Lectionary Reflection for Christmas

From Luke (BTCB; forthcoming) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 2: 1-20

One striking thing about Luke 2 is another, starker juxtaposition: the holy can appear in the midst of much that is public and profane. Rome’s imperial power, proclaimed in the decree of Caesar Augustus “that all the world [hyperbole for Roman Empire] should be registered” (2:1; KJV’s “that all the world should be taxed” reflects the reason for the census), is a reminder of the rule over Judea of an alien secular power. Caesar’s proclamation itself was hardly good news. There was a species of peace to be sure (pax Romanum), the kind of brutally enforced social quietude often found under tyranny. Quirinius, the governor of Syria, decreed the Roman census that, though first enforced in this district, was not the first ordered by Caesar. Nor was the idea that everyone should go to his own city unusual for such a Roman census, though it may indicate an expedient adaptation to Jewish custom by which registration in one’s ancestral home would seem a natural way to pay taxes. It is also possible that Joseph had ancestral property in Bethlehem, rented out in his absence, perhaps, to kin.

Although Bethlehem may derive its name from a pre-Jewish settlement, it has the sense in Hebrew of “house of bread”—an etymology of interest to later commentators. The Septuagint does not in fact refer to it as a “city of David”; that appellation is found only in the Masoretic Text, yet another reminder that Luke is indebted to Semitic sources. Yet Luke does not mention the prophecy in Mic. 5:1–2, even though he continues to stress (cf. Luke 1:31–35) the lineage tracing to David. Details concerning the attempt of Joseph and Mary to find a temporary dwelling (usually translated “inn”) are sparse, and it can be helpful to a modern reader to know some of the pertinent cultural context. The Greek term katalyma signifies a building that is probably not in our sense an “inn,” but rather a public shelter. The former would be designated a pandocheion, a commercial inn such as is designated in Jesus’s parable about the good Samaritan. A katalyma is not like this; it is rather a sort of guestroom in a private dwelling, and to stay there one would presumably have to know the owner. If Joseph had been renting out his own ancestral property, he might well have expected to be able to stay in its katalyma while in town for the census. Moreover, the laying of Jesus in a “manger” or feed trough may not indicate, as typically imagined, a barn or “stable” in our Western conception of those terms, as the repeated term might seem to warrant. Bailey shows that for Joseph and Mary to have been turned away from an already occupied katalyma (“guestroom”) almost certainly indicates that their intended hospice was in a simple family dwelling. A typical Palestinian family home would have a larger family room adjacent to a “stable” or animal shelter, it being at a lower level, with an opening, at head height for the animals, into the general family room. Hollowed out of the tufa rock along the ledge separating the stable from living quarters were the feed troughs. The animals would actually have their heads in the family room as they ate. There is a mundane sense in which an ox could hardly avoid knowing his owner, or an ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3); this adds to the bite in the taunt of the Lord as recorded by Isaiah, a recollection of which carries a homely poignancy in this manger scene. The slope of the overall Palestinian dwelling was a practical requirement since animals were kept at the lowest level; typically the guestroom would be at the highest level, literally “an upper room.”[1] To the early Christian mind, especially for Palestinian followers of Jesus, the connection of this hospice to the “upper room” of the Last Supper in which Jesus himself would eventually play the part of host, and thus of Bethlehem, the “house of bread” to the “bread of life” of the Thursday supper and Eucharist, would have come more naturally from the literal sense than it does for most of us.

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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