There was “no room in the inn”  

Posted by Denis Haack in ,

It was always part of my understanding of the Christmas story that Jesus was born in a stable because all the available rooms in the local “hotels” of the day were occupied. This, in turn, has been taken to mean that in his birth Jesus was marginalized, unwanted, excluded, unwelcomed by those in the City of David that should have recognized the arrival of their rightful King.

In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey suggests this take on the Christmas story may in fact be erroneous. Bailey has lived for over 40 years in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus, and is professor emeritus of Middle Eastern New Testament studies at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

Most English translations state that after the child was born, he was laid in a manger “because there was no room for them in the inn.” This sounds as if they were rejected by the people of Bethlehem. Was that really the case?

There is a trap in traditional language. “No room in the inn” has taken on the meaning of “the inn had a number of rooms and all were occupied.” The “no vacancy sign” was already “switched on” when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the Greek word does not refer to “a room in an inn” but rather to “space” (topos) as in “There is no space on my desk for my new computer.” It is important to keep this correction in mind as we turn to the word we have been told was an “inn.”

The Greek word in Luke 2:7 that is commonly translated “inn” is katalyma. This is not the ordinary word for a commercial inn. In the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) the Samaritan takes the wounded man to an inn. The Greek word in that text is pandocheion. The first part of this word means “all.” The second part, as a verb, means “to receive.” The pandocheion is the place that receives all, namely a commercial inn. This common Greek term for an inn was so widely known across the Middle East that over the centuries it was absorbed as a Greek loan word into Armenian, Coptic, Arabic and Turkish with the same meaning—a commercial inn.

If Luke expected his readers to think Joseph was turned away from an “inn” he would have used the word pandocheion, which clearly meant a commercial inn. But in Luke 2:7 it is a katalyma that is crowded. What then does this word mean?

Literally, a katalyma is simply “a place to stay” and can refer to many types of shelters. The three that are options for this story are inn (the English translation tradition), house (the Arabic biblical tradition of more than one thousand years), and guest room (Luke’s choice). Indeed, Luke used this key term on one other occasion in his Gospel, where it is defined in the text itself. In Luke 22 Jesus tells his disciples:

“Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying ajar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, and tell the householder, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room [katalyma] where. I am to eat the passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready.” (Lk 22:10-12)

Here, the key word, katalyma, is defined; it is “an upper room,” which is clearly a guest room in a private home. This precise meaning makes perfect sense when applied to the birth story. In Luke 2:7 Luke tells his readers that Jesus was placed in a manger (in the family room) because in that home the guest room was already full.

If at the end of Luke’s Gospel, the word katalyma means a guest room attached to a private home (22:11), why would it not have the same meaning near the beginning of his Gospel? The family room, with an attached guest room, would have looked something like the diagram below:

…To summarize, a part of what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is that the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into a private home. The child was born, wrapped and (literally) “put to bed” (anaklino) in the living room in the manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved into the family living space. Why weren’t they invited into the family guest room, the reader might naturally ask? The answer is that the guest room was already occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house.

Source: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2008) p. 32-34.

This entry was posted at Monday, December 19, 2011 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Very enlightening and untimely! Too late to re write all those carols now. We will need at least to do he re writes.

Funny how both truths and half truths our poetry and hymns can teach.

December 24, 2011 at 10:04 AM

Funny too, how I often think I have little to learn only to learn I know so little.

January 24, 2012 at 10:54 AM

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