No Room at the Inn: Recent Biblical Scholarship

Luke 2:7

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
December 2018

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7 ESV)

Every December, we are reminded of the events of the first Christmas.  Joseph takes a hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because of a census.  He travels with Mary, who was nine months pregnant at the time.  When they arrived, it was late at night.  They were tired and there were no public accommodations available.

The hotel was full.  Joseph forgot to make reservations.  An inn keeper turned them away, not because he was cold, heartless and rude, but because he did not have any room.  There were no vacancies.  They had no place to stay inside and Mary went into labor and delivered a baby without a doctor. Jesus was born, not in a hospital, but outdoors and laid in a manger, instead of a crib or baby bed.

Recently, many have questioned that interpretation.  Some believe that they actually came to the family home that night.  A new modern interpretation holds that the inn mentioned in Luke does not mean inn.  It means “guest room.”  This raises all kinds of questions.

Does the inn mentioned in Luke refer to a public inn or to a room in a private house?  Does it refer to a commercial inn or a just to a room in a house?  Was Jesus was born outdoors or indoors?  The manger in some houses was not located outdoors but on the ground floor of the house.  Many believe today that Mary did not give birth outdoors but indoors in bottom floor of the house.

Most first century Palestinian homes were multi-leveled. They had two stories.  The second floor was the living quarters.  It was the sleeping area. It sometimes had guest rooms and a room for entertaining.  The bottom floor or main floor was like a basement and often had a place for animals.  Stables or mangers often part of the ground floor of the home.

1st-Century-Home-In-Israel

Support for the Modern View

The TNIV reads, “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no GUEST ROOM available for them.”

N.T. Wright renders Luke 2:7, “there was no room for them in the normal living quarters.” Instead of the furnished guest room, Joseph and Mary had to settle for a room on the ground floor usually reserved for livestock.[1]  This is a view held by many commentators on Luke (e.g., Parsons, Green, Bovon, Fitzmeyer).  There are several arguments in support of the modern interpretation.  There are certain reasons why this view seems very appealing.

1) It seems to fit the historical context of the time

Bethlehem was a small town.  It is doubtful if a commercial inn even existed in Bethlehem.  If Jesus and Mary were going back to Bethlehem because it was their ancestral home, one would expect their family to be there.  If that is the case, one would expect them to stay with family or with relatives and not in a motel.  It is consistent with the type of houses that existed in Bethlehem at the time.

This is a good argument but it also raises some questions. If they were indeed at a relative’s house, why would Mary not have been given a guest room since she was nine months pregnant?  Why would he have to be placed in a manger?

A manger was a feeding trough for animals.  It was used for animals.  It was where cattle were fed.  Why would Jesus be placed in a dirty and smelly manger?  Had they indeed stayed with family, Jesus would have been given a more sanitary and comfortable place to lay down.  Hospitality was a big deal for Jews in the first century.

Furthermore, while some mangers were located in houses, others were located outside in a courtyard area.  As Timothy Johnson says, καταλύμα could refer “to space in a house but it could also refer to the area where travelers and their animals gathered in the open”[2] The word could refer to a type of public shelter. Robert Stein says, “The ‘inn’ probably refers to a public caravansary (a crude overnight lodging place for caravans) which was the one lodging place in Bethlehem.”[3]

2) It is consistent with how Luke uses the word καταλύμα

The Greek word for “inn” καταλύμα in Luke 2:7 is only used three times in the NT (Luke 2:7; 22:11; Mark 14:14).  The only other time the word is used in Luke, it means a guest room (Luke 22:11).  In fact, the only other times it is used in the NT, it means a guest room (Luke 22:11; Mark 14:14).  Some argue that if καταλύμα means guest room at the end of Luke, it MUST mean guest room at the beginning of Luke.

καταλύμα was the room used for the Last Supper, the upper room where Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.  Furthermore, when Luke mentions a commercial inn, he uses a different Greek word.  He uses the word πανδοχεῖον (Luke 10:34).

This appears to be a solid argument but the truth is that καταλύμα does NOT only mean guest room.  καταλύμα has a broader semantic range in Koine Greek.  We know that from the LXX. καταλύμα translates five different Hebrew words in the LXX.  It is used for the word translated “inn” in Exodus 4:24. Even the TNIV translates it “lodging place” in that verse.

The Australian NT scholar John Nolland points out that καταλύμα is a “flexible word and can denote any kind of place one might stay, from primitive inn (Exodus 4:27) to guest room in a house (Luke 22:11) to a totally unspecified place where one might stay (Sirach 14:25).”[4]

The traditional rendering is still possible. Some Greek scholars prefer the rendering “guest room”[5] but other Greek scholars hold the tradition view.  Some Greek lexicons render καταλύμα “inn or lodging place” (Thayer, Abbott-Smith).  Some commentators also hold that view.[6]  Even Bauer–Arndt–Gingrich admit that καταλύμα can mean “inn”.[7]  Thus, the traditional rendering cannot be ruled out.  In fact, most Bible translators read “inn” and not guest room in Luke 2:7 (e.g., KJV, NIV [1984], ESV, NASB, ASV, RSV, NRSV).

Furthermore, the use of the article supports the notion of a commercial inn. Luke 2:7 says, “there was no place for them in THE inn.”  John Nolland says, “The definite article favors reference to the public inn at Bethlehem.”[8]

Some argue that this is an article of previous reference.[9]  The anaphoric article has a previous reference, such as “He stayed there two days… After the two days” (John 4:40, 43) but there is no previous reference here.  Luke does not say that they came to a house and there was no room in the guest room of the house.  He does not mention a house at all.  It is merely assumed.

Conclusion

What type of inn did Joseph and Mary arrive at on the first Christmas?  It was not an inn in the modern Western sense.  When we think of an inn today, we think of something like the Holiday Inn with a hot breakfast and an indoor pool.  No such motel existed in the small town of Bethlehem in Jesus’ day.

The word “inn” could refer to the guest room of a house.  That is the view of many modern scholars on Luke.  It has some support from archaeology and the use of the word καταλύμα in Luke.  However, the word has a wide sematic range (based on its use in the LXX) and could also refer to a primitive inn or shelter area.  The use of the Greek article supports the view of a public inn.  It is still the reading of most translations of Luke.

The manger could be indoors on the ground floor, but it could also be outdoors in a courtyard area. There is also some historical evidence going back to the second century that Jesus was born in a cave (Origen, Against Celsus, book I, chapter 51; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 78; Protoevangelium of James, 18-20). That sounds more like an outdoor birth, than an indoor birth.

[1] http://locusthoney.blogspot.com/2011/12/the-nativity-without-ebellishments.html

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Sacra Pagina), p. 50.

[3] Robert Stein, Luke, (New American Commentary), p. 107.

[4] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, (Word Biblical Commentary), 105.

[5] Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, and William F. Arndt. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed, p. 414; Alan Thompson, Luke: Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, p. 120-121; Martin M. Culy, Mikeal C. Parsons & Joshua J. Stigall, Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text p. 69

[6]So Henry Alford, who says it is “not a room in a private house” (Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary, I, 454). J. Reiling writes, “It is improbable that kataluma refers here to the guest room of a house” (The Translator’s Handbook to the Gospel of Luke, 109); F.W. Farrar, The Gospel according to St. Luke, 112.

[7] BAG, 120-121.

[8] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, WBC, 105.

[9]Mickelson, Andy. “An Improbable Inn: Texts and Tradition Surrounding Luke 2:7.” Studia Antiqua 14, no. 1 (2015).

 

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