Tag Archives: nativity

Three (Specific) Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Typically on these lists I’ve addressed concepts and categories instead of actual Hebrew and Greek words from the Bible. This blog is meant for public consumption, so I rarely delve into scholarly minutiae. But here are some specific words from well-known biblical texts that are begging to be revisited and reconsidered.

Luke 2:7: The Greek word kataluma doesn’t mean “inn”

We’ll start with this one since it’s not particularly controversial, though it has the potential to completely transform the way we read Luke’s nativity story. The familiar reading sees Mary and Joseph turned away by an innkeeper with no vacancies, forced to birth their baby in a filthy barn among the livestock. While this is a suitably ironic and dramatic setting for such an important event, it also strikes us as a tad melodramatic and harsh. Were first century Judeans really so cruel as to force a pregnant women to deliver in a pigsty?

The word kataluma doesn’t connote an inn or public place of lodging, instead it refers to the “upper room” within a family home where guests stay and share meals with their hosts. This is the same word which describes the room where Jesus and his followers celebrated the “Last Supper” (see Mark 14:14).

In this clarified reading of the story, Joseph returns to Bethlehem to find his family home full of visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins in town for the census and holiday. The kataluma is already at capacity. His family doesn’t toss Joseph and Mary out back in the barn to fend for themselves, rather they invite them into the main living quarters of the home, where the host family resides and where the spotless sacrificial animals are kept and cared for, and where stone hewn mangers are carved into the very structure of the house. The context and circumstance of Jesus’ birth were indeed humble, but he was actually born in a place of relative honor and comfort, according to Luke. It is not difficult to see the theological implications of what the gospel writer is doing here.

Isaiah 7:14: The Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean “virgin”

Now things get a little more dicey. Christian apologists will deny and fight this one until their last breath, but it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 does not refer to a virgin but simply a young woman of childbearing age. In the specific context of Isaiah, the prophet is clearly forecasting the natural birth of a child in his own immediate future. The point of the verse is not the mother or the birth but the child that will be born, and he will be a king who will defeat the Assyrians (7:20). That king was born, and his name was Hezekiah.

When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in the third or second century B.C.E., almah was approximated with the Greek parthenos, which does not necessarily refer to a sexually pure virgin, but usually refers to a young, unmarried girl. By the first century C.E., the Jewish authors of the New Testament were using that Greek translation (called the Septuagint) as their primary scriptural source, and the writer of Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 as one of five Hebrew Bible “fulfillments” in the early life of Jesus. This point is this: Isaiah once said that a parthenos would give birth to a savior child, and it is happening again.

People often misunderstand what I’m arguing here. This discussion has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin or whether the author of Matthew is “wrong.” The point is that Isaiah 7 was never about a miraculous virgin birth in its original setting. Matthew performs a hermeneutical maneuver (band name!) based on a reading of the Septuagint to compose Jesus’ origin story. I assume that this author understands perfectly well what is really going on in Isaiah, and exploits parthenos as a license to draw a connection between two stories about two kings.

(SIDE NOTE: You’ll notice that conservative and complementarian Bible translations like ESV make a point to always translate almah as virgin in the Old Testament, which sometimes results in creepy renderings of verses like Proverbs 30:19.)

Romans 3:25: The Greek word hilasterion doesn’t mean “propitiation”

“Propitiation” refers to the appeasing of an angry deity by means of sacrifice or ritual. Blood is spilled or life is taken, and the wrath of the god(s) is satisfied or abated. The King James Bible translated the Greek hilasterion as simply “propitiation,” which rendered Romans 3:25 as “Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” This verse, more than any other passage in the New Testament, became the “smoking gun” for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which understands Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice which appeased the wrath of God, if only for those who will believe in it as such.

But the word hilasterion, admittedly difficult to define succinctly, has more to do with “expiation” than “propitiation.” Both concepts deal with the problem of humanity, sin, and God, but while propitiation refers to a godward flow of appeasement and sacrifice, expiation connotes an outpouring of forgiveness and pardon from God to humanity. It has to do with the removal of guilt and the application of mercy rather than the satisfaction of a divine bloodthirst. In the Greek text of the Torah, hilasterion is the name of the “mercy seat,” the footstool of God (and the “lid” of the ark of the covenant) from which God dispensed forgiveness and blessing.

Given all of this and the greater context of Romans 3, it seems that the cross (for Paul) is not the place where God’s wrath is poured out on the innocent Jesus, but rather the place where God’s mercy confronts and forgives human sin and evil. It is precisely by absorbing wrath, not dispensing it, that God’s mercy is made known through the cross.


Why Two Christmas Stories Are Better Than One

As a citizen of America, I’m almost done with Christmas. We’re living in a century where the cultural defense and political exploitation of Christmas as an institution have become more obscene than the holiday’s ongoing commercialization. On the other hand, as a Christian and a big fan of Jesus and hope, I still admire and embrace the season of Advent and the holy day (that’s right, just a day!) of Christmas. There is much to love, from ancient traditions to recent memories.

Meanwhile, my falling out with Christian culture and my journey through biblical scholarship over the last several years has really complicated and ultimately transformed my relationship with Christmas, particularly with the nativity traditions found in the Bible. Our notion of a singular, harmonious, “biblical” Christmas story runs into all sorts of trouble when we read the texts attentively. Continue reading