Downstairs from the living quarters, a traditional Palestinian house - like the one where Jesus was likely born - was a "manger" where animals would be gathered at night. When the angel tells the shepherds, "This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:12) the shepherds would have gone looking for a room like this. Photo by Michael Swan

Away in a real manger

  • December 21, 2014

At some point, this Christmas season most people will almost certainly receive a Christmas card, or e-card, depicting a plump, blue-eyed baby Jesus lying in an impoverished crib lined with hay and surrounded by friendly farm animals. There might be a barn in the background, beneath an enormous star and framed by pine trees with snow bending the branches. If it's the thought that counts, somebody hasn't thought this through.

The babies born of teenaged peasant mothers who spent the last weeks of pregnancy walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem are unlikely to have been quite so plump. And blue eyes would have been the first miracle.

A trough made of wood is just as silly. Bethlehem is in a dry, rocky part of the world. Wood is far too precious to hold animal feed. Hay or straw is rarely grown in Palestine or Israel today and was certainly not grown in or around Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

Consider the animals. Even today, a cow is the most expensive animal a farmer can raise. In the Bible, heifers come up as the highest and most prestigious animal sacrifice offered at the temple. Jesus' parents could go no higher than doves. Donkeys and camels were owned by the merchant class to move goods. Joseph was no merchant. The farm animals of Jesus' mileau were sheep and goats. He speaks often of shepherds, sheep and goats when teaching His disciples.

The wooden barn? Who could have wasted so much wood to house animals?

If the Christmas card includes both wise men and shepherds, proceed with caution. There's no mention of wise men in the Gospel of Luke, which does speak of an angel visiting roustabout shepherds. St. Matthew mentions the exotic, foreign visitors who arrive from a different culture, a different religion and a different civilization bringing royal gifts to the peasant baby.

In a way, there's nothing wrong with inaccurate Christmas cards, Jesus is born into every time, every place, every culture. Christmas creche scenes that seem to be based more on the 1970s' television series The Waltons than on first-century Greek accounts of events in the Roman province of Judea are okay if they bring Jesus into our lives, our time, our culture.

Still historical reality has a great deal to teach us.

Christmas is the story of how the eternal God broke into our temporal, mortal, human reality. If God can become an event in history, then the history matters.

The incarnation is not the first or only time in God and history cross paths. God also intervenes in history when He chooses Israel, extracts His chosen nation from Egypt and escorts them to a promised land. God involves Himself in human affairs when He makes a deal (a covenant) with Abraham. God implicates Himself in the natural world when he causes the great flood, uses Noah to rescue nature from His own destruction, then makes a covenant with all of nature declaring Himself to be nature's protector.

For Christmas, let's concentrate on the hard, dry patch of ground ruled by three, non-Jewish strongmen – the surviving sons of Herod the Great – who were backed by Roman troops. At the other end, the family at the centre of the story was poor.

Mary was a teenaged girl, no older than a modern-day high school student. That was the marriageable age and there is nothing in the Gospels of Luke or Matthew which indicate she was an exception. Joseph was a builder (not a carpenter as we understand the term) and likely about 10 years older than Mary. The construction trades may have connected Joseph in way to the reign of Herod the Great and his sons, who were prodigious builders of entire cities, forts, ports, roads and the temple in Jerusalem. They weren't so much rulers as high-powered developers with connections to the Roman administration. Herod's ambitious building projects absorbed all the strong-backed, grunt labour Israel could muster.

Bethlehem is about 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, in hilly country, surrounded by olive groves. It's a good place to pasture sheep and goats. Though today it has become a densely crowded city, and the olive groves have been replaced by Israeli settlements, it was then a little agricultural node in the countryside.

Bethlehem's houses were dome shaped and made of stone – almost like a desert igloo. Inside there were two floors. The floor above was where the family (including grandparents, unmarried uncles, perhaps even one or two orphaned cousins) lived. Below was the manger – a space where the wary farmer could gather his animals at night.

Joseph and Mary did not arrive at an inn in Bethlehem. There was no hotel industry in the Palestinian countryside 2,000 years ago. The Greek word translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7 is kataluma – guest room. In Middle Eastern culture to this day, hospitality is not an optional social grace. It is an obligation – especially for a young, heavily pregnant bride.

But there may have been no place in the upper room of the house. Instead, they would have been given a corner of the space below, where the animals were kept at night.

In the last purely Christian village in either Israel or Palestine, the town of Taybeh, there is a perfectly preserved example of a typical Palestinian farm house. It's only about 250 to 300 years old, but stands in an unbroken tradition of peasant homes stretching back well past the time of Jesus.

Christ the Redeemer Church, the parish next door, has preserved and restored the house to show visitors something of the traditional Palestinian lifestyle and the kind of house where Jesus was likely born.

It is a safe and warm place, a place where life must be shared, a refuge for a family and the stage for simple living. Not as pretty as the Christmas card fantasy, but worth remembering this Christmas.


PHOTO GALLERY: Senior reporter Michael Swan takes us to the Palestinian Christian town of Taybeh and shows us what a typical Palestinian farmhouse, or a peasant home and manger where Jesus was born, would have looked like.

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