Tag Archives: guest-room


Luke 2:1-13 – Lost “Inn” Translation

Luke 2:1–7 (ESV) — 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.




Traditional Story:

How is the birth narrative traditionally told?

  • Joseph and Mary showed up in Bethlehem in the middle of the night.
  • Presumably, Joseph was a bit of an idiot.
  • He had not planned ahead and made arrangements.
  • Their only option was to hope for vacancy in the Bethlehem Inn.
  • Unfortunately, it was booked solid; the no vacancy sign was on.
  • Dejected, and Mary about to give birth at any moment, Joseph was left with the worst of all choices.
  • He had to take is pregnant fiancé to a lovely cave or stable.
  • Mary then gave birth that night, outside of town, in a cave…full of animals.



The Problem:

Unfortunately, this depiction of the narrative has at least (5) problems.

  • (1) An unfortunate mistranslation of “katályma”.
  • (2) A failure to account for Luke’s Good Samaritan Narrative.
  • (3) A misdirection that occurs with the translation of “topos”.
  • (4) A failure to account for the animal husbandry practices of 1st century Palestine.
  • (5) A failure to account for the honor/shame culture of 1st century Palestine.


Let’s dive in and see what happens to the narrative when these are given their proper considerations.



(1) Lost “Inn” Translation:

The first problem is found in the English translation of “inn” in Luke 2:7.

  • there was no place for them in the inn” – ESV.
  • The Greek is “katályma”.


It is no surprise that most popular Bible translations translate this as “inn”.

  • NRSV – “no place for them in the inn”
  • NIV84 – “no room for them in the inn”
  • NET – “no place for them in the inn”
  • NASB – “no room for them in the inn”
  • KJV – “no room for them in the inn”


So what’s the problem?


The problem is that in Luke 2:7 “katályma” doesn’t mean “inn”.

  • A “katályma” is not a place that rents out rooms to the public.


A couple of Bible translations are sensitive to this translation problem.

  • NLT – “no lodging available for them”
  • HCSB – “no room for them at the lodging place
  • YLT – “not for them a place in the guest-chamber


So to find and unpack the correct meaning of “katályma”

  • We’ll look at Greek lexicons.
  • We’ll look at the Bible.



Lexicon Definitions – katályma (κατάλυμα):

The BDAG considers the context of Luke 2:7 and says this:

  • “is therefore best understood here as lodging or guest-room” – BDAG.
  • In other words, not “inn” but a generic “lodging” or more specific “guest-room”.


The EDNT says much the same:

  • “probably lodging in general; guest room would also be possible” – EDNT.


Greek Scholar Bill Mounce is a little more specific when considering the context of Luke 2:7.

  • He says “katályma is “a guest-chamber”.


Scholar Kenneth Bailey is even more specific.

  • A “guest room in a private home” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).
  • Wow…this sounds intriguing!


Interestingly, the ESV Bible has an asterisk beside the English word “inn”.

  • This refers you to a note that says, “or guest room”.



Bible Clarification:

We have two other uses of “katályma” in the NT.

  • Mark 14:14 (ESV) — 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’
  • Luke 22:11 (ESV) — 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’


The relevance of the above passages is simple enough:

  • In each of them “katályma” is rightly translated as “guest room”.


And don’t forget, as we saw already, this is the same translation of Luke 2:7 found in the YLT:

  • Luke 2:7 (YLT) — 7 and she brought forth her son—the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.


You may be asking, “so what?”

  • This change from “inn” to “guest-room” only gives us the following paraphrase:
  • “There was no room for them in the guest-room”.


How does this really change anything?

  • This could still refer to a room in a public inn.
  • Unless…


The thing to notice is where the guest room is located in our above examples.

  • In both Mark 14 and Luke 22, the guest room is in a private home.


Is the guest-room in Luke 2 also in a private home?

  • Kenneth Bailey, Ben Witherington III and others sure think so.


Let’s keep digging and find out.





(2) Good Samaritan Narrative:

Luke’s Good Samaritan narrative sheds some much-needed light on the “guest-room/private house” vs. “inn” issue.

  • Luke 10:34-35 (ESV) — 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’


The Good Samaritan took the injured man to a public inn – this is obvious by the context.

  • We are even told the inn had an innkeeper.
  • These two verses give us some much-needed clarity about Luke’s vocabulary.


The question is what word did Luke use for “inn” in Luke 10?

  • Guess what…it wasn’t “katályma”.
  • It was the Greek word that actually means “inn” – pandocheíon.


Kenneth Bailey unpacks this for us:

  • The Greek word “pandocheíon” literally means a “place that receives all” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).
  • And it was the word for a commercial inn that was “the most widely known across the Middle East” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).


What is even more telling is that the word for “innkeeper” used here is derived not from “katályma”…

  • It comes from “pandocheíon” – and it is “pandocheús.


So what is the point with this Good Samaritan detour?

  • Concerning Luke’s description of the birth narrative…

“If Luke expected his readers to think Joseph was turned away from an ‘inn’ he would have used the word pandocheíon, which clearly meant a commercial inn” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).


So this gives us yet another piece of intel from Luke himself.

  • His birth narrative really does refer to a private house and not a public inn.
  • Why…because he knows what words mean what.



(3) Room or Place?

We have another problem with translation – or at least a misdirection problem.

