‘No room in the what?’

20 November 2010

‘In the inn’, of course.

This is the Christmas story we all know and love. Joseph, with Mary at the point of giving birth, arrived in Bethlehem and ended up in a stable because the inn was full. Read it in Luke chapter 2.

The truth is in fact a little different. Biblical scholars have known this for a long time, but traditional versions of the Christmas story die hard and, next December, nativity plays all over the world will stick to the usual line. If you’re more interested in facts than sentiment, read on; otherwise, stop now.

Regarding Joseph and Mary’s accommodation in Bethlehem, consider these items for starters:

  • Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in Bethlehem, the town of his ancestors, simply because of his pedigree, especially as he was a direct descendant of King David.
  • A woman about to give birth draws sympathy and help from any group of people. The citizens of Bethlehem were no exception; no-one would have closed the door on her.
  • Even if accommodation in the town had been a problem, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth lived in a nearby village and they could have fixed to stay there with her and her husband.
  • But they didn’t, because Joseph had had plenty of time to fix accommodation. Contrary to the usual line, he and Mary had been in Bethlehem several days before she gave birth (Luke 2:6) and they were staying in the home of some friends there when her moment came.

katalymaThey were not in an ‘inn’ at all in the sense of a place offering rooms for paying guests—Greek pandocheion. They were with some friends, in their house.

A typical Middle Eastern house had one main room where the family lived and slept, plus a smaller room exclusively for guests, called in Greek the katalyma. This is where Mary and Joseph would normally have been put up but, with all the people in Bethlehem for the census, someone else was occupying it. So the family had graciously invited Mary and Joseph to share their own accommodation—the main family room.

Typically, at one end of this room was a lower-level area where the family’s cow, donkey and few sheep would be sheltered overnight. The animals could eat, if hungry, food placed in small depressions in the floor called mangers. These were at the higher level, just next to the drop to the lower level half a metre below. Sometimes they were made of wood, in which case they could be moved. It was in one of these that Mary placed the infant Jesus.

The reason Mary gave birth to Jesus in their hosts’ family room and laid him in one of the typical mangers there is because ‘there was no room in the katalyma’—the house’s guest room. That room was occupied by other guests.

So we need to revamp our understanding of the nativity account. There was no innkeeper, because this wasn’t an inn. And the birth was where the manger was: in a warm and friendly family home, not in a cold and draughty stable.

It was, however, a typical poor person’s house. The rich had separate accommodation for their animals. Jesus was born, not in a luxury villa but in the peasant-home of some commoners. And that was why, when the angel told the shepherds that they would find the infant Messiah lying in a manger, it was such good news to them. The Christ was in a peasant-home just like their own!

I don’t suppose the nativity plays will ever be re-written; tradition dies hard. But in my view the realities of the nativity just described serve to enrich the story, not to rob it of its power.

[To learn more, see Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, SPCK, 2008, p25ff]

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