No Room in the Inn? Why the Traditional Christmas Story is Wrong

Why History Matters

I once heard a well-meaning Christian say something like, “Why study all this history stuff? The Bible says it. I believe, it. That’s the end of it!” But what about this? Reading what “the Bible says” is one thing. Getting “what the Bible means” is another. Case in point:

Most people summarize the Christmas story like this: “Joseph & Mary went to Bethlehem and needed to stay in the inn. Since there was no room in the inn, Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a manger.” Not too far off from how the old 1984 NIV translated Luke 2:7:

and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

But here’s what we miss by skipping out on studying the context of Jesus’ birth:

There was probably no “inn”

The Greek word, kataluma, means “lodging place” and it’s usually translated “upper room” not “inn” (1). It can refer to a room of a house where out of town guests could spend the night or even just a dining room. For example, in Mark 14:14, Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples in an “upper room” (same word used here). This is why the 2010 NIV translates Luke 2:7  like this:

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.

In Luke 10:34, Luke uses another word, “pandocheion,” when he’s talking about a public inn. The thing is, Bethlehem was a tiny little place with just a few hundred people living there. Which is one reason why there was probably no inn.

Bethlehem was tiny

christmas-story-wrongJoseph went to a little town called Bethlehem—his ancestral home—for the census because that’s where his family was from. We hear so much about this place around Christmastime that it’s hard to imagine that Bethlehem didn’t even show up on most ancient maps.

In the 21st century, when we hear “inn,” we think of a hotel, like the Holiday Inn. But the word just means a lodging space or living area. The idea of an “upper room” makes sense because the town was really, really small.

Think of a small town that doesn’t have a hotel because no one goes there; They just pass through. Magalia, California would be a place like that. It’s a town above Paradise, California. At least in Paradise there’s actually a Comfort Inn and grocery stores and stuff. But Magalia’s in the hills, in the middle of nowhere.

Hospitality was huge

Joseph wouldn’t have been turned away from the ancestral home even if there was no room, especially since Mary was pregnant. This would be a big no-no in Jewish culture. If there wasn’t any space in the upper room, Mary probably gave birth in the “garage area,” where people kept their animals.

Also, a manger isn’t a barn. It’s a feeding trough that was sometimes built into the floor. Since there were no Graco Pack N Plays back then, a manger could have functioned as a make-shift crib. Jesus’ manger might have been located in a cave stable under the main part of the house.

See what I mean

I created a floorplan graphic of a typical Palestinian peasant home to show you what I mean. But that’s just one possible layout. I also found a simple illustration via Logos Bible Software and an example of an actual stone manger (discovered in Megiddo) from page 1074 of the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary you might find helpful.

Click on the thumbnail images below and take a closer look.

Outside the Bible, tradition suggests that Jesus was born in a stable or inside a cave. It’s possible that this could have been part of the lower portion of the house.

The Reason for the Season

It might seem like there’s nothing special about a stable, a cave, or whatever the lower part of a house looked like. But that’s an interesting point in all this: Luke and the other gospel writers resisted the temptation to make the physical location of Jesus’ birth better than it really was.

It seems totally unexpected to see the Jewish Messiah born in the dirt and grime of lowly, everyday life. This seems to suggest that Luke’s report was probably not made up by him or invented by the church.

Turns out, studying “all this historical stuff” actually helps us better understand “what the Bible means.” But even if the whole innkeeper shouting “No vacancy!” part of the traditional Christmas story is wrong, we can still confidently celebrate the meaning of Jesus’ birth during this season: The second person of the Trinity, took on a human nature and came to save sinners.

Merry Christmas!

 

(1) κατάλυμα, ατος, τό Lodging place. The sense inn is possible in Lk 2:7, but in 10:34 Lk uses πανδοχεῖον, the more specific term for inn. κ. is therefore best understood here as lodging or guest-room, as in 22:11; Mk 14:14, where the contexts also permit the sense dining-room (cp. 1 Km 1:18; 9:22; Sir 14:25). In further favor of this rendering is the contrast between two quarters: a φάτνη and a κατάλυμα KATALUMA. Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. by W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker.” (3rd ed.) (521). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leaders: Get my FREE 6-part course on How to Run an Accessible Apologetics Conference. Sign-up below!

