Every Christmas, innkeepers get a terrible ‘rap’.
In schools, playgroups and churches up and down the land, Mary and Joseph duly arrive on their donkey in Bethlehem, only to be rejected by one or more innkeepers saying they don’t have any room at all in their inn. Eventually, one of the innkeepers relents and says they can use his stable around the back, where Jesus is born while the cattle low and the angels rejoice.
‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 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’
Well it doesn’t say stable, but he’s laid in a manger an animal’s feeding trough so where else could he be?
Rewind … lets look at this more closely
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. And the Greek word that Luke uses here is kataluma, which can mean ‘inn’, but just as easily can mean guest room or spare room or anywhere you might put visitors.
Elsewhere in his Gospel, specifically in Luke 22:11, he says that the Last Supper also took place in a kataluma. Now, as far we know, no Bible translation has ever suggested that the Last Supper took place in the Jerusalem equivalent of a Pub. Instead, this word is translated as: ‘guest room [kataluma]’
The Last Supper
7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”
9 “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.
10 He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.”
Luke 22:11 – NIV Translation
Elsewhere, where Luke talks about an inn, he uses another word: pandocheion (it’s in the story of the Good Samaritan: Luke 10: 34). So, if Luke had meant an inn in Bethlehem, why did he not use pandocheion?
It’s simple: there never was an inn. Mary and Joseph were in a house. According to the story, Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town. If that’s true, he must have had relatives there. When Luke uses kataluma,he doesn’t mean inn: he means spare room or guest room.
So Mary wrapped Jesus ‘in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guestroom available for them’. It looks as though the innkeepers might be getting justice at last.
But, Why Lay Jesus in a Manger if they’re in a “Guest Room” ?
So if Jesus wasn’t in a stable, why was he laid in a manger – an animal’s feeding trough?
The answer is that in Jewish peasant households of the time, the mangers, and the animals, were often indoors. We should never forget that the gospel stories are largely about poor people.
Mary and Joseph came from a simple, peasant background, and simple, peasant homes did not have stables. They were often built on 2 levels: there was the lower level where the everyday living took place, and an upper, mezzanine level where the family slept. Sometimes these homes were even caves, dug into the hillside.
Luke’s account, then, can be read as saying that there was no room in the residential parts of the house. Or there was no guest room. So they had to put the baby in the lower level, where the animals were kept. There would have been mangers set into the slope to the upper level, and it was there that Jesus was laid. Jesus was downstairs with the animals, because the rest of the house was full.
So why do we have inns mentioned in the translations?
Simply because the Bible translators who later interpreted the story came from Europe . And we didn’t have two-tier peasant houses. For Europeans, mangers were in stables, and travellers stayed in inns.
Does this ruin the story? Take away the magic?
Not really. It reinforces, for Christians at least, the miracle of the incarnation. God didn’t only become a ‘man’, but he was born at a specific time and place: a cramped peasant’s home in the tiny town of Bethlehem.
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