How Much Room Is That?

Once certain translations enter the cultural idiom, it’s almost impossible for anyone to suggest an alternative meaning might be better.

Take for example, this text:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7 NRSV)

The word for inn here is καταλύματι which is not the word normally used for inn. The word actually denotes lodging place, even a guest room. The LXX consistently renders this word as merely a place to stay (Ex 4:24; 15:13; 1 Sam 1:18; 9:22; 2 Sam 7:6; 1 Chr 17:5; 28:13; 1 Mac 3:45; Ode 1:13; Sir 14:25; Jer 14:8; 32:38; 40:12; and Ezek 23:21). In Luke 10:34 the more usual word πανδοχεῖον for “inn” is used.

I doubt this will change the way we tell the Christmas story, but the text probably means there was no more room in the family house where they were staying and so they had to find bedding among the animals–who might have been in a different part of the house! So probably, no cave, no barn, and no inn.

Another text where traditional translation hold sway is John 14:1:

“In my Father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2 KJV)

Newer translation have attempted to correct this one, but you will still hear about the mansions we will have in heaven. The word here μονή means simply “a place to stay.” Oh, by the way, that is precisely what “mansion” meant in 1611.



Filed under New Testament

4 responses to “How Much Room Is That?

  1. All I need is “a place to stay.”

  2. DeWayne Weaver

    In ancient Judea kinship ties were very strong. Josef would have gone to the house of a distant relative, even a 2nd cousin 3 times removed, rather than a Public House. Inns were not like our modern hotels in fact they sometimes doubled as houses of prostitution. Not a great place to bring a pregnant woman or baby.

    Inside a walled city square footage was at a premium, so houses expanded up and down to find more room. Basements laborisly cut into solid rock, were used for grain storage and livestock. Yes even city people had livestock in those days. The 1st floor would have been used by the home owners. 2nd floor servants, even people of quite humble stations and professions had servants. 3rd and 4th floors and even the roof would have been used as guest rooms work shops temporary and permanate rental spaces. These were the upper rooms. The Last Supper, the Pentecost revival, and lot of Paul’s teaching took place in these upper rooms. Peter was on the roof when he received his revelation to include the gentiles in the Salvation of Christ.

    With the Romans mandating that everyone return to their home to be counted for the census, the upper rooms would have been packed wall to wall with people. So there was “no room in the inn.” The house could have been built over a natural cave, and the space was being used to keep grain, hay, and livestock, which in a way, makes it a barn. The home owner might even have charged his relatives a small fee to cover the extra food and water his guests would have used. So maybe the traditional view isn’t that far wrong after all.

    • snhelton

      DeWayne, So good to hear from you and thanks for engaging this piece. My push back on your description for housing in ancient Palestine is what’s your source. The Lukan account is so sparse on details (which makes him an amazing storyteller by saying much with little) that almost anything we say about the setting is supposition. Anyway, there is not much riding on the outcome of this one.

      As for the small fee, not likely: hospitality is a “big value” in the ancient Middle East.

      Again, good to hear from you.


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