A new take on the Nativity

So much has been written about the Christmas story, as told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that it seems surprising that someone should find new insights about them, not from abstruse research but from reading the stories in context. But that is what seems to have happened for Tony Jordan, who is “one of Britain’s top TV writers” – according to an interview in idea, the magazine of the UK Evangelical Alliance (November/December 2010, p.30), about a BBC show The Nativity to be broadcast this coming Christmas. Jordan replies to the interviewer about how he approached the gospel nativity narratives:

… I talked to as many religious people as I could, but there were still things that didn’t make sense to me. For example, if Joseph had to go back to Bethlehem, the place of his birth, for a census, he must have had family there. Just one cousin. But he went to the pub. …

So I was sitting there at 2am, a Bible that’s all stained up, a hundred post-it notes, and suddenly it came to me in this wonderful, night-time stillness. I knew that I would just tell this beautiful story properly, because by doing that I can answer those nagging doubts. So they’re not taken in by their family because Joseph has with him this woman who’s pregnant and it’s not his. They disown him. And everything else fits. …

Now maybe Jordan’s insight is not really original. But this idea that Joseph’s relatives disown him is not one I remember seeing anywhere else. Yet it really does make sense of an oddity in Luke’s narrative.

There is more to this article, which is perhaps more important. Jordan continues:

The real truth of the story is not in small historical accuracies … As I wrote this script I cried on every page. Before I wrote this I had a lot of niggling doubts, but now I have no doubts.

I hope and pray this will also be the experience of many who watch this show – four parts to be shown between 18th and 31st December on BBC One.

0 thoughts on “A new take on the Nativity

  1. Jordan’s problem disappears if you accept Kenneth Bailey’s reading of the text, in which he points out it’s not the conventional Greek word for ‘inn’ (which is used in the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Nor, admittedly, is it the usual word for ‘house’. However, on the basis of Middle Eastern culture, he argues it’s roughly more like ‘no room in the house’ rather than ‘no room at the inn’, since for a Palestinian family not to offer hospitality would be unthinkable.

    That’s a brief account of his position, and sorry if it’s rough around the edges (time is against me). Bailey wrote a journal article on this about 30 years ago, and has most recently expounded this theory in his book ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ (SPCK). He has found some level of support among commentators – e.g., John Nolland shows some sympathy for his position in his Word Commentary on Luke’s Gospel.

  2. Thank you, Dave. I do realise that there is a great deal of uncertainty about what is meant by the word traditionally translated “inn” in Luke 2:7. It certainly wasn’t much like a modern British pub. One good possibility was that it referred to the guest room in Joseph’s family’s house. In fact the NIV 2011 renders the last part of the verse “there was no guest room available for them”. But this interpretation is far from certain.

    I accept that under normal circumstances “for a Palestinian family not to offer hospitality would be unthinkable”. But were there exceptions to that? Would a family member ever be cut off from the family for some serious sin? We know that not long after this that was happening in Jewish homes to people who became Christians. Also the Law of Moses, for example in Leviticus 18:29, says that certain sexual sinners “must be cut off from their people”. We don’t know exactly what that meant. More specifically Deuteronomy 22:21,24 suggests that Mary’s presumed offence would have merited stoning to death, and John 8:5 (if genuine) implies that such punishments were carried out in Jesus’ time. I can’t help thinking that if the offenders had not actually been put to death very religious Jews at least would have treated them as if they were dead, and so not given them the customary hospitality. But maybe experts can tell us more about Jewish practice at that time.

  3. That’s a very good argument, Peter. I wonder whether any purported rejection hangs on whether Joseph and Mary were married when they arrived in Bethlehem? Luke 2:5 seems to suggest they were still (only) betrothed, whereas Matthew 1:24 might suggest they were actually married.

  4. A good question, Dave. Deuteronomy 22 suggests that Joseph should have had Mary stoned – at least from the point of view of people who assumed she was not a virgin. Joseph himself, in Matthew 1:19, thought that an alternative right thing to do was to break off the betrothal quietly. (NIV 2011 still uses “divorce” here, which doesn’t make sense as they were clearly not married at this point.) I would feel fairly certain that the strict Pharisees would consider he had not done what was right (indeed it took an angel to persuade Joseph that it was right, Matthew 1:20-21) and would have used this as an excuse to shun him.

    By the way, Luke 19:7 suggests that even in the common people’s minds hospitality should not be shared with “sinners” like tax collectors, as well as I am sure to Gentiles. In Matthew 18:17 Jesus seems to suggest that unrepentant sinners of other kinds should be treated similarly. This does seem to suggest some limits to the customary hospitality of the time. Bailey is not always right to read the customs of modern Muslim and Christian Palestinians into the ancient Jewish inhabitants of the same land.

  5. Yes, I quite take your point that contemporary customs should by no means always be read back, although Bailey often suggests that such things haven’t changed over many centuries. Whether he is right or not on that, I cannot comment.

    However, what I was wondering is this: assuming for argument’s sake (or maybe more!) that your thoughts about limited hospitality are correct, what would be the appearance of Joseph and Mary to his relatives in Bethlehem if they turned up already married, as Matthew possibly implies? Your idea is of course much stronger if we limit ourselves to the Lukan material, because Luke still sees them as betrothed.

    Perhaps in rushing to type my comment I didn’t make myself clear: sorry if that was the case.

  6. Well, if they just turned up as a married couple with Mary pregnant, and the Bethlehem relatives didn’t know anything else, they would assume the child was Joseph’s and accept them. But maybe the scandal from Nazareth had already come to their attention. Joseph might not have been the only family member travelling from the north to Bethlehem. And others may have been highly religious, especially if there is any truth in a suggestion I have seen that Nazareth was a community of descendants of David waiting for the Messiah.

  7. Peter,

    This gets more fascinating with every reply you make. Thank you! I’m intrigued by your last comment about Nazareth as a community of David’s descendants waiting for the Messiah. Do you have a source for that? (Mones??)

  8. No, Dave, that wasn’t from Mones. His insights are always interesting but have the same limitations as Bailey’s. The idea of a Davidic community in Nazareth was somewhere on blogs in the last year or two.

    I just found, courtesy of Google Books, the likely source of this idea: a section in Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times by Paul Barnett. To summarise, Barnett notes that Nazareth was settled in the 2nd century BC, and suggests that the settlers were “the Davidic forebears of Joseph”. He proposes that the village took its name from netzer, the “Branch” of David in Isaiah 11:1, implying a Messianic focus to the community. Barnett doesn’t say, but someone else did, that they expected one of their own to be the Messiah – a claim perhaps mocked in John 1:46.

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