What do you find most irritating about this time of year? The drawing in of dark and cold nights? The hideous adoption of that consumerist import ‘Black Friday’? People putting up Christmas trees when we have only just started Advent? Being urged to spend more money by means of schmaltzy human interest mini-dramas?
For me, it is the repeated but ill-founded claim that Jesus was born in a stable, alone and isolated, with his family ostracised by the community—despite the complete lack of evidence for this reconstruction. It will be repeated in pulpits, real and virtual, up and down the land, so I do not apologise for reposting once more this annual feature.
Picture Jesus’ nativity. Bethlehem town sits still beneath the moonlight, totally unaware that the son of God has been born in one of its poor and lowly outbuildings. In an anonymous backstreet, tucked away out of sight, we find a draughty stable. Inside, warm with the heat of the animals, a family sits quietly. Lit by a warm glow, a donkey, cow and an ox lie serene at the side of the scene. The cow breathes out a gentle moo and the baby in the straw filled manger stirs. Kneeling close by Mary, Joseph and a small lamb sit in silent adoration of the child. All is calm, all is not quite right.
I am sorry to spoil the scene, but Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case. This might shatter the Christmas card scenes and cut out a few characters from the children’s nativity line-up, but it’s worth paying attention to.
This long-held idea demonstrates just how much we read Scripture through the lens of our own assumptions, culture, and traditions, and how hard it can be to read well-known texts carefully, attending to what they actually say. It also highlights the power of traditions, and how resistant they are to change. And, specifically, the belief that Jesus was lonely and dejected, cast out amongst the animals and side-lined at his birth, loses sight of the way in which Jesus and his birth are a powerfully disruptive force, bursting in on the middle of ordinary life and offering the possibility of its transformation.
So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning;and unfamiliarity with first-century Palestinian culture.
The traditional elaboration has come about from reading the story through a ‘messianic’ understanding of Is 1.3:
The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.
The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept? (Answer: not necessarily!)
The issue of grammar and meaning, and perhaps the heart of the matter, is the translation of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2.7. Older versions translate this as ‘inn’:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (AV).
There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (eg in Ex 4.24 and 1 Samuel 9.22). And the etymology of the word is quite general. It comes from kataluo meaning to unloose or untie, that is, to unsaddle one’s horses and untie one’s pack. But some fairly decisive evidence in the opposite direction comes from its use elsewhere. It is the term for the private ‘upper’ room where Jesus and the disciples eat the ‘last supper’ (Mark 14.14 and Luke 22.11; Matthew does not mention the room). This is clearly a reception room in a private home. And when Luke does mention an ‘inn’, in the parable of the man who fell among thieves (Luke 10.34), he uses the more general term pandocheion, meaning a place in which all (travellers) are received, a caravanserai.
The difference is made clear in this pair of definitions:
Kataluma (Gr.) – “the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village […] where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected” (ISBE 2004). A private lodging which is distinct from that in a public inn, i.e. caravanserai, or khan.
Pandocheion, pandokeion, pandokian (Gr.) – (i) In 5th C. BC Greece an inn used for the shelter of strangers (pandokian=’all receiving’). The pandokeion had a common refectory and dormitory, with no separate rooms allotted to individual travelers (Firebaugh 1928).
The third issue relates to our understanding, or rather ignorance, of (you guessed it) the historical and social context of the story. In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives. Kenneth Bailey, who is renowned for his studies of first-century Palestinian culture, comments:
Even if he has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?” If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honor-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.
Moreover, the actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story. As Bailey explores in his Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, in the living area, where the animals would feed.
This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels. In Matt 5.15, Jesus comments:
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
This makes no sense unless everyone lives in the one room! And in Luke’s account of Jesus healing a woman on the sabbath (Luke 13.10–17), Jesus comments:
Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the manger [same word as Luke 2.7] and lead it out to give it water?
Interestingly, none of Jesus’ critics respond, ‘No I don’t touch animals on the Sabbath’ because they all would have had to lead their animals from the house. In fact, one late manuscript variant reads ‘lead it out from the house and give it water.’
