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Luke 2:7 KJV translates "kataluma" as "inn":

Luke 2:7 KJV - 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.

But in Luke 22:11 the same word is used for what seems to be a personal residence:

KJV Luke 22:11 And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?

Mark 14:14 is similar.

I was reading some internet thing about this, and it basically said, the guest bedroom was full, so they were staying in the homeowner's main room. Most people had 1 or 2 room houses with an unattached guest quarters. People kept their animals inside (the main room), at least at night, hence the manger. So, they were with relatives who were actually being quite hospitable.

This paints a different picture than "the hotel was full so they slept in a cave (or barn)".

Also there was another word in use for "hotel". If I remember correctly it appears in the Good Samaritan story.

So in Luke 2:7, is it an inn or a house?

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! That's a really interesting (and timely!) question. Out of curiosity, which translation did you use? Also do you happen to have a URL where you read about the "guest bedroom"? – Jon Ericson Dec 9 '11 at 22:20
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    What exactly is the question being asked? – Nick Rolando Dec 10 '11 at 0:05
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    @Shredder: Not to put words in tladuke's mouth, but there's a subtle difference between believing that the Holy Family showed up at the inn and the ornery inn-keeper put a pregnant woman in the barn versus they showed up at a relative's house and were given a relatively private space on the ground floor. The question is which picture does Luke intend for us to have in mind. – Jon Ericson Dec 12 '11 at 20:40
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    A house, an inn or... perhaps a "brothel"? Regardless, it does seem to evoke an image from the account of the spies visiting Rahab. If so then it provides an allusion to the spies appearing before the conquest of Jericho. As all the walls of Jericho were utterly destroyed at the trumpet blast so Jesus preceded 70ad and the destruction of Jerusalem's walls. In Revelation the trumpets announce Jerusalem's visitation also accompanied with trumpets. Jesus and John the dipper then were the two spies and they found for attack. – Ruminator Feb 1 at 15:14

10 Answers 10

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The NET Bible folks have some translation notes on this topic.

tn The Greek word κατάλυμα is flexible, and usage in the LXX and NT refers to a variety of places for lodging (see BDAG 521 s.v.). Most likely Joseph and Mary sought lodging in the public accommodations in the city of Bethlehem (see J. Nolland, Luke [WBC], 1:105), which would have been crude shelters for people and animals. However, it has been suggested by various scholars that Joseph and Mary were staying with relatives in Bethlehem (e.g., C. S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 194; B. Witherington, “Birth of Jesus,” DJG, 69-70); if that were so the term would refer to the guest room in the relatives’ house, which would have been filled beyond capacity with all the other relatives who had to journey to Bethlehem for the census.

sn There was no place for them in the inn. There is no drama in how this is told. There is no search for a variety of places to stay or a heartless innkeeper. (Such items are later, nonbiblical embellishments.) Bethlehem was not large and there was simply no other place to stay. The humble surroundings of the birth are ironic in view of the birth’s significance.

Then they also offer a Constable's Notes:

Normally mothers wrapped their newborn babies in wide strips of cloth to keep them warm (cf. Ezek. 16:4).[92] Traditionally Christians have believed that the manger or feeding trough in which Mary laid the baby Jesus was in a cave.[93] However most homes in Israel had two parts, one for the family and another for the household animals. It is possible that this was the location of the manger. An inn (Gr. katalyma) could have been a guest room in a house (cf. 22:11-12) or any place of lodging. This Greek word has a wider range of meanings than pandocheion, which refers specifically to an inn for travelers (cf. 10:34).

The innkeeper has become a villain figure in the Christmas story, but Luke did not present him as such. The writer’s contrast was between the royal birthplace that this Son of David deserved and the humble one He received. His exclusion from human society anticipated the rejection that He would continue to experience throughout His ministry.

  • Welcome to BH.SE! +1 for this answer that brings together important resources. If you wanted to edit it into a "knock-my-socks-off" answer, you could add a summary of those quotes telling us what you think the best answer might be. Thanks. – Jon Ericson Dec 12 '11 at 20:34
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As you show, the word translated in Luke 2:7 is translated differently in 22:11.

Commentaries I've looked at seem to acknowledge that the word has a very wide range in terms of just referring to any type of lodging even if it's not the normal word for "inn" (pandocheion,as you say Luke uses to describe an "inn" in the story of the Good Samaritan). It could be an "inn" or a "guest room". (e.g. see the Expositor's Bible Commentary, Leifeld)

It is worth pointing out that the "cave" and "barn/stable" ideas are not impossible, but not automatically likely given what I understand was the architecture of the time. The manger may be found, with the animals, in the lower rooms of the building.

