Problem Management — religious Q&A
No Room In The Inn

Why was there no room at the inn?

First, the quotation is no room in the inn, not at, and the simple answer is that the whole phrase is a bad translation.

Translations are based on linguistics, with ambiguities being resolved by historical context and remaining ambiguities being resolved by traditions originating from as near that time as possible. Though most of the Bible is well translated following such principles, occasionally tradition was given more importance than it should have been. Luke 2:7 is one such instance.

Traditionally, the ancient god Mithras was born in a cave or similar rocky place, and as Romans adopted Christianity they merged their old myths with the new religion. It soon became common belief that it was Jesus that had been so born, especially as cave-stables were not unusual at that time. In more recent times, the cave eventually became seen as a free-standing stable or barn.

But there is nothing in the Bible, explicit or implied, to indicate that Jesus was born under such unusual circumstances. It's the transplanted ancient Roman tradition that guided this mistranslation and belief.

Mark 14:14: ... Where is the guestchamber [katalyma], where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?

Luke 2:7: 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 ______ [katalyma].

Luke 10:34: ... and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn [pandocheion], and took care of him.

Luke 22:11: ... Where is the guestchamber [katalyma], where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?

How would you translate the blank?

That most people misremember this as at the inn rather than in the inn is an indication of its incorrectness. One wouldn't say that there isn't any room in an inn, because obviously inns contain many rooms. Saying at would have been more appropriate for what most people think this expression means, but that's not what Luke said, or meant. So why did he say in?

Luke also uses the word inn in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that case the original Greek word was pandocheion. But in Luke 2:7, the Greek word translated as inn is katalyma. Katalyma appears in both Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14, and in both those cases however, it is translated as guestchamber.

If Luke had really meant inn, he would have used pandocheion, not katalyma. Linguistically, the correct translation is guestchamber, not inn. Young's Literal Translation version renders it as there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.

Storage room / Guest room Day: work area Night: animals Day: eating Night: sleeping Water Manger
Typical House Layout

Bethlehem was a very small town, of at most a few dozen houses; it's very unlikely it was large enough to have its own inn. The main part of each house in Bethlehem would have typically had a room with a raised section where the family slept, and a ground-level section where they ate and worked during the day and where their animals were kept at night (to protect the animals and to warm the house). Almost every house also had another room, which was used for storage or, when needed, as a guestchamber.

Throughout the Middle East it was, and often still is, considered a common duty to provide accommodation for visitors, whether relatives, friends, or strangers. The idea of sending people to stay in a stable would have been too disrespectful to imagine. And even if the unimaginable had happened, consider the response of the shepherds had they seen that appalling situation: surely they would have moved the family immediately into one of their own houses as welcome guests of their own family. But none of that ever happened, because the family was never in a stable to begin with.

Luke of course didn't describe such details, because his readers would already take such things for granted.

Now consider what the Bible actually does say.

As with many of the traditions of Christianity, the Biblical facts are quite different. In this case if we properly translate the clause as because there wasn't enough room in the guestchamber, the whole basis for the traditional Nativity Scene disappears. It has no linguistic or historical support, and remains only for those that want to cling to the ancient Roman traditions.

Should I also mention that the wise men (not necessarily three) didn't visit Bethlehem, or that the birth wasn't in December?