What, then, does it mean for the kataluma to have ‘no space’? It means that many, like Joseph and Mary, have travelled to Bethlehem, and the family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier. So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth. The most natural place to lay the baby is in the hay-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed. The idea that they were in a stable, away from others, alone and outcast, is grammatically and culturally implausible. In fact, it is hard to be alone at all in such contexts. Bailey amusingly cites an early researcher:
Anyone who has lodged with Palestinian peasants knows that notwithstanding their hospitality the lack of privacy is unspeakably painful. One cannot have a room to oneself, and one is never alone by day or by night. I myself often fled into the open country simply in order to be able to think
In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy.
Rather, he is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention.
This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.
But one last question remains. This, informed and persuasive, understanding of the story has been around, even in Western scholarship, for a long, long time. Bailey cites William Thomson, a Presbyterian missionary to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, who wrote in 1857:
It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.
And Bailey notes that Alfred Plummer, in his influential ICC commentary, originally published in the late nineteenth century, agreed with this. So why has the wrong, traditional interpretation persisted for so long?
I think there are two main causes. In the first place, we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life. Where do you keep animals? Well, if you live in the West, especially in an urban context, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been—despite the experience of many who live in rural settings. I remembering noticing the place for cattle underneath the family home in houses in Switzerland.
Secondly, it is easy to underestimate how powerful a hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture. Dick France explores this issue alongside other aspects of preaching on the infancy narratives in in his excellent chapter in We Proclaim the Word of Life. He relates his own experience of the effect of this:
[T]o advocate this understanding is to pull the rug from under not only many familiar carols (‘a lowly cattle shed’; ‘a draughty stable with an open door’) but also a favourite theme of Christmas preachers: the ostracism of the Son of God from human society, Jesus the refugee. This is subversive stuff. When I first started advocating Bailey’s interpretation, it was picked up by a Sunday newspaper and then reported in various radio programmes as a typical example of theological wrecking, on a par with that then notorious debunking of the actuality of the resurrection by the Bishop of Durham!
So is it worth challenging people’s assumptions? Yes, it is, if you think that what people need to hear is the actual story of Scripture, rather than the tradition of a children’s play. France continues:
The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. But the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.
And who knows? People might even start asking questions about how we read the Bible and understand it for ourselves!
If you would like to see how it might be possible to re-write the Christmas story for all ages in a way which is faithful to this, see this excellent example from Stephen Kuhrt.
I preached on this theme at a Carol Service, and you can read my sermon here.
I am grateful to Mark Goodacre for drawing my attention to an excellent paper on this by Stephen Carlson, then one of his colleagues at Duke. The paper was published in NTS in 2010, but is available on Carlson’s blog for free. Carlson presses the argument even further by arguing three points:
1. He looks widely at the use of kataluma and in particular notes that in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the OT from Hebrew in the second century BC) it translates a wide variety of Hebrew terms for ‘places to stay.’ He thus goes further than Bailey, agreeing that it does not mean inn, but instead that it refers to any place that was used as lodgings.
2. He looks in detail at the phrase often translated ‘there was no room for them in the kataluma‘ and argues that the Greek phrase ouch en autois topos does not mean ‘there was no room for them’ but ‘they had no room.’ In other words, he thinks that they did stay in the kataluma, but that it was not big enough for Mary to give birth to Jesus in, so she moved to the main room for the birth, assisted by relatives.
3. He believes that Bethlehem was not Joseph’s ancestral home, but his actual family home, for two reasons. Firstly, we have no record of any Roman census requiring people return to their ancestral home. Secondly, he argues that the phrase in Luke 2.39 ‘to a town of their own, Nazareth’ doesn’t imply that they were returning to their home town, but that they then made this their home. We already know this is Mary’s home town, and it would be usual for the woman to travel to the man’s home town (Joseph’s Bethlehem) to complete the betrothal ceremonies. After Jesus is born, they then return together to set up home near Mary’s family.
The kataluma was therefore in all likelihood the extra accommodation, possibly just a single room, perhaps built on the roof of Joseph’s family’s home for the new couple. Having read this, I realised that I had stayed in just such a roof-room, jerry-built on the roof of a hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the lee of the Jaffa Gate, in 1981. It was small, and there was certainly no room to give birth in it!
