How can we change ingrained mistakes in our Bible reading?

I have been invited once again to speak in Iran later this year – and I am really looking forward to it. I have done a lot of work in the Middle East over the years, and enjoy Persian culture the most. The hospitality of the Persians is the stuff of legend. In fact, some guidebooks even warn you to be careful about complimenting your hosts furnishing too much, as they are quite likely to give you the object as a gift – and that could be embarrassing.

One of the reasons I am fascinating by Middle Eastern culture is that this is the modern representation of the culture that forms the backdrop of the Bible. Obviously, much has changed over the centuries, but in many parts of the Middle East you can still find people living very similarly to the type of world Jesus would have encountered. Some scholars have dedicated their lives to helping us understand the impact that the prevailing culture should have on our interpretation of the Bible. My favourite is Kenneth Bailey (buy his “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” at Amazon or Kalahari.net).

An understanding of the underlying culture can dramatically change the reading of a story (see, for example, a recent sermon I preached on the Prodigal Son).

But my issue today is that if a new insight is so big that it changes everything we were ever taught, would we be prepared to change everything? I mean, everything from the stories we tell our children, to how we view specific characters? The correct answer, of course, is that we MUST make such changes if we realise that we have misunderstood (or even misrepresented) the Bible. God’s Word must stand supreme over all.

There is such an issue… and it relates to one of the greatest of all Bible stories. And we have it all wrong.


Our telling of the Christmas story shows the innkeeper in a bad light. “No room in my inn” he says, and slams the door shut on Mary and Joseph – directing them to a stable around the back of the house. This picture has much more to do with middle ages peasant villages in Europe than what actually happened. There are at least three reasons why we can be sure that this traditional picture of Jesus being born in a stable is wrong.

In the ancient Middle East, animals were not kept in stables. They were either kept out in the fields (that is, in fact, where the shepherds were, with the flocks that night), or, for poorer families or those with just a few animals, they were actually kept in the house with the family.

The houses were built (as many still are in rural areas of the Middle East) as a single large room, with a split level floor. The family slept on the upper floor. The lower floor area was used for cooking and eating during the day, and the family’s domestic animals were brought into the safety of the house to sleep at night. (Note that the “manger” is a generic term for animal feeding trough – no specific animals are mentioned in the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.)

But, most significantly, it is inconceivable that the hospitality instincts of those in the Middle East would have let anyone sleep in a stable, let alone a pregnant woman. I have personal experience of Middle Eastern hospitality, and cannot believe that Mary and Joseph were left to fend for themselves. Are there any cultures in the world where the women of a community would leave a young (Mary was likely only 13 or 14 years old at the time), heavily pregnant woman to give birth on her own? And even if that is how the evening had started, when her labour started and Joseph went to the nearest neighbours to ask for help, would they have refused, or left her in a barn somewhere? That is just impossible to imagine.

The most likely scenario is that the innkeeper, with a full guest list, invited Joseph and Mary into his own home (or at least made sure they were made welcome at someone’s home). Mary gave birth with the help of the community’s older women, and then put Jesus down to sleep in the softest thing available in the house – the manger filled with straw, hay and dry animal feed. Some unnamed family became the first host of the King of Kings. I assume they have received adequte reward in heaven!

There is nothing in the Bible that would indicate anything other than this scenario. It is our (mainly British/European) view of a homestead with a barn or stable out the back that has shaped our mental image of what happened that first Christ-mas night. It is not what happened at all.

But now the big question… Will we change how we read the Bible?

If I am right about this view, are we prepared to go on a crusade to change every nativity play that will be performed later this year? Will we send letters to the Christmas card designers and ensure they sort out the images of the innkeeper and the stable? Will we correct the stories we tell our children? Will we either correct or abandon the carols that are wrong? Will we redeem the innkeeper and the Bethlehem community?

By the way, there is a wonderful theological image we have also missed here. In Exodus 12, the families were told to take a faultless lamb and keep it in their homes for five days. This lamb would then be killed and eaten as part of the Passover ceremony. That lamb would obviously have eaten from the very manger that Jesus was laid in. Jesus is our Passover Lamb, and the striking image of him being given shelter in a home that he would later redeem through his death, is lost if we think of his birth happening in some outside stable area.

