“And she gave birth.” The record of the events surrounding the birth of Christ occurs in Matthew and Luke, and the two Gospels interweave when it comes to the chronology of the events. To read about the birth of Christ in chronological order, it is: Luke 1:5-80; Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-30; Matt. 2:1-22. Then Matt. 2:23 and Luke 2:39-40 are both summary statements about Jesus growing up in Nazareth.
“firstborn son.” The word “firstborn” (prōtotokos, #4416 πρωτότοκος) here foreshadows the birth of Mary’s other children. She had at least six besides Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, Judas, and at least two daughters (Matt. 13:55-56). Jesus was God’s “only begotten” son, but Mary’s “firstborn” son. Mary and her sons, Jesus’ brothers, are mentioned in Luke 8:19.
“no space for them in the guestroom.” The Greek is: διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι. [διότι (because) οὐκ (not) ἦν (there was) αὐτοῖς (for them) τόπος (a place) ἐν (in) τῷ (the) καταλύματι (guestroom)]. Young’s Literal Translation (1862), which is similar to the REV, reads, “there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” Some more modern versions are similar: the CEB (Common English Bible, 2011) reads, “there was no place for them in the guestroom” while the NIV2011 reads, “there was no guest room available for them.” The reason the text would say they “laid him in a manger because there was no space for them in the guestroom” was that the guestroom would never have a manger. The main room of the house would have one if the homeowners had animals, but the guestroom would never have a manger.
Before we look at the mistranslations of “room” and “inn,” and remembering that Mary gave birth “while they were there” in Bethlehem (Luke 2:6), let us look at some reasons Joseph and Mary could have found a place to stay (these reasons are also enumerated in Kenneth Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pp. 25, 26). First, Joseph was returning to his town of origin. Historical memories are long in the Middle East, and family support is very strong. For example, Paul knew he was a descendant of Benjamin the son of Jacob, but Benjamin had lived more than 1,500 years before Paul. Once Joseph announced that both he and Mary were descendants of families from Bethlehem, many homes would be open to them.
Second, both Joseph and Mary were “royals,” from the royal line of David. David is so famous in Bethlehem that it is called, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4, 11). Being from that famous family would have meant that most homes would open their doors to him.
Third, in every culture women about to give birth are given special help. As Kenneth Bailey puts it: “Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the city of David would be an unspeakable shame to the entire village” (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 26). If for some reason Bethlehem was so totally filled with guests and visitors that no one would open their homes to Joseph and Mary, their relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth lived only a short distance away, in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39, NASB), and Joseph and Mary could have gone there with only a little effort. In fact, Mary had visited Elizabeth early in her pregnancy (Luke 1:40). So Joseph and Mary could have found adequate housing and care if they needed it.
Another reason we know Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were being well taken care of is that when the shepherds arrived soon after the birth of Jesus, they saw the young family and their new-born Messiah and then left. God’s people had waited thousands of years for this Messiah, and if the baby Messiah was not in good circumstances when the shepherds saw them, they would have immediately been confused, offended, and outraged, and taken the whole family back to their own homes. The fact that they left Joseph, Mary, and Jesus where they were shows they were satisfied that their Savior was being well taken care of.
Joseph and Mary were not rejected by a local hotel that had its “no vacancy” sign turned on. The phrase “no room in the inn” is a mistranslation that continues to support a very serious misunderstanding about the birth of Christ. Two Greek words we must understand to properly interpret the biblical account are topos (#5117 τόπος; usually translated “room”), and kataluma (#2646 κατάλυμα; usually translated “inn”).
The word translated “room” in the traditional phrase “no room in the inn” is topos, and it occurs more than ninety times in the New Testament. Topos does not refer to “a room,” but simply a place or space in a given area. In the inns and caravansaries of the ancient world, a person did not rent a “room” in the way we today would rent a hotel room. The guest rented a “space” to sleep, and there was no guarantee who or how many people might end up “sleeping” (or staying up carousing or having sex with a male or female prostitute) in the “space” with you. It is extremely unlikely that Joseph and Mary would have even agreed to go to an inn for her to give birth, they were generally loud places with a rough crowd, almost any house would have taken in a woman in labor to offer help and support. The word topos is used over 90 times in the Greek New Testament, and this is the only place it is translated “room” as if it referred to a room for Joseph and Mary to stay in.