(You can stay there too, by booking here. The site includes the view we had from the roof!)
49 thoughts on “Your seasonal reminder: Jesus was not born in a stable!”
Does the reminder that Jesus was not born in a stable come earlier every year? -:)
That’s the perfidious effect of global warming…
How dare you post this “seasonal reminder” to me so early! We have not even yet finished celebrating the most holy feast of St. Black Friday.
Bah Humbug!! You’ll be saying it wasn’t snowing next!!!
The picture reminds me of a `Ready Brek’ advertisement from the 1970’s which went something along the lines of `Do you want your child to glow in the dark? Buy a house near Windscale.’
If Mary was surrounded with people – including at least one experienced mother – would it be normal for Mary to be wrapping the baby and depositing the baby to his rest?
And what is the “because” doing? If the manger is just the normal place for the baby, then why the because? If the manger is not normal, and there’s its own place in the guest room, then why would the guest room being too small for labour prevent the baby being placed there once labour was done?
The wrapping is an interesting q… though that’s what it appears to say. New mothers eh… not letting someone else do it? I don’t know if the Greek demands, literally, “I wrapped him” or that he was wrapped as she wanted /as traditional for a new born. Others will probably have better Greek than me…
Not sure why you’re saying that the guest room was too small for the labour… as opposed to “already occupied”.
Would Mary have been keen to put her newborn in the other room after the birth? I think that would require space for her (and Joseph) as well… which there wasn’t.
Otherwise we might be making 21st C assumptions about animals being separated out from humans as unsavoury. If the main space was the normal space for the family then why would the Guest Room come into the equation after the birth? It would also probably be warm. The manger was handy… no cots being available anywhere.
“Not sure why you’re saying that the guest room was too small for the labour… as opposed to “already occupied”.”
The Stephen Carlson position.
Kyle… Thanks.. I missed the end point re Carlson. I’m not convinced….
Given the diagram of a typical room, Ian’s view makes sense. The guest room was full of other guests and after birth the parents would have wanted to keep an eye on the baby, so they kept him in the other part of the family room where they were, in the ‘manger’ area.
If I had been a guest, I wouldnt have wanted someone else’s baby to be plonked in the room in which I was living and sleeping! It’s bad enough on a plane…
Grrr, Ian Paul’s war on Christmas! No wonder the churches are empty etc etc ….
Of course I explained these facts (which I’ve known since I came across Bailey’s work 36 years ago) to a congregation some years ago while the children’s groups were busy making paper inns. I got some disapproving looks at coffee time and have never been invited to preach in Advent again. As T. S. Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
And without the inclusion of Advent we lose sight or reality. “Are you the one who is to come?” declaims the Baptist from prison. Perhaps we should commence a study of the meaning of erchomenos with the possibility of its terminating at the crib. I suspect though that John would have had a longer term view in mind.
Jesus was an adult at that time and beginning his public ministry, so it’s unlikely John was referring to his birth. “He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
To PCI And neither was I! I was making a point about His *coming* in relation to the meaning of Advent ; otherwise the “Jesus” we claim to worship at Christmas is devoid of any depth of meaning.He is reduced to the level of (to paraphrase the Marx brothers) *Insanity Clause*.
I hope I’m correct in assuming that the season of Advent still precedes that of Christnas? One never knows nowadays!
I am reminded of a visit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum outside Belfast where there were preserved rural buildings of exactly the type described here with space for the animals at one end and the family at the other.
Indeed, they are common in many cultures. Think of the Welsh ‘long barn’, or houses today in the mountains of France and Switzerland where the animals are kept below the human quarters in single buildings.
It is the natural thing to do, especially in poorer cultures. In Africa we see all the time (eg in TV documentaries) complete interchange between human and animal spaces in the domestic sphere.
With all the seasonal razzmatazz in the supermarkets we can be sure he wasn’t born in Tesco’s.
Oi vey, what would a good Jewish boy be doing there?
Well spotted James.
