Luke 2:7 uses the word kataluma to describe the place too crowded for Jesus’ birth. Was this a public inn, a private home or something else?
According to Dr. Ben Witherington, the word in kataluma most often translated “inn” probably more likely means “guest room” in this context. I think he’s probably right.
In extra-biblical literature, the Greek word is kataluma can mean “inn,” “house,” “guest room” or similar place to rest on a journey.
The only “inns” that existed were essentially truck stops for caravans. An “inn” is more properly called a khan or a caravanserai. It was a place for travelers and pack animals to eat, a shelter in which to sleep overnight, a market for supplies for the road and – frequently – a place of prostitution (Gower, p. 234). Like I said – a truck stop. Bethlehem was small and located away from established trade routes, so it would be an unlikely place for a khan. There is no evidence – archaeological or otherwise – for the existence of a khan in Bethlehem.
In Luke 22:11, Luke uses the word kataluma to describe the room where Jesus ate his last meal. Mark 14:14 uses the same word to describe the “upper room”- a large second story room in a private home. Here, kataluma means “guest room.” The most humble homes had no separate accommodations for guests. The poorest homeowners lived in single-room dwellings with a raised platform for sleeping, eating and sitting. Cooking took place on the lower dirt floor. Animals also slept and ate on the lower floor (Gower, p. 31). A manger (or food trough for animals) could be found not just in stables, but in many homes. The homes of wealthier people included courtyards and more rooms. The largest homes might even have a second story – as the kataluma of the Last Supper did. Even these larger homes, however, would have still contained a place for animals within the house (Gower, p. 39).
The ancient code of hospitality required people to give shelter and sustenance to travelers. Travelers could seek shelter by waiting in the town gates for a stranger to invite them to stay – or they could stay with relatives. Dr. Witherington suggests that Joseph and Mary stayed with relatives in Bethlehem, which is I think is quite likely.
Luke tells us that Joseph (Luke 2:4) and Mary (Luke 1:26) lived in Nazareth in Galilee – presumably with their immediate families. Their extended families, however, lived in Judea. Joseph’s family home was Bethlehem (Luke 2:4), and Mary’s was an unspecified location in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). How did these kids from Judean families wind up in Galilee?
The Hasmoneans were the last of the semi-independent Jewish rulers following the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE. During their reign, they resettled Galilee with a Jewish population in the first century before Christ, much as the British sent lowland Scots to Ireland. Perhaps Joseph and Mary’s families were part of this resettlement. Galilee was distant from Jerusalem and separated from Judea by the Samaritan territories. Much of the region’s population were of Greco-Roman origin, culturally and religiously. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Jews of Galilee were only half-hearted in their religion. It may be counterintuitive, but the Jewish population of Galilee was known to be especially devout. Perhaps it was the only the most devoted Jews who moved to Galilee to reclaim it for God. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke certainly portray both Joseph and Mary as being especially pious.
Marriages in the ancient world were always a family matter. They were arranged by families; individuals did not simply choose their own mates. Furthermore, most people did not travel extensively. Marriages usually involved families who lived close enough to each other for them to have a connection. The arrangement of Joseph’s marriage to Mary probably involved not only their immediate families in Galilee, but their extended families in Judea as well.
The family connection – even the extended family connection – was at the heart of ancient near-eastern marriage practices. The practice of endogamy – cousin marriage – has always been quite common in many parts of the world. (See, for example, Abraham’s concern that his son Isaac have a wife from his own kinsmen in Genesis 24:4). It’s likely that almost everyone in Bethlehem was family of one sort or another. There’s an echo of that extended kinship in small towns and small churches even today. Two thousand years ago, kinship ties throughout the village would have been the rule, not the exception. So, Dr. Witherington is probably right. When Joseph brought Mary to his family’s native village, it is almost certain that he stayed with relatives. Everyone in town was probably his kin.
Gower raises two other interesting possibilities, however. He notes that kataluma can sometimes refer to a temporary shelter erected when large crowds are expected, as might have been the case with the census. There would be no “innkeeper” in such an arrangement; rather, one could expect to find people and animals crowded next to each other in a large open area. The shelter would be a place bustling with activity, noise and cooking fires (Gower, p. 240). If Bethlehem had such a shelter for the census, a more private accommodation like a stable would certainly have been preferable for the birth of Mary’s son. Joseph and Mary’s stay in Bethlehem doesn’t seem to have been extremely brief. Luke doesn’t say that Mary delivered the night she arrived. Rather, Luke says, “while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her child to be delivered” (Luke 2:6). Matthew says that the magi found Jesus in a house (albeit sometime after Jesus’ actual birth) (Matthew 2:11).
Gower also notes that poor families sometimes built a shared kataluma to host travelers. In sharing the expense of building and maintaining a common guest room, the burden on each individual household would be reduced. Gower suggests, however, that these common guest rooms were only appropriate for men. When not hosting out of town guests, the room my serve double duty as the men’s social club. According to Gower, families stayed in private residences (Gower, p. 244).
Some commentators are too quick to conclude that the kataluma of Luke 2:7 is a guest room in a private residence based solely on his use of the word in Luke 22:11. I think they are putting too much weight on linguistics. The word itself can carry a multitude of meanings. The ancient expectation of hospitality, however, and the extended family ties likely to be found in a village like Bethlehem do suggest that Mary and Joseph lodged with relatives. All in all, it seems likely that Joseph and Mary sought shelter with one of Joseph’s wealthier kinsmen in Bethlehem, and that they delivered and kept their child in the relative privacy of the stable within the home. The animals’ quarters would have been more comfortable for them, and more comfortable for the other visitors in the crowded guest room.
This essay draws partially from two of Dr. Witherington’s published works, as well as from material written by Ralph Gower.
- Ben Witherington III, “The Birth of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, Intervarsity Press, 1992, pp. 60-74.
- Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account, Baker Academic, 2001, p. 66.
- Ralph Gower, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, Moody Press, 1987.