The Nativity - Lost in Translation
One of the most prominent examples of how our 21st Century Western outlook on the Bible can distort the gospels is that of the nativity.
We have a very ‘school play’ vision of this. Joseph and Mary treacherously trekking through the desert, only to arrive at Bethlehem with no hospitality extended and no warm welcome into any room. We imagine that no-one really cares for Mary and Joseph; that Bethlehem has no desire to aid a woman with child and is willing to dishonour her husband by refusing him provision for his wife. All in all, we consider the Nativity story to witness to a grievous lack of hospitality.
Know the facts
But as Kenneth E. Bailey shows us in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Bailey, Intervarsity Press, 2008) an acquaintance with the Middle Eastern culture sheds a very different light on this classic tale.
Bailey grew up in the Middle-East and lived there for sixty years (1935-1995). He points out that a knowledge of Middle Eastern cultural customs, traditions, language and way of life is essential for examining the depth of the Christian Scriptures, particularly the gospels. Otherwise we can drastically misinterpret the narrative.
Jesus and his followers lived some two thousand years ago in the 1st Century. They would have spoken Aramaic, but most of the New Testament was written in Greek. It's almost inevitable that things have become lost in translation, and through a misunderstanding of a life so very different from our 21st Century British experience.
The fact is that Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. And, in Middle Eastern culture family blood lines are recorded and well known by members of a community. Joseph being a Bethlehemite would have been known by many of his extended family within Bethlehem itself. The notion of Joseph and Mary hopelessly knocking on door after door searching for just ‘someone’ who would let he and his wife take shelter is therefore far from the truth. There would have been many in this town who would have been able to accommodate the needs of Joseph and Mary.
In addition, we are told that Joseph was of royal blood (Luke 2:4). He was of the family of King David. Because this family was so famous in Bethlehem, local folk had coined the phrase that Bethlehem was the ‘City of David’, even though the Hebrew Scriptures refer to that as being Jerusalem. With this heritage to his advantage, Joseph would have been accepted almost anywhere.
In the second part of this article we will explore what the phrase 'no room at the inn' really means.