Among the familiar words from the Christmas story are these:
“And laid him in a manger because there was no space for them in the guest room” (Luke 2:7).
What happened to “no room in the inn”? Turns out, there may not have been an inn in Bethlehem after all, much less one that had no room for Mary and Joseph.
Luke, the only Gospel writer who provides an extensive nativity narrative, was concerned about precision in what he wrote. We know this because he said as much so very clearly (Luke 1:3). So if Luke strove for accuracy, it stands to reason that his readers should try to understand exactly what he intended.
Luke wrote that there was no space in the “katáluma.” That Greek word is usually understood as a “guest room” in a house. Luke used “katáluma” in that exact sense later on (22:11) in reference to the “guest room” where the Last Supper would be observed.
These are the only two times that Luke uses that word. So, if “katáluma” means “guest room” in one verse, it should be translated the same way in another verse.
If Luke wanted to imply that there was an inn in Bethlehem that had no rooms to rent he would have likely used a different word: “pandócheon.” That word refers to lodging used by travelers. We know Luke was familiar with that word because he used it in the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:34) in which the Samaritan took the wounded man to a “pandócheon.” So Luke could have written “there was no space in the pandócheon” (inn) but instead he wrote “katáluma” (guest room).
So why do almost all English translations of Luke 2:7 refer to an “inn”? We need to go back about 500 years to William Tyndale, the first person to translate the New Testament into English from the Greek. Until Tyndale’s time, the official Bible of the church was the Latin Vulgate.
Here is how Tyndale translates Luke 2:7: “and layed him in a manger because there was no roume for them within the ynne.”
Tyndale claims to have translated from the Greek. But he also probably had the Latin Vulgate in front of him as he worked. He may have known Latin better than Greek, and when he wasn’t sure how to render a phrase, he may have deferred to the Latin.
However he arrived at his translation, Tyndale created a tradition with his words “there was no roume for them within the ynne.”
About a hundred years later, King James I of England wanted a fresh English translation of the Bible. The result was the King James Version. It really wasn’t all that new because the translators King James employed leaned heavily on the earlier work of Tyndale. So, in the instance of Luke 2:7, tradition trumped accuracy and Tyndale’s faulty translation was accepted into the King James Version. Most English translations since have declined to make the correction so that the phrase in Luke 2:7 would read: “there was no space for them in the ‘guest room.’ ” (Some do translate correctly.)
So what really happened in Bethlehem? In order to comply with the census requirements (Luke 2:1), large numbers of people were on the move, including relatives of Joseph. Even if there were commercial lodging available in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph would have done what most people in those days did, and stayed with relatives. Unfortunately, other family members apparently had gotten to Bethlehem first and the “katáluma” was full.
What’s more, because childbirth was imminent, a private location was important. After all, the “katáluma” was crowded. Because Luke says Mary’s time came “while they were there,” we can assume that the homeowner had time to prepare a part of his house as a nursery. It was the lower portion of the house where animals sometimes stayed. Possibly a few matronly aunts came down from the “katáluma” to serve as midwives.
So, no booked-solid motel. No heartless innkeeper. No remotely located barn. But the same story, with some details slightly different from what artists put on the front of many Christmas cards.
David Hauschild, of Blaine, studied New Testament Greek at Concordia, St. Paul, in 1962-63.