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The Guest Room

by Tim O'Hearn

Sometimes a translation of the Bible is unfortunate. When you have several words to use in translation, picking the right one can be hard. Sometimes an understanding of history or culture might help inform the translation. Unfortunately, generations may intervene between the unfortunate word and the better understanding. This may even be the case with such familiar passages as the Christmas story.

For a number of years there have been Bible purists who object to nativity scenes that have the wise men present. Matthew says the Magi found Jesus in a house (Matt 2:11), while Luke has him lying in a manger at his birth (Lk 2:7). While the Magi may have showed up almost two years after the birth, the house argument is not as strong as some think.

Here is the usual story. Joseph and Miriam (Mary) travel from Galilee to Bethlehem to be registered for the tax. They try to find a place at the local inn, but it has a no vacancy sign. Instead, they find shelter in a separate barn or stable, where she (seemingly immediately upon arrival) gives birth to Jesus. The angels announce it to theThere was no shortage of houses in which Joseph and Mary could have stayed. shepherds, and they come the same night. On the eighth day after the birth, Jesus was circumcised. After forty days (Lk 2:22), Mary presents him at the Temple when she comes to offer the sacrifices for her purification. Some time later the Wise Men show up bringing gifts. The angel warns Joseph and the family flees to Egypt.

It’s a nice story, and is, for the most part, biblical. One problem with translation and culture, though, may make a whole Renaissance industry in painting nativity scenes inaccurate.

The Inn

There was a decree for taxation, and everyone had to go to their ancestral home to register. Today that might create a real problem, because many people no longer live where they were born, much less where their family “originated.” In Israel at the time, it probably wasn’t as big a deal. Joseph and Mary may have been two among a small number traveling to Bethlehem. Since the Law of Moses demanded that ancestral lands stay in the family, most descendants of David probably still lived in or around Bethlehem. A few, like Joseph, may have been brave enough to travel elsewhere to try to make a living. It probably wasn’t like there was this sudden influx of thousands of visitors to town.

Bethlehem was, by the standards of the day, probably not a “little town.” It wasn’t as big as Jerusalem, obviously, but it wasn’t some backwater, either. It was, after all, the birthplace of David, the great king. On one street there might have been a historical marker purporting to show the very spot David was born. Somewhere else could have had a plaque honoring the place where Samuel anointed him. Bethlehem may have been quite the tourist destination. Nevertheless, according to the traditional view, there was only one inn. Hardly likely.

There were inns. This is obvious from the story of the good Samaritan. The man who was beaten and left for dead was taken to an inn (Greek pandocheion). People often did not like to stay in these inns, because robbery and other crimes were common there. If they had relatives in or near the town, they would prefer to stay there. In the New Testament there is only one mention of this type of inn or public house, and it is that one in the story of the Samaritan. This is not the word used by Luke when he said “there was no room for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:7)

It may be that some people had to stay in an inn during the taxation registration. It is likely that Joseph did not. Many people who had to go to Bethlehem may have stayed in Jerusalem, as it was not that far away, only about 5.5 miles. They could find a place in the big city, and take a day trip (a two or three hour walk) to Bethlehem to do the business of registration. Others probably stayed with friends or relatives. Joseph probably had relatives in Bethlehem, since that is where he had to go to register. Mary had relatives in the area. She had already visited Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah (Lk 1:39) Of course, that description covers a large area on all sides of Jerusalem, but primarily toward Bethlehem. Jesus later had friends (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) in Bethany, four miles from Bethlehem, who may also have been relatives. There was no shortage of houses in which Joseph and Mary could have stayed.

No Room

If Joseph and Mary did not stay in an inn (pandocheion), what about what Luke said about there being no room? If they stayed in a house, is this not a contradiction?

