I received my first Bible in second grade, a faux-leather King James Version from which I read Luke 2 for our church’s Christmas Eve service. I was scared silly, or better, sore afraid. Antique words like Cyrenius, lineage, and espoused unnerved me, not to mention great with child (whatever that meant). I began with a prepared introduction, the preacher in me asserting himself early, and managed to not bungle any of the unnerving words.

But when I got to “Mary brought forth her firstborn son,” I mistakenly read aloud that Mary bought forth her son, the crass commercialization of Christmas having already corrupted my young soul. Then again, my church also saw fit to go with a store-bought baby Jesus doll to display God’s glory.

By the time I’d mentioned Mary purchasing baby Jesus, attention had already shifted to the spotlit nativity scene being reenacted at the front of our small sanctuary. My aunt and uncle played Mary and Joseph that year, albeit without a live donkey like the other churches had. Our little church demonstrated its theological acuity, since a donkey never appears in the nativity story.

However, we did feature an Ebenezer Scrooge of an innkeeper whom everyone booed for being so rude. The nativity story makes no mention of a mean innkeeper, or an inn either, at least not in the Greek. No motels existed anywhere in first-century Palestine. There were taverns and brothels, but the words for those places are completely different. In the Christmas story, Luke uses a word more accurately translated as a guest room.

As you’ll read in this month’s article by Jordan Monson, Bible translation is fraught with challenges over such words, especially when beloved passages are at stake. ...

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