Christmas is winding down, but I want to point my readers, as I do every year, 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!
[A guest post from Dr. George Kiraz]
Did you know that Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute has been instrumental in bringing Syriac to the forefront of academic research for more than 25 years? Since 1992, the Institute has provided free online resources to the heirs of the Syriac heritage and to Syriac scholars worldwide. Most importantly, YOU can play a part!
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It is with excitement that I can now announce that I am under contract with the University of Michigan Press to publish a volume in the Michigan Papyri series (=P.Mich.) tentatively titled Christian Papyri in the Michigan Collection. This will be the first P.Mich. volume devoted solely to Christian papyri. The series is edited by Prof. Arthur Verhoogt and Dr. Brendan Haug.
As many of my readers know, I have worked on/published several papyri in the Michigan Papyrology Collection and have grown fond of the collection's staff, its history, and all the interesting artifacts within it. I look forward to taking on the task of editing a new batch of Christian papyri.
If you have not read Prof. Verhoogt's history of the Michigan Papyrology Collection, please be sure to buy his book, Discarded, Discovered, Collected: The University of Michigan Papyrus Collection.
In 1924, H. Idris Bell published a papyrus roll that was discovered in Philadelphia, on the northeast side of the Fayum in ancient Egypt. Now known by its publication number P.Lond. 6.1912, it was soon recognized that this papyrus was a copy of a letter from the Roman emperor Claudius (41-54) to the Greek embassy in Alexandria. The contents of this letter have contributed to its massive popularity among papyrologists and historians alike, because it gives us a glimpse of imperial policy and regional disputes in Egypt. In fact, it has received more studies than almost any other papyrus discovered in Egypt.
In his letter, emperor Claudius was responding to a letter sent from the Alexandrians in 41 CE who wrote for three main reasons: 1) to congratulate Claudius on his accession to the imperial seat, 2) to ask for certain favors, and 3) to have him settle a dispute between the Alexandrians and the Jews of the city. In the first part of the letter, the emperor addresses the various honors the Alexandrians had offered to him, such as the erection of statues. One of the interesting facets of this part of the letter is Claudius’ description of himself as “not wanting to be arrogant to men of my own day, for sacred things and the like are granted by every age to the gods along as special honors, in my opinion” (ll. 47-50). However, scholars have questioned whether we can take this description of Claudius' character at face value, since it may well have been politically motivated.
The section of the letter that has received the most attention comes at the end of the papyrus, in columns four and five: Claudius’ response to the feud between the Greeks and Jews. The Alexandrians’ question on this matter is often referred to as “the Jewish question.” Basically, Claudius sternly warns the Alexandrians that if they do not stop fighting with each other, he will be forced to intervene: “I shall be forced to show what a benevolent leader is when turned toward righteous rage” (ll. 80-81). He orders the Alexandrians to leave the Jews alone, because they have been inhabitants of the city “from a long time ago.” Additionally, they are to respect Jewish customs. As for the Jews, they are not to agitate, intrude in the contests, or “bring in Judeans from Syria or sailing down from Egypt.” Claudius was exercising good public policy, holding to a “perfectly judicial attitude” (Bell, 22). We learn from the prefect’s edict at the very beginning of the papyrus that not everyone in Alexandria was present to hear Claudius’ letter read out publicly. So, the prefect ordered that the letter be publicly posted in Alexandria, “so that man by man each understanding the letter you may wonder at the majesty of our god Caesar and for his goodwill toward the city be grateful” (ll. 7-11).
While the papyrus itself is not dated (almost certainly the original letter would have been), the edict is dated to 10 November 41, which offers a terminus ante quem, that is, a latest possible date for the papyrus. Our copy of Claudius’ letter is written on the verso of a long roll, whose recto bears the text of a tax register. There is a question as to why this letter turned up in Philadelphia in the Fayum in a first century tax archive of an official named Nemesion, son of Zoilos. Bell was of the opinion that the contents of the letter may have been of interest to the officials in Philadelphia, who could refer to it on matters related to Alexandrian citizenship.
What follows is an English translation of the section dealing with the “Jewish question.” For a complete English translation, see here; for the Greek text of the papyrus, see here. For further reading, see the following two works:
"But for the riot and uprising against the Judaeans (=Ioudaioi), rather, if the truth be told, the war, which of the two sides was responsible, even though (75) your envoys strove for great honour from the confrontation, and especially Dionysios son of The[o]n, still I did not want to have a strict investigation, while storing up in me unrepentant rage against the ones starting again. But I announce frankly that, unless you put a stop to this (80) destructive, relentless rage against each other, I shall be forced to show what a benevolent leader is when turned toward righteous rage. For this I yet again still bear witness that Alexandrines, on the one hand, behave gently and kindly with the Judeans, the inhabitants of the same city from a long time ago, (85) and not be disrespectful of the customs used in the ritual of their god, but let them use their customs as in the time of the god Sebastos even as I myself, after hearing both sides, have confirmed; to the Judeans I give strict orders not to agitate for more than (90) they had before, nor as though dwelling in two cities to send in future two delegations, which had not ever been done before; nor intrude in the gymnasiarchic or kosmetic contests reaping the fruits of their households while enjoying (95) the abundance of benefits without envy in a foreign polis; nor to introduce or bring in Judeans from Syria or sailing down from Egypt, from which I shall be forced to have serious suspicions; or else I shall take vengeance on them in every way as though (100) rousing up some common plague on the world. If after you stand aside from these things you both should wish to live together with gentleness and kindness towards each other, I shall send forth to the highest degree providence for the city as belonging to our household from bygone times. (105) I bear witness to my companion Barbillus always showing regar[d] for us (you?) before me, and who just now with complete zeal for honour has consult[ed] about the contest about you, and to Tiberius Claudius Archibios my compan[ion.] Farewell."