Because there was no room in the Inn

15th December, 2017

The birth of Jesus, celebrated by hundreds of millions every year on Christmas, is certainly one of the world’s best known stories. Surprisingly, this famous scene only appears in two of the four canonical gospels, Matthew and Luke. Of these two, Luke contains the more detailed description of the birth itself:

And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7).

This verse has given rise to the popular image of the holy family in a barn on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Most of us assume that Joseph and Mary were looking for a hotel room and when they found all the rooms booked they had no choice but to sleep in a stables. Is this so?

Probably not. The most problematic English word in this verse is “inn”. Firstly. Bethlehem was far too small a village to have an actual hotel. Secondly, the Greek word which means “inn” pandoxeion (πανδοχεῖον) is not used here. Luke uses the word in 10:34 in his telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But here in chapter 2 he uses a different word: katalyma (κατάλυμα). Based on the verb katalyo (καταλύω), which means “to put down one’s things”, the katalyma is simply any sheltered space used as a resting place. Israelite_pillared_house

Mary and Joseph were not looking for a room in an “inn” but simply the upstairs level of a typical residential house used as a bedroom. When visitors came, it could be used as a guest room. Due to the empire-wide census, numerous members of Joseph’s family had congregated in Bethlehem, and all the katalymata in town were occupied. Because there was “no room in the upstairs bedroom,” Joseph and Mary had to sleep downstairs in the main room of a relative’s house. This room was a sort of all purpose room. During the day it was used as a workshop. At night it was used to house frail animals, while the rest of the flock was left outdoors. The katalyma was not a full-fledged barn or stables, but it did contain a drinking trough or manger cut in the bedrock. This was the most convenient place to place the baby Jesus once he was born. So while Jesus was indeed born in a room used for animals, this was not strictly a barn.

A model of a typical Israelite house from the period of the Hebrew Bible.

Presumably first century homes in Bethlehem looked similar.

The katalyma is above whereas animals are kept below.

taken from: accessed Dec 2017