’Tis the season… for articles deconstructing the traditional Christmas account that Jesus was born in a stable outside of an inn. One of the trendiest theories I’ve seen in my Facebook feed over the past few years has been the argument that Jesus would have been born with the animals not outside some Bethlehem hostel but in a lower room of a family home. And from what I can tell, most people who post these articles accept them as the new settled understanding of Jesus’s birth. But while the stable/inn scene may be incorrect (or oversimplified), I’d like to push back against the new trend as well. I don’t find the evidence compelling on theological, historical, linguistic, and literary grounds.
So the argument goes something like this: the word traditionally translated “inn” in Luke 2:7 is κατάλυμά (katályma). However, the only other time Luke uses κατάλυμά, in 22:10-12, it refers to an “upper room” or “guest room” (where the Last Supper occurs). Elsewhere, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke uses a different word that clearly comes close to meaning “inn” (πανδοχεῖον, pandocheion). So, the logic goes, if Luke meant an inn, he would have used πανδοχεῖον. Since the second time Luke uses κατάλυμά it refers to a guest room, it probably means that the first time.
Whose guest room? Well, according to the new thesis, Joseph would have had other family returning to Bethlehem for the census, so it must be that the κατάλυμά is that of a family member. In keeping with Jewish hospitality, then, Jesus is born with family, but the crowded upper room is no place for childbirth, and so Mary and Joseph are graciously afforded the lower room (where the animals are kept) so that they can have privacy. Jesus is born into a loving family environment.
That’s the story. It’s an intriguing one, and I won’t deny the possibility it might be correct. Still, the ease with which I’ve seen so many readers reject the traditional nativity story, with little to no debate, gives me pause. And it should give any biblically faithful Christian pause. Superficially, it sounds like many other theses coming out of biblical circles in which twentieth—or twenty-first—century scholars claim to have discovered a truth about the Scriptures that has been lost for thousands of years. As a Protestant, I do not hold tradition infallible or even authoritative in the way some other Christian brethren might. So I would not rule out such an interpretation, especially since it doesn’t imperil any core doctrines of the faith. On the other hand, such a challenge to the prevailing understanding of a beloved passage must, I believe, require a very high burden of proof before it can be accepted. And to me, this perspective doesn’t meet that threshold.
First, I want to reiterate that I’m not fully convinced Jesus was born in an inn either. But far from being a comfortable environment, it seems more likely that Mary gave birth to him in one of the region’s many caves, perhaps near a caravanserai (a tent gathering for travelers) on the outskirts of the city. Though there’s no inn required for this version, it is a bit closer to the traditional nativity story that we think about—though even more humbling and isolating probably than our standard understanding. It’s worth noting that one could synthesize old and new by maintaining that Joseph’s family home’s “lower room” was a cave that the family used—but as will become evident, I don’t think such a synthesis is likely or warranted. The key feature of the text, as I will contend, is that the “no room” should be read to understand that Jesus’s human birth came in circumstances of difficulty, rejection, or inhospitableness.
There is, to the best of my knowledge, no existing tradition of Jesus being born in a home or a lower room. On the other hand, his birth in a cave is one of the most ancient traditions of all Christianity. It is attested by the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and by some of the most ancient Christian sources, such as Justin Martyr, who was from the second century, lived in Samaria, and spoke Greek. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin states, “Now concerning the birth of the child in Bethlehem, [you should know that] when Joseph could find no lodging place in the village, he went to a cave nearby, and there Mary gave birth to the child and laid him in a manger . . .”(78.5). Like Justin, many early Christian expositors spoke Greek as their native language. It seems surprising that no early Christian commentators would support the family guest room reading if Luke’s use of κατάλυμά here were so cut-and-dried.
In some tellings of the new interpretation, ironically, this tradition is the problem. Some scholars in the evangelical world (deliberately or not) seem to give off the vibe that early apologists not only adopted but co-opted the Scriptures for their own ends in Gentile communities and, in the process, tainted or effaced the pure Jewishness of the New Testament with philosophical Hellenism. It falls to us contemporary scholars, with our superior archaeology and resources, to restore this purity.
Here we may be at an impasse. I will certainly concur that there are occasions in which such tensions of interpretation exist, but I remain wary of the “chronological snobbery” inherent in too much of this application. It is quite unlikely that many seminary and Bible-school professors have the command of Greek that any of the New Testaments early readers (Jew or Gentile) had. This is especially pertinent when discussing the Gospel of Luke, who was a Gentile whose Greek comes closer to classical than nearly any other New Testament writer.
That said, I agree that the strongest argument for the new position is the linguistic one. But it’s not as straightforward as the articles sometimes make it sound. Κατάλυμά doesn’t “literally mean” “upper room” or “guest room” (words in one language never “literally mean” anything in another language). The word is used only twice in this form in Luke, so saying that it must be used the same way in these two cases is only compelling if that’s the only way that word can ever be used. But this simply isn’t the case; outside of Luke, κατάλυμά suggests a stopping place from traveling and so can refer to a large range of possible options. It could actually refer to an inn; inns weren’t as common in ancient Judea, and Bethlehem was small, which make the interpretation more questionable (though the definite article before the term might indicate this as the only inn in little Bethlehem). It could indeed refer to an upper room, as it does later in Luke. It could refer (as I suggest) to a gathering of wayfarers, less formal in nature, who used the many local caves to keep their animals; in the Septuagint, for instance, κατάλυμά is frequently associated with tents. The broader point is that in extrabiblical ancient writings, it can plausibly be translated in context according to a variety of different senses.
