By Zachary Guiliano
I wrote an article recently about the “Poverty of Jesus,” responding to a few blog posts written by Ian Paul, which have come out regularly around Christmas on his blog Psephizo. Because of the direction these posts took last year, and some subsequent online discussion of them, I decided to focus narrowly in my article on Ian’s description of the economic status of the Holy Family. My current academic research is focused on the interpretation of the Gospel of Luke and particularly the economic conditions of Late Antiquity, so that is where my mind has been. And, essentially, I think he is misunderstanding or misusing some of the evidence we have from the ancient world.
I left to one side his point that the word frequently translated as “inn” (Greek: kataluma) should really be taken to mean “guest room,” or his related points that Christ was likely born within a home rather than in a separate stable or outbuilding. Several people have written to me, suggesting that I should write something in response to that issue as well. So here we go.
A preliminary remark. I believe there is wisdom in St. Augustine’s advice in De Doctrina Christiana 1.36-40 about whether to criticize Christian teachers and their preaching or interpretation of Scripture. If they are building up love for God and neighbor, and they get some details wrong, it’s alright. They have arrived at the right place by the wrong path. Let it be. Interpreting Scripture is difficult. This is a good general rule, particularly for theologians, biblical scholars, and church historians. We spend a lot of our time trying to get the details just right, and so we often assess fellow Christians as if they are students or enemies in need of correction or discipline.
It does seem to me, however, that someone can cross a line, and I think Ian has done that, knowingly and on many occasions. Over the years, he has described his activities or the implication of his views as “iconoclasm“ or “driving a coach and horses through our cherished Christmas tradition.” This has coincided with him linking to or mentioning critically the Christmas preaching or message of various people, from Sam Wells of St Martin-in-the-fields to Mgr. Charles Pope, a Roman Catholic parish priest in Washington, DC. A great deal of contentious exchanges on social media have accompanied these posts each year. I have not enjoyed being a part of them. But it seems Ian is seeking each year to create a public controversy, criticize others, and change the public preaching of the Church. At such a point, I think he deserves some response.
Now onto the issues of inns, houses, and stables. The fact that the Greek word kataluma can refer to a guest room is not controversial. Generally speaking, I agree with Ian on this basic point. It is a general term; there’s another more specific word for an “inn,” such as we tend to imagine it. It appears in Luke 10:34 in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Ian and I agree in other ways, too. I said to him back in 2018 that his post “Jesus was not born in a stable“ could be titled “the stable was not how you imagined it.” He said then, “Yes, possibly, but I think most people would have a harder job reimagining it in these terms.” So we’re not actually arguing about whether Christ was laid “in a manger where oxen feed on hay,” to use the words of the carol — whether there were animals, fodder, and feces around — in other words, whether the Virgin Mary gave birth in a place different from where you would expect the Son of God to be born. The argument lies elsewhere.
Ian states that many ancient Near Eastern homes were “a single room house with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, in the living area, where the animals would feed.” And so the manger would have been, in one sense, within the home. This would have been true, not just in the Ancient Near East, but also in a variety of pre-modern cultures.
Until now, we have been on the same page. But here we part ways, and here I think Ian makes a series of imaginative leaps that are unjustified by the biblical text, both in terms of the historical context and in terms of what Luke 2 actually emphasizes.
To begin with, the simplest point is that Luke doesn’t describe the setting of the Nativity in detail at all. There is no description of the arrival in Bethlehem, no description of whether anyone greeted or hosted Joseph and Mary. This is most evident when the angel tells the shepherds that Christ has been born “in the city of David.” No description of a house or neighborhood takes place, and the key sign is that the child is “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). Again, when the shepherds arrive, they “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (2:16). We have a limited set of relevant characters and circumstances surrounding the event
This lack of detail contrasts somewhat with Elizabeth’s pregnancy; we are specifically told that Mary went off to stay with her in the Judaean countryside because they were relatives (1:36, 1:39, 1:56) and that Mary stayed with her for three months: that is, for the last trimester of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and for the first of hers. (Notably, this is why St. Ambrose uses the story of the Visitation when exhorting people to take care of pregnant women.)
We hear nothing of the sort about Mary and Joseph. For Luke, the lack of room in the kataluma, the placing of Christ in the manger, the presence of shepherds and angels, the timing of the “registration” under Quirinius ordered by Caesar — they trump every other detail. We have no other who, what, where, when, or why.
This makes Ian’s insistence (based on Kenneth Bailey’s work) on family hospitality being offered to Mary and Joseph rather striking: “it would be unthinkable,” Ian writes, “that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives.”
This is, of course, not an argument from Scripture, nor a detail or emphasis of any of the gospel writers. It’s not something commentators, ancient or modern, agree on. It may well be true; it may not be. What we know is that Luke does not say anything about this, and so any Christmas preaching based on it may be historically informed in a certain kind of way, but it is essentially a newly invented human tradition about the birth of Christ. Do we know Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were with family at all?
The other point is that while Ian’s description of first-century Palestinian homes is fine as a general point, it tells us nothing about the actual buildings in which the Holy Family found themselves. He asserts that they would have been staying in a home too poor to have more than a one room, but of course we do not know. Houses were not uniform. After all, he is elsewhere keen to say Jesus and his followers occupied something of a “middling” status in the first century economy. Why couldn’t Ian’s middling Jesus have found himself visiting a middling home of middling size? Truth be told, we do not know whether Jesus, Mary, and Joseph stayed in a one-room home or something a bit larger, or whether their host even had enough wealth to justify separate outbuildings. Many things are possible.
And this perhaps brings me to my final point about the use of historical research. It’s good fun to get out your scholar’s quill or pen or laptop and do a little debunking — at least, it’s fun for the scholar — just like it’s fun for the light-hearted comedian to toy with taboos or engage in a little snark. But we must be responsible in how we go about both of these activities, particularly when it touches upon the things of faith. If we don’t really have the evidence to back up our claims, and if our assertions aren’t really related to the emphases of the gospels themselves, why bother?
The manger scene is among the most recognizable cultural icons in the world. If one of us were to enter a churchyard or sanctuary and scatter it, if we were to steal some of the figures or re-arrange them, if we were to deface them, we would draw the ire of citizens and churchgoers alike. And if we made this activity an annual tradition, I suspect we would find ourselves less than loved.
I believe Ian Paul knows this is true of writing about the Nativity as well. And so I beg him: not another year.
The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.