I have two thoughts in mind for how we choose to react to this information. The first is that we update conscientiously our picture of the Christ-mas night. But the second is to confront us with an example of changing our ingrained views of what the Bible actually tells us. We need to be open to doing this when we find that what we thought the Bible said is not in fact what it intended to say. Think about it. This is important.

13 thoughts on “How can we change ingrained mistakes in our Bible reading?”

  1. Good article. But what if we go one step further (not sure if you’d agree!) and say that the birth narratives are myth, and the importance of the story is not in the ‘fact’ of Jesus birth, but in the point you make in your second last paragraph.

  2. This is great – love this.. Just saw a national geographic titled Jesus the man from nazareth and they showed the homes and the meaning of the place where Jesus was born… The kids watched and Josh wants to build a different birth place for our nativity…. How significant.. Love your blogs.

  3. I was wondering how you square this with Justin Martyr’s statement (100s AD) that the Lord Jesus was born in a cave. Supported by Byzantine art showing nativity caves. Presumably, these were a little before Middle age, European villages.

  4. I posted a link to this article on Facebook, and there have been some interesting discussions there. I am posting them here for the sake of completeness of the conversation on this page.

    Steve Meyer said:
    I agree with your theological interpretation of the nativity story. What I fear can happen in our preaching is that we get so caught up in the details of how the event happened, that we miss the point and the mystery of God taking on human flesh – The Word becoming flesh in the God-hating world – for our sake. What is the deeper truth the story tells?

    MY REPLY:
    Steve, one of the biggest dividing lines in church today relates back to the theology of the cross. Traditional, conservative, evangelical Protestants (the branch of church I was brought up in) says that Jesus accomplished penal substitutionary atonement on the cross (google that term if it’s not familiar – it’s important).

    “Emerging church” theologians argue it is that AND so much more. But one of the keys to proving this is that we need to “see” that our interpretation of the Gospels and Paul’s writings has been coloured by a Greaco- Roman/European mindset. Simply put, this sees the Biblical narrative as a cosmic battle between good and evil, with the Cross as the defining moment of the vanquish of evil.

    I believe the Biblical narrative makes a lot more sense when read through Judeo-Ancient Near East eyes, in which the central theme has to do with Exodus and the journey to a new land and the making of a new people. Jesus is not just the Saviour of the saved – he becomes the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, and redeems all God’s people. There are many other important implications. … See more

    The picture of a welcomed Saviour, deliberately imaging the Passover Lamb would have been siginificant to the original readers of Luke. We should not miss the significance of this “detail” today.

  5. Neil,

    You suggested that maybe the Christmas birth stories are “myth”. I assume you mean this in the technical sense – acknowledging that the ancient authors had a different view of what “fact” is and how to record historically accurate information. Some parts of the Bible may in fact be mythical in this sense – similar to an impressionistic painting. Job, Jonah, the first 11 chapters of Genesis and other accounts do have enough mythical elements (I mean that in terms of the technical literary category) to make us at least pause to consider why the Biblical author chose that genre to express truth. This in no way reduces their value – but it must influence how we interpret the passages.

    At one level, the opening sections of the Gospel of John are “mythical”.

    But Luke (or Luke-Acts) sets up a very specific genre for us. Luke’s goal is to use eyewitness accounts to record historically accurate information about the life of Jesus and the early church. There is no myth here. His intent is historical fact as we would know it today.

    So, no, I don’t see the stories as mythical.

  6. Another conversation on Facebook goes as follows:

    Stefan Adrian Wozny.Pops wrote:
    I am puzzled – where are you reading this account in scripture?

    You say: There is nothing in the Bible that would indicate anything other than this scenario. It is our (mainly British/European) view of a homestead with a barn or stable out the back that has shaped our mental image of what happened that first Christ-mas night. It is not what happened at all.

    In Luke, it mentions none of these things and states simply that ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn’…. See more

    You have jumped from commenting on the nativity plays to how we read scripture? and then place your interpretation on the sequence of events which is just as imagined as the nativity plays and has no foundation in scripture either.

    Eisegesis seems to pop into mind here and you seem to be warning us of doing the very thing you have done?

    MY REPLY:
    Stefan, my point is that the Bible’s account gives us no indication one way or the other. We therefore need to rely on our cultural understanding. Our problem is that for a thousand years we have relied on an understanding of the wrong culture to aid our interpretation.

