A short look at a commonly misunderstood verse. (first published on
Innkeeper, Innkeeper, what's that you say? A stable lined with straw.
Innkeeper, Innkeeper, where will He lay? With friendly beasts in awe.
It quite common, at this time of year, for people to think about the meaning of Christmas. Most people are well aware that the paraphernalia of Christmas Trees, Father Christmas and the giving and receiving of gifts are quite recent inventions, and that the meaning of Christmas lies, as one song says "two thousand years and half a world away."
If you asked most people what are the elements of that story many people could probably quite confidently describe a scene:
• In a stable, because there was no room at the inn,
• With various animals, usually including a donkey and an ox,
• Including three camel riding kings bearing gifts,
• One or more winged angels at the scene.
• And various other things...
But ask a Christian, though and their answer may well be quite different. Most Christians tend to take the Bible seriously and none of the above elements are present in the Biblical accounts of the nativity. Today we'll take just one of these and look at it in more detail before drawing some conclusions about the myths around today about what Christians believe.
And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 NIV)
Many English translations of Luke 2:7, such as the 1611 King James Version and also the popular modern New International Version translate the underlined word katalupa as inn. This is quite an odd thing to do, as the word tends to refer more generally to rooms or sleeping quarters in a house. Luke himself refers to the upper room wherein Jesus celebrated the Last Supper (at Luke 22:11) as a katalupa. Furthermore when Luke really does want to talk about an inn, such as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34) he uses the unambiguous word pandocheion which typically does mean a travellers' hostel or inn.
This misunderstanding does go back a long way. Scholars think the "stable" tradition was invented by St Francis of Assisi in 1223, perhaps inspired by the presence of the Ox and Donkey in the prologue of Isaiah 1:3, which he understood as a prophecy of Christ. The "inn" tradition might go back even further to the first Latin translation of the New Testament by St Jerome in 380 – 405 AD. Certainly it was unknown to the pre-Constantinian church as seen in early documents such as the Protevangelium of James which is dated to around 150 AD, and contains a quite detailed nativity which is missing both the "Inn" and "Stable". So something happened to the story in about the third or fourth century which has retained a remarkable staying power over the centuries. So much so, that by 1585, according to Professor Stephen Carlson of Duke University, a Spanish priest and early philologist named Francisco Sanchez de las Brozas was actually prosecuted by the Inquisition and died under house arrest, for criticising the depictions of the nativity in contemporary paintings that showed the stable or Joseph's rejection by the innkeeper.
So what does it matter whether Jesus was actually born in a stable or not, or whether there was "no room in the inn", as the sweet children's song suggests?
For Christians, at one level, yes it is pretty irrelevant whether Jesus was born in a house, a barn, a cave or a wooden stable – the theological significance of his birth is about who he is and what God was doing in history through his life, so we could say that these details don't matter. But at another level these little details remind us that many people imagine that Christians believe all sorts of things - some of which are way off base and which are important theologically. It should also remind us, at this time of year, to take the time to explain the message of how and why God became one of us, and what that means for each of us today.
This article is indebted to the scholarly analysis of Stephen Carlson in The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: katalupa in Luke 2:7 by Carlson, S.A. (2010) 56 New Testament Studies 326