Thursday, 24 December 2009

Oy Vey in a Manger!

This excellent article is printed here on 24th December 2009 to help you read the NT accounts of Jesus' birth much more accurately, thus exposing some of the mythology that surrounds the Saviour's birth.

Mike Moore casts a sideways look at some assumptions about the birth of Messiah and concludes that they ain’t necessarily so.

The most enduring images of the birth of Jesus, perpetuated through paintings, literature, Christmas carols, nativity plays and sermons, is that the Lord of glory was born in a stable because there was “no room in the inn”. Even though the carols and some of our English Bible versions call Bethlehem a “town” or a “city,” in New Testament times, it would have been a village too small to support an inn. Also, inns were normally found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones, but Bethlehem was not on a major road.

Lost in translation
The misunderstanding is due to our English Bibles. The Greek word, katalyma, should never have been translated “inn”, as it is in Luke 2:7. The 1395 edition of John Wycliffe’s translation of Luke 2:7 reads: “And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.” For reasons known only to themselves, William Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible and the Authorised Version opted for “inn” rather than “chaumber”. And so it has continued. The two exceptions to this translational custom are The New English Bible and David Stern’s The Jewish New Testament. The NEB translates Luke 2:7 as: “She wrapped him in his swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house.” The JNT renders Luke 2:7 as: “She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living quarters.

In Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14 (the only other places in the New Testament where the word appears), katalyma clearly does not mean an inn: “Then he shall show you a large, furnished upper room [katalyma] ...” (Luke 22:11.). If Luke had intended to refer to a commercial hostelry in chapter 2, he would have used pandocheion, the very word he uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan in 10:25-37: “... he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn [pandocheion], and took care of him.” The 1915 edition of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia observes that “Luke with his usual care distinguishes between [katalyma] and pandocheion, and his use of the verb katalúō (Luke 9:12; Luke19:7) makes his meaning clear... It is the word used of the ‘upper room’ where the Last Supper was held (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11, ‘guest-chamber’), and of the place of reception in Bethlehem where Joseph and Mary failed to find quarters (Luke 2:7). It thus corresponds to the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village...” (available online at com/isbe/I/INN). a lowly cattle shed?
In Luke’s birth narrative, the Messiah was laid in a manger from which animals ate. Does that not strongly suggest a birth in a stable? According to the Biblical and Middle Eastern scholar, Kenneth Bailey, from the time of King David until the mid-twentieth century, most village homes in Israel and the Middle East consisted of two rooms; one for the family and the other for guests. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower than the living space, in which the family donkey, cow and two or three sheep spent the night. The animals were brought into the house last thing at night and taken outside first thing in the morning. In the house they ate from mangers dug out of the stone floor of the raised family living area. The katalyma was the room reserved for guests and visitors. Contrary to the traditional Christmas story, Mary was not in labour when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. Luke 2:6 records, “So it was, that while they were there [not upon arrival], the days were completed for her to be delivered.” The ESV reads, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” How could we have ever concluded from the biblical text that Mary was in labour at the time she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem? The idea may have originated with a second-century apocryphal work of fiction, The Protevangelium of James: “And they came to the midst of the way, and Mary said unto him: Take me down from the ass, for that which is within me presseth me, to come forth. And he took her down from the ass and said unto her: Whither shall I take thee to hide thy shame? for the place is desert.” (Protevangelium of James 17:8, available online at

No crib for a bed
Matthew records that when the magi arrived in Bethlehem they entered “the house,” not “the stable”, and there they “fell down and worshipped Him” (Mt. 2:11). Jews and Arabs have traditionally placed a high value on family and hospitality, so when Caesar Augustus decreed that the Jewish population of ancient Israel had to return to their home towns to register for the census, Joseph went to Bethlehem “because he belonged to the house and line of David”(Luke 2:4). “To turn away a descendant of David in ‘the City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village,” writes Kenneth Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (p. 26). Even if there had been no room to stay with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem, no village in the hill country of Judea was more than an hours ride on donkey from Bethlehem, so Joseph could easily have taken his betrothed to her relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

From these considerations, we can construct a more accurate scenario of the events surrounding the birth of Messiah. Joseph and his pregnant fiancĂ©e Mary made their way to this ancestral village of Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar. There, he and Mary stayed with Joseph’s relatives for the remainder of her pregnancy in a home which was crowded due to the census being taken and where there was no longer any space in “the guest room”. Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child in the family room and the baby was placed on clean straw in one of the stone mangers. The birth of the Lord of glory was indeed humble but the manger in which he was laid was in a warm, friendly family home, not in a cold, dirty and lonely stable.