    Authors often make cultural assumptions about what they think their readers … See morewill “see” when they give us information. We need to know those assumptions in order to make sense of the writing. That’s not eisogesis, but an absolutely essential part of exegesis.

    But, Stefan, you’re right that I could have phrased that slightly better.

    STEFAN REPLIES:
    Sorry Graeme but where the Bible does not speak, we should not speak for it!

    We don’t even know if the inkeeper was Hebrew or middle Eastern and if he had any clue of their customs and traditions – he could have been a Roman and turned them away for other reasons altogether.

    The Bible is the transcendant Word of God and does not require us to use any cultural eyes. I do not see Paul writing and explaining Hebrew culture to anyone in the different towns in Europe, so why do we deem it necessary?… See more

    I think Steve makes a valid point – we strip things down to a point where we miss (intentionally or not) the vital point that Scripture is making.

    This Greaco/Roman narrative issue is Mclarenese and is rubbish! He uses it as a smoke screen to hide his rehashed fascist ideas and universalism.

    Jesus is Saviour of the saved for it is only those who accept and believe in His penal substitutionary death on the cross who get the salvation He wrought – this is clear in the Scriptures – which is why the inerrancy of Scripture is under attack, once again!
    His death was not a wide open door of salvation even for those who deny Him, so that they are saved against their will. There has to be acceptance of His vicarious death to become a Child of God otherwise you are not a Child of God as per the Scriptures.

  7. Thanks, again, Stefan, for nice and robust interactions. I hope we meet one day – I enjoy chatting with people who have very clear views and steadfast positions.

    You say, “the Bible is the transcendent Word of God and does not require us to use any cultural eyes”. I assume that when you say that (as when you also claim inerrancy for the Bible) you actually mean, “the Bible IN THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS AND LANGUAGE is the transcendent Word of God…”. Any act of translating the Bible into another language is by its very nature a cultural exercise. So, unless you’re prepared to switch our conversation into Hebrew, Aramaic or Kone Greek, I think you’ll have to admit to some cultural impact on our understanding of God’s Word.

    And beyond that, how do you explain references to, for example, the armour we are supposed to wear as a Christian? Paul used Roman legionnaire armour to express transcendent truth about how we are to live as Christians. We need some understanding of that uniform to make sense of the transcendent truth. Without that cultural knowledge, the image is useless.

    There are a thousand examples of this. I assume you and I have a semantic issue here, as I find it impossible to believe that you think we can interpret an ancient document written in a different language without access to the culture.

    On your second point: the issue of the view of the Scripture is not “Mclaranese”. This is a conversation theologians have been having been having for centuries. A recent proponent in the UK is Tom Holland – you can read his latest book, “Contours of Pauline Theology” online at his website – http://www.tomholland.org.uk. A good friend of mine in Cape Town, for example, is currently doing a PhD on how Paul used the Old Testament in his letters (a fascinating study of how we interpret Scripture). This is not a fringe thought of some new radical extremists – it is well established debate in theology.

    You also say, Stefan, that “Jesus is the Saviour of the saved” – where does the Bible say that?

    My Bible says, “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:9-10). (As a fun aside, my Bible actually calls Jesus the Savior of all men, but I added the U because of my culture…).

    However, my point was not about universalism. If you’d like to discuss that, then check out another blog entry I wrote recently: http://www.futurechurchnow.com/2010/03/18/salvation-for-all/

    Let’s keep the conversations on this blog on track, and also above the belt. Your tone when referring to Brian McLaren was unnecessary.

  8. Hello Graeme!

    Hahahah, nope, no Greek or Hebrew please – the only Greek I know is running our Fish and chip shop down the road! For all other stuff I have to refer to the net and pinch from others wisdom in these areas!

    It is strange Graeme, but I was actually going to just let this conversation go before I sent my last post on FaceBook – however, I get the distinct impression that God is rather concerned with you. Weird because I only know you through FB and so I do not understand this at all!!

    Cut to the chase then and back to the topic – understanding of cultural issues in order to try get a better understanding of the transcendant Word of God is, in my opinion, for the ‘elite’ only.
    No one in the outback of Siberia, Tonga, Cape Town or Cook Islands has access to this sort of information and yet, the Bible is totally relevant for them.
    Armour is a pretty well understod concept in multiple cultures wthout having to go into any depth on the various types of armour. Ephesus was under Roman occupation anyway and armour is no cultural nuance that many would not know anything about.

