– As Christmas draws near, the now typical jokes pile up on social media. Jesus is commended for having a “stable upbringing”. The three wise men fret: “We’re running low on Frankincense. Don’t worry, though, there’s myrrh where that came from.”
But all this facetious word play prompts me to think a little more seriously about the language used in traditional accounts of the nativity, and the language – or languages – that might have been used by the participants themselves.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The christian Christmas drama begins with a baby in a cot, or rather a “manger” – a feeding trough. In biblical times, this was probably an alcove or a ledge projecting from the wall of a stable on which hay was placed as animal feed.
In a private house, it may also have been a rectangular stone container or simply a depression in the lower part of the family living space where animals spent the night. The English word comes from the French manger, to eat, via the Old French maingeure, and in turn from the Latin manducare, to chew.
The Biblical reference to an improvised crib uses the Greek φατνη (phatnē), regularly translated as a stall, though some commentators insist that it denotes a feeding box and not a larger enclosure. It has been rendered in Hebrew as אֵבוּס, ebus, which can mean a trough or a booth, and as אֻרָוֹת (urvah), a stall. Mary (Maryam) and Joseph (Yosep) might have described it in their own language, Aramaic, as ܐܽܘܪܺܝܳܐ (awriyah).
But enough of the props, what of the location and the script?
Well, the Greek word commonly translated as “inn”, κατάλυμα (kataluma) can mean a caravanserai or inn, a house or a guest room, but can also be translated as the vaguer “lodging place”. This leads interpreters to disagree on whether the nativity took place in a public guesthouse or a family home made available to the travellers in line with Palestinian traditions of hospitality.
Aramaic was the language spoken by the common people in נָצְרַת (Naṣrat) and בֵּית לֶחֶם (Bet Lehem) – we know them as Nazareth and Bethlehem, of course. However, Hebrew was the official and liturgical language of Palestine, and Greek was used by scholars, administrators and diplomats across the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Latin, the language of the Roman colonisers, would not have been spoken by many poorer people in the territories in question in the first century AD.
The Hebrew historian Josephus described Hebrew words as belonging to “the Hebrew tongue” but referred to Aramaic words as belonging to “our tongue” or “our language” or “the language of our country”.
Aramaic survived to become the common language of Jews both in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East by around 200AD and remained so until the Islamic conquests in the seventh century introduced Arabic. Its descendant dialects, formerly known as Syriac, are still spoken today by the Assyrian people of northern Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey and northwest Iran. I’m not the first to try to connect imaginatively with the authentic voices of the Christmas story, as a 2009 recording of a carol sung in Aramaic testifies.
The wise men from the East, whatever their native tongues, would have communicated with King Herod via his officials in Greek – Herod would also have been familiar with Latin, Hebrew and possibly an Arabic dialect from his youth. Unless they knew some Aramaic, they would have done the same, with or without the help of interpreters, when they paid their respects to the Holy Family.
The shepherds – ποιμὴν (poimén) – who feature in one of the two versions of the nativity would have had few difficulties expressing their veneration of the Christ-child, being Aramaic speakers, though not with the Galilean accent shared by the newborn’s “imma”, mother Mary and “abba”, father Joseph.
We don’t know what social status Mary and Joseph enjoyed, but unless it was fairly elevated they would not have been fluent in Greek or Latin and their knowledge of Hebrew would likely have been limited to some devotional terms. Although Aramaic shared some elements with Hebrew, the two were at least as different as modern English and German.
So, frustratingly, even those few key words of Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew that are present in the original Bible account are open to multiple interpretations. If we go on to consider the familiar words that became attached to the story more recently – “inkeeper”, “stable”, “cattle-shed”, “kings”, even the “little town” and the imperial “decree” that summoned the family – we find no ultimate justification for them at all.
They only serve to conjure up an enduring legend of outsiders grappling with adversity, to dramatise an interplay of the royal, humble and supernatural in surroundings that are at once impoverished and magical.
Biblical scholars will continue to dispute the nuances of translation and the “facts” that underlie them. As for me, from a brief encounter with the sublime, I’m drawn back to the ridiculous as the wits of Twitter banter on: “If you’re telling a nativity joke it’s all in the delivery”; “Already getting complaints about my front lawn nativity tableau. Apparently it’s not customary to depict the actual birth.”