This is not a call to preachers to devote their Christmas sermons to denouncing the traditional misunderstandings of the birth of Messiah. Still less is it an encouragement to ministers to ignore the festive season and to steer clear of preaching on the nativity. It is a plea for more careful reading, exegesis and exposition of Scripture in order to draw out better and more appropriate applications from the text of the Bible.

Mike Moore
This article was first published in the Herald, the official organ of Christian Witness to Israel, in December 2009.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Going with the flow - a sign of maturity.

Just go with the flow! That's what makes a good minister! It is also a sign of ministerial and spiritual maturity, and something that only comes with age. This is the way a river flows, following the path of least resistance. It is a sure-fire way of avoiding rows in the congregation, and keeps everyone on board, regardless of whether they are Christians or not. It raises the minister in the church popularity stakes, and ensures that he is well looked after by the congregation. If he were to enter the popular Saturday evening entertainment show, X-factor, he would be sure to win.

It's a pity that I was not given the pastoral advice that a former colleague of mine was given by a theological professor: "do what the people want you to do, and say what they want you to say." Be "all things to all men" in this sense.

Maybe this is how the politicians persuaded voters in Northern Ireland to support the Belfast Agreement of 1998 - say enough to please everyone, even those who hold fundamentally different views. They worded the agreement in such a way that everyone got something out of it. The unionists were assured that the union was copper-fastened, and republicans were also sure that it was a transition to their desired united Ireland. 72% of the people were kept happy, and on side.

The 'go with the flow' ministerial philosophy is exactly the same. It tells ministers to use words so carefully that both Christians and Gospel-rejecters alike are kept happy, and cause them to believe that the minister is agreeing with them, regardless of what they believe personally. If they want their young people to become full communicant church members, accept them so long as they say they are Christians; and if they want their babies baptised, or christened (in their language), do it, and so long as you ask them the orthodox questions and they answer appropriately, go with it. Ask no deeply personal questions. Don't worry about the well-being of their souls, or of the church of Jesus Christ.

Such ministers get on very well with their congregations, but what is unbelievably distressing is that those who hold this viewpoint care nothing about the souls of those who listen to them on a weekly basis. They are happy for their members to go to hell without Christ. Their defense is that all that God requires of ministers is for them to be faithful. He does not want them to win souls to Christ. He does not want them to annoy or disturb their members. He wants them to enjoy peace - such as is found in a cemetery. He calls them to lull them to sleep spiritually, so that they can remain "at ease in Zion." He does not want church members to come under conviction of sin - a reality that no longer exists, or if it does, is not that serious a thing. Nor do these modern ministers want the Holy Spirit to start working in the lives of church members - that would never do! Think of the trouble that would cause and the contradictions such a situation would create! The elders had already accepted them as Christians, and now they are talking about wanting to become Christians! How embarrassing! How unPresbyterian!

It is very sad to read this kind of material. But what makes it even more disillusioning is the fact that this kind of viewpoint is held by evangelical Christians. This is the attitude that desires peace at any price, or more accurately, peace at no price whatever.

The need for solid, ongoing and systematic teaching of the message of the Scriptures, the historical context of the theological controversies surrounding these issues, is apparent. And, the equal need for church discipline, properly administered, must go alongside the true proclamation of the Word/Gospel. These are the marks of a true church.

But where the 'go with the flow' philosophy rules in any congregation or is the controlling principle of any ministry, there you can be sure that no true church of Christ exists. While this attitude wins friends and influences people in your favour, it falls far short of the true calling of the minister of the Gospel.

Surely someone must be raised up by God to re-call the church to her God-given responsibility to form true churches of Christ, not cheap replicas of the real thing. But this is very, very costly. No self-respecting congregation will tolerate any minister who wants to do what God had called him to do! Yet, this is precisely the type of minister most congregations need, and need urgently. But churches do not want men whose aim in their ministry is to please God. They want a minister who will please them!

May God have mercy on His church which He purchased with the blood of His Son.