole region earlier on. The famous census which prompted the revolt was in 6 A.D. (see my NT History volume), so is quite natural to read the Greek here to mean before the famous later census. Notice the word 'prote'-- as in this was the first enrollment, not the later famous one.



Anthony said...

As long as we are deconstructing the popular story,

In Matthew's account the astrologers visit Jesus in Bethlehem sometime after his birth. (Matthew 2:1) There they find the young child (possibly infant) Jesus in a house not a manger. (Matthew 2:11) And there is no "little drummer boy" present. :-)

MaLady said...

Thank You just for the reminder that "Jesus came as he did to make clear that no one and no place however humble was beneath his dignity, and every age and stage of life he would hallow, and save and sanctify."
"if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course."

Thank you for reminding us that this is what Christmas is about - God's purpose intentionally worked out His way - quietly and not needing religious hoopla to be powerful or relevant. God is great!

Ma Lady

Kristina said...

Hello Dr. Witherington,
My name is Kristina Wright and I am a Christian who is looking into historical claims about Jesus. I looked on Edward Babinski's website about being an agnostic and I was wondering about the verse that stated "the flesh and blood shall not inherit the Kingdom of God" 1 Cor 15:50 I always believed that the Kingdom of God was within us.
Also how do we explain people who do wonderful deeds (such as Bill Gates and the Dahlia Lama) and have that be different from the Kingdom of God that is suppose to live within all Christians? Thanks for your help.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Kristina:

Welcome to our discussion. Paul in 1 Cor. 15.50 is speaking about entering the messianic Kingdom on earth in the future at the resurrection. He is saying that flesh and blood in its mortal condition cannot enter or obtain the Dominion but has to be raised from the dead in a new resurrection body to be in that Kingdom when Jesus comes back. As for the kingdom in the present what is being referred to is God's dynamic saving presence affecting human lives. It is a mistranslation of the key verse to read it as 'the kingdom is within you'. Jesus was speaking to hostile and critical opponents and what he said to them was 'the dynamic eschatological or saving activity of God is in your midst, if you will just take notice of it.' Of course one can say that when you have given your life to Christ the reign or dominion of God comes within you. We usually speak about it as the lordship or rule of Christ in your life. Paul talks about the effects of the rule in our lives when he says the Kingdom consists of love, joy, peace in the Holy Spirit. You might enjoy reading more on this subject in my book 'Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.'


Ben W.

Don Yeager said...

I have heard (or read) you mention the "honor and shame" element of Jewish culture several times now (once your lesson on the Prodigal Son on the "Deeper Connections" DVD series), including here.
This was the first I recall hearing of it. Is this something fairly new or have you written about it before or has someone else?
Don Yeager

Ben Witherington said...

Don this is nothing new at all. If you want to read all about it check out Bruce Malina's The New Testament World.


Deane said...

Ben wrote:
Why in the world would they both travel all the way to Bethlehem to register for the census when Mary was very pregnant indeed? It seems illogical at first, until we reflect again on that bit about her being very pregnant out of wedlock. The tongues were likely wagging back in Nazareth, a small town where one could not hide something like this.

Hi Ben,

I understand you to explain the (main?) reason Mary and Joseph left their hometown of Nazareth, at the time of the census, was to avoid the scandal of Mary's pregnancy.

If Luke presents Mary as not yet being 'married' (taken into Joseph's home), how do you reconcile this with the story in Matthew, where Mary was 'married' to Joseph? Doesn't your reasoning in respect of Luke create a contradiction in respect of Matthew? Or, don't you interpret Joseph's taking Mary into his home in Matthew as marriage?

I note that, given the scale and nature of the differences between Luke and Matthew, my own conclusion is that the accounts should not be harmonized, and both are unhistorical.


Unknown said...

Dear Ben,
If there was a door and there was someone inside there was room for a pregnant teenager. It may have meant someone stepping out side or themselves relocating to the pet room, as you seem to describe it, for a few hours. A girl in labour still got second best. That's the point. Unless the ox was exremely well house broken the place still reeked. Nobody in the inn, house, barn - whatever , put them selves out for this girl nor the baby she was bearing. Second best, second place. Still happens.
David Ingalls, Fredericton, NB Canada

Anonymous said...

I looked up the word "katalyma" that you mentioned in your article and it means both an "inn or lodging place" and "guest chamber." I see no biblical reference to the fact that they were in the home of a relative, but in a way, it really does not matter.

As humans we are all fallible...otherwise we wouldn't need Jesus Christ to atone for us. Writing about this subject in a manner that casts those celebrate the birth of Jesus "incorrectly" as nothing less than nonsensical, is a little much in my book.

When we pick apart the body of Christ publicly, especially for something so small, it taints the work the Lord is trying to do with His church in the world. Whether or not Jesus was born where we think he was is insignificant compared with the larger message at hand- God Himself came into this world to perform a work that would save mankind from certain, everlasting death if he/she would only call upon the name above all names, Jesus.

