The Oft-Maligned Innkeeper

(Note: this was first posted on my Facebook on Dec. 8, 2014, before I had a blog. I thought it was appropriate to add it here during the Christmas season.)

Ah, Christmas!

The blessed baby. The virgin mother. The proud, but confused father. The excited shepherds. The majestic (if out of place) “wise men”. The lovely angels.

And the stingy, no-good innkeeper. ūüė¶

We see him in all the Christmas pageants where the story is acted out. Everybody’s thrilled about Jesus, but THAT guy. I mean, what IS his problem anyway? Why does this “Scrooge” show up in the story?

Or does he?

We get the idea of an innkeeper from ONE verse in the Bible. Yep. ONE VERSE.

Luke 2:7: “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.”

Well, if there was “no room”, then SOMEBODY had to tell them that, right? So, it must have been that stingy innkeeper, who was apparently SO stressed out that he would turn away a pregnant woman about to give birth.

Never mind the fact that to do so would have been anathema in Jewish society, where taking care of travelers and guests was one of the MOST important things you could do. For a PREGNANT women, an innkeeper would have likely given up his OWN bed. If word of such a slight had got around, his inn would have been “out of business” in days.

But the idea of Mary and Joseph going to an inn is flawed in the first place.

The Greek word translated as “inn” is ‘kataluma’. But kataluma would be better translated “guest room”. In fact, most modern translations actually are now using that word. The only other time the word is used is in Mark 14:14-15 “And wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‚ÄėThe Teacher says, ‚ÄúWhere is My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?¬†And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished¬†and¬†ready; prepare for us there.‚ÄĚ

This is¬†referring¬†to the “upper room” where Jesus and the disciples had The Last Supper.

Houses (at least of fairly well-to-do people) of that time were two-stories. On the first floor there would be a central courtyard where the animals were kept at night. Around this area would be common rooms, the kitchen, servants quarters, etc. On the upper floors (away from the dust) were the bedrooms, and the “guest room(s)”. As I said, hospitality was a BIG thing back then, and most houses had an available guest room both for relatives and friends or a stranger or sojourner. This was the norm. Not having a room for a stranger to stay in would have been a “bad thing”.

While we have no direct evidence, odds would favor the fact that both Joseph AND Mary had relatives IN Bethlehem. They were going there for the census, so it was his hometown. We also know that Elizabeth and Zachariah lived “in the hill country of Judea”. This COULD have been near Bethlehem. It makes sense, because Zachariah, as a priest in the temple, probably would not have owned property IN the city proper, but settled just on the outskirts of town. This would have also have made it fairly easy for the shepherds to find the babe, as well. Regardless of whether it was Elizabeth’s house or another relative, it makes more than a little sense that they were planning to stay with relatives, not going to an “inn”.

But “while they were there” (which could have been two hours or two weeks), it was time for her to give birth. I tend to go with a shorter time, because if they KNEW she was going to deliver, whomever was IN the guest room would most probably have given it to Mary. But if they did arrive late at night, and everyone was sleeping, Mary probably told them NOT to wake up the household, and that she would be fine downstairs in the courtyard area (with the animals), at least until the morning. Maybe she couldn’t even climb the ladder/stairs to the upper floors in her condition. (I’ll also note here that it’s quite likely she delivered earlier than expected due to the stressful journey there. They would have likely planned to travel AFTER the baby was born if she had been THAT close to delivering.) It’s also more than likely there would have been at least ONE other family member up with them, and probably some servants as well. They were not completely alone in this, like the¬†romanticized¬†story depicts. If they had been, the shepherds would have been mortified at such a thing, and would have taken them to their OWN homes. In the morning, the family would have been moved to an “upper guest room” and they would have stayed there until the child was old enough to travel. This COULD be the very house that the “wise men” visited after the baby became a “young child”.

But my point is…. NO innkeeper. NO “Scrooges” during the night of His birth. No abandoned mother and father. Jewish¬†hospitality¬†ensured that Mary and Joseph¬†would have been well taken care of by family and baby Jesus was surrounded by those who were happy He was there. No grumps allowed!

So let there be¬†‚ÄúGlory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace¬†to those on whom his favor rests.‚ÄĚ Even innkeepers. ūüôā