The Bible says there was no “space” available for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma. What is the kataluma? It does not refer to a commercial lodge, or inn, but simply means a “lodging place” or “guestroom.” Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon says of kataluma: “lodging place. The sense inn is possible in Luke 2:7, but in 10:34 Luke uses pandocheion, the more specific term for inn. Kataluma is therefore best understood here as lodging or guest-room.” To properly understand the birth narrative of Jesus Christ, it is vital that we understand that the normal Greek word for “inn” is pandocheion (#3829 πανδοχεῖον), and it refers to a public house for the reception of strangers (caravansary, khan, inn). Pandocheion was not only used by the Greeks, but was used as a loan-word for “inn” or a commercial lodging place in Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and Turkish. Pandocheion is the word Luke uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan when he wanted to refer to a public inn (Luke 10:34).
In contrast to the pandocheion, the public inn, when the Gospels of Mark and Luke use kataluma, it means “guest room” (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). When finding a place to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them to say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room [kataluma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11). So in both Mark and Luke, the kataluma is a room in a man’s house. Luke also uses the verb form of kataluma, which is kataluō (#2647 καταλύω), and means “to find rest or lodging.” In the record of Jesus and Zacchaeus, Jesus goes “to be the guest” at Zacchaeus’ house, not at a public inn (Luke 19:7). So Luke also uses the verb such that “to stay in the kataluma” indicates lodging at someone’s house. So the text is telling us that at the birth of Jesus, there was no “space in the guestroom,” and we will see that it indicates that they stayed in the main quarters of the house.
Given all the evidence in the Bible and culture, the Bible should not be translated to say there was no room for them in the inn, but rather there was “no space for them in the guestroom.” It is noteworthy that Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, by Robert Young, the same man who produced Young’s Concordance to the Bible, translates Luke 2:7 as follows: “…there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber” (3rd edition; 1898). When the NIV translation was first published in 1984, Luke 2:7, quoted above, read, “there was no room for them in the inn,” but when the NIV was edited and republished in 2011, Luke 2:7 was changed to more correctly read, “because there was no guest room available for them.” So by 2011, the NIV translators recognized that “inn” should have been translated as “guestroom.” The NIV apparently left the Greek word topos untranslated, or it might have read, “there was no space in the guestroom for them.” Similarly, when the original Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) was published in 1999, Luke 2:7 read, “there was no room for them at the lodging place,” but when that Bible was updated in 2017 and published as the Christian Standard Bible (CSV), Luke 2:7 was updated to read, “there was no guest room available for them.”
To understand the birth of Christ there are also some features of common houses in the Middle East that we must understand. One custom was that it was very common for houses in the Middle East to have a guestroom where guests, and even strangers, could stay. Even poor people could have a guest room because it did not have to be furnished or have an adjoining bathroom and shower. People did not generally sleep on beds, but traveled with their own blankets that they slept on at night, so sleeping arrangements were no problem. Tables and chairs were not used in the common homes of first century Palestinians, and the bathroom was a pot, or a place outside. So the average guestroom was simply a small, empty room, offering shelter and a place of safety. The guestroom provided privacy for the guests as well as the family.
Showing hospitality to strangers has always been a huge part of Eastern life, and the Bible has quite a few records of people showing hospitality to strangers. For example, Lot housed two strangers (Gen. 19:1-4), and the man in Gibeah housed strangers (Judges 19:19-21). The Shunammite woman wanted to show hospitality to Elisha and had a guestroom built on her roof just for him (2 Kings 4:10). Giving hospitality was important enough that it became a command for Christian leaders (1 Tim. 3:2). The Eastern custom of giving hospitality continues in the modern Moslem culture, and thus one of the five pillars of the Moslem faith is to be quick to entertain strangers. The home Joseph and Mary stayed in had a guestroom, but it was being used by other guests.
The second thing we must understand is that it was common for people to bring their animals into their houses at night. They did this to keep them from being stolen and to protect them from harm. Usually, the floor of the family dwelling was raised up somewhat, and the animals were in an area that was a little lower (see Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, p. 34; Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 28-33). John Nolland writes: “…it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters by the raised platform floor of the latter)” (John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 105). That families brought their animals in at night explains why the manger was in the house. The manger would not have been in the guestroom.
When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem they were taken into one of the local homes, most likely of a relative. However, there was no space available for them in the kataluma, the guestroom. Therefore, the family made room for Joseph and Mary in their own living quarters, and the baby Jesus was placed in a manger in the home, which would have been filled with clean hay or straw and would have been the perfect size for him.
