This is the second article in a short series dealing with the myths that have grown up around the birth of Jesus as first recorded by Luke in his gospel.
Dealing with traditions as ingrained as those associated with the Christmas story is like treading on thin ice, but we need to evaluate all that we believe to be sure that what we believe is supported by the written word of God.
In this article, we will deal with the fact that there was no room in the inn.
Luke 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
The greatest villain in the traditional story of the birth of Jesus is not the tyrannical Caesar who required such an arduous journey in the dead of winter, or the bumbling husband who seemed incapable of planning a more comfortable journey or of planning ahead for a place to stay. [i]
The most despised person in the traditional Christmas story is the cruel and heartless innkeeper who turned a young pregnant Jewish girl, obviously in labor, away from the warmth and safety of his inn – even though the innkeeper is only mentioned in the traditional version of the Christmas story!
Yet does the traditional story actually match what really happened in the biblical version of the birth of Jesus?
Before dealing with the malicious innkeeper, let’s deal with the reasons we believe Joseph found it necessary to search out a room in an inn.
The first reason is the assumption that Joseph and Mary had completed the marriage process and were residing in Nazareth near the time of Jesus’ birth when they learned the news about the census requirements. The decree of the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, required a long and arduous journey back to the city of Bethlehem, which is where Joseph had originally called home.
I dealt with this subject in my previous blog. There is no direct biblical evidence that Joseph had made Nazareth his home at the time the Roman decree was issued. There is evidence that supports the idea that Joseph was in fact living in Bethlehem, his hometown and place of residence, at the time of the decree. Joseph and Mary did not move to Nazareth until after their return from Egypt.
The second reason is the assumption that there actually was an inn and an innkeeper in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Even if Joseph were not a resident of Bethlehem, why do we assume that Joseph would have had no place to reside once he arrived in Bethlehem? The Roman decree applied equally to all citizens of the land; therefore, there were likely people who lived in Bethlehem who would have had to have traveled long distances back to their own native locations. Everyone would have known that there were many people moving about the country in need of a place to stay.
Furthermore, since Bethlehem was Joseph’s home, we have to assume that he had relatives there, either near or distant, who would never have neglected the needs of traveling relationships, especially one whose wife was nearly nine months pregnant.
A third reason the innkeeper is a person we love to hate is that preachers love to harp on how Israel rejected her king from the very beginning by rejecting Joseph and his family, forcing them to seek shelter in an inn or hostel, and ultimately to a stable. Yet there is no biblical evidence for such a belief.
Such a belief comes, not from biblical fact, but from tradition and for the convenience of preachers who want to show just how stubborn and hard-hearted the Jews were to the One who was their Messiah.
The question is how would any of Joseph’s relatives have known that Mary was bearing the Messiah, the Savior of the world? The angel had explained this fact to Mary (Luke 1:30-33) and to Joseph (Matt. 1:20-21), yet there is evidence that they had not fully grasped the truth of the situation by the time the baby was born. And there is no evidence at all that they shared their revelation with anyone else at the time.
I am no scholar of Jewish culture, but from what I do understand of the Jews of the first century, the family, including the extended family, were of fundamental importance. [ii] I do not believe that Joseph’s family would have rejected him or forced him out into the streets during such a time, unless it was because they were offended by the pregnancy of Mary.
Yet the biblical record gives us no indication that there was any displeasure among the people of Bethlehem or among Joseph’s relatives. Even if such were true, Zechariah and Elizabeth lived close enough that Joseph could, in a desperate situation, have found shelter among relatives who understood the situation.
This brings us to the subject of the inn. Luke tells us that “there was no room for them in the inn.”
According to Spiros Zhodiates, the word for inn, kataluma, literally means “to unloose” and referred to “A lodging place or inn.” He goes on to explain: “It was so-called because of the ancient travelers who on arrival loosened their own belts or girdles, sandals, and the saddles or harnesses of their animals.” However, he also notes that kataluma referred to a guest chamber. [iii]
There is no biblical reason for us to assume that the word “inn” referred to a public hostel. It may very well have referred to a guest room added to an existing house. In first century Palestine, houses were typically one-roomed buildings in which an entire family lived together. When the family required extra space, they would often add a room to the side of the house or even upon the roof.
In Luke 22:11, Luke will use the exact same Greek word in reference to the “upper room” where Jesus met with His disciples to celebrate His final Passover meal.
Later in his gospel, Luke tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). This man carried an injured man to an inn where he could take care of him (verse 34). Here, the word for inn is a very different word, pandocheíon. [iv] Remember that Luke was a historian with a desire for accuracy in his narration. It would seem that if Luke had meant that Joseph and Mary had made inquiries at such a place, he would have used a more precise word.
The first English translation of the Bible was done by John Wycliffe around 1382. Here is Luke 2:7 from the Wycliffe Bible:
“And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.” [v]
The word commonly translated as “inn” was first translated into English as “chaumbir” (chamber), which refers to a room or bedroom rather than to something like a motel room.
The evidence seems to point to the fact that Jesus was born in a house that may have belonged either to Joseph or to relatives of Joseph. The family may have added a guest room, or kataluma, to accommodate Joseph, Mary, and the soon-to-be-born baby. When the time came for Jesus to be born, there was simply no room in the guest room for the midwives and others who would assist in the delivery. So the family moved the birthing event into the main room of the house where there would be ample room.
In first-century houses of Israel, the ground floor was used as a stable. Animals were typically brought into the house at night, then released into the outdoors in the morning. This does not mean that animals were present when Jesus was born, but it does explain the presence of a manger, a most convenient place to lay the newly-born baby.
If all of this is true, then there was…
- No overcrowded inn
- No harsh and heartless innkeeper
- No cave
- No cold and inhumane stable
By all indications, the baby Jesus was born according to the plan of God as any baby would have been born…
- In a regular house
- Surrounded by family, although animals may have been close by
- In the largest room of the house, where most of the family lived and slept
- Because the guest room was too small to accommodate a birth
In the next article, we will look at the story of the shepherds from Luke 2.
[ii] If you are interested in reading more about the idea of the inn and of Jewish culture related to the Christmas story, here are links to online articles on the subject.
[iii] Zhodiates, Spiros. Complete Word Study Bible