In the Fall of 1999, I took a class on the Gospel of Luke with the sharp-witted and inimitable Jon Weatherly, at Cincinnati Bible College (now: Cincinnati Christian University). At that particular stage in my life, I was beginning to develop a passion for learning and study (a passion that I sometimes wish was inflamed earlier on, but oh well).
My knowledge of biblical things, prior to Cincinnati, was admittedly scant (‘scatty’ might be the better term) and based primarily on things traditionally taught to kids/youth in the church. So, realising this intellectual lacuna and my newfound passion to fill it, I was eager to find out and know as much as I could, even if it meant being stretched or pushed in ways that were not entirely comfortable.
In Weatherly’s Gospel of Luke class, being stretched and pushed was nearly immediate. As a class, we were introduced to a number of new and exciting details about the third Gospel and many of these caused some disruption for teachings commonly given to church kids/youth. (At least, that is how I felt about it). One of the first disruptions came with the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, especially the bit about finding appropriate accommodations.
The traditional image usually conveyed shows Mary and Joseph wandering helplessly from inn to inn in Bethlehem, only to be turned away each time because the city was overcrowded. As the search seems to turn to desperation, a compassionate inn-keeper saves the day by offering his stable for the visibly distraught couple . . . and the rest of the story is fairly standard.
In what seemed to be an odd mixture of bravado and sensitivity, Weatherly openly spoke against this traditional image–primarily because there is little to no historical or textual support for it. (If memory serves, while taking notes on Weatherly’s explanation, I believe I wrote in the margin: ‘This will change things a bit’). Since that day in Weatherly’s class, I have not only researched things further but also tried my best to explain it other people. However, in what felt like the traditional image of the holy family, I found that most people had no room in their mental inn for this re-reading of the story.
However, thankfully, within the past few hours a number of blog posts have appeared by biblical scholars who advocate this re-reading of the story. For more details on this, check out here, here, here (which has a cool little diagram), here and here. All I can say is that I’m happier than a pig in the mud that this (corrective) explanation of the birth story of Jesus is making the rounds.