Inn Time for Christmas

Ian PaulFor all I know, Reverend Ian Paul, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, is a man with a dry sense of humour. In any event, he chose 22nd December to blog that, “Jesus really wasn’t born in a stable”. How can he possibly know that? Because the whole nativity scene thing has stemmed from a mistranslation of the Greek work kataluma, which does not mean “inn” at all, but “the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village”. So, even if you are the sort of bod who believes that the gospels are, well, gospel, the whole nativity scene that has become traditional is out the window.

This idea is not new; see eg Why “Inn” for “Kataluma” in Luke 2:7, or the Sermons of Rev Bryn MacPhail:

Let’s take a look at chapter 2, verse 7, where our translation reads that “there was no place for them in the inn”. Scholar, Kenneth Bailey, confirms what we could find out for ourselves–the Greek word, “kataluma”, literally means “guest room”, and not “hotel” or “inn”. Luke reports that Jesus was laid in a manger. Why? Because “there was no place for them in the guest room”– “there was no place for them in the kataluma”.

This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that “kataluma” is the same word used by Jesus in Luke 22:11. In this verse, Jesus instructs His disciples, “you shall say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room(Where is the kataluma) in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?'”.

The “kataluma” is the guest room, it is the upper chamber of a house.

I wonder how many ankle-biters all around the world and over the past generations have been dressed up and been pushed up onto primary school stages to the do the “Baby Jesus in the Manager” thing? And all for nothing. It is a re-enactment of something which never happened.

If you laid out all the Baby Jesuses, donkeys, shepherds, and similar actors (there typically needs to be a part for every boy and girl in the class) and laid them out end to end, they would probably stretch all the way to Bethlehem and back. Several times.

Happy Christmas, everyone!



Filed under Culture

7 responses to “Inn Time for Christmas

  1. Ian

    Perhaps you need to read a little more carefully? I don’t dispute the manger, shepherds or angels. And I first posted the blog in October 2013…

  2. Thanks, Ian, for taking the time to respond.

    As you will have seen, I was more focussed on the idea of lots of children, and all those model scenes of the stable, being misplaced. But since you raise it, it would be interesting to know how much you see as valid in the traditional kitsch version. I presume that, there being no inn, the better analysis of the gospels is of Joseph taking Mary under his wing, so to speak, on his home turf in Bethlehem, and that there would have been no element of poverty or rejection. I have in mind, for example, this passage from The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, Chapter 10:

    “Therefore Joseph, according to the command of the angel, took the virgin as his wife; nevertheless he knew her not, but took care of her, and kept her in chastity. And now the ninth month from her conception was at hand, when Joseph, taking with him his wife along with what things he needed, went to Bethlehem, the city from which he came. And it came to pass, while they were there, that her days were fulfilled that she should bring forth; and she brought forth her first-born son, as the holy evangelists have shown, our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns God from everlasting to everlasting.”

    So the birth would have been in private house? No stable? No grotto? No heartless innkeeper?

    And given that houses were pretty small in those days, would there still be room for a few shepherds and angels? No animals in the house with all these extras, presumably?

    • Ian

      The question of poverty is tricky, given very different patterns of socio-economic stratification in the first century. But the consistent theme in Luke is not of rejection but of welcome by ‘ordinary’ people, which then contrasts strongly with the rejection by the authorities.

      There was certainly no stable, grotto or innkeeper. The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, like other late apocryphal documents (the Protevangelium of James, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew) are theological elaborations and lack any credibility as historical sources of events. Your quotation above shows the document is late, not least because of the developed Trinitarian formula.

      Animals would of course have been around, though there is no record of angels in the house..

  3. Ian; is the Holy Trinity thing a late addition? I had always assumed that was in the mix right from the beginning?
    And what about the angels? Medieval paintings are full of them, but I have always found the concept of human-like forms with wings somewhat alien to what Jesus would himself have taught? I am interested by what you say about Luke’s theme of acceptance of Jesus by ordinary people – it seems far more plausible than those old paintings. I am not trying to be funny, but this notion of ordinariness makes it very hard to believe in angels busting in on the scene: they would have been seriously distracting.
    There are angels earlier in Luke – appearing to the shepherds – how do they fit in? In the Old Testament, they seem like enforcers for a vengeful God. But what is their role in the New?

    • Ian

      The formulation of the notion of the Trinity took 300 or 400 years to hammer out. But the idea is there from the beginning, in various forms. Scholar Richard Bauckham put it like this: the Trinity is the doctrine you need to make sense of the story of the New Testament.

      You are right about angels. There is no mention of wings (!) in the Bible, and the word (in Greek and Hebrew) actually means ‘messenger’ [from God]. One of the features of the New Testment is the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the amazing. If you read the accounts of Jesus’ healing miracles, there is very little showmanship about them.

  4. So, Ian, do you think that the “angels” as described in the New Testament were in fact people, rather than supernatural beings?
    I have posted this on Facebook: “Interesting comment from Ian Paul yesterday about the angels thing; see As it happens, I am not religious, but if I were, I would find his perspective very much more compelling than the one I was dished up with in childhood.”

    • Ian

      I think the (very few) NT references *are* to ‘supernatural’ beings, as it happens…though in popular use, there is more ambiguity.

      The interesting dynamic is that the Bible is both more supernatural and more ordinary than popular reading of it.

      A good example is the Disneyfication of e.g. the exodus in Prince of Egypt. If you read the account in Ex 15, it is very normal. If you were there you wouldn’t see anything ‘supernatural’ other than the timing.

      In much description of God’s intervention in the world, the effects are very ordinary—no fireworks. But the effect is supernatural: lives changed and transformed in a way only God can achieve.

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