Thursday, 6 March 2008

Christmas stable as a generative symbol

How can I possibly connect that staple of advent calendars and popular piety with a famous philosopher? Linda Munk has done it for me…

Before the porrige spoils, I shall leave this chapter on Taylor and the Feast of Tabernacles, but not without citing the distinguished twentieth-century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), who, in The Star of Redemption, makes a connection other scholars have not made (as far as I can tell) between the sukkah of the Feast of Tabernacles and “the manger in the strange stable in which the redeemer comes into the world.” What is “noteworthy” about the festival of Christmas, Rosenzweig writes, is that it “did not conform to a holiday of the Jewish calendar like Easter and Pentecost”. Yet in the past centuries

the festival has… undergone a development… which has brought it into a degree of proximity to the Jewish festivals of redemption. The house opens up to admit free nature. The hospitality of a warm room is extended to the snow-covered Christmas tree, and this opening up of the house to admit nature, and the manger in the strange stable in which the redemer comes into the world, have their exact couterpart in the open sky admitted by the rook in the tabernacle-hut in memory of the tent of meeting which grnted rest to the eternal people during its wanderings through the desert. (Munk, 94)

Sounds juicy and clever, warm-feelings and imaginative philosophy are no bad thing. However, I hate to spoil your fun, but there was no stable. [And Father Christmas isn’t real either, sorry.] Professor Ken Bailey makes a compelling case that there weren’t many stables in rural Palestine, and that families kept their animals in their one-room houses, on the ground floor beside the raised terrace of the family zone. The word translated ‘inn’ in Luke’s infancy narrative should be rendered ‘guest room’ – indicating that Jesus was born in a private house that had a second room (the guest room) that was full of other relatives at the time. After all, why would Joseph, a native of Bethlehem, have to go to an ‘inn’ rather than to the many houses of his extended family in the area!?

What does that do to Rosenzweig’s elaboration of the stable in relation to the Feast of Tabernacles?

I think that the first thing it shows is the limits of typology-allegory in biblical interpretation. Let’s not get too excited about every detail, every putative pattern, etc. Tempting though it is, it’s probably more of a shame to promulgate silly ‘pre-critical’ exegesis than it is to do without it. Silly stuff undermines respect for decent pre-critical exegesis, which the church and her theology need.