See Good Tidings of Great Joy, 69–73.
of the reference to Mary placing her new baby in a manger, this has often been
assumed to have been a stable, but it would have been the large central open
space in a caravansary or perhaps even rudimentary pens in or near a private
home. Since the second century, a certain cave in Bethlehem, of the type that
were sometimes used to stable animals, has been identified as the place where
Jesus was born,
though Luke gives no indication of this. Likewise, Luke does not give any other
details, such as to who might have attended during her labor and delivery,
though one can imagine an innkeeper’s wife, fellow female travelers, or new
in-laws. None of these particulars—or lack of certainty about them—need detract,
however, from the contrast that Luke creates between the circumstances of the
baby Jesus and the conditions that would have surrounded the kingly or imperial
birth of a ruler’s son.
In one of the most familiar verses from the Christmas story, Luke records that “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” (Luke 2:7). The fact that the baby was her firstborn Son rather than their first child attests to the fact that Mary’s baby was not, in fact, Joseph’s child. Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary had made it clear that the promised child would, in fact, be “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35), which makes the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth all the more striking. That this child, who was to be not just the King of Israel but indeed the King of Heaven, was born in a setting so different from the palaces of Augustus or Herod is striking. Nevertheless, while this contrast is real, and important, Luke’s account of the couple’s arrival in Bethlehem and Jesus’ subsequent birth is nonetheless somewhat less clear on the details than tradition often assumes.
|Tissot, St Joseph Seeks Lodging in Bethlehem|
The traditional picture of the scene imagines the couple arriving in a strange town, where they cannot find “room” in an “inn.” First, the word translated as room in Greek is topos, which simply means a place or space rather than an actual room in a commercial or private establishment. Taking Luke’s notice of the census at face value, most readers assume that the reason there was no space for Joseph and Mary is because Bethlehem was overflowing with others coming to enroll in their ancestral town. Second, the Greek term katalyma, rendered as “inn” in the KJV, has a fairly broad range of meanings. Technically a katalyma was a place for setting down or laying down a burden. Derived from this basic meaning are the possibilities that Luke meant a “traditional inn” or lodging; a camp on the road or a more permanent caravansary outside the town; or simply a guest room in some other type of building in Bethlehem itself.
Conventionally the katalyma has been seen as a commercial travelers inn, where customers would pay for space to lodge for the night. This has led to the long-established image of a gruff innkeeper shouting “no room!” and turning the couple away because he had no vacancies, even though Luke does not suggest any such details. Further, when Luke does refer to this kind of inn in the later story of the Good Samarian, where there does happen to be an innkeeper, he uses a different word, pandocheion (Luke 10:34–35). More in harmony with the period and culture, others suppose that what Luke is referring to is a caravansary or khan, a rectangular walled area where traveling companies could lodge, keeping their animals in the central, uncovered area while most people stayed in niches or stalls along the exterior. Another possibility, however, is that katalyma here simply means “guest room,” which is how Luke uses it in Luke 22:11, the only other time that he uses the term in his Gospel. In that passage it refers to the guest room that Jesus and his disciples use for the Last Supper. There we learn it is a furnished upper room apparently let out at Passover time for just that sort of purpose. In the case of the Nativity story, the guest room could have been any guest room in a commercial or private building that could be let out, probably to numerous guests, as temporary or long-term lodging.
Given that Joseph may well have had family in Bethlehem, the guest room might, in fact, have been in the home of a relative or even in his own family home. In the latter case, Joseph, who may have simply gone to Nazareth to retrieve his new bride to bring her home to Bethlehem, may have returned to find that there was not sufficient room, or at least not any private space, for the new couple in what would have been a typical, one-room house. There not being room for a woman in labor in her new in-laws’ home creates a scenario as poignant, or even more distressing, than that of her being turned away by strangers.
While many useful lessons can be drawn from any of the scenarios above, particularly the importance of our making room in our own hearts for the Savior, in reality, none of these possibilities needs to reflect heartlessness on the part of others. Whether an inn, a caravansary, or a guest room, a katalyma would probably have been shared with many other people and thus would not have afforded Joseph and Mary any seclusion during her labor. The Joseph Smith Translation changes inn to “inns,” indicating that other guest rooms in other homes, or perhaps simply all the stalls in a caravansary, were filled and there was nowhere else to go. In that case, it may have been the couple’s own decision to leave the crowded public area for the relative privacy of bedding in the area set aside for animals.
|Carved stone feeding trough, or manger, from Megiddo|
Bauer, “katalyma,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 521. See also Stephen C. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010): 326–342.
 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 399–400.
 Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land, 230; Huntsman “Glad Tidings of Great Joy,” 56.
 Russell M. Nelson, Wise Men and Women Still Adore Him (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 7.
 Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land, 230–32.