Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Truth or Tradition?

So not until recently did I really realize the impact my job has had on my faith. In addition to all the fun, creative, unusual stuff I get to do, part of my job involves writing the large group scripts for the Exploratorium. As a team, we develop the concept and general content for what is taught, but it's my job to fully flesh it out into a scripted lesson for storytellers to present to our kids. I aim to write it so that anyone can teach it and all age levels can comprehend it. Anyways, all that to say... I have absorbed a lot. And this has given me the opportunity to explore and investigate my faith for myself too. 

One subject we are bringing to light this December with our K - 5th graders is the tradition of the nativity versus truth of the Bible and I wanted to share some of the details here on the blog. If you aren't a Christian or are unfamiliar with the actual biblical text surrounding Jesus' birth, you will be surprised to know that many elements (such a donkey, a mean inn keeper, a barn, wise men, etc) most Christians believe to be a part of this story are no where to be found in the actual Bible story. I know, shocking, since it is so common for us to believe this due to all the Christmas pageants and little nativity sets we see all the time.

To get the real story, I encourage you to go back and read the text in Matthew and Luke, paying attention to all the words. (Side note: This is why having a good version of the Bible is so important because simple words translated incorrectly can majorly derail us from the original meaning. I suggest the ESV Study Bible which is a word- for- word translation of the Bible versus many other phrase- by- phrase translations. Also, even the very best attempts at translating correctly can be lost on us due to drastic cultural differences. It is important that we also understand the time and culture surrounding the text in order for it to make sense.)

So for those of you that just wanna get the bullet point version instead of trying to translate words from Greek on your own, here is the Cliff Notes version of the REAL story of Christ's birth.

Were Mary and Joseph alone on the journey to Bethlehem? 
Highly unlikely. During this time in history, most people walked everywhere. The roads were dirt and actually quite dangerous due to robbers. Because of this, people normally traveled by caravan. Also, since everyone was going to their hometowns for the census, it is likely there were many people on the road and possibly even some family traveling with them.

Did Mary ride on a donkey? 
Maybe. Nothing says for certain whether she walked or rode.

Were Mary and Joseph frantically looking for a place to stay because Mary was in labor before they entered Bethlehem? 
No. They had been there for days.

Was Jesus born in a stable/barn because there was no room for them at the local hotel/inn? 
Nope.  So back then, people didn't stay in hotels everywhere like we do now. People mostly stayed with family or friends or even at a stranger's home. It was not unlikely to entertain strangers even though it seems so dangerous to us now. Most homes at the time actually had space for visitors to stay in a moments notice. The word we read as "inn" is actually originally translated to "guest room." It is most likely that Mary and Joseph were staying with family (since it was Joseph's home town) and that due to everyone being there for the census, the guest room at the house was already taken by visitors. Back then, the design of most homes was a 2-story strucure. The primary living space/ sleeping area was upstairs, and the downstairs was used for animals and some storage. At night, the animals belonging to the family for survival purposes (not an entire flock or anything) would be brought into the first floor to feed and sleep. (Having a separate wooden structure for animals would have been really unlikely since this was not the traditional way of caring for animals and wood for building purposes was not in abundance. See Israel/ Bethlehem landscape and local botany.) It is believed that this first floor living space for animals is where Mary and Joseph hung out due to an overcrowded home and where Jesus was born.

Was Joseph with Mary when Jesus was born? 
Probably not. Ancient Israelite culture did not include the father figure holding the wife's hand and cheering her on while giving birth. At the time of birth, the men of the home/family, would leave and give the mother privacy while the women would stay and help the mother. Afterwards, the entire family would be re-united to celebrate the new life. It is likely that Mary could have been surrounded by her future-mother-in-law and maybe some of Joseph's sisters.

Was Jesus laid in a manger after he was born? 
Yes. Since they were staying on the first level of the home where the animals stayed, this now makes sense. We aren't sure whether it was made out of wood or of stone since very little has been found through archeological discoveries.

Did three wise men bring gifts to Jesus the night he was born? 
No. The wise men didn't show up until Jesus was about 2 years old. We don't know how many there was, but we commonly see three because three gifts are named that were given to Christ. If you are interested in knowing more about the star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men to Jesus, I encourage you to watch this very interesting (and rather scientific so get ready) DVD-
Was Jesus born on December 25th? 
Very unlikely. The explanation of this is very long and rather complex, so I encourage you to look into some additional materials such as this cd I have from the Holy Land Experience -
It is great if you can get your hands on one (or borrow mine). It's almost 9 years old so it might be out of circulation now.  

Did Jesus, who is God's son, come to earth as a man to save us all from sin? 

And really, that's all that matters. But it is important to know truth from tradition so we can more fully understand the majesty and grace of who Christ is and what he has done for us.
If this information is shocking to you, I highly encourage you to check out Truth or TraditionCommon Misconceptions about Christ's birth, and additional ESV online resources if you have access to them. These sites are kinda clunky, but they have great information, scripture references, and cultural explanations of details of this very important event!

I love how the Truth or Tradition website ends their research with this observation though...
"The story of the birth of Christ reveals what we today consider to be the true spirit of Christmas. Not people closing their hearts and homes to a couple in need, but rather people opening both their hearts and their homes, and joyfully giving to others in need and helping where they can. It is wonderful that the Christ, who gave so much to so many, was born in circumstances in which people were so giving to him."
It really is a much more beautiful picture than I ever thought! Now, when I look at a nativity set or watch a Christmas pageant, I am reminded of how much richer and deeper God's word is than I could ever imagine and that I need to continue to seek truth based off God's word instead of just accepting common beliefs or practices that are a part of our culture.

Happy Christmas ya'll!

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