Shedding light on Jesus’s manger  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,


Kenneth Bailey has spend four decades living in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus, most recently serving as professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. In the early chapters of Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Bailey sheds understanding on some of the details in the story of Christ’s birth as recorded in the Gospels.

[I]t is evident that the story of the birth of Jesus (in Luke) is authentic to the geography and history of the Holy Land. The text records that Mary and Joseph “went up” from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is built on a ridge which is considerably higher than Nazareth. Second, the title “City of David” was probably a local name to which Luke adds “which is called Bethlehem” for the benefit of nonlocal readers. Third, the text informs the reader that Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David.” In the Middle East, “the house of so-and-so” means “the family of so-and-so.” Greek readers of this account could have visualized a building when they read “house of David.” Luke may have added the term lineage to be sure his readers understood him. He did not change the text, which was apparently already fixed in the tradition when he received it (Lk 1:2). But he was free to add a few explanatory notes. Fourth, Luke mentions that the child was wrapped with swaddling cloths. This ancient custom is referred to in Ezekiel 16:4 and is still practiced among village people in Syria and Palestine. Finally, a Davidic Christology surfaces in the account. These five points emphasize that the story was composed by a messianic Jew at a very early stage in the life of the church.

For the Western mind the word manger invokes the words stable or barn. But in traditional Middle Eastern villages this is not the case. In the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:13-21) there is mention of “storehouses” but not barns. People of great wealth would naturally have had separate quarters for animals. But simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a “prophet’s chamber” on the roof, as in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 17:19). The main room was a “family room” where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century. I have seen them both in Upper Galilee and in Bethlehem. Figure 1.1 illustrates such a house from the side.

The roof is flat and can have a guest room built on it, or a guest room can be attached to the end of the house. The door on the lower level serves as an entrance for people and animals. The farmer wants the animals in the house each night because they provide heat in winter and are safe from theft.

The same house viewed from above is illustrated in figure 1.2

The elongated circles represent mangers dug out of the lower end of the living room. The “family living room” has a slight slope in the direction of the animal stall, which aids in sweeping and washing. Dirt and water naturally move downhill into the space for the animals and can be swept out the door. If the family cow is hungry during the night, she can stand up and eat from mangers cut out of the floor of the living room. Mangers for sheep can be of wood and placed on the floor of the lower level.


Source: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2008) p. 28-30

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4 comments

Anonymous  

My mother's favorite part of Christmas is her creche. This is devastating. It is just wrong.

-Willard

December 12, 2011 at 10:33 PM
Anonymous  

This is very revealing. I grew up on a farm and the whole idea of the traditional creche has always bothered me because it seemed like a very poor way to keep animals and an unnecessarily uncomfortable way to spend the night. I'm glad to know that Mary and Joseph had more sense.

Heather Q.

December 13, 2011 at 7:31 AM
D. Eddy  

With "no room at the inn"it wpuld appear that Mary and Joseph were welcomed by some"earlyChristians.

December 13, 2011 at 6:10 PM

I gave this same book away to several friends for Christmas gifts last Christmas. Take a look at the Protoevangelium of James and you can see exactly where we usually get our version of the Christmas Story. It's actually a little scary.

December 15, 2011 at 9:52 AM

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