Many thanks, as always, for your contributions to witness and to ministry. I have two questions: (1) Your article tends to give attention to the ‘Christmas story’ as found in the Gospel according to St Luke. What about something that is focussed on that in the Gospel according to St Matthew? (2) In a little book published a couple of years ago, the author (no name, no pack drill) comments that doubt is now cast on the assumption that the western custom of setting aside 25th December for its celebration of the birth of Jesus is a cashing-in of a well-established pagan festival; that something like the opposite is the case – that 25/12 was taken up by re-emerging pagans (in Rome?) in order to usurp Christian festivities. I did ask the author of that little book for his sources on this, but he didn’t respond (hence my reluctance to name him – plus the fact that we are acquainted). Are you able to shed any light on this?
Very many thanks
Fr Peter Jones
I start here with Luke since it is this text that people think points to Jesus being born in a stable! I have written on Christmas in Matthew elsewhere: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-does-joseph-add-to-the-story-of-jesus-origins-in-matthew-1/
See also this fascinating exploration of the differences in Matthew and Luke: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/why-do-matthew-and-luke-offer-different-birth-narratives/
Yes, I think you are right about the use of 25th Dec.
Peter Jones: I don’t know of the book you refer to but the idea you mention may be those described in Touchstone magazine a few years ago by an American church historian: briefly, that it was anciently believed that great men died on their birthdays (or date of conception); that Jesus’ death at Passover was dated to 25 March (the Annunciation), hence his birth was nine months later, 25 December. Google “Touchstone A magazine of Mere Christianity” for details.
Peter Jones: I don’t know of the book you refer to but the idea you mention may be those described in Touchstone magazine in 2003 by William Tighe, an American church historian: briefly, that it was anciently believed that great men died on their birthdays (or date of conception); that Jesus’ death at Passover was dated to 25 March (the Annunciation), hence his birth was nine months later, 25 December.
Google “Touchstone A journal of Mere Christianity” for details. ‘Calculating Christmas’ by William Tighe
Meditate the magnitude of the moment in eternity.
Thank you for your blog, Ian. Very grateful, too, for your recent article concerning the Bishop of Oxford, and his recent essay.
I know you have written about the stable before. Personally I find James Neil’s understanding in Every Day Life in the Holy Land to be very convincing. He explains that the caravansaray would have been full, and with various animals being stabled there, could have been an unsafe environment for Mary, for the birth and cradling of her child. He writes: ‘Unable to find accommodation in any part of the inn, and with all the Bethlehem houses thronged, they were thankful to find such poor shelter as the stable part of one of them could afford!’ Neil provides a helpful James Clark illustration of an ordinary Fellaheen home. A family would have been close-by, living in the upper part of the home, the living and sleeping area. Mary and Joseph were squeezed into the lower stable part, possibly alongside a donkey or goat. Neil continues: ‘Here doubtless the Saviour was born…and laid for comfort on the crushed straw in one of such mangers as are shown in our picture.’ This does seem to make sense to me.
Thank you, again, for your writing.
Thanks, that is interesting. But why does he start with a discussion about caravanserai at all?
Kataluma means the upper room in a house, used as a guest room, and not caravanserai. So the question doesn’t even arise. And, as Bailey points out, as Joseph had relatives there he would have been with a family.
A typical “layout” in a (perhaps more romanised setting) town would be the caravanserai outside the “housing area”. The bathhouse seems to follow before you get to accommodation. They actually thought about hygiene…
I’m not sure anyone thought of the caravanserai as a place to lodge. It’s a parking place for camels, the equivalent of HGVs for goods not people.
You can see this layout in the remains of several places in Turkey/ Syria. Ephesus is the most well-known, it can also be seen at Miletus. There’s a very large caravanserai in more central in Aleppo (from memory it’s Aleppo but could have been elsewhere in Syria). It’s a later date and boundaries have expanded over the centuries.
Agreed… I can’t see how a caravanesari comes into the mix.
Ephesus had an equivalent to an HGV park? Great . It was after all the port that served the other cities. So Ephesus to Laodicea from port to the call to come up here = the span of church history. I’m okay with the idea that Jesus was born in an ‘ephesus’ , became perfume, (smyrna) , bread, etc etc and finally the door to the throne.
