Ask the Experts: Christmas Questions Edition

(RNS) Why do some Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7? Was it an inn or a ancestral home that rejected the Holy Family? And did department stores invent many of our Christmas traditions? Find out in Ask the Experts, a new feature from RNS.


(RNS) Religion is a vast territory, and it’s always nice to find fellow travelers. Even better, a guide.

With that in mind, we’re starting a new feature here at RNS called “Ask the Experts.”

The idea is, readers like you send in questions about theology, history, literature, or any topic related to religion, and we’ll contact scholars to find out the answers.

In honor of Christmas, our first edition of Ask the Experts tackles questions about the events and traditions surrounding the holy day.

Special thanks to our readers for sending in such great questions, and to the scholars for taking time from their busy holiday schedules to answer them.

As always, we’re open to suggestions about the topics we address and the format we use to address them.

So, here we go…

Joseph Birthisel asks: Why do some Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th?

Peter Bouteneff, associate professor of systematic theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., answers: Until the 16th century, the secular and religious West recognized just one calendar, the Julian. When it became clear that this calendar required an adjustment in order to be true to astronomy, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the “Gregorian” calendar that is now universally used in secular life. But even until the early 20th century, much of Europe (especially Eastern Europe) continued to operate on the Julian calendar in both religious and secular spheres. And until this day, the Orthodox Church in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia, Mount Athos, and several other places continue to reckon its feasts according to the Julian calendar — at a separation of thirteen days from the Gregorian. That makes their Christmas fall on January 7. Most Orthodox Christians in the West, the Middle East, and Greece operate on the Gregorian (or the “Revised Julian”) calendar, so they celebrate Christmas on December 25.

Trevor Droesbeck asks: Why do we repeatedly hear about the “three wise men,” when biblical scholars say many magi visited Jesus after his birth?

Mary Elizabeth Sperry, a Bible expert with the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, answers: Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-11) refers only to some number (more than one) of “magi from the East” – a word used to refer to wise men or priests who often studied the stars for signs. Later, the Gospel says that they offer Jesus, the newborn King of the Jews, gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The three gifts led to the assumption that there were three gift-bearers while the interpretation of some Old Testament texts (especially Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60:6) led to the belief that they were kings. Later traditions that ascribed specific names and birthplaces to these men emphasize their importance in Matthew’s Gospel – they show that Jesus was born to bring salvation to the people of all nations. Matthew’s Gospel concludes with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) wherein Jesus charges his disciples to teach all nations and baptize them, bringing the gift of salvation, far more precious than gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to all peoples.

Todd Bolen, associate professor of biblical Studies at The Master’s College, adds: The visit of the magi is told only in the Gospel of Matthew and because the writer mentions three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, Christians have assumed that there were three visitors. All we know for sure is that there were at least two because the word Magi is plural.

Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, adds: magi were astrologers. They were normally counselors to kings and priests, and hence considered wise men, able to read the signs of the skies and the times.

Carol Surine asks: Why did Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem? And Reuben Cedino asks: How did civil authorities determine which town people had to report to at census-taking time.

Witherington answers: Judging from the way the census was taken in the neighboring Roman province of Egypt, it seems clear they had to register with their relatives, and probably in their ancestral home town, hence Bethlehem.  Censi were taken for the purposes of taxation.  It would not have been the civil authorities that ordered Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem specifically. The decree would simply have said something like “you must register for the census at the village of your ancestors.”

Bolen adds: The Gospel of Luke records that because Joseph was a descendant of David, he went to Bethlehem. This makes sense because David was born in Bethlehem a thousand years earlier. We don’t know about the civil administration of this census, but one’s ancestry was very important in those days, unlike for many people today. Scholars believe that the archives that preserved family genealogies were destroyed when the temple was burned in AD 70.

Sperry adds: In the years after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the land was divided among the Tribes of Israel. Each tribe was assigned specific territory as their homeland. Even more than a thousand years later, at the time of Jesus’ birth, Israelites would know their tribe, as we would know our family names. Joseph and Mary were descendants of King David. King David was of the tribe of Judah and was born in Bethlehem, in Judah’s traditional territory. Thus, in the census, Joseph and Mary returned to David’s home city. The civil authorities would know the proper cities for each person based on the tribe to which they belonged.

Clairnel Nervik asks: Is it true that the word translated “inn” – kataluma – could also mean guest room? In other words, could Mary and Joseph been seeking shelter in relatives’ guest rooms, rather than at the inn?

Witherington answers: Not only can the Greek word kataluma mean “guest room” rather than “inn,”  it does elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel. For example, this is the word used  to refer to where the Passover meal would be eaten by Jesus and his disciples.  I think there is little doubt that Luke 2 reads “because there was no room in the guest room.” So what we must envision is that the holy family had to stay in the back portion of the ancestral home in Bethlehem, where they would have kept the beast of burden (hence the feeding trough referred to).

Archaeology has shown that in such homes you had a wall between the main front part of the house and the place where you kept your prized animal.  But these are Jews of course, so the animal would have been left outside, and the place quickly cleaned for Mary and the baby in view of ritual purity issues.  This also explains Luke’s later reference to Mary going and doing the ritual purity procedures after giving birth, due to the possibility of uncleanness being contracted in such a locale.

Lastly, Bethlehem was a one oxen town at this point and not on any major road. So, it is unlikely to have had an inn at all there.

Sperry adds: The Greek word used in Luke 2:7, typically translated as “inn,” is “katalumati.” The word “katalumati” is more literally translated as “guest chamber.”  It may be a guest chamber made available to family or friends or one rented out to visitors. Interestingly, the same root word (“kataluma” is used later in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11) to refer to the room where Jesus met with his disciples for their Last Supper before his Passion and death. Later in his Gospel, Luke uses the word for a commercial inn, “pandocheion,” in Luke 10:34, the parable of the Good Samaritan, to refer to the place where the Samaritan left the traveler to recover.

Bolen adds: Luke writes that Mary was placed in a manger because there was no room in the “kataluma.” This Greek word means “guest room” and not an “inn” as has been traditionally translated. When Luke wants to speak about an inn, he uses the word “pandocheion” as in the story of the Good Samaritan. Since Joseph was returning to his ancestral town of Bethlehem, it is likely he had family there. Thus it could be that Jesus was born in a part of the home where the animals were kept because other visitors were in the guest room. Some have speculated that the family did not treat them well because of questions about the legitimacy of Mary’s pregnancy.

Tyler Montgomery  asks: How was the birth of Christ celebrated before Constantine?

Martin Connell, associate professor at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, answers: The narratives of the birth of Jesus Christ in gospels that were accepted in the Bible and not suggest that the birth was proclaimed and celebrated before Constantine, but there are no extant texts from actual liturgies to make the suggestion a certainty. Also, the liturgical year only took shape after the books of the Bible were canonized. But the absence of a uniform year for celebrations doesn’t mean that feasts weren’t celebrated.

Ronald Goff  asks: Is it true that most Christian churches did not celebrate Christmas in significant way until about a hundred years ago? 

Connell answers: Completely untrue. I think of the many theologically and practically beautiful texts, in Latin and Greek, from late antiquity, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, on Christmas. The question would have carriage regarding Santa Claus and nineteenth-century commercialism, but not regarding Christmas and the birth of Christ.

Goff also asks: Is it true that department stores were the ones that started many of the traditions we celebrate today?

Connell answers: Yes. Stephen Nissembaum’s “The Battle for Christmas” is smart and engaging on how this happened in the nineteenth century. I’d assess that there were three contributing influences: ancient Christian tradition about celebrating the birth of Jesus; German customs for the end of the year; New York city’s commercialism.


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