Mythology of the Mean Innkeeper

“The Christmas portions of the gospels are at once the most beloved and the most mythologized texts in the New Testament. Like works of art that have been lacquered with coat after coat of varnish, the details of the original stories are sometimes hard to see clearly. In the last few posts I suggested that a close reading of Matthew’s account (chapter two) reveals that the star may be something entirely different than a comet or supernova or planetary conjunction, as is so often taught.

Today we turn to Luke’s account, famous for spawning a zillion nativity scenes with kids clothed in bathrobes and towels around their heads. The most obvious misreading of this text lies in the portrayal of an unmentioned innkeeper who heartlessly turns away the poor couple and forces them to find a stable.

Where did they stay in Bethlehem? Luke tells us that after the birth, Mary put the baby in a “manger,” or feeding trough, because there was “no room for them in the καταλυμα – kataluma” (Luke 2:7). While this term was translated as “inn” by the KJV, Luke elsewhere uses it to mean a “guest room” (Luke 22:11, the site of the Last Supper). When Luke does wants to speak about an inn, he the Greek word πανδοχειον – pandocheion (Luke 10:34, in the parable of the Good Samaritan).

Thus, Luke says nothing about Joseph and Mary being denied access to an inn and Mary having to bear the child in a barn. Historically, it is far more likely that Mary and Joseph had their child in the humble back portion of the ancestral home where the most valued animals were fed and housed, because the guest room in the family home was already occupied. In any case, Bethlehem was such a small village that it is not even clear it would have had a wayside inn. Admittedly, Jesus’ beginnings were humble, but we don’t need to mythologize them into a story about a pregnant Mom being cast out by a heartless innkeeper.

You probably know that by conflating the two separate accounts of Matthew and Luke, Nativity sets for years have included the Magi with the shepherds in that stable scene. It is obvious that Matthew states that they came to a house, not to a stable (Matt. 2:11).

I am not trying to be α cynical ‘‘Grinch,” and yes, our own Nativity set does contain the Magi! I am just asking us all to base our beliefs on the actual text of Scripture and not on centuries of religious paintings and a translation that could be improved!”

-Dr. William Varner, Complements of: http://dribex.tumblr.com/post/14163767418/mythology-of-the-mean-innkeeper

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