There Was No Inn—
“Katalyma” is the Greek word for a room set aside for guests in a household. It appears three times in the New Testament, twice in Luke (one of which is a parallel passage to Mark 14:14) and once in Mark.
7 and she gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living-quarters.
14 and whichever house he enters, tell him that the Rabbi says, ‘Where is the guest room for me, where I am to eat the Pesach meal with my talmidim?’
So, I have this nativity scene that I really like, and I’ve been collecting figures for it for years. I just went and got a new “stable” too, with an awning and a balcony. It was St. Francis in 1223 who made the first nativity display in a cave in Greccio, Italy. I suspect that the medieval context of “inns” and “mangers” was what led to the idea that the “inn” in the Bible was an inn for travelers, with an attached stable for those guests who were wealthy enough to have a riding animal.
This is a highly questionable scenario for the place where Jesus was born. It was more likely that Joseph showed up at the door of some distant relatives of his in Bethlehem, who were already hosting other travelers. They were probably not particularly wealthy, and didn’t have a large house with lots of room. It would have been a full house.
Many Jewish households had a room set aside for guest use, usually on the second floor if there was a second floor. Hence the “upper room” as it’s often translated in Mark 14:14. Here’s the kicker though: those same households were often divided into “living quarters” for the people and a separate area for domestic animals. That’s where the manger would have been located.
So, the whole narrative of poor pregnant Mary being turned away by a heartless innkeeper, and having to sneak into an outbuilding to give birth is just not credible. Jewish society of the time had (and still has today) a deep tradition of hospitality, and the holy family would have had a sure welcome, even in a household with no family ties.
Imagine this instead: a big convivial gathering of people who haven’t seen each other in a long time; relatives who might have never met each other; food and drink and firelight, with happy conversation. The animals would have been moved outside, and the women would have prepared a birthing-place for Mary in that room. It would have been those women who provided the “swaddling-cloths” which are also mentioned in the Bible, along with competent and kind assistance with the whole event of giving birth.
This means that Jesus was born in the middle of a Jewish household, cared for and welcomed.
It was not some cold, lonely, and squalid corner of a dark, smelly stable—
No, there would have been light and laughter and singing, and kind, friendly, experienced women to hold Mary’s hand, encourage her, and comfort her.
Not to mention a group of equally kind, friendly, and experienced men who would have heartily included Joseph in the ‘company of husbands’ while the birth was taking place.
I like the image of that “nativity scene” a lot more than the one that puts the stable way out in the middle of a lonely desert with no other buildings or people nearby; just Mary and Joseph alone in a creaking wasteland— an image of a dark, cold, abandoned place, and a teenage mother frightened and in pain.
I’d much rather imagine that the first sounds that Jesus heard were laughter, clinking dishes, and a crackling fire.
I’d like to think that he was warm and fed, and put to bed in a soft, padded manger right next to the contented comings and goings of a big happy family.
There would be enough loneliness and grief later on, when his friends betrayed and denied him.
By the end he would know all about comfortless tears, alone in the night.
Better for the stories about that night to be happy ones.
Better that he was not always an outcast, bound to come to a bad end.
Better that he knew from the very beginning what it means to belong.