When Jesus was born, was there really “no room in the inn?”
Some years ago the work of Kenneth Bailey, a Christian scholar who spent most of his life living in the Middle East, challenged my thinking on this point. I have since become fully convinced of his interpretation that there is in fact no “inn” in the Christmas story at all, but that the Greek word in question has been mistranslated, leading to a different understanding of what is going on in the story. All of the following is based on his work (links available at the end).
Let’s begin by considering a few crucial points of context for the Christmas story:
- Joseph and Mary did not arrive in the middle of the night on the night of Jesus’ birth, as is commonly imagined, creating a sense of urgency to accept any accommodation. Instead, Joseph and Mary went up to Bethlehem in Luke 2:4, and then “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (2:6). They had arrived in Bethlehem at some point in the past, which would give Joseph time to sort out accommodation suitable for them.
- Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, and in Jewish custom, when he arrived and told people who he was, the community would have found a place for him to stay as a guest, most likely with a relative. This is particularly true because he was also of the House of David, after which the town was called. To turn Joseph away from his ancestral village, particularly with a pregnant wife, would have caused deep shame for the community. (They also almost certainly traveled in a group for safety from highway bandits and other dangers. So there would have been companions to help the couple sort things out upon arrival if needed.)
- Mary had relatives (Elizabeth and Zechariah) nearby in Judea (Bethlehem is in central Judea). Since Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem prior to the night of Jesus’ birth, if there really had been no room available anywhere, and none of the likely companions could help, they very likely would have gone a few extra miles to Mary’s relatives’ home.
Given these three points, and the likely assumption that Joseph and Mary would have stayed with relatives, why do we still read in Luke 2:7 that “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.”
This is where the Greek comes in. The word rendered “inn” in many translations is kataluma. Importantly, this is not the word typically used for a commercial inn, which was pandocheion. Pandocheion is the word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, where the Samaritan pays for the beaten man’s room (Luke 10) and is commonly used elsewhere with the same meaning. The word literally means “all-receiving.”
Since Luke uses both words in his gospel, we must wonder why he chose kataluma here if he intended a commercial inn, as kataluma simply signifies “a place to stay,” and could mean an inn, a guest room, or even a house.
Fortunately, Luke gives us a good idea of which meaning he intended because he uses the word elsewhere in his gospel. When Jesus is giving his disciples instructions on the upcoming Passover meal in Jerusalem (Luke 22), he refers to the “kataluma where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples” (22:11). Of course, we know this to be the “upper room” mentioned in the next verse, where Jesus has his Last Supper.
So we see that Luke would choose to use the word kataluma to describe a guest room in a private home, rather than an inn. Along with the other context discussed earlier, this would suggest that Luke never intended us to picture an inn as part of his story, but rather a private home. Nonetheless, there was still “no room,” so why does this matter, especially since Jesus was laid “in a manger,” which seems to signify a barn-type setting, right?
Actually no. As it happens, houses in ancient Israel (and even to this day in some remote parts of the Middle East) often had areas where animals could come in at night, and this area included mangers! Check out the diagrams provided by Bailey below:
In the first figure you can see that a typical home might have a guest room (kataluma), a family room, and a “stable” area. This stable area was beneath the floor of the main room (see second figure) so animals could come into the house at night without getting in the way of the family. This was both for protection of the animals and had the benefit of providing additional warmth in the house when it was cold. At the edge of the family area, where the animals’ heads would jut over into the family room, would be mangers cut out for the animals to feed if needed. See Bailey’s article for further notes confirming that this type of house would have been assumed in the story.
As one final point, this also fits with how the shepherds treat their visitation. Again, if they had come and found Jesus in a barn, they surely would have offered one of their own homes, though meager, to house the mother and child. This is the reality of communities where honor and shame are important motivating factors.
All of this suggests that when Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were staying in a private home, but the guest room was already full for some reason. Since there was “no room in the guest room,” Jesus was born in the family area and was laid in the manger at the end of the family room. No inn, no barn – just a typical birth in a private home that was perhaps a bit more full than usual.
Even though some translations get the “guest room” right, the mentality of the inn has so captured us that we tend to think of it as a guest room at an inn. Instead, Bailey provides a more compelling picture:
- It fits the local reality of a community that would have taken in one of its own.
- It accounts for the context that Mary and Joseph had actually arrived in Bethlehem earlier, not the night of Jesus’s birth.
- It explains why Luke would have used the specific word kataluma, as he later uses for a “guest room,” rather than the more typical pandocheion if he had meant a commercial inn.
For the most part, this example does not have large ramifications theologically, even though I find it fascinating. But it does significantly alter our understanding of the Jewish community into which Jesus was born. With the traditional view, the community is cold and heartless, not even making room for a woman at the height of labor. We often hear this idea translated into how Jesus was rejected at his birth, and rejected again at his crucifixion. His whole life was rejection.
But Bailey’s understanding presents a very different picture. In this view, Jesus is actually welcomed at birth, not as a royal would have been, but still as a valued part of a peasant community. Jesus would have to wait until later in his life to be rejected.
So while this is not of enormous theological consequence, this example shows up the significant cultural and historical hurdles confronting us when we read scripture. I hope it inspires you to dig deeper to understand the cultural context, which is so different from our own.
Kenneth Bailey lived and taught New Testament studies for forty years around the Middle East, and much of his writings have focused on understanding the gospels by trying to recover the cultural context of peasants in the time of Jesus, based in some part on long-surviving practices to the current day in rural areas of the Middle East. I would highly recommend his Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes, which discuss the cultural context, as well as other literary observations, of the parables in Luke. His other book The Good Shepherd is also excellent, exploring several of the key good shepherd passages in scripture through the lens of Middle Eastern culture.