It is important to be accurate when presenting the bible, but whether it was a guest room or a stall that our Lord Jesus was born in matters not to me. Let's not make it matter to anyone else who might stumble on a negative and unnecessary report.

Let's save the negativity for the things that really count.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Cabby:

Ah, but it does matter, and it matters a lot, since this is God's Word. Words only have meanings in contexts-- not in dictionaries, and Luke uses a very different word for inn, and its not kataluma. The fact that Joseph's ancestral home was in Bethlehem, and he had to register for the census with his clan, is a very good reason to expect that he went and stayed with relatives. What is negative about telling the truth about this? Nothing whatsoever.

And one would think that at Christmas, more than most other times, when the eyes of the world are watching, we might want to get our facts straight about the birth of our Savior. It matters because Luke bothered to tell us where and how this happened. It also matters when a sermon perpetrates a myth rather than what Luke was trying to tell us.

This is not a story about the world having no room for Jesus. Nor is it a story about his own family neglecting them-- they probably had little choice, and besides, due to the uncleanness of the birthing process, it would be normal not to have it in the clean rooms of the house.

Thus, I will say once more-- this is not a matter of majoring in minors, or of being negative. It's a matter of holding all to account for what the story really says and means.

Christmas blessings,

Ben W.

Daughter of Eve said...

Dr. Witherington:

I read your exegesis in CT, and was delighted to see a close reading bring a fresh insight to this beloved Scripture. Thanks for sharing it.

I've heard similarly-styled re-interpretation of "tektwv" as more probably "stone mason" than "carpenter," and found it equally intriguing and compelling.

We've never met, but I heard you speak at The Ephesus Meeting in 2005, and at SBL in 2006, and of course have enjoyed and appreciated reading your work over the years.

Christmas blessings,

Susan Michaelson

Ben said...

Dr. Witherington,

I was hoping that you could clarify why you would say inn here means guest room a little more. When looking at Strong's dictionary it says that the term here means an inn, lodging-place it says that this is the meaning in Luke 2:7, it then goes to say the the meaning in Luke 22:11 is guest-room.

Would you say that Strong's just messed up here? I see your point about different word for public house/inn, i just wonder why Strong's would still have the meaning as inn rather than guest room.


Ben Witherington said...

Strong's concordance is both old and outdated. I would recommend the Bauer Arndt Gingrich, Danker dictionary and concordance. Most free online concordances are way out of date-- that's why they are free. For sure, the meaning in Lk. 2 is the same as the meaning elsewhere in Luke Acts for kataluma-- guest room.


Ben W.

Ben said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for your reply and I will take your advice to heart about the concordances being out of date.

Let me ask you though about what Alfred Edersheim writes in his "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" on page 130 he writes

Dr. Geikie indeed ‘feels sure’ that the kataluna was not and inn, but a guest-chamber, because the word is used in that sense in Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11. But this inference is critically untenable. The Greek word is of very wide application, and means (as Schleusner puts it) ‘omnis locus quieti aptus.’ In the Septuagint kataluna is the equivalent of no less than five Hebrew words, which have widely different meanings…

He goes on to write how the flocks in the field were used for Temple sacrifices and that this puts His birth in an even more prophetic imagery.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ben

Edersheim, again, is an ancient resource, not conversant with the data of the last 150 years. The crucial and proper lexical question is-- how does Luke use the word elsewhere in contexts where the meaning is undisputable? The answer is-- guest room.



Ben said...

Thank you again for your reply. I guess what I hear/read you saying is that most of the books not written within the last 150 years are obsolete due to the sheer number of resources that we moderners have discovered. The problem is why do they have to be wrong? he makes a point in his book to show that the Sheperads would find the baby easily if it were in the 'stables' and that it flows better. Rather than having them go house to house to inquire wether a baby was born that night.

I am all for using all resources that are available, but we should not throw out the work of godly men just because we think we have more information. We must remember that Edersheim was a Jewish convert to Chritianity and that in his work we get a great deal of Jewish history and beliefs provided to us.

Another point that he makes is that Mary & Joseph were probably alone, that is why the Gospel writer tells us that she swaddled him and laid him in the trough. If they were staying with relatives why would they not help? If they did why did the Gospel writer go out of his way to mark that Mary was the one to do these things?

I guess my problem is I never viewed the story as the world rejecting Christ or anything like that. I always saw it as it being a busy and hectic time and that they arived late. It makes sense that most of the rooms were full, it seems that if people read into it the point about the world rejecting Christ that this is just poor reading by them. We must let the Gospel speak for itself.

Thanks again for your thoughts on this.

Ben Witherington said...

Ben I am not at all suggesting we throw out all our old resources. I am simply saying we have reams more data about the use and meaning of Greek words than Edersheim had. I used to love to read his work, and there are still many good points in it. The point is, if you want to understand the Good News and make major points on fine points of meaning and grammar then you need the latest info on linguistic usage.


Ben W.