One of the traditions of the Christmas season is the reenactment of the nativity by a children's Sunday School class. Usually a small boy and girl will play the part of Joseph and Mary making their way to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. As the narrator reads from Luke's Gospel Joseph will knock on a door that is opened by another boy who waves off the weary and pregnant couple. The narrator explains that there is "no room at the inn." Joseph and Mary then go next door to the stable where Luke tells us Jesus is born.
But if you are using the new NIV this year you may want to adjust the script slightly. The translators have done away with the word "inn" in Luke 2:7 and replaced it with "guest room." The word kataluma is better translated as "lodging" or "guest room" rather than "inn". Apart from Luke 2:7, the term only appears two other times in the New Testament. In Mark 14:14 it describes the place where Jesus and the disciples eat the passover. This is the way the term is also used later in Luke 22:11. When a survey of the term is taken in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) it is more often understood as "lodging," "quarters" or "guest room", but not an inn or hotel. Moreover, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one instance in the New Testament where an inn does appear, Luke uses a completely different word for "inn" (pandocheion), which is a more specific term for inn.
So how then should we understand the statement in Luke 2:7? What do we mean by guest room? Was there no place for Joseph and Mary in someone's spare bedroom? In the context of Luke's nativity this seems to be the best explanation.
If Joseph and Mary are returning to Bethlehem because it is Joseph's ancestral home, then we would expect that they would have stayed with family rather than in an inn. During their time there Mary began to go into labor. When Luke says there was no "place for them in the lodgings" he may mean there was no place of privacy for Mary to give birth. The option of giving birth in a stable would have provided warmth and privacy. The problem, it seems, is not that all of the hotels in Bethlehem were filled. Rather, the place where they were staying was so full they had to go to the stable for privacy.
I think the translators should be commended on two levels. First for bringing a more precise translation to this verse. Second, for being brave enough to mess with a significant Christmas tradition. I wonder how many nativity plays will change over the next few years. I suspect, however, that the inn keeper will be turning away Joseph and Mary for years to come.
*Update, Mark Goodacre has commented elsewhere that this translation also appears in the 2005 TNIV. I had not noticed that before. But then again I am not an NIV reader. James McGrath offers an interesting floor plan of the Bethlehem house as described by Luke. He also provides a link to a couple of articles by Kenneth Bailey entitled "The Manger and the Inn" and "The Story of Jesus' Birth". Both are worth your time.*