Christmas is quickly approaching and, as I do every year, I want to point my readers to a fantastic article by Stephen Carlson published in NTS in 2010 titled, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7." Carlson's study turns the traditional interpretation of the "inn" as being a kind of ancient hotel on its head. He also denies the view that Jesus was born in a stable or barn. Through a detailed lexical and semantic analysis of κατάλυμα and Jewish patrilocal marital customs during the time of Jesus, Carlson demonstrates that the reference to κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 alludes to a marital chamber built on top, or onto the side of, the main room of a family village home. According to Carlson, the phrase διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι should be rendered "because they did not have room in their place to stay." The reference to "their place" is the marital chamber attached to the family village home of Joseph where the married couple would have stayed for some time before finding their own place. Since there was no space in their room, Mary had to give birth in the larger main room of the house, where the rest of the family slept. Carlson also shows that it was common for a "manger" to be present in the main room of most Jewish homes and so this detail of the birth account is in keeping with Jewish living customs. I quote Carlson's conclusion found on page 342 of the article:
"Luke's infancy narrative therefore presupposes the following events. Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2.5). Bethlehem was his hometown (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12.2–8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family's town (v. 39; cf. 1.26–27). To be sure, this scenario as presupposed in Luke's infancy account diverges greatly from the conventional Christmas story. There is no inn, no innkeeper, and no stable. But it is grounded in a careful exegesis of the text."
This is one of those articles that can be described as truly being groundbreaking. Carlson's conclusions are so convincing that it would take considerable evidence to overturn them. Indeed, some may be uncomfortable with how this evidence changes the face of the traditional Christmas story and it does throw a wrench in how manger scenes are reenacted every year. But, this interpretation is, as Carlson admits, "grounded in a careful exegesis of the text." This article needs to be circulated widely, not only among academics, but also pastors and lay people alike, because it has serious implications for how we should understand this story as told by Luke. Carlson has posted this article on his personal website and it can be found here. Happy reading and happy holidays to all!
The Review of Biblical Literature (RBL) has just published a review of my book, authored by New Testament scholar and textual critic, Prof. Juan Hernández, Jr. (Bethel University). The four page review captures very well the intentions of the project and I want to thank Prof. Hernández for such a kind review. RBL is paywalled, but I extract a couple paragraphs below.
“With this book, the rationale for the exclusion of a select, carefully edited, and, by all counts, textually “meritorious” collection of amulets from the task of textual reconstruction has been eliminated. The writing, so to speak, was already on the wall. Studies have highlighted the value of noncontinuous manuscripts for textual criticism for some time now. That writing, however, moves toward fulfillment with the publication of Brice Jones’s New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity, the first systematic attempt to model how nontraditional artifacts can serve as bona fide witnesses to the Greek New Testament. What remains is a matter of will.”
“Brice Jones’s New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity is thus an undeniably exacting and captivating study that successfully models how a particular class of noncontinuous manuscripts—amulets—can serve as witnesses for understanding the textual history of the Greek New Testament and contribute to its textual reconstruction. Social artifacts are effectively transformed into textual artifacts in this study with considerable yields. The investigation is a model for how such work should be undertaken in the future. The assembled database is also of clear, independent value, irrespective of the book’s conclusions. The material is, in substance, above reproach, and any concerns that emerge are a matter of circumstance.”
“But the greater irony emerges from what New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity does so well, and for which it justifiably receives high marks: the transformation of a social artifact into a textual one. The task requires a commitment to a form of extraction that detracts from the artifact’s original function. Amulets are thus stripped of their humanity, with their record of the hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, and superstitions of the ancient supplicant, for a “higher” purpose. They are mined for a handful of Greek letters--voces magicae—in order to find correspondence with, and contribute to, a reconstructed text, the Greek New Testament. That text, however, is not a simple textual artifact. It is also a social artifact, and it too requires the right words, the right rituals, and the right ritual specialists.”
In the fall of 2009, I was a young, aspiring scholar of biblical studies who stepped foot on one of America's oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education, Yale University. The traditions of excellence at Yale run deep, and I knew that. The buildings, in fact, intimidated me. I overcame that with time because I was there with a purpose: to learn from the best. I was accepted to several top-tier universities for my masters work, such as Vanderbilt and Emory. The other institutions were closer to home and would have been more convenient in that regard. But, I wanted more, and I knew Yale would provide that for me.