It would make sense that Luke doesn’t use πανδοχεῖον if no inn is involved—though again, we can’t rule it out with certainty. But why, in the reading I’m proposing, would Luke use κατάλυμά one way first and another way the second time? Kenneth Bailey, one of the first to advance the new theory, poses this very question: “If at the end of Luke’s Gospel, the word katalyma means a guest room attached to a private home (22:11), why would it not have the same meaning near the beginning of his Gospel?”
Broadly speaking, many writers (including biblical writers) use words with multiple senses in a single text. Moreover, Luke’s background in educated Greek makes him a skilled literary writer, and literature is particularly marked by exploiting ambiguities in language for effect. I believe the ambiguity of κατάλυμά here fits well with what Luke is trying to communicate in his Gospel, a message that has long been recognized and that the new interpretation obscures.
Thematically, Luke is the hospitality Gospel. You can track Jesus’s actions and stories based on who he does or doesn’t stay (or party) with. But Luke’s big point is precisely to redefine how we understand hospitality and family, to show that Jesus is rejected by the people who ought to receive him (religious leaders, even his own family) and accepted by those who society regards as outcasts. This is exactly what we have almost always grown up understanding in the Christmas story—Mary and Joseph, huddled alone in unpleasant circumstances, Jesus’s birth attended only by the lower-class shepherds while the world at large rejects them. I would suggest that this is exactly what Luke wants you to think. In that way at least, your little nativity sets have it right.
The Gospel’s thematic unity around this point should strongly incline against any interpretation of Jesus’s birth that portrays him born into hospitable or loving circumstances (apart from the love of Mary and Joseph)—that is, it seems, quite the opposite of what Luke wants us to see (and what Christians have seen in the text for almost 2000 years). If in fact Jesus was born in a family home, frankly, I think Luke would have omitted that aspect of the story entirely; it’s not in keeping with the kinds of details he generally chooses to show. If it’s true, as some object, that no cave is mentioned directly in the nativity narrative, neither is a family home, unless we follow this new long chain of reasoning to read κατάλυμά in that way—but that’s pretty thin linguistic gruel to overturn a longstanding reading of the text. Jesus’s birth is a breach of human hospitality, not an example of it.
But then why two uses of κατάλυμά? Because in chapter 22, Luke brings us full circle. We began early in the book with Jesus being cast out of human community, and we end with his disciples at the Last Supper, with the new upside-down community he is creating. Jesus’s initial human dwelling, his physical birth, is inhospitably away from the extended family units by which Jewish people of the day so often defined their lives; it is welcomed instead by the shepherds, the kind of coarse outsiders that will make up the new οἶκος and household of faith. It is just such an οἶκος that assembles on the eve of the gift of his atoning death—then, as at his birth, he will be surrounded by the misfit band that made up his true family. In Judas, he suffers one more great breach in hospitality before the company will assemble again, as Luke will describe in Acts 2, for the arrival of his presence through the Spirit among them in Pentecost.
G. K. Chesterton recognized the implications of a cave-birth in a lovely section of The Everlasting Man. While noting that the “god from the cave” motif was one common to ancient mythologies, he points out the ways in which the Christian story radically diverges, and that the stable in the cave reinforces the radical nature of Christ’s birth:
traditions in art and literature and popular fable have quite sufficiently attested, as has been said, this particular paradox of the divine being in the cradle. Perhaps they have not so clearly emphasised the significance of the divine being in the cave. Curiously enough, indeed, tradition has not very clearly emphasised the cave. It is a familiar fact that the Bethlehem scene has been represented in every possible setting of time and country, of landscape and architecture; and it is a wholly happy and admirable fact that men have conceived it as quite different according to their different individual traditions and tastes. But while all have realised that it was a stable, not so many have realised that it was a cave. . . . Whether as a myth or a mystery, Christ was obviously conceived as born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless. Nevertheless it is true, as I have said, that the cave has not been so commonly or so clearly used as a symbol as the other realities that surrounded the first Christmas.
And the reason for this also refers to the very nature of that new world. It was in a sense the difficulty of a new dimension. Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sightseer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression.
Stable outbuilding? Lower room? Cave? I find the third option most plausible. Given almost two millennia of Christian tradition passed down from very early on, a variant exegesis of Luke 2 ought to carry overwhelming evidence to be accepted. But what was this cave attached to—what is Luke’s κατάλυμά? I’m less certain on this front, but it seems highly improbable that Mary and Joseph’s absence from it is somehow a sign of kindness, hospitality, or familial love. Perhaps the κατάλυμά was indeed a family guest room, but Joseph’s family rejected the young couple. This seems unnecessarily convoluted, however. So perhaps the κατάλυμά was indeed an inn of sorts, the only one in town, using a cave as a stable. Or perhaps Joseph and Mary were camped outside Bethlehem in a caravanserai or tent city, not a huge stretch given the possible logistics that may have resulted from the census.
Chances are that when you were growing up, you heard some iteration of the Christmas story in which Mary and Joseph, in challenging circumstances, found themselves in Bethlehem without lodging, and Mary, a young woman whose reputation had been tainted, gave birth in the margins, away from centers of power and away from the comforts of home. In this, I would contend, your parents or Sunday school teachers or pastors did not mislead you. As in the debate about the true date of Christmas, this back-and-forth isn’t a matter of heresy or core doctrine. Yet the great drama of the Incarnation that we celebrate in Christmas centers on God the son, born to the holy family, tiny and sticky with amniotic fluid, adored by rough shepherds and rejected by his own. More than any, an exegetically faithful cave-birth reading supports this.