Advent, Christmas, and Nativity Part III: Because there was no room in the . . . Hey, where’s the Inn?

In the previous post in this Advent series, I suggested that Mary was not likely full-term on the 70 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. So, she was a lighter load for the little donkey that may or may not have made the journey with them. I have also saved Joseph, the patron Saint of Canada, from any accusations of being so insensitive as to make his full-term wife ride a donkey.

It is possible that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem.But depending on how far along she was in her pregnancy, she may have even have walked at leisure alongside her husband. Is that such a bad picture to have leading up to the Nativity? These newlyweds strolling along the path to Bethlehem, enjoying one another’s company, and talking about plans for the future. Maybe Joseph was filling his wife in on the quirks of his family in Bethlehem.

“Wait until you taste Aunt Sarah’s hummus. Maybe she will give you her recipe, if you help her make it. Oh, but don’t mention the Sadducees or the Temple around Uncle Shlomo or you won’t hear the end of it.”

I think it is fine to employ our imaginations when it comes to the story of Christmas. Eugene Peterson’s mother named all of David’s brothers. I think some of those names were Klug and Olaf. Disappointed when he read the Bible on his own, he found that the inspired authors had left out some of the best parts. Still, I think we ought to return regularly to the text and attend to what is actually there.

Now, if they were not in crisis when they arrived in Bethlehem, then surely a room in the local inn would have opened up eventually. Unless, that is, there was no inn. We only have an innkeeper because we have inn. If the inn goes, then so does the inhospitable innkeeper. But that’s okay, we don’t usually put him in our nativity sets anyway.

 Well, let’s see if the Inn is in the text. We know it is not in Matthew because in the first post of this series we found that Matthew has even less to say about the immediate circumstances of Jesus’s birth than Luke.

Luke 2:6-7 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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. (ESV)

Well, there it is in the text, so what is the problem? Well, we saw last time that “great with child” was in the KJV but not in the ESV. In the last post, I chose the ESV because its translation committee would be more likely to follow the KJV if they had good reason to do so than some other translators.

So, let’s look at another translation, just to be sure. Here is the passage as it is found in the very popular NIV.

Luke 2:5-7 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 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 guest room available for them.

Hmm? That’s not very helpful is it. One could certainly call a room at an inn a “guest room”. But, then again, “guest room” is a bit more ambiguous but a guest room is not an inn. It is one thing to say there was no room in the “guest room” and quite another thing to say there was no room. I have stayed in many guest rooms located in houses. The suggestion here is that the guest room was full.

When different versions offer significantly different translations or if some pesky blogger is ruining your Christmas by pointing out peculiarities, then it is good to turn to the original languages.

So, let’s turn to the Greek.

Luke 2:7 καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον, καὶ ἐσπαργάνωσεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ, διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι

The troublesome word is in bold. The word kataluma which the KJV and the ESV translate as inn is used one other time in Luke. So, that might help. (You can find these things with a tool known as a Concordance.)

Luke 22:11 καὶ ἐρεῖτε τῷ οἰκοδεσπότῃ τῆς οἰκίας· λέγει σοι ὁ διδάσκαλος· ποῦ ἐστιν τὸ κατάλυμα ὅπου τὸ πάσχα μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν μου φάγω; 12 κἀκεῖνος ὑμῖν δείξει ἀνάγαιον μέγα ἐστρωμένον· ἐκεῖ ἑτοιμάσατε.

The ESV translates this passage as follows:

Luke 22:11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.

So, we find the same word translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7 translated here as “guest room”. Moreover, the guest room is further identified as “a large upper room”. The famous “upper room” where Jesus celebrates the Last Supper and institutes the Lord’s Supper.

So, why does the ESV translate this term in two very different ways? Is there anything in the immediate literary context of Luke 2 that suggests that inn is more appropriate than guest room? Not really. So, a strong extra-biblical tradition seems to have shaped the translation choice here. A more wooden translation of this phrase is “because there was no place (topos) for them in the guest room (kataluma).” There was a guest room but it was full.

When I look at the sentence with kataluma in it, I think the translation “guest room” makes more sense of what precedes it. She placed her newborn in the manger because the guest room was full.

But where was this guest room? Who was staying in the guest room? What kind of people are these who would send Mary and her newborn to stay in a barn? Or was it a cave?

Wait, where is the barn?

Oh no. Here we go again.

Next Post: Jesus, Were You Born in a Barn?

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3 thoughts on “Advent, Christmas, and Nativity Part III: Because there was no room in the . . . Hey, where’s the Inn?

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