Tags:

8 Responses to “No Room in the Inn? Why the Traditional Christmas Story is Wrong”

  1. Sara Brown January 2, 2011 2:30 PM
    #

    If you enjoy this kind of information you should read the book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” by Kenneth E. Bailey. He explains a lot of parables and events from Jesus’ life through their cultural lens. The book leans toward the academic, but it does not assume you’ve studied Biblical languages or been to seminary. For the most part, the chapters aren’t too long, and they explain some of the more difficult parables to understand, like the one about the shrewd steward.

  2. Mikel January 2, 2011 3:31 PM
    #

    Hi, Sara. Glad you got to see this. Looks like an interesting book. I remember doing a major paper and 4-hour Scripture meditation project in our Hermeneutics class on the parable of the shrewd manager. Love to get more background on this. Thanks for the comment, Sara!

  3. Harry Toye December 17, 2011 7:18 PM
    #

    Thank you for your article.

    The reason why there was no room at the Inn is,

    God did not want room at the Inn.

    God did not want His Holy Son born there amid drunkenness, sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idol worshippers, evil thoughts, etc.

    In short there was SIN in the INN and so it was not a fitting place for the birth of a Holy God. At that time, that was the stable! It would have been nothing for the creator of all things seen and unseen to provide the grandest palace adorned with Gold and Silver but it was not with gold and silver we were to be saved nor would the Lord condone mammon and greed. The humble stable with the animals that bore no sin was the cleanest place for our Saviour to be born.

    Many brothers and sisters tend to focus on either the Inn it was full; or the time a busy time; people on the move; the tax season; the town was busy; all other hotels/inns were full; or the event, the census, the tax season etc.

    However had our Living God wanted, I don’t think there would have been any major problem on His part to provide a room at any inn of His choosing, at any time regardless of how many people were or were not coming for any census or event at that time.
    It was God’s wisdom and predestination alone that His Son Jesus Christ be born on ground that was holy and without sin in the camp

    We have an all powerful God where ALL things are possible and who knows ALL things past, present and future, and He had already made up His mind to have His Son born on ground made Holy by His presence

    I hope this revelation has been a blessing to you and an encouragement to your faith.
    Wishing you a Happy, Holy and Peaceful Christmas.
    Harry
    PS: We have a beautiful video with carols that reflects the true meaning of Christmas on our website at fivefoldministryireland.com

    • Apologetics Guy December 17, 2011 7:54 PM
      #

      Thanks for your comment, Harry. I’m not sure if I would suggest there was “drunkenness, sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idol worshippers, evil thoughts” in the kataluma of Joseph’s ancestral home. The area of the home where people kept their animals wouldn’t have been “holy” ground anymore than the kataluma was. Your statement that “had our Living God wanted, I don’t think there would have been any major problem on His part to provide a room at any inn of His choosing” seems like you might have missed my point. Please review my article again for details on the kataluma.

  4. Brian Stankich December 23, 2011 6:30 AM
    #

    Well said. I just picked up the new NIV and read of this new translation.

    It’s funny how we romanticize our Bible stories, as if their original earthy nature is too uncomfortable for us – and reinterpret them to fit our cultural experiences. Thank God that as much as he performs miracles he also is a ‘down to earth’ sort of God who shows us how good life happens within the ordinary things.

    • Apologetics Guy December 23, 2011 7:27 AM
      #

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for posting your comments. I agree. BTW, I just checked out your site. Nice to meet a new Converge person on here! My wife and I spent four years with the BGC and I appreciate what you are doing with your blog. Merry Christmas!

      -Mikel

  5. Brian Stankich December 23, 2011 7:36 AM
    #

    Thanks, Mikel, I appreciate that. Have a great Christmas as well. I look forward to your future posts. Brian

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention No Room in the Inn? How we got the traditional Christmas story wrong: -- Topsy.com - December 25, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mikel Del Rosario. Mikel Del Rosario said: No Room in the Inn? How we got the traditional Christmas story wrong: http://bit.ly/hU8YkI #apologetics #christmas #hermeneutics [...]