7 churches – not just the span of church history but the life of Christ from birth to ascension. So Ephesus = His first port of call. Smyrna his growing in favour as the fragrance of life. Pergamum = bread for the people. Thyatira = His turning over the tables in a display of kingly power . Sardis = His prayerful holiness. Philadelphian brotherliness then Laodice a queen who gave her name to the town is invites to sit on and share the throne.
Christmas should still focus on Jesus as a gift arriving in the bleak boondocks of a container port that is the meaning of the name ‘Ephesus’
Why on earth would you interpret the places this way? They are real places with real people. This parallel seems completely fanciful to me.
“Christmas should still focus on Jesus as a gift arriving in the bleak boondocks of a container port that is the meaning of the name ‘Ephesus’”
Quite an imagination there Steve… quite an imagination. But the world quite distracted enough from the actual Gospel story… 😉 It’s like. ” Doncaster ” as the place Professors are used as bait for line fishing?
If you need to make a geographical interpretation : “Bethlehem “… “Bread Shop” (my colloquialism) … Not that the New Testament makes anything of it… but it’s there.
I’m still hoping that you are pulling legs…
Ian &Ian,Names and place names have meaning in the Bible, Bethlehem. Bethel, Ur Calder, Je Ur Salem, They all played a part setting the scene for the greatest play on earth. So, I wondered if a new set of place names could be made to work in the same way. It seems to me that God has lifted the pagan places of Asia and given them new significance. Province of Asia = province of dawn. This feels like a new Eden, a new east. If Jesus gave each gathering in the province of dawn gifts to overcome, eg access, crowns, manna, etc, things which He Himself gained in his time on earth, then the place names themselves were redeemed and stand, for the Church but primarily for the giver of the gifts—- Jesus. The place names, to me, mark out the achievements of Jesus.
Jesus overcame and wears us like a crown made of many crowns. I think if He wore medals they would be summed up as seven cities named after the redeemed cities of the province of dawn.
Oh yes he was…
Could Luke not be saying it was BOTH Joseph’s ancestral and family home in Bethlehem? He does, after all, emphasize Joseph being in David’s ‘line’ in Luke 2. It doesnt have to be either/or.
One point on this is that some say that Luke had to invent the census in order to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. I think 2:3-5 shows Joseph anxious to complete the nuptuals with his wife from another town “up North”, so that the child born would be registered as his in the census.
Looking at the NIV, the way it is translated and laid out obscures things. The ESV seems better:
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, … 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Surely the juxtaposition of v3 and v4 means that Joseph travelled “to his own town” (τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν).
If one says that 2:39 “they returned…to their own town of Nazareth” (εἰς πόλιν ἑαυτῶν) means that Nazareth was their home town, then does not the equivalent phrase in v3 mean that Joseph travelled to his home town?
As Ian says, we know from Matthew’s account the reason why Bethlehem ceased to be their home and Nazareth became their home. It would be the natural place to go if Joseph’s home was too risky. Perhaps that is the reason that Joseph was a carpenter. He had to leave his land behind, and take up a trade that did not need land.
I agree: the language of ‘his own town’ is key.
Luke begins his gospel with two women, related but of different ages, both becoming pregnant. The scenes move between home and temple but the main focus is on the home. Mary is in a “home” village where she gives birth.
I think that the desire to decorate Christmas with animals, a stable, jolly shepherds and wondering kings is anathema to the message that Luke (and Matthew) is presenting, but it is very much in tune with the theme park and the unchallenging entertainment world which the Victorians started and we have embraced more and more.
Jesus is not born isolated from all other humanity (save his mother and a few shepherd visitors), but he is born into an ordinary village, under the radar in Luke, though the Magi trigger alarm bells in Matthew. This ordinary baby born in a rural dwelling, not the Augustus who calls the census, is the Prince of Peace. This ordinary baby, born in Bethlehem is the true King, not the Herod who rules from his palace. This ordinary baby therefore is one that will challenge us about our worldly loyalties and priorities, as well as invite us. And therein is the challenge of preaching at Christmas, particularly when so many are wanting the reassurance of how it should be!
