Friday, December 3, 2010

Is there finally room at the inn? Reading Luke 2:7 in the new NIV

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.*


  1. What if the relatives were shunning the newly weds who were very pregnant and should not have been and did not allow them in the house, and it was not a privacy issue at all. What if they gave birth in an alley where the aniamls were tied up outside for the night and the baby was laid in the manger there. There is never a mention of a stable or even the cave people talk about. I enjoyed your post, and just thought I'd suggest this scenerio.

  2. Lukas trains errors that Were not Tax printing at the time Lukas Writes, The first 10 year later,- We agree that it was not in the live of Herodes, and not even in his sons time.
    Jesus was 10 year since the printing took place, Lukas make more errors He indicates the Time for Johannes the Baptist was in Abelen when Lysanias was quater Prince, this person had died 30 years before Christ birh

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post.
    I wonder how the Jewish cleanliness rules about a woman giving birth might have affected the situation.
    Another web site summarizes the cleansing sacrifice required after childbirth:
    "When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. "This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
    "a. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her ... "Allowances for the poor.
    "And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons; one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean. ...
    "Jesus’ family offered only a pair of turtledoves (Luke 2:22-24) at birth. This shows that Jesus did not come from a wealthy family."
    It is my understanding that a Jewish woman and her husband did not share a bed during times she was ritually unclean, and that a man did not even touch the bed where a woman slept while she was ritually impure.
    This law, along with the current household situation, might have affected who could be invited to stay for one or more nights. Otherwise, it would seem that imminent childbirth of a relative would override other space considerations. Everyone involved would need purification, which might involve sacrifices of a variety of animals that the family might not have.
    Perhaps you have more knowledge to share about this or can correct my information.
    Thank you.