No Inn or Innkeeper?   

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

No Inn or Innkeeper?

By Selma Komisky

As a young child, every Christmas I would look forward to decorating and my assigned job was to set up the antique, old-fashioned nativity set under our tree. One by one, I loved carefully unwrapping each porcelain figure out of the cardboard box and being surprised when I unveiled which one it was. The angel, the shepherd, the baby Jesus….

But the thing I recalled most, was on Christmas Eve, my mom would kneel down to my level and tell me the Nativity story (otherwise known as the birth of Christ.) My mom was creative and made the Bible story come alive. With one hand she’d moved Mary’s statuette along on top of the worn grey donkey and with her other hand, move Joseph through the imaginary Bethlehem village looking for room at the inns.

Mom held my attention and I would giggle when she got to the part where she’d tap on the table reenacting  Joseph and Mary knocking at the door of the inn. Then she would change her voice into a strong deep character and say, “No! We have no room!” She would continue knocking at the next door (and so goes the story) until one innkeeper finally said “yes,” and they are led to the stable where baby Jesus is born in the manger. As I was chewing on this, I came across Luke 2:4-6 in the Bible and it says,

“So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 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.”

Notice Scripture makes no mention of any donkey. Hmm, isn’t that funny how every biblical movie or Christmas card depicts the birth of Christ the same way! You can count on seeing our donkey saddled with  the mother of Jesus riding on his back. So, I think as means of transportation, it could have been a camel or they could have walked or used a cart. Although it was a very long journey (about 90 miles). We can speculate, but the Bible never mentions they traveled via donkey. So wait, it gets better!

Another realization occurs in Luke 2:7 in the King James Version. It says (bolded for emphasis),  

“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 inn.

Again, no inn and no inn keeper are mentioned in the biblical account. Although, apparently the confusion can be traced back to a mistranslation of the Greek word kataluma, which  actually means “guest chamber or guest room.

According, the word “guest chamber has four occurrences:

  1. Mark 14:14, “and wheresoever he shall enter in, say to the master of the house, The Teacher saith, where is my guest-chamber, where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples?”
  2. Luke 2:7, “and she brought forth her son — the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.”
  3. Luke 22:11, “and ye shall say to the master of the house, The Teacher says to thee, where is the guest-chamber where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”
  4. 1 Samuel 9:22, “And Samuel took Saul and his servant, and brought them into the guest-chamber, and made them sit in the chiefest place among them that were bidden, who were about thirty persons.”

The common assumption is that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. Mary being with child, was having full labor pains and rushed to an inn only to find it full with no vacancies. So, they ended up in a stable where she gave birth. Keep in mind, today, when people think of an inn they think of a hotel but that was not the case in biblical times.

However, a careful reading of the text shows they had already been in Bethlehem for some time when she was ready to have baby Jesus (see Luke 2:4-6). They were looking for lodging when Mary went into labor. According to The Archaeological Study Bible, “The ‘manger’ was the feeding trough of the animals. This is the only indication that Jesus was born in a stable. Very early tradition suggests that his birthplace was a cave, perhaps being used as a stable.

The Berean Bible Church also notes from the The Archaeological Study Bible:

“ Very early tradition suggests it’s in first-century homes! A typical Judean house of that day consisted of an area near the door, often with a dirt floor, where the family’s animals were kept at night–so they wouldn’t be stolen or preyed upon and so their body heat could help warm the home on cool nights. The family lived and slept in a raised part of the same room set back from the door. There was also usually a guest room either upstairs on a second floor or adjoining the family common room on the lower floor. Typically, the lower area near the door had a manger for food and/or water for the animals.”

In reality, we have a new understanding and visual of the story of Jesus’ birth. Maybe another scenario would have happened besides the one we have come to know. It would go something like this: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full (or too small) and are accommodated amongst the family. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace part of the family home and the baby is laid in a manger. Hospitality was big in those days and family wouldn’t have turned away another in need.

Funny, I know what you’re thinking. All those precious Christmas nights my mom told me that Nativity story. Don’t worry – I’m as surprised as you are whose reading this and I miss that part about the beloved innkeeper that helps Mary and Joseph. But truth be told, the presence of an inn keeper and inn were just not there. I thought I don’t like to think the story happened a different way, but what dawned on me most was not so much the importance of the inn, but the realization that Jesus our Savior was born!