December 24, 2011

Our traditional view of the nativity is wrong

Photo by Kristen Stieffel.
Yeah, I put this up every year, despite the inaccuracies. 

Most of our nativity scenes, depicting the holy family in a wooden shed with some animals, a shepherd or two, and three kings, are—how can I put this gently—wrong. I wrote earlier about the visit of the unknown number of non-royal persons. But the whole picture, especially the lonely couple relegated to a lean-to, doesn’t match what scholars know of that time and place.

In teaching our advent study this year, based on Adam Hamilton’s excellent book and video The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, I added a new word to my Greek vocabulary: καταλυμα, or kataluma.

It appears here:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (NRSV)
The same word is used in Luke 22:11 to identify the upper room where Jesus observed Passover with his disciples.

A kataluma is a guest room. So why does almost every English translation have “inn” at 2:7 but “guest room” at 22:11? Much as I’d like to lay all the blame on King James’s translators, William Tyndale did the same thing.

Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey wrote, in the Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology, “the Arabic and Syriac versions have never, in 1900 years, translated kataluma with the word ‘inn.’ This translation is a product of our Western heritage.”

Bailey goes into great detail about first-century life in the holy land and Middle Eastern culture. It comes down to this: A room on the ground floor would be used by the family during the day, but the animals would be brought into it at night for safety. So it would have feeding troughs in it. The family and guests slept on an upper level.

Hamilton points out that since Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, they probably stayed with family. Instead of a wooden shed, Mary and Joseph were likely in what Bailey calls “the family room.”

So although some newer versions, like Today's New International Version, put “there was no guest room available for them,” many translators stuck with “no room in the inn” for no better reason than: That’s what we’re all used to. 

Mind you, it doesn't really matter whether it was a barn or a four-star resort. The apostle John reminds us of the important thing: God put on flesh to dwell with us. Praise be to God.

December 20, 2011

A lovely place to visit

SmittenSmitten by Colleen Coble
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The town of Smitten, Vermont, is as much a character in this book as the four women who make up its core. This is not a novel, but a tetralogy of novellas, each with a different heroine. Disclosure: I was given an advance reader copy of this book at a conference.

The authors do a great job of intertwining their characters’ lives, and their voices are similar enough that the stories flow into one another without clashing. The overall story arc, of the character’s efforts to transform Smitten from mill town to vacation destination, runs as a thread through all four stories, binding them together. Together, the authors create an appealing place we would like to go visit.

The characters are well-rounded, and although some of them have superficial quirks, those add to, rather than substitute for, some very realistic, deep-rooted traits that make the characters believable.

The quality of the writing is very high, although there are a few continuity problems. A character suddenly has an object in her hands that we never saw her pick up -- where did that come from? One character is introduced as a good friend -- halfway through the book. Another, who appears early in a minor role, is described as one woman's "best friend." If he's her best friend, how come she doesn't talk to him until we're three-quarters of the way through the book?

But these are quibbles. Overall, this is a charming set of stories that make for a delightful getaway.

View all my reviews

December 15, 2011

Sorting out "less than" and "fewer" isn't difficult

Writers are notoriously bad at math, but that doesn’t explain the prejudice against “less than” in expressions with countable items.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian —
The sticklers are correct when they say “fewer” can be used only with countable items, not masses. If your hen laid six eggs yesterday and only four today, then today she laid fewer eggs. But when you crack eggs into a bowl and whisk them together, they cease to be eggs and become “egg.” So there’s less egg in the bowl today than there was yesterday. But you wouldn’t say there’s fewer egg in the bowl. Even without a grammarian’s advice, you wouldn’t say that, because it feels wrong.

Fewer eggs but less egg. Fine. The problem comes when people assert that since “less” goes with egg, it can only go with egg and may not go with eggs. These are the sort who call the grocery store sign “ten items or less” grammatically incorrect and claim “ten items or fewer” is the only correct form.

Fewer than ten, less than ten, ten or fewer, ten or less — all perfectly valid constructions. If you have nine items in your cart, you have less than the guy with eleven items. Or, as a mathematician might say, 9 < 11.

In the absence of a number, “than” is an important part of the construction. “Today the hen laid fewer (or less) eggs” begs for the completion of the comparison. Fewer (or less) than…what? Yesterday? Six? Her sister?

People don’t get quite as hung up on “greater” and “more than,” but the same principles apply. Except that if your hen laid four eggs yesterday and six today, you wouldn’t say today she laid greater eggs. You’d say she laid a greater number of eggs today than yesterday. Actually, you’d be likely to say she laid more eggs today. And you’d be correct.