When Jesus was born, was there really “no room in the inn?”
I love this season more than any other, in both its darker Advent shades and its brighter Christmas morning celebration. So I was deeply surprised when a few years ago I had my mental image of Jesus’ birth upended by some fascinating observations, built on both a deeper cultural understanding of the times as well as a better understanding of a particular Greek word.
So let’s dive right in. All of the following is based on work by Kenneth Bailey, originally in its own article, and more recently in a shortened version in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
Luke 2:7 (ESV) says:
“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.”
So what is actually going on here? Bailey makes a few observations that help us understand the context leading up to this verse:
- 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 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 the village of Joseph’s origin, 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 that there was “no room 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?
Perhaps not. 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 would have a guest room (kataluma), a family room, and a “stable” area. This stable area was beneath the floor of the main room so animals could come into the house at night without getting in the way of the family. 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 they would have usually been offered 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 shows Joseph as a husband who would have had enough wits about him to arrange for a decent place for his wife to give birth.
- Importantly, it suggests Jesus was not rejected by everyone at his birth, but rather welcomed, not as a royal would have been, but as a valued part of a community.
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 heartless and cold, but Bailey’s understanding presents a very different picture. Jesus would have to wait until later in his life to be rejected.
So while this is not of enormous theological consequence, I hope you find the matter as interesting as I did. At the least, this example shows up the huge cultural and historical barriers confronting us when we read scripture. I hope it inspires you to dig deeper to figure out what is really being said.
For further reading on the topic, including possible sources for our traditional understanding of “no room in the inn,” see Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and a more recent discussion in a similar vein.
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.