No room for an inn: what the Bible really tells us about Jesus’ birthplace
No room for an inn: what the Bible really tells us about Jesus’ birthplace
A sermon preached by Kenneth Padley, 24th December 2023
I was hopeless at drama when I was in school. The furthest I ever got in the nativity play was the part of the inn-keeper. I was aged eight or nine. My costume was an itchy beige dressing gown which my father had procured from a dodgy corner of the 1970s. With a stretch of the imagination, I might just have passed as a landlord from the ancient near east.
My role as inn-keeper was simple: I had to pretend to open a door on the stage in response to the frantic knocking of Joseph, before refusing the holy couple lodging because my inn was full. However, the couple were persistent and I had an outhouse round the back. You get the idea. We’ve seen it a hundred times. The image in our minds is of a heavily pregnant Mary arriving with haste, in a town that is overcrowded, with visitors who have come for a census. Often Mary is so near-term that she is borne on a donkey, and the couple are so desperate to find shelter that they take a cattle shed.
But is this what the Bible tells us? Immediately after the gospel we heard this morning, Mary sets out with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1.39). However, there is no corresponding rush when in chapter 2 she and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. The inference that she was in a hurry hangs entirely on the notion of Luke 2.7 that ‘there was no room for them in the inn’.
I am told that Bethlehem would not have had inns as we understand them today. Commercial lodgings for travelers would have been rare in settlements. Back then, inns were only found at remote points on trade routes – in other words, where there were no normal houses in which a visitor might stay.
There is an example of such an inn later in Luke’s gospel. We hear about this in Jesus’ tale of a man who was beaten up on the dangerous and isolated road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In that parable, help comes from the Good Samaritan who, moved with pity, binds up the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn. This is a genuine inn, a caravanserai, a travelers’ hostel. However, the Greek word for inn used in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, pandocheion, is not the same as the word which Luke uses in his narrative of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s infancy narrative does not refer to a pandocheion, but a kataluma. And a kataluma is not easily rendered by ‘inn’. It is much more appropriately used for a guest room in a normal house.
The scene which Luke envisages in Bethlehem is a traditional form of hospitality that was common across the near east until recent decades. It was a cultural expectation that visitors were to be welcomed and cared for. Residents would put up even strangers in their guest room. For many families, this might have been their only room, the single space where everyone bedded down for the night.
There is no sense that Mary and Joseph arrived in a hurry – and certainly no donkey or innkeeper. The implication is that Mary and Joseph were staying for a while with a family in the town. The kataluma was quite possibly a mezzanine floor in a house which had just one room. Given the terrain, one tradition dating to at least the second century envisages a dwelling built into the rock. To this day, Eastern Orthodox iconography of the Nativity depicts Jesus as born in a cave.
The resident family would have been there. They had welcomed in two scruffy northerners to share their space, as societal convention dictated. Things would have been a bit squishy – even more so once the woman needed to give birth. So Mary took her baby down from the mezzanine to the ground floor, the place where the family kept their animals overnight for security and warmth.
The Bethlehem inn has been stuck in the western imagination of Christmas for over 1600 years. It entered the tradition at least by the fourth century when St Jerome included a ‘wayside inn’ in his famous Latin Vulgate Bible. The very earliest English Bibles of the fourteenth century made by the Lollards amended this and said that Jesus was born in a ‘chamber’. However, the sixteenth century Protestants took an unusually traditional turn, favouring Jerome’s Latin over the Greek and retaining the notion of an inn. So I am not under any illusions that western nativity scenes will soon be updated in the interests of historical accuracy. But by way of seasonal gift, let me suggest three reasons why the interpretation which I have been outlining matters, three reasons why it is significant that there is no room for an inn in Luke’s nativity.
Firstly, it serves to underline the poverty of the holy family. They weren’t looking to stay at the Bethlehem White Hart or Sarum College. Such hostelries probably did not exist and, even if they did, they would not have been affordable. Rather, Mary and Joseph crashed on the floor of a stranger. In this context, God was born as a migrant in the home of an unknown family to parents who had nothing. Lacking space even in this context, God stooped one step further, a final descent from the mezzanine to the livestock in the basement. We are being reminded that it is not wealth nor cleverness nor good deeds which redeem us, but God who stoops in order to raise us to the life of heaven – and that there is no place where he will not go.
My second take-home is about the task of evangelization to which all Christians are called. The theologian Paula Gooder observes that, ‘if there was an inn, someone refused Jesus room; if it was just a guest room, no one refused him room – he just didn’t quite fit in.’ Gooder finds profound significance in this distinction. She continues, ‘so often we assume that people’s lack of acceptance of Jesus… is deliberate, thought through and clearly stated. The reality is that [often] a refusal of Jesus is not thought through – he just doesn’t quite fit into our lives.’ Friends, the goal of our conversations about Christ this Christmas is less likely to be about convincing a complete sceptic that Jesus was born at all, than to share a glimpse with people who are more receptive as to why that birth matters more than any other.
The third observation I would draw from the Bethlehem guest room is about worship. At the far end of Luke’s gospel, on the day before he dies, Jesus sends his disciples into Jerusalem. They are directed to a guest room where they are told to prepare a Passover meal. Would it surprise you to learn that this guest room is the only other kataluma in the entire New Testament?
In birth, the mezzanine was too crowded for the tiny baby. But before death, Jesus met with his followers in another guest room as Lord and host. The excluded had become included. And there was a promise of permanence, despite the impeding evil of the crucifixion. Thus the Last Supper instituted this Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of spiritual encounter with the Christ who was born and died and raised for you. Whatever our failure in the year which is passing to make space for Jesus, this coming Christmas the baby and the man, the incarnate saviour, seeks a guest room in your heart.
 Cf. Jeremy Seal e.g. Meander chapter 9.
 Justin Martyr – cf. The Oxford Handbook of Christmas (2020), 225-27.
 Cf. Forshall, J. and Madden, F. (eds.), The New Testament in English according to the Version by John Wycliffe about A.D. 1380 and revised by John Purvey about A.D. 1388 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1879).
 Gooder, Journey to the Manger, 105-06.