What about the innkeeper?

It’s nearly ten years since the Monday evening when an unfortunate Church of England vicar stirred up the wrath of parents who had accompanied their children to their school carol service. His mistake was to share a tongue in cheek piece of pseudo science that apparently proved that Santa Claus was dead. With the reindeer.

‘How unchristian of him,’ said one of the mothers.

The poor vicar apologised.

One Christian commentator said that the vicar was entirely wrong to say that Santa was dead: Santa never even lived.

The problem is that it’s not just the existence of Santa (and I have dressed up as Santa – once went to a McDonald’s on Christmas Eve dressed in the outfit) that is a bit of mythology, but there are other bits of the Christmas story whose historicity is at least a bit wobbly.

Take some of the carols. Was the earth really as hard as iron? Had there really been enough snow to guarantee a great season for Bethlehem’s skiing enthusiasts? Pity the poor shepherds out in the fields that night. What about the drummer boy? Where is he in the Bible? And when the baby awakes, was there really no crying? Is that not pushing an idealised picture to the point where it makes Jesus something other than human?

But of course those are just carols and carol writers are entitled to a bit of poetic license, so who cares if they make a little bit up here and there? And it has to be said that there are some wonderful expressions of profound truth and soaring worship in some of the carols.

And Santa is just a myth: a bit of fun for the children.

However, at the risk of causing a rewrite of a few nativity plays and even of a few Christmas sermons, can I ask about the innkeeper?

Here is something I said as part of a Christmas sermon a few years ago:

Of course there is no actual innkeeper mentioned!  His existence is implied.  But what are we to make of him?  Should we applaud his creativity insofar as he was able to come up with a place for Mary and Joseph, even though the inn was full?  Or should we reprimand him for not giving the young couple a proper place to stay when he saw their plight?

No actual innkeeper is mentioned. But I suppose as long as there is an inn, there must be an innkeeper. Unless there wasn’t an even an inn. No inn, no innkeeper!

At this point your mind is scrambling around in an attempt to find Luke 2:7.

And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

No room in the inn. So there must have been an innkeeper then.

Kenneth Bailey is a scholar who has spent a great deal of time in the Middle East and has produced some fascinating work that aims to help Western readers to read the gospels through Middle Eastern eyes. In his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, he writes about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. He suggests that the translators of our English Bible have actually made a mistake in Luke 2:7.

The Greek word that Luke uses at the end of 2:7 is katalyma. katalyma was a place to break your journeyIt could be translated inn, but there are two points against this in other part’s of Luke’s gospel.

One is in the famous story of the Good Samaritan where the injured man is taken care of in an inn. The Greek word in Luke 10:34 is pandocheion, and not katalyma. If Mary and Joseph were turned away from an inn, why did Luke not use the same word that he used later in his gospel when he clearly meant inn?

Katalyma appears in one other place in Luke, in chapter 22 when Jesus sends Peter and John to make preparations for the Passover. the message from Jesus to the master of the house to which he sends them is that he wants to eat the Passover in the man’s katalyma: not an inn, but a guest room.

In other words when Luke clearly means inn, he uses pandocheion; when he wants to talk about a guest room he calls it katalyma. So should Luke 2:7 not say that there was no room for them in the guest room?

That would mean that instead of thinking of Joseph and Mary going frantically from one hotel to the other, discovering nothing but “No Vacancies” signs until one (semi) kind innkeeper allows them to sleep in the stable, we should consider another scenario.

Presumably Joseph, being ‘of the house and line of David’, had some relatives or friends in the village. It is also possible that there were other out of town members of the family who had come back for the census. In which case the relative with whom Joseph and Mary had planned to stay had no room in the guest room: another family member had got their first or was considered more deserving of the guest room.

At that point Joseph and Mary would have had to sleep in the family room at the far end of which were mangers to feed the animals which were brought into the adjoining stalls at the end of the house. When Jesus was born, neither he nor his mother enjoyed the relative comfort of the guest room: and the only place to place the baby was in the animal feeding troughs.

If that is the correct understanding then there is no innkeeper.

But there is another set of questions. Who was in the guest room? Why did neither they nor the owner of the house see to it that Mary, Joseph and their new son were given space in the guest room. Was it because Joseph’s relatives were concerned about the unusual nature of the pregnancy?

And this point remains. When the Son of God came into the world, it was not to a palace, much less a private hospital. He was born in a place that hardly had room for him. His first sleep was surrounded by the smells of animals as he lay in a feeding trough.

Who is he in yonder stall,
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story,
‘Tis the Lord, the King of Glory:
At his feet we humbly fall,
Crown him, crown him Lord of all.

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