The fact that the record says there was no room for them in the guestroom does not mean that Joseph and Mary had just arrived. Lots of people may have been traveling to Jerusalem for the registration. Many scenarios are possible. One is that the guestroom had been occupied for weeks; another is that when other people arrived for the registration or the feast, that Joseph and Mary moved from the guestroom into the main house because they were closer relatives or to better care for Mary. The Bible is simply letting us know that Jesus was placed in the manger in the house because the family guestroom was occupied.
Understanding the birth narrative in this way highlights another important aspect of Eastern hospitality. In the East, guests were given special treatment of all kinds, including behavior that seems very extreme to us. For example, in the record of Lot and the two strangers, Lot would have handed over his own daughters to the mob before surrendering his guests (Gen. 19:8). The people whom Joseph and Mary stayed with would not displace their guests from the guest room, but instead inconvenienced themselves, and gave the young couple space in their own living quarters.
Another thing we need to know is that Mary and Joseph would not have been alone when Jesus was born. Actually, Joseph would not have been there at all, while the women of the household, along with the women of the family staying in the guestroom, most likely the village midwife, and perhaps even wise and experienced women from the neighborhood, would have been present. Joseph and the other men of the household would have graciously left the house to the women while Mary gave birth, something that was completely normal for birth in a village in Israel. Someone with a modern Western mindset may say, “Well, the Bible does not say those other women were there.” Of course not. We remind the reader that if something was normal for the culture, it was not usually written about. The details of a woman giving birth are never given in the Bible. No serious Bible student should insist that the women in the Bible who are mentioned giving birth (and there are dozens of them) did not have other women present to help them just because those helpers are not specifically mentioned in the text. That would be absurd. No details of Jesus’ birth are given in the Bible because births were a “normal” part of life, and no first-century reader in Palestine would expect anything different than what usually happens with a village birth. In fact, if the women of the household had not been there to help Mary, that would have been so unusual and seemingly coldhearted that that fact probably would have been written in the Bible.
Thus, what actually happened at the birth of Jesus is considerably different than what is commonly taught in Christian tradition. It is not that Bethlehem was full of cold-hearted townspeople who refused to take special care of a family about to give birth. Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem sometime before she gave birth. The guestroom of the people who gave them lodging was full, so the family opened their own home to them and took them into their living quarters. When Mary gave birth, in the late evening or the night some days later, the men left their own home to accommodate her and give her privacy, and no doubt baby Jesus was born in quite usual circumstances, most likely with the village midwife and no doubt helped by the women of the family. Shortly after, the new baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, dedicated to God, and placed in a perfect spot, the manger in the home.
While Mary was in labor and giving birth in the house, the man who owned the house, along with his sons and Joseph, would have been outside or perhaps in the home of a neighbor, giving Mary the privacy she needed during the birth of Jesus. Once Jesus was born, a woman would announce that a baby boy had been born, and there would have been the standard shouting, music, and joyful celebrations that were part of the birth celebration of a baby boy. It is worth noting that in the eastern culture at the time of the Bible, the birth of a boy was loudly celebrated, while the birth of a baby girl was not celebrated. The reason is simple: the boy brought strength and wealth into the family, while the girl did not. It was usual for a girl to be married by her mid-teens, and she would leave her parents’ house and live with her husband and his family and thus add to his family, not her birth family. If her husband lived in a different village than her parents, then she likely only saw her birth family rarely if ever. Also, any children she bore were part of the husband’s family and clan, not that of her birth parents. Furthermore, at her marriage, she brought a dowry with her, thus taking physical wealth from her house. So the baby girl would be loved, but her birth would not be a cause for family celebration. Sometime after Jesus was born and the women had made sure that things in the house were back in proper order and Mary was comfortable, the men would have been allowed back in the house to see the baby.
[For information on the magi and the Christmas story, see commentary on Matthew 2:1. For more information about the shepherds, see commentary on Luke 2:16].
This teaching presents a review from Scripture of the people and circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. The details are notably different from traditional views. We learn, among other truths, who the Magi were, when they arrived, and why they brought the gifts that they brought.
Verses: Luke 2:7-34; Matt. 2:11-14
Teacher: John Schoenheit
The birth of Christ is a very important subject, and the traditional Christmas story surrounding it not only contains a large amount of error, but it also presents a cold, hard, and lonely picture about the circumstances of Jesus’ arrival. In reality, his birth was an account of love, warmth, giving and sharing, and obeying God.
In this teaching on The Real Christmas Story, John Schoenheit explores this familiar record in a deeper, more accurate light—understanding the customs, time and place, and the not-often-known details that truly make the birth of Christ such an inspiring and wonderful account.