In my search for new insights that year, I came across an article by Kenneth Bailey, 'The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7' reprinted in ABR's Bible and Spade. Bailey has written a new book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (2008), which expands on these insights and others. This book can be purchased in the ABR bookstore.
Initially, I was appalled by Bailey's suggestion that our traditional view of the Christmas story (which I had preached some 12 years, myself!) was all wrong. In fact, I dismissed his ideas on the basis of my life principle - 'don't confuse me with the facts!'
Author Gary Byers highly recommends Bailey's new book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, which offers fresh insights into the life and ministry of Jesus from a non-western cultural perspective.
But a few years later, after doing the research for my master's thesis on domestic architecture in Iron Age I Palestine (the time of the biblical Judges), I finally gave in. From his own background and training, Bailey had been able to view both the biblical text and the biblical world from a non-Western world perspective. Growing up in Egypt and teaching for 40 years in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus and Jerusalem, Bailey was able to make application from the Middle Eastern culture, with which he was so familiar, to the Scriptures which he studied and taught.
That year, not only did my Christmas sermons change, but I began to look at the whole Bible from a new perspective. Now I tried to read it without my own preconceptions (which I had learned at home, church, college, seminary and graduate school) and let the words of the text say what they mean. When I did that, I began to see customs and practices in the text that fit both modern Middle Eastern practices (a field of scientific research known today as anthropological or ethnographic studies) as well as archaeological research. It changed my appreciation of the biblical text forever.
Since that first year, I have continued to share the Christmas story somewhere (I have been away from that church for almost 18 years now), always and only from this view of the story. There is no doubt in my mind that a careful reading of the biblical text combined with current archaeological and anthropological research absolutely supports these insights. On top of all that, this new understanding leads to exciting applications of the text for our lives.
Not that everyone embraces my insights. I have actually made some people mad! But most folks are interested in truth and a greater appreciation of what the Bible actually says. They can also embrace the practical application that comes from this new understanding of the Christmas story.
In reality, there are many views which we hold as sacred but are not well supported in Scripture. Many of us actually believe something because we have heard a text explained that way so many times. Or, far worse, we developed our views from a television documentary or even a movie. While each of these can offer some insights, we simply must take an honest look at the biblical text for ourselves and honestly ask: 1.) What does it say; 2.) What does that mean; and 3.) How can I apply it to my life?
And if anyone would want to embrace truth and need not fear it, that should be us, who know God and believe His Word to be truth. New insights don't intimidate us. We can examine new information and if it is truth, it will be consistent with Scripture.
The best way to appropriate the spiritual power of a passage is to really understand what the text meant as the author originally wrote it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. From that vantage point, we are in a place to experience the full spiritual impact of those verses. Then we can make application of that truth to our lives, in any number of ways, and it will give us insight and empowerment. Anything short of that is really second best.
So, whether you are a pastor looking for some new information to use for this year's Christmas series or you are a believer looking to understand the Bible better, go ahead and click on this offsite PDF link, Bible Study Magazine, and check out the story for yourself. Away in a Manger, but Not in a Barn.
And may the Christmas season of 2009 be full of great insights and joy for you and yours!