    That being said, there can be other small issues – take snow for example: How does a person in the Sahara(?) who has no clue what snow actually is, understand “Your sins are white as snow.” so, yes, there can be certain areas but those, whilst posing some problem to Bible translators, are easily overcome without changing the message of the Scriptures.

    Regarding Brian, sorry but he just gets up my nose and the more I hear from/on Ooze, the more convinced I am that this is a wolf in sheeps clothing and I think he is having an unhealthy influence on your thinking. But he is merely rehashing old fascist and universalistic ideas that do date back many years and have been disproved or fallen apart. Also, his attempts to deconstruct Christianity and the Bible are becoming clearer all the time but those who have been drawn into his teachings are failing to notice the changing depth of his heresy. But, as requested, I will let it alone.

    But the overall deconstruction, in various and subtle ways (and now becoming increasingly not so subtle) is what is going on here to try bring about a ‘New kind of Christianity’ – this has been done so many times before and all I can do is to point to what are the glaring errors and like Gamaliel, rest on God’s sovereignity to rule and bring this undermining of His transcendant Word, which has stood against so many attacks over the centuries, to nought.

    Oh yes, it would be nice to meet ya someday too! 😉

  9. I was watching a documentary yesterday on the discovery channel about the meaning the manger that Jesus was laid in, it was refreshing reading your thoughts today. We must change the way we have understood the cultural elements of Biblical times. I look forward to watching nativity play that depicts the middle-estern culture as it trully is, polite, kind and very hospitable.

  10. Stefan, I am touched at your concern for me. But, if McLaren gets up your nose, then so will I. You might be better placed to just leave well alone here… 🙂

    Actually, I mean it. I don’t think that serious study of the Bible is elitist. I think that many Reformed Evangelical churches are deliberately trying to keep their congregants dumb (Biblically, at least), under the guise of misplaced “humble piety”. That gets up my nose big time. I make no apologies for trying to go beyond amateur theologics on this website.

    I am happy to engage in conversations that are aimed at taking us forward in our understanding. But it gets very tiresome to keeping banging heads with those who feel they have nothing to learn, and everything to teach. (I am not accusing you of this. I am just saying that this seems to be the standard starting point for many reformed evangelicals). It is arrogance personified to think that NOW, in 2010, we have finally got all our theology right and have no mistakes, errors, omissions or mispaced emphases.

    Thanks again for your engagement. But if you think God has given you a mission to set me straight, please disavow yourself of that notion. Charles Spurgeon once had a woman tell him, “Mr Spurgeon, God told me to tell you that…”. He interrupted her and retorted, “Excuse my, dear lady, but if God has something to say to me, he knows my address too.” There is a potential arrogance in that response, which I hope to avoid (and is why I respond to everyone who engages with me on my website). But there is also something important in that response, too.

  11. Sorry Graeme, not meant to be arrogant in any way, was just voicing what I felt – I in no way feel it is a mission to set you, or anyone else straight – and you will notice this by the simple fact that I do not publish books or articles deconstructing Biblical tenants which have already been established over a number of years by very learned scholars.

    Absolutely, I too do not think we have it all together and there is a lot of room for improvement and learning. As for keeping people dumb, well that can be done in many ways and should not be permitted.

    I am out of here then, but thanks any way!

  12. Stefan,

    I didn’t mean to chase you away. I’ve enjoyed our interactions. I just prefer to “play the ball, not the man” when it comes to conversations on this blog.

  13. Hi Graeme,

    Last Christmas a pastor friend of mine made a random comment around a braai fire about this precise issue of an inn-keeper who is never explicitly mentioned in Luke’s account, and simply read into it. As you correctly observe, the “inn” in the gospel of luke is very likely the “upper level” of the house, and not a house dedicated to paying visitors as such. Interestingly the same word is used again in Chapter 22v11, (The last supper) where most english translations prefer to use the word “guest room “, “guest chamber” or simply “room”, depending on the translation. No translation that I have access to uses the term “Inn” here. Yet, in the Greek it is the same word. Also the person who makes this room available is not called an inn-keeper but simply a “master of the house”. There is also no mention of them paying “rent” for this room. It all goes to show that even in translation, interpretation already happens as the translator, with the best intentions chooses words that make most sense to him/her.

    Just a random comment…

    Martin

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