This entry is part 48 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
So translated by AV, ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, God’s Word, Good News.
NIV – ‘…because there was no guest room available for them.’
New Living Translation – ‘…because there was no lodging available for them.’
The word kataluma normally meant guest room, although it could mean house or inn. Luke’s use of the definite article (‘the inn’) offers some support for understanding this is an ‘inn’, rather than a ‘guest room’. However, it has been doubted whether there would have been an inn in Bethlehem in Jesus’ day since it was not on any major road, and inns normally were to be found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones (but cf. Jer 41:17, which does not refer to a place in Bethlehem). Furthermore, when Luke wants to speak of a commercial inn he uses pandocheion Lk 10:34 referring to an establishment found on the major road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Also, when Luke uses the word kataluma in his Gospel Lk 22:11, cf. 1 King 1:18), it clearly does not mean an inn but a guest room. (DJG)
Stephen Carlson argues that the phrase does not mean, ‘no room for them in the kataluma‘, but ‘no room in the kataluma’ (i.e. no place to lay the baby). This would be consistent with the suggestion that they did stay in the kataluma, but that there was insufficient room for her in that room for her to give birth.
Bailey quotes an older researcher: ‘Anyone who has lodged with Palestinian peasants knows that notwithstanding their hospitality the lack of privacy is unspeakably painful. One cannot have a room to oneself, and one is never alone by day or by night. I myself often fled into the open country simply in order to be able to think.’
Considerable doubt is cast, therefore, on the traditional picture of Joseph and Mary being turned away from an ‘inn’ because there were no vacancies there.
‘It becomes more likely that by kataluma Luke means either house or guest room, and the latter translation must have the edge precisely because in the vast majority of ancient Near-Eastern peasant homes for which we have archaeological and literary evidence, the manger was within the home, not in some separate barn. The animals as well as the family slept within one large enclosed space that was divided so that usually the animals would be on a lower level, and the family would sleep on a raised dais (Bailey). In this particular case, we should probably envision Mary and Joseph staying in the home of relatives or friends, a home which was crowded due to the census being taken, a home where Luke tells us there was no longer any room in “the guest room” (noting the definite article before the noun). Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child perhaps in the family room and placed the baby in the stone manger. This means that a good deal of the popular conception of this scene has no basis in the text. In particular, the idea of Mary and Joseph being cast out from civilized accommodations and taking up temporary residence in a barn is probably based on a misunderstanding of the text.’ (DJG)
Since they had traveled to Joseph’s ancestral home, it is likely that he had relatives in Bethlehem, and that he and Mary would have found lodgings with them. But because of all the other people who had come to the town because of the census, there was no room left in the guest room. They therefore were crammed with the rest of the family on the upper level, and Mary laid here new-born baby in the stone manger amongst the animals on the lower level.
Bailey explains why he thinks that the thoughts conjured up by the traditional of ‘no room at the inn’ are probably wide of the mark:-
- Joseph was returning to his ancestral home. He only needed to explain who he was and most homes in the town would have given him a welcome.
- Joseph was of royal blood. He was descended from King David, and Bethlehem was known as the ‘City of David’. That connection, too, would have assured a welcome in the town.
- In that culture, as much as in any other, a woman about to give birth would have been given special attention. The community would have ensured that adequate shelter was found and suitable care was provided. To do otherwise would have caused unspeakable shame.
- Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, lived not far away. If adequate shelter could not be found in Bethlehem, then they might have been able to travel that short further distance. The fact that they did not suggests that adequate shelter was, in fact, provided in Bethlehem.
- As previously noted, the text does not say that Mary gave birth immediately upon their arrival in Bethlehem, but rather, ‘while they were there’. Thus, it is likely that Joseph has sufficient time to make arrangements for adequate shelter and care.
Other Scripture references assume the kind of one-roomed house and associated domestic arrangements implied here. In Judges 11:29-40, Jephthah makes a rash vow that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house. He would fully have been expecting one of the animals to emerge, but is shocked to see that it is his own daughter. In Mt 5:14f, the lamp gives light ‘to all in the house’. In Lk 13:10-17, Jesus reminds his critics that they would, every day (including the Sabbath) untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it to water: again, the underlying assumption being that the animal would have been kept in the house over night (for that was where the manger was situated), but that it would have been unthinkable to leave it there during the day time.
With preachers in mind, France (We Proclaim the Word of Life) comments that ‘it is easier to envisage Jesus as truly “one of us” if his entry into the world was in such an ordinary domestic scene rather than in the abnormal setting of a stable or cave.’
France adds: ‘The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. that’s the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.’
Ian Paul concurs: ‘In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention. This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.
Even if we should not assume that Jesus was born in abject poverty and neglect, it is nevertheless reasonable to conclude that Christ is identified with the poor and the homeless from the very beginning of his earthly life. See Lk 2:24/Lev 12:6-8 for evidence that the family was poor, and 2 Cor 8:9 for the contrast between the riches which were his by right, and the lowliness of his earthly existence.
Does it matter?
Hints have already been given as to why all this matters. However, let Ian Paul summarise:
1. It demonstrates how, even with important parts of Scripture, we find it hard to read what Scripture actually says.
2. It also shows how easily we impose our own assumptions on the text, rather than reading it in its context.
3. Resistance to the evidence shows how powerfully traditions have a grip on us, and resist revision.
4. Most importantly, the ‘traditional’ reading that Jesus was born in a stable actually distorts the story of Jesus’ birth, and mutes the central message of the Christmas story—that Jesus wasn’t born in a place where we can happily visit once a year, and then forget about. Rather, he comes to the centre of human life, and cannot so easily be romanticised or ignored.
(In addition to the work by Bailey, see this by Ian Paul, and also Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament, chapter 1.)