The only clue I've read way from the ESV Study Bible on the verse which says cryptically:

The inn, with the definite article (“the”), indicates that this was a specific, publicly known lodging place for individual travelers and caravans.

Which, if true, speaks against the "guest room" of relatives.

  • For more about the architectural side of the question, see this answer about "pillared houses". – Jon Ericson Dec 12 '11 at 20:25
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Kenneth Bailey ("Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes") makes a compelling case for "kataluma" being the guest room (or upper room) in a typical two room peasant house. As with many cultures the animals were brought into the family room with the people overnight - hence the manger, or mangers (different sizes for different animals). Bailey (who has lived and breathed Middle Eastern Cultures) also makes a big deal of the importance of Family ties and hospitality in these settings - making the "No room at the Inn" clearly a northern European mis-interpretation of the story. His Christmas Play "Open Hearts in Bethlehem" puts these concepts into a clever dramatic context - worth a read.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Thank you for the answer. I'd really like to see more reliance on that was actually said in the book. E.g. which facts did you find persuasive and why? – swasheck Nov 13 '13 at 17:30
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During an opportunity to dig at a site near Jerusalem we had a lecture in the evening describing archeological dig sites in Bethlehem suggesting it was a guest house where a large family would stay while visiting that area. Many of these buildings were found in Bethlehem. The layout of these buildings drawn by the archeologist for this lecture showed a bedroom for guests existing on the upper floor and a large kitchen on the first floor. On both sides of the kitchen within the guest home they found areas where animals were kept and mangers were found in these areas. This may have been done to help heat the building or to care for and feed newly born sheep. Shepherds were given a clue concerning where to look for the child. They were told they would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. From this clue they seemed to have no trouble finding an area where a manger would be.

This is an update done on December 6, 2017. I want to link this to several sites at biblearcheology.org. Here are the URLS, the first has a detailed video, the other two are essays.

http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2016/12/14/Born-in-Bethlehem.aspx

http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/12/11/There-Wasnt-Any-Inn.aspx

http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/11/08/The-Manger-and-the-Inn.aspx#Article

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. I appreciate you sharing your personal experience, but as written it isn't verifiable in any way. We just have to take your word for it. We don't know who you are, what archaeological scholar gave the lecture, etc. Could you please elaborate? – Dan Nov 16 '14 at 23:32
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The mistranslation of "kataluma" as "inn" is an excellent example of the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.

Ever since the days of Constantine, the legend of Mithra, who was born in a cave on December 25, has been merged into the myths of Christianity.

The translators were thoroughly steeped in that myth, and so chose to use the word "inn" as it best fit what they believed to be true (eisegesis).

Translating it as "guestchamber" would be consistent with other uses of the Greek words for "inn" and "guestchamber", and would allow readers to discern the truth from what the Bible says and from historical knowledge of the time (exegesis).

It would be interesting to hear from modern translators, why most of them still choose to mistranslate this word.

Here's something I wrote a while back about the "born in a cave" myth.

The Story

Mary was about to give birth when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. Because the hotel was full, they had the baby in a nearby stable (a cave carved into a cliff face).

Some shepherds came to visit, followed by three wise men who brought birthday/Christmas presents.

The family stayed in the cave stable for a few days, somehow avoiding the wrath of the stable's owner while keeping the horses from accidentally eating the baby. After a few days there, they returned to Nazareth.

Historical Facts

-- No accommodation

Joseph would have to have been a completely irresponsible idiot to take an expectant woman to Bethlehem without first having arranged accommodation. Bethlehem is only five or six miles south of central Jerusalem. Any sensible husband would have left her somewhere safe, travelled to Bethlehem, booked a room, and returned for her in the afternoon.

But Bethlehem itself was a very small town and close enough to the big city that it's very unlikely it could have supported its own inn. Anyone passing through the town from Jerusalem would be just beginning their journey so wouldn't need to stop there, and anyone passing in the other direction would be close enough to Jerusalem that they'd most likely push on for another hour.

It's almost certain that Joseph had already arranged for accommodations, likely with relatives that he knew would put them up.

Even if all that weren't true, there is still no way they would have ended up in a cave. In that part of the world, even today, hospitality to strangers is a way of life. Consigning to a cave a woman about to deliver a baby would have disgraced the whole town.

But Mary and Joseph weren't just strangers. They were each direct descendants of King David, the most important person to have originated in Bethlehem. Anyone in the town would have been honoured to have the couple stay with them.

And even if that weren't true, surely one of the shepherds would have seen the disgraceful behaviour of his fellow citizens and taken them back to his own house.

And even if that weren't true, if the magi arrived shortly after the birth (as traditionally depicted in nativity scenes), certainly the gold and valuable spices they gave would have easily purchased accommodation for the rest of the family's stay in Bethlehem. But that wouldn't have been necessary either. Matthew 2:11 explicitly refers to a house, not a cave or stable: "And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child ...".

