I received my first Bible in second grade, a faux-leather King James Version from which I read Luke 2 for our church’s Christmas Eve service. I was scared silly, or better, sore afraid. Antique words like Cyrenius, lineage, and espoused unnerved me, not to mention great with child (whatever that meant). I began with a prepared introduction, the preacher in me asserting himself early, and managed to not bungle any of the unnerving words.
But when I got to “Mary brought forth her firstborn son,” I mistakenly read aloud that Mary bought forth her son, the crass commercialization of Christmas having already corrupted my young soul. Then again, my church also saw fit to go with a store-bought baby Jesus doll to display God’s glory.
By the time I’d mentioned Mary purchasing baby Jesus, attention had already shifted to the spotlit nativity scene being reenacted at the front of our small sanctuary. My aunt and uncle played Mary and Joseph that year, albeit without a live donkey like the other churches had. Our little church demonstrated its theological acuity, since a donkey never appears in the nativity story.
However, we did feature an Ebenezer Scrooge of an innkeeper whom everyone booed for being so rude. The nativity story makes no mention of a mean innkeeper, or an inn either, at least not in the Greek. No motels existed anywhere in first-century Palestine. There were taverns and brothels, but the words for those places are completely different. In the Christmas story, Luke uses a word more accurately translated as a guest room.
As you’ll read in this month’s article by Jordan Monson, Bible translation is fraught with challenges over such words, especially when beloved passages are at stake. Instead of an inn, picture a small, crowded family home. Archaeology reveals the typical Jewish home of Jesus’ day consisted of a single big room for sleeping with an anteroom that worked as storage or as a guest room for visitors, especially relatives. At one farther end would have been a kind of garage for animals. Because of the decreed census, the guest room was likely packed by the time Joseph came knocking. But Joseph was family, so his relatives immediately let him in, even though that meant Jesus was born in the garage since that was all the room Joseph’s folks had left.
Christmas still comes at a bad time to a world in a bad way: pressed in on every side by danger and distress, by sickness, sadness, and loss. Hearts fill with anxiety for our families and livelihoods, for our kids and our country, and for the planet itself. With no room to move and no room to breathe, Jesus squeezes in every time.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @DanlHarrell.
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