Ruining Christmas

CHAPTER 3: NO ROOM IN THE INN?

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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. –Luke 2:6-7 

Brace yourselves: I am going to take on an iconic part of the Christmas story in this chapter. I’m going to attempt to dismantle the “no room in the inn” part of the Nativity. Are you ready? Here we go: there was no stable, and there was no inn.

Before you cry “Heretic!” and point to the incontrovertible words of Luke 2:7—“there was no place for them in the inn”—let me explain.

Actually, first let me back up and alert you to a serious problem that skeptics have with the Christmas story. People who doubt the reliability and authority of the Bible often point to how certain aspects of the Christmas story fly in the face of everything we know about first century culture and life. And nothing is more confounding than the case of “no room in the inn.”

You see, both in the first century and today, there is nothing more important in Middle Eastern culture than hospitality. It is the virtue that trumps all other virtues, the single greatest responsibility of any person. Even today, in many parts of the Middle East where it is dangerous for Americans to go, you could knock on any door and ask for a place to stay, and the red carpet would be rolled out for you. The imperative virtue of hospitality supersedes all other considerations.

And so, skeptics point out, it is absolutely unthinkable that a pregnant couple would be denied lodging in a first-century Palestinian town, let alone a town where all their extended family resided. It would be the height of dishonor to turn away such a couple, whether you were an innkeeper or a relative or even a random townsperson. It simply wouldn’t happen. And so, skeptics throw out the Christmas story as an elaborate legend, and with it the trustworthiness of the New Testament.

Here’s the problem: their entire critique of the story stems from a mistranslation. (Warning: I’m going to spend a couple paragraphs talking about boring things like Greek words; stick with me, and I’ll try to make it worth your time). The Greek word in Luke 2:7 translated in some modern translations as “inn” is katalouma, which in every other use in the Old and New Testaments is not translated as “inn,” but as “guest room.” For example, in Luke 22, Jesus directs his disciples to go to a certain house in the city and prepare the Last Supper in the house’s katalouma, guest room. And yet here in Luke 2, katalouma is translated as “inn.” Why?

That translation choice dates to the King James Version in 1611. The translators who created the King James Bible used the best available manuscripts and scholarship available to them and created a masterpiece that influenced both Bible translation and the English language itself for centuries. But they were working with limited information, and made some assumptions based on misunderstandings, katalouma being one of them. The word katalouma means “a place where travelers stay,” which of course could mean either something like an inn, or a guest room. The King James translators, familiar with the concept of English taverns and inns for travelers, assumed that Luke meant “inn” and went with that definition. And in subsequent translations, that traditional version stuck and became the norm that influenced how the entire English-speaking world thinks about the nativity.

But in the years since then, and especially in the past few years, as modern scholarship and archaeology has filled in our understanding of first century Judea, we’ve come to understand that the English concept of “inns” was foreign to that culture. (Which makes sense if you think about it; in a culture that values hospitality above all else, there would be no need for separate hotels). Instead, many families, even poor families, would construct an addition to their house where guests and extended family could stay: the katalouma. This is the room that Luke tells us was occupied when it came time for Mary to give birth.

Recent translations are beginning to reflect this new understanding. If you have a recent English Standard Version (which is the translation I use), you may notice that the word “inn” in Luke 2:7 has a footnote, which refers you to the bottom of the page, which informs you that it can also be translated “guest room.” The most recent update to the New International Version went all the way and now renders katalouma as guest room. Slowly but surely, as Bible translators strive for faithfulness to the original text, a better understanding of first century language and culture is correcting the mistake that the King James translators made.

But what about the manger? What does a full guest room have to do with the baby Jesus being placed in an animal feeding trough? Well, many of us (including me) always assumed that “manger” equaled “stable,” because that’s where animals stay, right? Wrong. And in fact, look at the story again and you’ll find no mention of a stable. So, where was the manger located?

Most poor houses in first century Bethlehem were simple one room dwellings, often with a katalouma attached. The one interior room was divided up into two sections: one was the living space for the family. The other half of the room was dug down a couple feet lower than the floor, and that’s where the animals were kept at night. (Think of it as a first century garage). And built into the steps going down to the animals’ room was—that’s right, you guessed it—a hollowed out feeding trough: a manger. It was into this ready-made basinet in the middle of a typical poor house that the baby Jesus was placed. The guest room was already taken—probably because the whole extended family was in town for the census—and so Jesus’ home birth took place in the main living room, and as a baby he was placed into the only available cradle, the manger in the middle of the room.

Granted, this corrected version of the Christmas story is less dramatic than the traditional scene of an anxious father and pregnant mother desperately knocking on door after door until someone takes pity and offers them the stable out back. But while we lose the drama of the King of Kings being born in a barn, we end up gaining an amazing insight into just how wonderful Christmas really is.

This is the wonder that the angel points to in his announcement to the shepherds:

The angels said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

We traditionally interpret the angel’s words, “This will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” as directions to help the shepherds find the child. “When you find a baby in a barn, you’ve come to the right place.” But that’s not what’s going on here. The shepherds don’t need directions; in a small town like Bethlehem, it will not be hard to find the house where the new baby is. Rather, the angel’s words are what he says they are: a sign, a symbol of significance, to the shepherds.

The most precious words in the angel’s announcement are “unto you” and “for you.” Remember, the angel is speaking to shepherds, dirty riffraff (more on that in the next chapter). The whole point of the angel’s words is that this King has come for forgotten and discarded people like these shepherds. Read out loud the words, “Good news of great joy that will be for all people,” and put the emphasis on “all,” because that’s what the angel emphasizes. Look again and see the significance of what the angel is saying: “I bring good news of great joy for all people, because unto you shepherds is born this day in the city of David, the royal city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, the promised King. And this will be a sign for you shepherds: the King, the Savior, the Christ, the Lord… is not in a palace, not dressed in fine cloths, not surrounded by servants. He is wrapped in rags just like your own children, placed in a manger just like the ones in your homes. This King looks just like you, because he’s come for you.”

You see, the ordinariness of Jesus’ birth is itself the sign that the shepherds were given. It would have been shocking, unbelievable news to these penniless laborers that the long-awaited Messiah, God’s anointed King who would restore David’s dynasty and reign forever, would be found in the not-so-nice part of town, in a poor home just like theirs, born to a family in poverty. This is the earth-shaking significance of the Christmas story: when God came to earth, he didn’t come with pomp and riches and servants and privileges. He didn’t even come to a comfortable middle class family. He was born on the wrong side of the tracks, cradled the only way his destitute family could manage, his birth attended by a crowd of disreputable and smelly sheep herders. He came to the poor, the forgotten, the neglected, and was embraced by them because he was one of them.

And therein lies the wonder of the Christmas story. God’s Son didn’t just come for the needy; he came as the needy. He didn’t just come for the poor; he came as one born into poverty. The Savior didn’t merely come for us. He came as one of us.

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