Episode #47 – Was Jesus Rejected by an Innkeeper and Actually Born in a Stable?
Merry Christmas, everybody! Today’s readings begin with Genesis 49, which largely consists of Jacob/Israel’s blessing over his boys (and Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.) As we might expect from one such as Jacob/Israel, the blessing is very, very strange and unique in many ways, including where he calls out his eldest son for sleeping with his concubine/wife. #awkwardfamilymoments Job 15 features some more inaccurate drivel from Job’s wrong (according to God) ‘friend’ Eliphaz, who fat-shames the wicked with this passage:
Though his face is covered with fatJob 15:27-29
and his waistline bulges with it,
28 he will dwell in ruined cities,
in abandoned houses destined to become piles of rubble.
29 He will no longer be rich; his wealth will not endure.
His possessions will not increase in the land.
Not cool, Eliphaz. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul again addresses the issue of unity in the church, pointing out that picking certain people and following them (instead of Christ!) is a sure and dangerous sign of spiritual immaturity. Our focus passage for today is Luke, chapter 2: and so today we are celebrating Christmas in February. It’s a tale as old as time, true as it can be. Everybody knows that Joseph and Mary, after a long and trying donkey ride, tried to stay at an Inn in Bethlehem and ended up staying in an animal stable because there was no room for them in the inn, right? Not so fast, my friend. It may just be that our understanding of the birth of Jesus might need a few tweaks. Let’s read the Word and then come back and consider it.
Notice the CSB translation of Luke 2:7
Then she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.Luke 2:7
What we have here is evidence that New Testament scholars have realized something important about the birth of Jesus – there may not have been an inn involved at all. Hol’ up, I hear some of you saying: Are we implying that the Bible is wrong? Absolutely, positively not! Others are saying, the King James Version says “Inn,” and that was good enough for Moses, and it was good enough for Paul, and it is good enough for me!
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the innLuke 2:7 King James Version
Our issue here is an extremely minor one, but a terribly interesting one too. The only place in the Bible that discusses WHERE Jesus was born is in Luke 2, and there is VERY little information about where (and when!) He was born. Our question of the day revolves around the Greek word, ” καταλύματι/katalumati” and what we have here is a translation issue. Does καταλύματι/katalumati mean ‘Inn,’ or does it mean something else? Generally speaking the best way to answer such a question in the Bible is to consider other uses of the Word in other Bible passages – especially those by the same author.
Where Bible scholars have trouble pinning down the exact concept or thing meant by a particular biblical author when he uses a particular word is when the word is rarely – or never – used in other Scripture. There is a phrase that describes a word in the Bible that is only used in one place, and it is ‘hapax legomena‘ The New Testament has just under 700 hapax legomena, and the Old Testament has around 1500. This is about what you would expect in a body of works of that size, considering that Homer’s Iliad has a little over 1000.
One of the most mysterious, and difficult to translate words in the entire Bible is found in Jesus’ prayer in both Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3. “Give us this day our daily/ἐπιούσιος bread.” Most modern scholars translate ἐπιούσιος as ‘daily,’ meaning that Jesus is teaching us to ask for daily provision. Many, if not most, ancient translators and early church fathers translated ἐπιούσιος as something along the lines of ‘supernatural,’ or ‘super-substantial.’ Because the word is used in the exact same context in both passages, neither use helps us understand what the Word means, and there is NO OTHER occurrence of the word in all of the rest of Greek literature. (Except for the Didache, which quotes the verse exactly from the Bible.)
Fortunately, our word καταλύματι/katalumati is NOT a hapax legomena, but it is only found in two other places in the New Testament. Happily, one of those places is later in the Gospel of Luke, so that gives us a really good idea how Luke himself uses the word.
“Listen,” he said to them, “when you’ve entered the city, a man carrying a water jug will meet you. Follow him into the house he enters. 11 Tell the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room where I can eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 Then he will show you a large, furnished room upstairs. Make the preparations there.”Luke 22:10-12
Our word in question in this passage is translated as ‘guest room,’ and Jesus even describes it for us: a large, furnished room that is upstairs. That seems to be a very, very strong point in favor of NOT translating our word to Inn, but leaning towards ‘guest room,’ as the CSB does. I’ll give one more bit of evidence that tips the scale. It is very clear that Luke (and other New Testament authors) have a word that they use for ‘inn,’ and that word is πανδοχεῖον. It is found in Luke 10:34, in the middle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan:
He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an >inn>, and took care of him.Luke 10:34
These two bits of evidence are strong enough, to me, that I believe that Mary and Joseph were NOT rejected by an innkeeper (there is never one mentioned.), but that the house they were planning on staying in – probably the house of one of their relatives – had a full guest room.
Our next question: Was Jesus born in a stable? The answer is, probably not. Not a single animal is mentioned in Luke 2, but there is, of course, a manger – which is an animal food trough. Christians outside of the Middle East for hundreds of years have assumed that Jesus was born in a stable, largely because they are unfamiliar with a typical first century Jewish house, and they believe that mangers belong in stables. However, Kenneth E. Bailey ( a New Testament scholar who lived in the Middle East for 60 years) and Monte F. Shelly paint a different, and far more persuasive picture:
“Any Palestinian reading the phrase, “She laid him in a manger,” would immediately assume that the birth took place in a private home, because he knows that mangers are built into the floor of the raised terrace of the peasant home.” 7 Typical village home in Palestine with attached guest room “Simple village homes … were often an extension of a small cave if one was available.” Justin Martyr [c. AD 160] “grew up in the Holy Land … and he records that Jesus was born in a cave. This cave tradition is the universal assumption across all of the ancient Eastern Christian churches.” “Simple village homes often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room was attached to the end of the house or … on the roof … (1 Kgs 17:19). The main room was a ‘family room’ where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived.” They slept on mats that they would take up in the morning (Matt 2:9–11). “The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off. … Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey, and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. … A guest room [was on the flat roof], or … the end of the house. The door on the lower level serves as an entrance for people and animals. The farmer wants the animals in the house each night because they provide heat in winter and are safe from theft. … The elongated circles represent mangers dug out of the lower end of the living room. … If the family cow is hungry during the night, she can … eat. … Mangers for sheep can be of wood and placed on the floor of the lower level.” 9 “Such homes can be traced from 1000 BC up to 1950.” 10 Guest Room kataluma Family Living Mangers Room Steps “Stable” Several verses imply such a house. One lamp on a candlestick gives “light to all … in the house” (Matt 5:15). “The woman had a fat calf in the house” (1 Sam 28:24). When Jephthah vowed to sacrifice whatever came out “of the doors of my house to meet me,” he apparently expected an animal to come out (Judg 11:31). After healing a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus asked, “Doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?” (Lk 13:15) In an ancient Arabic New Testament, this verse says, “does not every one of you untie his ox or his donkey from the manger in the house and take it outside and water it?” 11 Early Christians believed Isaiah was referring to Jesus in the manger when he said, “The ox knows his master, and the donkey his owner’s manger” (NIV Isa. 1:3), Since the second century, an ox and a donkey have been included in art and nativity scenes. “But that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable”http://www.sviewp.com/RCbook/Bailey-%20Christmas%20-%20Middle%20Eastern%20Eyes.pdf
In this understanding, Jesus would not have been born in a stable, but more of what modern people in the West might call a basement, or a garage. Does ANY of this impact anything important about the birth of Jesus, or the Gospel? Of course not! But it is fun, and interesting, to dig deep into the original languages of the Bible and learn as much as we can about the world of Jesus.