The Greek word Luke used for “inn” is kataluma. Luke actually used this word twice in his Gospel. The first is in the story of Jesus’ birth. We might expect to find the second in the story of the good Samaritan, who “brought him [the injured man] to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:34, HCSB, emphasis added). Luke, however, does not use kataluma in the story of the good Samaritan. Instead, he used the Greek word pandocheion, which also translates “inn.” Kataluma has as its root a word that means to loosen or untie, as in to open the satchel that would hold a traveler’s clothes. Pandocheion comes from two Greek words that mean to receive all. A pandocheion was always a stand-alone inn or caravansary (as in the good Samaritan story). Akataluma could be a stand-alone inn or lodging space—or, it could be connected to a house. This brings us to Luke’s second use of kataluma.
The second time Luke used the word kataluma was when Jesus instructed His disciples to go to the city to make preparation for the Last Supper: “Tell the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room [Greek, kataluma] where I can eat the Passover with My disciples?” ’” (22:11, HCSB).
In the first century, many people lived in one-room houses, typically with a separate area for the animals to stay overnight for their safety and protection. The feeding trough would have been in the family’s living quarters, either elevated or separated from the animals by a wall. If there were a wall, it would have had a hole through which the animals would stick their heads to eat (see artist’s rendering). Sometimes the houses were built at a cave, which the owners could also use to accommodate the animals over night.
Some of the more affluent families, however, lived in larger homes with an adjoining room they used for guests and entertaining. In such a room Jesus and His disciples celebrated their last Passover together. Unlike the family’s living quarters, guests could visit or sleep in this additional room (kataluma) and not be bothered with the sounds (and smells!) of the animals.
This possibility fits the nativity story. If this was indeed the case, Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem and planned to stay in the home of a well-to-do friend or relative, one whose house had a guest room. By the time they arrived, however, the guest room (the kataluma) was already full of guests. So, Mary and Joseph stayed in the family’s living quarters, adjacent to where the animals slept. When her baby was born, Mary laid Him in the feeding trough, right there in the family’s home.
So, was Jesus born in a stable? In a cave? In a house? Was the kataluma a stand-alone inn or the guest quarters of a large home? The reality is, we don’t know. Our lack of knowledge is a reminder that the real emphasis of the story is not where Jesus was born but the fact that He was born. “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14). For that, we, like the angels, proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest heaven!” (Luke 2:14).
This article originally appeared in Biblical Illustrator (Winter 2011-12). Let me give a shameless plug because I love this magazine. Click here to learn more and see a sample.
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