My advisor at Yale was the wonderful Prof. Adela Collins, from whom I learned so much. As a New Testament scholar and author of many books, including an encyclopedic commentary on the Gospel of Mark, she exemplified what it meant to be a scholar...and a wonderful human being. (I really wish to return to Prof. Collins because she listened to my 22 year old self and agreed to supervise a directed seminar that I proposed.) In my first advising session with Prof. Collins, I expressed interest in taking Prof. Harold Attridge's REL694 seminar, "Readings in Hellenistic Jewish Literature." Prof. Attridge was at that time Dean of the School of Divinity. She remarked something like, "That's a hard course, you know." She then followed up with questions about how much experience I had with Ancient Greek. I felt pretty confident, since I had taken 3.5 years of Greek grammar at Lee University, where I obtained my baccalaureate degree. With this information, Prof. Collins gave her blessing and so I signed up for Dean Attridge's course.
On September 3, 2009, I walked into a seminar room on the first floor of the Yale Divinity School full of peers. We awaited Dean Attridge's arrival. Dean Attridge was never slow, I would learn later. He was quick to move from one place to the next. He came walking swiftly through the door and it was down to business. After we went around the table introducing ourselves, Dean Attridge discussed some business related to the course. Perhaps the scariest thing we learned that day was that 80% of the student’s grade would be based on a final exam consisting of a translation of an unseen Greek text! Then, he passed out a few sheets of Greek text from the Septuagint. He said, "Just for fun, we're going to sight read some Greek." Unknowingly, I happened to have taken a seat next to where Dean Attridge would sit for the rest of the term. And on this first day of class, that meant I was up first to sight read the provided Greek text. While perspiring, I managed with some difficulty to make my way through a block of text from Joshua. I'm pretty sure Dean Attridge did this in order to gauge the skill level of those taking the course.
This course was difficult. Prof. Collins was right on the mark when she told me that. We read difficult passages from Philo, Josephus, wisdom literature, poetry, and so on. The syllabus indicated that we should read about "6-8 hours" of Greek each day in preparation for the weekly seminar. When we were in the seminar, each student took a turn reading passages in sequence from the selected text. In our second seminar on September 10, we read three chapters from 2 Maccabees. (For those who don't know, that's a lot of Greek!)
The Greek became more difficult as the course progressed. We spent the entire month of October reading Philo. And Philo is not easy to read in Greek. The grammatical constructions frequently caused me to go mad. As much of the class struggled that month, that was certainly not the case for Dean Attridge. He had a habit (tradition?) of finishing the final minutes of the class by translating the remaining portions of text from that week. (For those who don’t understand this: he is holding nothing but Greek text in his hand, translating the Greek into English in his head, and speaking that translation aloud. This is how sight reading works.) The month we read Philo, he would spend anywhere from 3-5 minutes swiftly yet gracefully translating Philo into English…beautiful, decipherable English, for us all to hear. Had I not witnessed it, I would have thought he had words marked up and parsed on his text. I sat right next to him, remember, and so I always looked onto his sheet: the man translated some very difficult Greek without assistance almost as fast as I could read a passage from some popular children’s book!
I will never forgot Prof. Attridge’s command of the Ancient Greek language. I will also never forget his willingness to talk to the students as he walked through the halls, attended events, ate in the refectory, and so on. This evening, when I learned of Prof. Attridge’s retirement after 23 years as dean, scholar, and professor (<—read this!), I could not help but sit down and reflect on my time with him at Yale. I set out to learn from the very best scholars when I attended Yale. Prof. Attridge was one of those scholars and I am grateful I had the privilege to take one of his courses and cut my teeth on some of the most difficult Greek I had experienced up to that point.
A warm congratulations on your retirement, Prof. Attridge!
PS: My score on the final exam was an HP+ (Ivy League grading, equating to B+).
In my 2016 book on amulets, I analyzed an incomplete parchment codex folio with Greek text from the Gospel of Matthew (6:4-6, 8-12). The manuscript is housed at Columbia University and was published as P.Col. 11.293. I echoed an earlier claim that this fragment was likely deliberately torn or cut from a continuous-text codex and used secondarily as an amulet for the text it contained (portions of the Lord's Prayer). Consequently, I argued (p. 103) that this manuscript should be listed in the Kurzgefasste Liste:
"Since this fragment was likely originally part of a continuous codex of at least the Gospel of Matthew and used only secondarily as an amulet, there is no reason why it should not be classified and added to the official list of New Testament manuscripts. As we shall see below, P.Oxy. 64.4406 (no. 15) is similar in that that fragment was also probably from a continuous codex and used secondarily as an amulet. (Yet, ironically, P.Oxy. 64.4406 has a place in the list under the GA number P105.) Thus, we have here a parchment manuscript that should be added to the majuscule category (e.g. 0xxx)."
Gregory Paulson at the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) reached out to me earlier this month indicating that this argument "makes perfect sense." I can now report that the INTF has listed P.Col. 11.293 as a majuscule manuscript in the GA system with the next available majuscule number, 0324. It is viewable in the online Liste here and at the Papyrological Navigator here.
Thanks to Gregory Paulson and the others at INTF for engaging with my work.