What the Reader Brings
One context that is often overlooked is the context of the reader—the world from which the reader approaches the text. We as readers of the Bible are not by nature neutral and objective. We bring a lot of preconceived notions and influences with us to the text when we read. Thus we need to discuss and evaluate these “pre-text” influences, lest they mislead us in our search for the meaning of the text.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” (Luke 2:1 KJV)
Let’s begin with a story. Danny and his family spent several years working as missionaries in Ethiopia. Right after moving “down-country,” Danny was privileged to watch a Christmas pageant presented by an Ethiopian evangelical church in Dilla, Ethiopia. Was that ever a different experience! There were no Christmas trees with lights, nor was there any snow. The weather was balmy, and there were banana trees growing right outside the church. Over four hundred people crowded into the church building, which had seating for maybe 150 or so. Of course, we use the term “seating” loosely—the pews consisted of uncomfortable benches constructed out of rough, uneven, hand-cut lumber. The church had dirt floors (where fleas flourished), mud walls plastered white with lime plaster, rafters made of eucalyptus poles of various sizes, and a corrugated steel roof.
Whenever the sun would go behind a cloud, the change in temperature on the corrugated steel roof would cause it to contract, creating a creaking, groaning sound for several seconds. Then the sun would emerge again, causing the roof to get hot again, and the corrugated steel would repeat the ritual moans until the metal had expanded back to its original size. Thus a certain background rhythm of “roof groaning” developed. The inside of the church was lit by only two forty-watt lightbulbs. Most of the needed light was usually provided by the numerous windows on each side, but on this particular day much of the light was blocked by the dozens of eager spectators jammed around each window outside the church, standing on their tiptoes and craning their necks, trying to see. They had arrived too late to get a seat inside.
Christmas pageants in the United States are fairly stereotypical. Danny assumed that this one would be similar. How else can you tell the story? Was he in for a shock! The pageant started out normal enough. At the beginning a “town crier” of sorts was walking back and forth shouting through a megaphone, proclaiming the new Roman census requirements (similar to Linus’s proclamation of Luke 2:1 at the beginning of all Peanuts pageants). After some preparation by Joseph’s family, he and Mary finally departed for Bethlehem.
Here the pageant began to differ, for Joseph and Mary did not travel alone. Mary, quite big in her last month of pregnancy, was accompanied by over a dozen aunts and female cousins. Joseph walked alone in front, followed by all of these women, who were chatting and giggling merrily about babies and “motherly” things. “Whoa,” Danny thought, “whatever happened to the typical travel scene with Mary, Joseph, and the donkey? Where did all of these women come from? They’re not in the story!”
A few minutes later the noisy entourage arrived in Bethlehem and were directed to the “sheep pen,” crowded with sheep. Soon Mary started labor. Joseph paced nervously back and forth in front of the stable, while the women, several of them midwives, crowded around Mary to help deliver the baby. A short labor ensued, and soon the women all gave a high shrill vibrating cry—the typical Ethiopian joy cry that announces the birth of every child in Ethiopia. The spectators cheered, and the women in the crowd joined in the joy cry with the actors. Hearing the cry, Joseph ran into the sheep pen to see the newborn baby. Later, of course, the familiar shepherds came, followed by the wise men. All in all the pageant took two hours!
What struck Danny was the way in which the Ethiopians had interpreted the story through their culture. They were not consciously contextualizing the story to make it Ethiopian. They were trying to portray it in the way they thought it actually happened. Yet notice what they did. As we do in our pageants, they filled in all of the gaps in the story with explanations that made sense in their culture. For example, to the Ethiopians it is unthinkable that Mary’s family would have allowed her to make this trip by herself. She was a young woman expecting her first baby, and the Ethiopians could not imagine her making the trip with only Joseph to help her. Who, after all, would deliver the baby? Only an irresponsible person would travel in this condition without her aunts there as midwives!
It is not a big deal to us in North America because we live in a world of doctors and hospitals. We don’t even put midwives in the story. Actually, we Americans generally skip over the question of who delivered the baby. We just check the young couple into the stable and then presto! Baby Jesus appears in Mary’s arms. But think about it. Did Joseph deliver the baby? The Ethiopians would laugh at us for suggesting such a preposterous thing. Could a young, newlywed man with no other children deliver a baby? Such a thing would not happen in Ethiopia.
Notice what has happened. As we in America portray the story, we fill in the silent gaps in the text with an Americanized point of view. In our world we deal primarily with nuclear family units (Mom, Dad, children), and so we have no problem with Joseph and Mary traveling by themselves. It never occurs to us to consider midwives because we rarely use them. We are familiar in our culture with the scene of a young man and his pregnant wife rushing off alone to the hospital by themselves as she starts into labor. The man checks the wife in at the hospital, and after some time behind closed doors, presto! The baby comes. Thus we are comfortable with presenting Mary and Joseph in a similar fashion.
The Ethiopians, by contrast, have a different cultural experience with childbirth. The young expectant mother is surrounded by her female relatives and pampered during the final weeks of the pregnancy. She is never left alone. The birth of a baby does not normally occur in a hospital but in a home. It is an extended family affair. Either relatives or neighborhood midwives (friends of the family) deliver the baby. To send the young mother on a trip without her female relatives is unthinkable, as is the thought of the young, inexperienced Joseph somehow doubling as an obstetrician. Since Americans have seen the same basic pageant presented every Christmas, they have generally accepted that presentation as the complete truth. Yet both the Americans and the Ethiopians take some liberty with the story to fill in the gaps with things that concur with their respective cultures. Whose culture, do you suppose, is closer to that of the Bible?