Recently on Facebook a friend by name of John who has a tendency to challenge people about faith questions, taking basically it would seem an opposing view to traditional Christian theology linked me in the course of a discussion about a series of photos I had uploaded showing our Christmas meal to the following article.
He also gave other links and each article had a numer of bones to pick with traditional Christian understandings of Scripture. In particular there wwas the old chestnut about “almah” not necessarily meaning a Virgin. I wrote the following rebuttal of that point:
I will take just one point for now, about Mary being just “a young woman” – clearly there is more meanings to almah than just “virgin” – one is reminded of Jungfrau in German – it means literally a young woman but is also the standard German word for virgin. There is no paucity of Germans and their literature in the world today so no room to get confused about that one, but clearly there is room for people to get confused about the semantic map of a word in classical Hebrew in an age where little Hebrew existed outside the remaining religious texts and even the Talmud is rather Aramaic than Hebrew.The article argues that if Isaiah had meant virgin he would have used betulah not almah. But the same problem exists with betulah – all it really means is a woman who is to be married. Her chasteness is a societal presumption. There were no words in Hebrew of a medical or biological import describing intact hymens etc that have at any rate survived in the corpus of Hebrew writing. Therefore the self same objections could have been raised to betulah.
In the Bible almah never is used in the sense of a woman about to be married, it is always about young women in a society where extramarital chastity and intactness of the young is presumed.
But the biggest argument of course is why would Isaiah make a big deal about messiah being born of an almah if that simply means a young woman? Would anyone have expected a firstborn to be born of an old crone or of a man? The verse simply becomes absurd with this reading.
Another point is that a pregnant woman would have been honoured and not left with whatever was left, the claim of the article about the manger. This is all very well but as an argument it barely stacks up in a situation where foreign government has sent people around the country to the place the man was born in in order to register for tax there. This was a typical case of an ill thought-out government imposition of duty on citizens with the resultant usual chaos compounded by the fact that the Roman rule had no love for the Jews and probably were having a great laugh at the logistical nightmare they had created.
So we have no idea how many married couples with pregnant ladies were turning up in Bethlehem and of course Joseph had no way of booking ahead, I am sure he did what he could, but as for consulting tripadvisor off of a mobile phone, well I doubt his donkey was equipped with that. So he got the leftovers. It’s hard to imagine turfing out rich clients who have already paid top shekel for the good rooms or asking them would you mind budging over for a pregnant lady when there probably were already quite a few pregnant ladies wrapped up in the chaos.But the real reason Jesus was placed in a feeding trough was again, prophetic. You see the feeding troughs such as they were resembled the ones you probably saw in the forests in Poland when food is laid out for deer. It is basically a trestle – two cross beams making X shapes at either end standing each on the bottom two feet while planks of wood join together the upper part of the X in a V shaped trough. In this goes straw, and the wrapped baby who is the Maker of each piece of mass or each photon or other unit of any physical force in this Universe is carefully placed inside it. You see Him between two crosses – just as he was on the day of His crucifixion. This is why He was born in this way.
“Leave the virgin birth out for the moment. We could have a long debate about it but let’s not. I should perhaps have trimmed the two articles to exclude it but I always prefer, if possible, to present complete articles rather than risk taking things out of context.
What I was really wondering was what you think of the suggested confusion of the words for inn and guest room and suggestion that the manger would have been located inside a house rather than in a barn. You may have relevant linguistic knowledge and I’m sure your opinion will be informed”.
So, what are we to make of the “no room at the inn” and the manger portion then? Well, he goes on to describe the common living quarters at the time, which was common place since the time of David through even the twentieth century time frame. Most common folk had small living quarters that consisted of mainly three sections in a house. The main room, the family room, was the large area where all daily life living took place, from eating to sleeping. There was usually a second room attached in the back, or sometimes on the roof, which was considered basically a guest room.
The family room portion was most often a few steps higher, off of ground level. As you entered into a home, on ground level, you had a small pinned off area, like a modern day “foyer” we’d have today, and then you would step up a few steps into the actual living area. That entrance was foyer area was where common folk brought in and stored their few family animals at night for warmth and protection. In the morning, they were taken outside and tied up in a courtyard area of the property, and that nightly stable area was cleaned for daily use.
At the edge of the living room area, within reach of the stable area, were elongated circular pocket style recesses in the floor where food for the animals could be stored and easily reached by them at night. These areas were referred to as mangers. So, if Joseph and Mary were staying in the house of someone that took them in, and Jesus was born in the family room and laid to rest in this recessed manger area, that would perfectly match the cultural scenario of the living quarters.
