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No room - in the room

18 December 2015

Paula Gooder invites us to look again at the detail of the Christmas story

© Fine Art Images/Superstock

Closer to the truth? Perhaps the wrong dresses, but there could have been a crowd: The Nativity of the Virgin Mary (c.1528) by Ambrosius Benson (1495-1550) in the Museo del Prado, Madrid

Closer to the truth? Perhaps the wrong dresses, but there could have been a crowd: The Nativity of the Virgin Mary (c.1528) by Ambrosius Benson (1495-...

THE connection of Jesus with Bethlehem is important theologically, since it allows the Gospel writers to make the significant connection between Jesus and David. This connection reminds us of how important place is within the Jewish mindset.

It was important that John the Baptist went out to the wilderness to be in the place where God’s people first crossed into the Promised Land, and the place where God promised he would return after the exile. Being there was as important as being ready.

In the same way, going back to Bethlehem to David’s roots is another new beginning — going back this time not to the roots of God’s people in the land, but to the roots of kingship and the rule over God’s people by David. Jesus’s being born in Bethlehem tells us much that therefore does not need spelling out in detail.

The beliefs about a Davidic descendant focus on the Jewish longing for a true return from exile. Although God’s people were back in their land after the end of the exile in the Persian period, much was missing.

You only have to read the Isaianic prophecies of God’s glorious promises of return, peace, prosperity, and unity to realise that the existence in the land was a poor shadow of what God’s people hoped for.

One of the striking lacks in the post-exilic world was a descendant of David. The kings went off into exile with the people, but, despite the mention of Sheshbazzar, a descendant of David, in some of the texts (such as Ezra 1.8), no Davidic line was ever re-established.

This fact became the focus of future expectation: an expectation that, over time, also became intertwined with one of an anointed figure or Messiah (although priests and prophets were also anointed, the specific Davidic connection became important for the Messiah).

We learn much, therefore, about Jesus from the simple fact that Matthew and Luke take us back to Bethlehem, to the place from which David was called to be King in the first place. It is worth noting that David was first called when he was a shepherd in the fields around Bethlehem — and this is exactly where Luke takes us in the next passage of his story.

Again, through subtle detail, Luke communicates a central theological point: that Jesus is indeed the new David, who will emerge as King from the same place as his illustrious ancestor.

 

ONE of the central details of nearly all nativity plays is that Mary went into labour on the way to Bethlehem, and was so desperate for somewhere to stay that she and Joseph had to settle for a stable — or a cave — in the outhouses of a local inn.

Enter the spoilsport New Testament scholar. Let us be clear that the traditional version is far to be preferred in terms of drama, but is not really what the text suggests.

There is no timescale given for Joseph and Mary’s stay in Bethlehem. The assumption that the baby was born as they arrived comes solely from the statement that there was “no room at the inn”.

This small phrase — with its translation “inn” — has shaped almost the entirety of popular imaginations of what went on at Jesus’s birth, and is disputed by the majority of New Testament interpreters. There is little evidence to support the translation “inn” here. Inns were to be found almost exclusively on trade routes where there were no other houses in the vicinity.

Indeed, in Luke’s telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, there is an “inn” exactly where you might expect one to be. The Samaritan took the wounded man to an inn on the deserted road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The isolation of the route and the inherent danger of travelling on it made it an ideal place for an inn.

The important thing to notice, however, is that when referring to the inn in Luke 10.34, Luke uses an entirely different word from the one used here in 2.7. There, the word used is pandocheion; here, it is kataluma.

This word is used elsewhere in Luke: somewhat fascinatingly, at the Last Supper (Luke 22.11), to describe the guest room where Jesus and his disciples met to eat their last meal together. Luke uses the word in 2.7 not for an inn, but for a guest room in a house.

It is highly unlikely that a place such as Bethlehem would have had an inn at all. Rules of hospitality dictated that people — even complete strangers — should be welcomed into your home and cared for. There would have been no need for an inn in a place such as Bethlehem.

In Jerusalem, the “guest room” would probably have been a whole room, as it appears to have been in Luke 22.11 (though it might have been a “room” on the roof of the house). In smaller rural villages, such as Bethlehem, it is more likely to have been a corner of the one-roomed abode where the whole of the family dwelt.

In such houses, what normally happened was that the family lived “upstairs” on a kind of mezzanine level, with the animals on a lower level in the same space. What Luke probably envisioned was that Jesus was laid in the feeding trough of the lower level, as the upper level was so crammed with people.

There is little in the text to suggest that Mary and Joseph arrived with urgent need of accommodation; little to suggest the presence of an inn or innkeeper; nothing to suggest a search through multiple inns before finding a kind-hearted innkeeper who allowed them to stay in a stable. All of this is extraneous detail, added to make the story more engaging and dramatic.

As far as I’m concerned, that is fine, so long as we are clear that it is the result of an imaginative rereading of the story, and not the story itself. Much has been made, over the years, of there being no room for Jesus at his birth.

There was even a carol based on the theme by Hilda M. Jarvis (”No room for the baby at Bethlehem’s inn. . . No home on this earth for the dear Son of God. . . Will you still say to him ‘no room’?”). In other words, there was a deliberate refusal of room to Jesus at his birth.

The visual reason why people are reluctant to accept that the kataluma might have been a guest room, not an inn, is because all of our nativity plays would look different; but there is a theological reason, too. If there was an inn, someone refused Jesus room; if it was just a guest room, no one refused him room — he just didn’t quite fit in.

Surely this is a profound theological statement itself, and maybe even closer to the truth. So often we assume that people’s lack of acceptance of Jesus, and all he came to be, is deliberate, thought through, and clearly stated. The reality is that, more often than not, a refusal of Jesus is not thought through — he just doesn’t quite fit into our lives.

When we are busy, when so many other concerns press in all around us, it is not so much that we make a decision about what to accept or not, but that things slip by unnoticed. The lack of room for Jesus in our modern world is sometimes a deliberate refusal, but, it seems to me, it is most often, now as then, that there simply isn’t quite space for him.

 

PART of the power of Luke’s birth-narratives are the sparse details he provides. There is much more he doesn’t tell us than he does. Where do Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem? How did the shepherds find them? How many shepherds were there — two, or more than two?

What was the response of the visitors in the overcrowded house to these odd nocturnal visitors? Other than Mary, did anyone else remember these events, and wonder what they might mean? How did Joseph react?

It is the sparseness of Luke’s account that requires us to enter the story imaginatively, and to supply some of the missing characters. The problem we face today is that the supplied details have taken the status of canonical text, and it is very difficult indeed to suggest alternative imaginative details.

Luke himself, however, suggests how we should respond to “these words”: we should follow the example of Mary, preserving the stories in our hearts, pondering the stories in our hearts, and wondering what they might mean for us.

It may be that if we do this, and carry on doing it, our imaginative tellings and retellings of the story might become richer; we might imagine new characters into the tableau — characters excluded by traditional renderings of the tale.

We might linger a little to feel the terror of shepherds, the joy of the angels, the wonder of the villagers. We might sit for a while with Mary, as she pondered what had happened. And, as we do all of this, we might recapture some of the wonder of that very first Christmas, and find ourselves hurrying, like the shepherds, to share the good news that we have seen and heard.

 

This is an edited extract from Journey to the Manger: Exploring the birth of Jesus by Paula Gooder, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT bookshop £11.70) (Books, 30 October).

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