The whole concept of their being abandoned like that requires so many unbelievable situations and social relationships that it is ridiculous.

-- Houses

A typical house in Bethlehem would have been a rectangular one-storey building with part of it sectioned off for storage or to use as a guestroom. The main room would have a raised section at the back, where the family would eat and sleep, and a lower section at the front.

Typical house layout.

This lower section would be used as a place for indoor work during the day, while at night it would be covered with straw and used to shelter the domestic animals to keep them safe from predators, and to help provide warmth to the building. (Much farther north, snow igloos are designed in a similar way, with sled dogs on the lower level providing heat.) Stone troughs providing water and hay for the animals at night would be built into one wall.

The Bible

Consider what the Bible actually says about this event, not what we think it says. The King James translation says that "there was no room for them in the inn". Note that it says "in" not "at" as one would normally say. This seems awkward if not actually wrong.

In the KJV, Luke uses the word "inn" in two places, once here and once in the story of the Good Samaritan. But in these two instances, the original Greek words are different: the Samaritan's inn being "pandocheion" (πανδοχεῖον), and Joseph's being "katalyma" (κατάλυμα). The latter word is also used by Mark (14:14), and again by Luke (22:11), and in both cases it is translated as "guestchamber". It makes no sense that in Luke 2:7 it would be translated as "inn".

Some modern translations, such as NIV now do translate it as "guest room". If we use consistent translation, Luke 2:7 reads as "... and laid him in a manger; because there was not enough room for them in the guestchamber". Not only does this read like more correct English, it totally eliminates any reason for even suspecting they were in a stable or cave.

A woman giving birth needs more room than what would normally be available in a storeroom/guestroom. The animals were moved elsewhere and the main room of the house was given to them. Since they lacked baby furniture, the stone feeding trough, cleaned and lined with straw, provided a convenient, comfortable, and safe crib.

The birth wasn't an emergency; they could have been in Bethlehem for several days or weeks before the event: "while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered". Similarly, it would be reasonable to think that perhaps rather than returning to Nazareth and then making another trip to Jerusalem, they remained in Bethlehem for six weeks (Luke 2:22): "And when the days of her purification ... were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord".

Joseph and Mary stayed in the house of a friend or relative as they had planned from the beginning. Any consideration of the above mentioned strange behaviours becomes moot. With a correct and consistent translation of that one word, suddenly everything makes sense.

Why

But why would the translators have made such a blatant mistake?

Even as early as the second century, people were already confusing the births of Mithras and Jesus. For instance, Justin Martyr (now a Roman Catholic saint) wrote: "Joseph, because he could find no place in the town where to lodge, went into a certain cave near the town. And while they were there, Mary brought forth Christ ... . ... adding 'that the priests of the mysteries of Mithra are, because of these words, instigated by the devil to say that in a place which they call a cave their proselytes are initiated by Mithra himself.'.".

At the time that the Roman version of Christianity was being created by Constantine and others, many people belonged to the Mithraic cult, which believed that their god, Mithras, had been born in a cave. It was almost trivial for the Roman Church to convert these people by allowing them to consider Jesus to be just another name for Mithras, and by incorporating their myths into Roman Christianity.

By the time the Bible was translated into English, well over a thousand years later, the translators were very familiar with this story, and it was much easier for them to mistranslate that one single word than to change their beliefs.

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Why do most translators use inn instead of guest room for kataluma? If context matters here, one factor could be that with the background of family (and community) skepticism and rejection painted by Matthew 1:19 it would be highly unusual for family in Bethlehem to put up the couple in a private home. Additionally, if Mary had found such a hospitable family member, apparently the only one outside of Elizabeth to believe her and treat her with compassion, would she not have related this to Luke? Thus they may assume the text speaks not of the "kataluma" of a home, but of a town, otherwise known as an inn.

Why then not "pandocheion"? Perhaps because it wasn't a commercial inn, but a public inn, set up by the townspeople or the Roman Authorities.

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i got this from Joseph Prince sermon. Most likely the Betlehem inn is indeed David's house which he had given to Kimham son of Barzillai in 2 Samuel, while He was stayed in Jerusalem which means by right His own by Mary (Nathan) & Joseph (Solomon) and He have double right to stay in the inn, but "there is no place for him in the inn". His birth in a manger (feeding trough) is all a picture of who his body to be our Bread of Life

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It essentially just means '[any] room [or place] able to be hired,' since it comes from κατα (in this context "for the use of") and λυw (essentially, "to unwind")—undoubtedly what the KJV was going for with "guestroom." No specific residence is explicitly to be inferred (inn, bar, etc.). One might also translate it 'a place to stay' and adjust the English translation accordingly.