Indeed! Very nicely put…
The cumulative effect of being in India must be working its magic on my imagination….
But if some can deduce the 7 churches as 2000 years of history I can take the names as symbolic references to Jesus life. I am just toying with the idea to see where it goes. But yes, Ian’s view that Jesus started out life in the bosom of the family, loved and cared for and then over time slowly moving outwards to the lonely extreme on a cross is the right way to read scripture.
I’m entirely convinced the preachers and teachers should stick to the Scripture text, plus anything that can be reasonably inferred from it. The story is exciting and uplifting enough, without stables, donkeys, and unhelpful inn-keepers!
But I’m not convinced that it’s a great idea to invite (as Stephen Kuhrt does) the congregation to sing well-known carols, only to be told that they have not been singing the truth! Am I the only one who thinks that this is terribly manipulative? Better, in my view, to simply leave the legendary accretions out, and stick to the accounts that Matthew and Luke have given us.
I do not think it’s manipulative…. Though I wouldn’t do it by contradicting the “fluff if carols”. Ignore it, tell the story… draw in the better carols and their sublime poetry …. “still the dear Christ enters in”
Also -Jesus is more than the stuff about Jesus.
A big part of every evangelical church in the UK today is cultural. They aren’t interested in the world around them.
Christ is far more than the small world that the cult of evangelicalism clings to.
And while O little town of Bethlehem may contain ‘sublime poetry’, unfortunately “still the dear Christ enters in” continues to be for many the essence of the ‘stuff about Jesus’.
Thank you for your reply, Ian, and sorry that this is late. WE Vine explains that there are two meanings of kataluma. An inn or lodging place in Luke 2 v.7; and a guest room in Mark 14 v.14. As you will know well kataluma signifies a loosening down, – kata, down, and luo, to loose. Literally a place where travellers and their beasts untie their packages, girdles and sandals. (Vine’s words). This is the caravanserai, and having seen one of these whilst working in Iran, they are for both travellers and their animals. Personally I will keep preaching about the birth of Jesus in the stable part of an ordinary home. This does underline the extraordinary condescension of the Word made flesh. With kind regards.
Thanks Graham. Unfortunately, the evidence does not support the idea of kataluma having these two meanings! Vine appears to be concluding this from Luke 2.7…and then bringing it to Luke 2.7, which is entirely circular!
When animals are in the home, the part of the home they are in is, to my knowledge, never called a ‘stable’!
A point that doesn’t seem to be mentioned directly above – the Census was for practical reasons and would be carried out in a practical way. And it is seriously impractical to send someone to be registered for tax at a place where they don’t actually live and there is, for instance, no property for the bailiffs to seize if the person defaults on his taxes. So my conclusion would be that Joseph went to Bethlehem simply because he lived there, though he may at the time have been working in the Galilee region where I understand work would be available in the town of Sepphoris.
I seem to recall Stephen Fry on the programme Qi being quite scathing about the pointless stupidity of sending a person to register at a place where he had to stay in an inn. If we continue to tell the story in that form, it may end up discrediting the story rather than helping it. We need perhaps a well-written new ‘nativity play’ which finds a way to tell it as Joseph ‘going home’ to Bethlehem.
My best guess on when it became an inn would be in early attempts to put the story into Latin – I’ve wondered about the term ‘mansio’ which I understand has a similar basic meaning to kataluma, but which also became the word for the way stations of the ‘pony express’ service of the Empire, which financed themselves by also being inns.
To the list of private houses with a suitable internal layout, add the North of England’s ‘bastle houses’, two-storey buildings with family accomodation above and a mix of day rooms and animal accommodation below.
It may be helpful to also note that in Middle English the word ‘inn’ was commonly used as a general term for lodging, permanent or temporary, owned or hired, e.g. ‘at inn’ = at home. See more https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED22277/track?counter=11&search_id=21428446
That is absolutely fascinating—and something I have not seen anywhere before!
This makes complete sense; the AV was not in error in its translation—but we are in error in reading it in the modern sense! I will add this in to future editions of the article.
It goes with John 3.16 ‘God so loved the world’ which then meant ‘In this way God loved the world.’