Are We Misunderstanding the Nativity?

December 7, 2018



“But did you know…?”


“That’s not the case…”


The above serve as certain markers. Someone readies himself or herself to explain something in correction of an erroneous claim. We do want our errors corrected, do we not? Never have I heard the lament, “O, that I could misunderstand more things and tell others of my faulty understandings!” The above words do not represent an exhaustive list of entries into conversational correctives, but I think they serve the purpose of helping us recall receiving such explanations. Or offering them in my case. 


More often than not, I find great help in understanding historical and cultural details about ancient times as it relates to Scripture. Many images we have in our heads from well-intentioned children’s illustrated Bible storybooks do not accurately represent the men and women of the Bible or the world they inhabited. For example, conjure up in your mind an image of Peter, Andrew, James, and John fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Got your image? Good. Now consider the following:


  1. These men worked as commercial fishermen, so they used nets rather than poles. Most of us know they used nets given the events of Luke 5, but the words “fishing in a boat” immediately brings a different image to my mind than what these disciples of Jesus usually did.

  2. The Sea of a Galilee is a sea in name only. The people of ancient Israel did not enter the history books as a sea-faring people (as opposed to the Phoenicians), and for the folks of Galilee, the Lake Gennesaret appeared as a sea. Most of the people there probably never did see a larger body of water. 

  3. Lastly, the boats these men used dwarfed any boat I have ever used for fishing on a lake. The remains of a fishing boat lifted from the same waters Jesus crossed on foot had a length of 27 feet. We might think these guys used rowboats like we might, but far from it. Their boats had more than enough space for a baker’s dozen of Galileans, with one asleep


These details, especially the last one, really help me picture the events narrated by the Evangelists under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They protect me from distraction as I contemplate them and meditate upon the teaching of Scripture. 


I discovered an article floating around social media this week, and I found it the opposite of helpful. I will not restate its details here; I’ll let you read for yourself. 



In sum, the article asserts our reconstructions of the birth of Jesus do not accurately represent the historical realities experienced by Mary and Joseph. Jesus’s parents did not exactly find themselves turned out into a cave or stable, rather, Joseph’s family did not have room for them in the normal guest quarters, therefore, after giving birth to Jesus, Mary placed him in the manger which stood in the main (if not single) room of the ground floor of Joseph’s family’s home. 


Well and good. Eighty or so years ago, Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson noted the word translated “inn” from Luke 2:7 elsewhere means “guest room” in the New Testament. I appreciate accuracy at the expense of cute recreations, reconstructions, and reenactments. Much of what we think about the story comes by way of how we immediately understand these things in our Western minds.[2] We also know Francis of Assisi preached the gospel using words assisted by the visual aid of the first nativity scene, and his reconstruction colored popular understanding as well. Perhaps his own nativity became embellished by others over time; I think most of us can recall viewing nativity scenes in which Jesus sleeps silently in a veritable zoo. 


So it goes.


Let me share my concern as a Bible teacher: all of the historical detail in the article amounts to a sort of theological wet blanket. Our understanding of the significance of the event does not grow, whether or not we gain such information. I do not think accurate reconstructions of the moment of Advent occupied Paul’s mind when he admonished Timothy to guard the doctrine of the church. Though perhaps the details of our Western nativities romanticize the moment of Christ invading his fallen Creation in the wrong ways, I do not think we misunderstand the heart of humility in the whole thing.


First, consider this: very pregnant Mary travelled to Bethlehem as the new wife of Joseph. As many assert, she likely had all the social clout of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, though no one painted a red aleph on the girl’s robe. So, she gets to give birth in her husband’s family’s home, and they likely think her unfaithful to their son. We have no indication of her mother’s presence, so her assistance comes from these in-laws. Gentlemen, ask your wife if these conditions meet her expectations.


Second, forget not the heavenly regal status of the child in Mary’s belly. The preacher who remarks that the King of Heaven and King of the Universe entered the world as a peasant rather than in a palace makes no error at all. Do you think Herod’s sons were born in such conditions? They probably were not even murdered (also by Herod) in such humble circumstances. Common custom or not, the Son of God and Judge of the Earth entered this world in a room unfit for a royal birth in his day and considered unsanitary in ours. Can you imagine animals in a delivery room? Though the overall historical-cultural trappings differ from ours, Luke’s inclusion of the detail of a feeding box as Christ’s cradle indicates the-less-than-ideal circumstances. Perhaps Mary even expected to birth the Savior in such a way given the census and crowding of Joseph’s family home; recall she lived as a member of a different culture, not an extraterrestrial. I am sure a lady somewhere on this planet would prefer chickens and goats in her delivery room, but I do not think any of us so silly as to take her preference as standard for the rest of the women of the world. 


Christian, you possess a faith which turns on history. We claim and believe these things happened, so they must have occurred in specific ways. Let’s strive to always assert accuracy over what pulls at the heart strings. 


Scholars and teachers of the church, you advocate for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. When you correct a misunderstanding, edify when you do it. You do not bring those looking to you for understanding to the Savior in sterility. You own the power to impart knowledge, use it with wisdom.


May the Holy Spirit reveal Christ to us this Advent season. 




[1]Our status as Westerners does not mean we have just completely misunderstood everything about Scripture. The people of the ancient world do rest at a considerable cultural, historical, and linguistic distance from us, but neither we nor they exist as caricatures, no matter what academics and elitists assert. 

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