First one should look at how houses were constructed. We think in terms of the American style, with a farmhouse and a separate barn and/or stable. This was rarely the case in Israel. Wealthy people with large herds or flocks did not necessarily live with them. They hired herders who kept them, “abiding in the field.” (Lk 2:8) Those who kept livestock in or near town usually kept them inside the house. Either the house was constructed with the place for the livestock completely on the ground floor and the family on subsequent floors, or there was an area for the livestock and a raised area for the family or guests. This had the advantage of helping keep the house warm in winter, and the disadvantage of odors worsening in the summer heat. This explains the incident with Jephthah’s daughter.

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. (Judg 11:30-31)

Jephthah did not expect his daughter, or even his dog if he had one, to come out of the house. He expected livestock that could be sacrificed. That was because the livestock were kept in the house.

But how does this relate to there being no room in the inn? The word mistranstlated as inn in Luke 2 is used elsewhere. In Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 the word katalyma is translated “guest chamber,” and the disciples were directed to an “upper room” where they could celebrate the Passover. This upper room used as a guest chamber was not necessarily a second or third floor of the house. More likely it was “upper” compared to the stables, and separate from the family rooms.

Now, perhaps, we have a picture of Joseph and Mary, along with several other relatives, staying in the guest room next to the livestock. When Mary had her baby, the room was too crowded to safely keep a child, but there was a ready solution. Within reach of the floor was a manger (feeding trough) that could serve as a crib. There was no room in the guest room, but the family wasn’t put out into a separate stable or cave; they stayed where they had been lodging, and put the baby in a safe place nearby.

How Long?

The assumption has always been that Mary had Jesus within hours of arriving in Bethlehem. That, too, was probably not the case. If she were that close to delivering the child there would have been every reason to leave her in Nazareth. It was not absolutely necessary that she be present in Bethlehem for the registration. They could have been weeks in town before she had the child.

At the time of the visit to Bethlehem, Mary could have been anywhere from four to nine months pregnant. She had spent three months in the area with Elizabeth before John was born. (Lk 1:57) The scriptures don’t say how long after she returned home that they traveled to Bethlehem. Nor do they say how long they were in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. In spite of Roman efficiency, it may have taken weeks to complete the registration for taxation. New families may have been coming to stay with their hosts daily, thus filling the guest room (and leaving no room for the baby). After Jesus was born, they stayed at least two months. He had to be circumcised on the eighth day, and they remained for her purification until the fortieth day. Most likely they remained with the same host for that period of time.

If they were staying with some relative for that period of time, in a house, that sets the minimum time after Jesus was born before the arrival of the Magi. Because Joseph left for Egypt with his family immediately after the visit by those men of the East (Matt 2:14), they could not have arrived any earlier than forty days after the birth. If they arrived that early, this would explain why Joseph and Mary were still in Bethlehem. There was noJephthah did not expect his daughter, or even his dog if he had one, to come out of the house. logical reason for him to pull up stakes for almost two years and stay in Bethlehem. While a carpenter could make a living just about anywhere, Nazareth was home. He had probably left a house, a shop, and most of his belongings there. Why would he stay in Bethlehem any longer than necessary?

But what about Herod’s decree to kill all babies under two years of age? Matthew 2:7 says Herod diligently inquired what time the star appeared. Verse 16 says his decree was based on that diligent inquiry. But who is to say that the star appeared upon the birth of Jesus. If, as many picture the nativity, the wise men arrived at the birth (which is not possible), then they had seen the star several months earlier. They had to have had time to travel from the east, probably Babylon. They had to have had time to interpret the star. If Herod made the mistaken assumption that the star appeared upon the birth of the Messiah, then his decree of “two years old and under” makes sense.

Those who object to the wise men being depicted as coming to a stable with the shepherds have a valid point. There were at least two months between the events. But those who picture the family in a separate stable are probably wrong on that point as well. There was no heartless innkeeper who turned them away. There probably wasn’t even an inn from which they were turned away. Chances are Jesus was born where he was cared for by lots of relatives. If there were a lot of women visiting in the house, Mary might barely have spent time with her own baby.