When it comes to the idea of the “inn” the original language gives us much insight on it’s own, but the cultural understanding makes it even more clear. Most understand this verse in Luke to be referring to a common hotel type place that had the no vacancy sign lit when Joseph arrived. However, the Greek word used here does not refer to a public lodging place. A public lodging facility, a lodging place for strangers, was a pandocheion (see Luke 10:34). The word used here in Luke 2:7 is the Greek word kataluma, which more properly means the guest chamber (and is translated as such in the Young’s Literal translation). We see this same word being used exactly as that in Mark 14:14 – and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ (see also Luke 22:11).
This guest room was, as mentioned before, the second major room of a common dwelling. So, in this case, if the family that took Joseph and Mary in, already had additional guests in the guests room, then we find Mary and Joseph sharing the front family room with their hosts, and therefore, when Jesus was born, he was laid in the manger portion of that family room, because the guest room was already taken.
There is so much more detail and historical as well as biblical backing for this explanation in his book, but this in essence is the overview of what would have been culturally understood at the time of Luke’s writing. All of this to say that Jesus wasn’t necessarily born in a barn, out in the cold, rejected by all the local living places, but was rather, born in the family room of a family who already had additional guests in the guest room.
This is basically at issue as earlier on in our discussion I had spoken of Jesus Christ as being the maker of every atom and yet placed in a feeding trough. I hadn’t actually made an issue of whether the manager was a separate barn or incorporated into an area where people also lived. I am fully aware that in earlier agricultural settings quarters could be shared with animals. To this very day the Chinese and Japanese character for a house or home
What would be less moot is that the kalatyma in question that they were turned away from was unlikely to have been a single room for the simple contextually obvious reason thatit says “διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι” or “because not was to/for them space/place in the katalyma”.
This makes it clear – they came with a reasonable expectation of using the katalyma, but there was no space left in it. If it were a single guest room there wouldn’t be a issue of space being in it. A guest room is for one person unless it’s like a dormitory or a hostel where people are sleeping in an open space who do not know each other. The point at issue was that they expected to stay there but there was no space for them. Talking about whether the Greek should have used “pandocheion” instead of “katalyma” is as pointless as arguing whether instead of an “inn” that could not accommodate them it was a B&B, or a hostel, or a motel, or a hotel, or a hostelry, a karczma, or a zajazd, or a Logis de France, or how many jolly Michelin stars the place had. Every language has a whole bunch of interchangeable terms for places that offer a night’s rest as their business. Getting into what the culture of it was back then is as irrelevant as trying to work out what Joseph’s budget was and if he was getting ripped off.
The point of all of this is summarised later on by the Lord Himself when He spoke of His position in earthly terms:
“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (Luke 9 v 58).
4 thoughts on “The Son of Man hath not where to lay His head…”
I find your linguistic insights very useful like when you discussed the verse of Christ talking about “why do you call me good” with the watch tower in a video a few yrs ago. Thank you, Simon.
Many thanks, Simon.
I’m a brother in Christ and also a polyglot. I was wondering about your opinion on potentially taking a look at Biblical Greek and Hebrew and using my linguistic skills to strengthen my faith in this way. I’m assuming you’ve done it. How do you feel and what has that done for you and people around you?
Thanks, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Personally I think it is a path which can be trod and requires a certain discipline, but whether becoming highly expert in Bible languages will give an awful lot of fresh insights or make you feel nearer to God, well, I am a little cynical about it. It is good to know of course the background of some words and expressions which don’t map perfectly onto English in order not to read too much or get the wrong interpretation from a certain word or phrase in the English Bibles, but the likelihood that you will do a better job than the existing translations is maybe not high. The best use of a knowledge of NT Greek or Biblical Hebrew could be to witness to Greeks and Jews, the latter being an art in itself given the appalling witness to Jews that the Church has managed over the years, and also for self-defence against people like Watchtower and even some Muslim specialists in challenging Christians who come along with spurious claims about what the first chapter of John is saying, etc etc, and who pretend to be more learned than we are.
It certainly is worth knowing enough to defend oneself against the likes of them, but in comparison with what there is to know, that isn’t an awful lot.
Given the choice of learning Arabic or Hebrew, I personally would go for Arabic as there is a bigger battle going on over Islam now and they like to bring the language into the arena. If you do wish to discuss Bible with any Jews then you are less likely to find them quibbling over the translation into English and of course back at the time of the Reformation, Jews were consulted by English Protestants over the meanings – we did not simply rest on the Septuagint like they did in many countries.
Other than that, of course in each generation in each nation there do need to be SOME Bible scholars proficient in the original tongues, but it is a particular calling and if you spend time on it otherwise than having that calling, well each minute spent on it is one minute less learning something else which might be relevant to your actual calling. You have to know that for yourself, there are plenty of mini-Popes areound who will try to tell you what your calling is if you don’t watch out, but it is a matter for personal prayer and deliberation.