How do you envision the place where Mary and Joseph stayed the night Jesus was born?
My family’s Nativity Set featured a wooden barn with Spanish moss “hay” hot-glued everywhere and plastic figurines of the Holy Family in richly colored robes, domesticated sheep and bulls, and three “kings” (who are only mentioned in Matthew, not Luke) looking like Muslim rulers. Scenes such as this come to us from the early Italian Renaissance, when wealthy Christians would present living tableaux in barns outside the cities, wearing their own finery and re-creating the Near East as they thought it looked during the 14th century.
Luke described Jesus’ first-century birth in one short verse: “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). That one verse, plus the following account of the shepherds and angels out in the fields, give us the basis for our Christmas nativity scenes but not the particulars. Archaeology can help us understand what the setting might have looked like historically, as opposed to how subsequent traditions and modern translations have colored his meaning.
Consider a word in Luke 2:7 that gives English speakers the wrong impression of what happened that night: katalyma (translated “inn”). To be more precise (and far less elegant in translation), it is best to read “lodging place” where most English translations have “inn” because we can’t be entirely sure what Luke is describing. Yes, Bethlehem would have had an inn for travelers, and yes, it is entirely reasonable that it was full because every single descendent of King David was visiting that city to complete the nation’s census (Luke 2:1-5).
However, if Luke means katalyma in the sense of an “inn,” then he expects his readers to fill in the gap in the story between the No Vacancy sign on the inn and the manger where Jesus took His first nap with knowledge of 1st-century Jewish hospitality: in Bethlehem and the rest of Judaea, Jews were obligated by their faith to welcome guests no matter the circumstances. Because it was so common that strangers would lodge a night with any family along their route, Luke may not have been describing an inn at all. It is more plausible that Mary and Joseph went straight to a family’s home and asked to stay in their katalyma, or “upper room.”
Houses within the walls of a city were designed with the kitchen and stables on the first floor and the cleaner living quarters on the second floor. There may simply have been no space in the “upper rooms” of the house, where beds were laid and food was eaten during the first century. With no room in the “upper room,” Mary and Joseph stayed in the next-best place in the working part of the house, which would have been warmer because of the animals and more private for the birth.
This translation has precedent, as katalyma is used by Luke in 22:11 for the “upper room” where Jesus would host His Last Supper.
Adapted from the December 2022 edition of the RHA’s First Friday Freebie. Sign up here!