  • That kind of sounds like the etymological fallacy, no? Defining a word by its etymology rather than actual usage? In 1 Samuel 9:22 there are some 30+ people apparently in the room, sitting, arranged as if for a meal or conversation. – Ruminator Feb 1 at 20:06
  • Also, in Luke 22:11 it is clearly a place for a supper: blueletterbible.org/kjv/luke/22/11/s_995011 – Ruminator Feb 1 at 20:14
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I think a strong case can be made that Luke's account is invoking the story of Saul's encounter with Samuel. In this story the LXX translates kataluma as "parlor":

1Sa 9:19-24 KJV - 19 And Samuel answered Saul, and said, I am the seer: go up before me unto the high place; for ye shall eat with me to day, and to morrow I will let thee go, and will tell thee all that is in thine heart. 20 And as for thine asses that were lost three days ago, set not thy mind on them; for they are found. And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on thee, and on all thy father's house? 21 And Saul answered and said, Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? wherefore then speakest thou so to me? 22 And Samuel took Saul and his servant, and brought them into the parlour, and made them sit in the chiefest place among them that were bidden, which were about thirty persons. 23 And Samuel said unto the cook, Bring the portion which I gave thee, of which I said unto thee, Set it by thee. 24 And the cook took up the shoulder, and that which was upon it, and set it before Saul. And Samuel said, Behold that which is left! set it before thee, and eat: for unto this time hath it been kept for thee since I said, I have invited the people. So Saul did eat with Samuel that day.

I picture what we today would call a "hostel" albeit in Samuel's private home, where many travelers are afforded "3 hots and a cot" with the bedrooms being nothing but beds but with a large public space where people can "hang out" and eat meals together.

Note that the host (Samuel) was doing his best to treat Saul as appropriate for the highly honored future king. Luke's reference to this event suggests that Jesus was placed in the hay trough on a bed of straw because there were no available bedrooms at the "hostel". So the true king did not get the royal treatment that Saul had received!

I note also that Malachi references this passage also in that Saul protests that he is from the least of the tribes of Israel and thus deserves not to be considered for royalty in Israel, but again, God has big plans for little people. (Saul, it turned out, was not so little after all):

Mic 5:2 KJV - 2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

We may also see in John that Jesus is the "true shepherd" as he is the "true Saul". Whereas Saul was unsuccessful calling forth the sheep, they do recognize Jesus' voice:

Jhn 10:27-29 KJV - 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. 29 My Father, which gave them me [IE: "committed them to my care" as Saul's father had], is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.

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I just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. Our Christian Jewish native Bethlehemian-guide believes that yes, it was Joseph's extended family's home, crowded with relatives who had returned to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. The lower floor (a cave, and probably the older and original part of the home) was used like our garages: storage, workspace, and to pen the animals. The upper floor was added when possible, and was sleeping and living space. Mary and Joseph would have been given the quite serviceable lower floor out of respect of her need for privacy.

Very interesting: He said that Jewish babies at this time were NOT wrapped in swaddling "clothes." They were dressed in miniature period clothing. Luke 2:7 says "cloths", not "clothes." I've misquoted and mis-taught this for my whole adult life.

Olive oil was pressed, grain was crushed, fabric was woven: daytime work was down in this cooler cave area. What was also made and stored in the lower-floor working area was swaddling cloth, which had 2 purposes.

  1. When a perfect lamb was chosen for sacrifice, it was carefully cleaned, and then it's feet were 'swaddled' together with these specially prepared clean strips of cloth, so that the lamb would remain clean, and it's feet would never touch the ground again. It would be respectfully carried by the head of the family to the synagogue for sacrifice, it's feet bound against any possible of injury to this perfect sacrifice.

  2. The 2nd purpose of swaddling cloth was the wrapping of a body in preparation for burial. In the Jewish culture at that time, burial was within the day (or next day?) Thus, it was necessary that each family have ample stores of clean swaddling cloth prepared and stored for these two purposes.

It's easy to assume that perhaps Mary arrived unprepared for a new baby, and found this clean cloth and used it to wrap her newborn child. And what prophecy! According to the gospels he was to become a perfect sacrifice, and to be wrapped in fresh linens at His death, but leave them neatly folded at His resurrection!

  • Have you perhaps left out a critical 'not' in the second paragraph or scrambled the spelling of 'cloth' and 'clothes'? Something doesn't quite add up here. – Caleb Dec 9 '13 at 10:55
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! We're a little different from other sites. Do you have any verifiable sources for your claims about the swaddling cloths being used for sacrificial lambs? This is in intriguing answer. Also, please elaborate on your trip, we have no way of verifying your sources. – Dan Dec 11 '13 at 1:31

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