Friday, December 24, 2010

Four Events Surrounding the Birth of Jesus

Four events surrounding the birth of Jesus which probably have been contemporarily misconstrued due to the popular versions portrayed through mass media:

The innkeeper that had no room for Jesus (Luke 2:7)

Traditionally the innkeeper has often been the labeled as “heartless” for turning away the holy couple as there was no more room in his inn (and this is often taken out of context to remind Christians to keep the central focus central - a good Christmas message as an antidote to the frenzied Christmas shopping!).

However, the Greek word from which most English translations (including ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, NLT) render as “inn” in Luke 2:7 is the word “katalyma.” Although “inn” is one of the meanings of “katalyma”, this Greek word can simply means a lodging place, a guest chamber or even a dining room.

The argument is, if Luke, being a careful, methodical historian, were to mean “inn” in Luke 2:7, why did he use another word (“pandocheion”) in Luke 10:34 in the account of the Good Samaritan taking care of the wounded Jewish man? Unlike “katalyma”, “pandocheion” specifically means a public house for the reception of strangers. In other words, the “inn” that Joseph and Mary came to could possibly be simply a neighborhood house with an extra or two rooms to spare and the innkeeper could possibly be no innkeeper at all as it were, in a commercial sense.

Furthermore, given the fact that Joseph and Mary were returning to Bethlehem, the city of Joseph’s family origin, certainly Joseph had family or relatives there. Hence, the lodging place in which they were unable to stay could even be the home of a relative.

Thirdly, given the economic difficulty[1] that Joseph and Mary were in, it is likely that they could not afford a commercial lodging place at that time.

The third point has to do with the Greek word “topos” in Luke 2:7. This word is usually translated as “room” in many English translations (including KJV, NKJV, NLT, NIV, NASB). However, “topos” simply means a place, or space marked off, from the surrounding space. It does not specifically mean “room”.

The Shepherds tending their sheep (Luke 2:8-20)

Tending flocks, together with agriculture, formed the basis of the Palestine economy. However, the dryness of the ground made it necessary for the flocks to move about from places to places, usually during spring. At times, this requires a stay for months at a time in isolated areas, far from the owner's home.

On the other hand, Palestine is very cold in December. Shepherds are usually not in the fields in the winter time. The sheep are penned up. Arguably therefore, December 25th is probably not the date for Jesus' birth. Shepherds are in the early March until early October. Nevertheless no one knows for sure when Jesus was born . The irony is, Luke gave very specific details about the event, even down to what the baby Jesus was wearing (the swaddling clothes) and where he slept (in a manger) (Luke 2:12). These details are important because they speak of His nature and character - meek and lowly. Therefore, if God wants us to know in more specific details regarding the birth of Jesus, in His sovereignty, He could certainly do so through the accurate, inspired writing of Luke.

The second point regarding the shepherds has to do with the shepherds themselves.

To quote Stein:
"We should not romanticize this scene as being a pronouncement to hardworking and respected 'ranchers.' Shepherds were generally considered dishonest. The were unclean according to the law."
The truth is, due to the nature of these shepherds having to leave home to tend the flocks for months in isolated place, many of the sheep owners get hireling shepherds to do this job, especially so, as the shepherd job is also exposed to the dangerous threat of wild beasts and robbers. Unfortunately, many of these hireling shepherds have bad reputation as being dishonest and thieving, stealing some of the increase of the flock as well as the produce such as milk (as opposed to the good shepherd - this contrast is brought about by Jesus in John 10:12-13). Therefore, the shepherds mentioned in Luke 2 may not necessary be the owners themselves, but hireling shepherds.

To quote Stein again (Jesus The Messiah: A Survey Of The Life of Christ, IVP Academic Press, p75):

"Their [the dishonest shepherds] presence at the birth of Jesus was recorded by Luke to show his readers that the good news of the gospel is for the poor, the sinners, for outcasts, for people like these shepherds."

Wise Men from the East (Matt 2:1-12)

Popular folklore places three wise men at the manger alongside the shepherds at the time of Jesus’ birth. However, no where in the Bible does it mention three (the number is ambiguous in Matthew 2:1-12). Furthermore, Matthew points out that they found Jesus in a “house” (Matt 2:11), and not in a “stall with a manger” as in Luke 2:7.

Matthew’ reference to the slaughter of the children two years old and below suggests that two years had passed since the birth of Jesus.

The slaughter of the children (Matt 2:16-18)

This massacre is attributed to Herod the Great. Everything that we know about this man tells us that he was precisely the kind of person who would have done such an atrocious act. He was paranoid concerning his rule. He not only built fortresses such as Antonia in Jerusalem, Sebaste, Caesarea, Gaba, Herodium, etc. He killed his uncle Joseph, his mother-in-law (Alexandra), his sons Alexandra and Aristobolus, his favorite wife (Mariamne) and Antipater, the son he had chosen. As he was dying in the fortress of Herodium, he had the leading citizens of his kingdom gathered in the amphitheater of Jericho. Then he ordered that upon his death all these citizens be killed so that his death would be mourned! There was a saying that goes “Better Herod’s swine than his son” because Herod being half-Jewish, refrained from eating pork.

[1] The fact that Joseph and Mary were poor could be gleaned in Luke 2:24 when they could only afford two pigeons during Mary’s purification. According to the law, after the birth of a child, a woman would have to undergo a purification rite, which involved the sacrificial giving of a lamb and a pigeon or a dove (Leviticus 12:1-8)

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