  • It involves the Greek word “topos” in Luke 2:7.


It is often translated as “room”.

  • This translation conjures up a specific image or idea for the modern reader.
  • A room in a public inn, hotel, motel, etc.


Let’s look at the YLT translation again:

  • Luke 2:7 (YLT) — 7 and she brought forth her son—the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.
  • Where many translations (NIV84, NASB, KJV, NKJV, NAS, HSCB) say “room” the YLT (and ESV) says “place”.


So why is this significant?

  • The “place” translations are trying to bring clarity.


This is because “topos” (τόπος) doesn’t necessarily refer to a literal room.

  • The word has to do with “having space” or “enough room”.


Kenneth Bailey puts it like this:

“But the Greek word does not refer to ‘a room in an inn’ but rather to ‘space’ (topos) as in ‘There is no space on my desk for my new computer’” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).


The WSNTDICT agrees when it says the idea with “topos” is:

  • “means to make room” – WSNTDICT.


Again, so what?

  • Another paraphrase will help us here.


Luke is telling us that:

  • “There was not enough space for them in the guest-room”.
  • That is quite a bit different from no room at the inn.


So these three considerations make it fairly clear that:

  • We are dealing with a guest-room of a private home and not a public inn.
  • And the problem was not that the inn was booked solid.
  • The problem was that the house’s guest-room didn’t have enough space for Joseph and Mary.


So what to do?

  • Did Mary and Joseph actually head out into the countryside and find a cave?
  • We are going to see with our 4th and 5th considerations that they never left the house!



(4) Contextual Animal Husbandry Practices:

We know that Jesus was laid in a manger – an animal-feeding trough.

  • Certainly all 1st century mangers were in caves or structures built outside of town.
  • Actually…nope!


The Bible reveals an interesting practice in the ancient Near East.

  • Some village folks kept their animals in their houses.


Let’s take a look:

  • 1 Samuel 28:24 (ESV) — 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it,
  • Judges 11:31 (ESV) — 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
    • Jephthah assumed it would be one of his animals and not his daughter.
  • Luke 13:15 (ESV) — 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?
    • We know that the animals were taken out of the house (untied) every morning and led out of the house – even on the Sabbath (JTME).


Additionally, there is this Near Eastern translation of Luke 13:15 from a 9th century Arabic NT.

  • does not every one of you untie his ox or his donkey from the manger in the house and take it outside and water it?” (JTME)


So according to these Scriptural references, where were mangers?

  • They were in houses.
  • This sounds crazy.


See below picture (Kenneth Bailey – Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes):


 We can see in the picture that in peasant homes of the time mangers were located in the main part of the house.

As Kenneth Bailey points out, “Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).


Why put the animals in the house?

  • The animals are put in the house because, “they provide heat in winter and are safe from theft” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).


So was Jesus born in a house or somewhere full of animals and a manger?

  • Answer – YES!


We have one final consideration that will shed still more light on where Jesus was actually born.



(5) Honor/Shame Cultural Pressure:

In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (JTME), Kenneth Bailey points out three places in our story…

  • That the cultural realities and pressures of 1st century Palestine would have held sway.


The Shepherds:

Let’s look at the response of the shepherds to Jesus’ birth.

  • Luke 2:16–20 (ESV) — 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


The shepherds left without Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

  • “If, on arrival, they had found a smelly stable, a frightened young mother and a desperate Joseph, they would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’ Within five minutes the shepherds would have moved the little family to their own homes. The honor of the entire village would rest on their shoulders and they would have sensed their responsibility to do their duty. The fact that they walked out, without moving the family, means that the shepherds felt they could not offer better hospitality than what had already been extended to them” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).




We know something rather remarkable about Joseph.

  • Luke 2:4 (ESV) — 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,
  • This was a big deal – and not just because of its importance for Jesus.


Kenneth Bailey tells us why:

  • “Joseph was a ‘royal.’ That is, he was from the family of King David. The family of David was so famous in Bethlehem that local folk apparently called the town the ‘City of David’ (as often happens). The official name of the village was Bethlehem. Everyone knew that the Hebrew Scriptures referred to Jerusalem as the ‘City of David.’ Yet locally, many apparently called Bethlehem the ‘City of David’ (Lk 2:4). Being of that famous family, Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in town” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).
  • “To turn away a descendent of David in the ‘City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).


In other words…

  • The town of Bethlehem would have not rejected Joseph.
  • They would have never sent a hometown descendant of David to a damp cave.
  • This would have been unthinkable in 1st century Palestine.




The final cultural consideration is cultural context and birthing.

  • Out of a sense of honor and to avoid shame, any 1st century ancient Near East town, such as Bethlehem, would have…
  • “sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).
  • A pregnant Mary would have never been sent off to a damp cave – whatever Joseph’s connections.




So how did that night play out?

  • That special night that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.


It is likely that…

  • At the invitation and hospitality of a family related to Joseph…
  • Jesus was born in a typical peasant home of the day.
  • “The manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).
  • Joseph was not a bumbling idiot and Mary was not alone.
    • Though the men would have left during the birth.


This is the understanding that is “most authentic to the geography and history of the Holy Land” – Kenneth Bailey (JTME).

  • Tradition must be evaluated against Scripture and its context!
  • Do you think it matters?