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Out of the question

by
06 March 2015

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or would like to add to the answers below.

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It is usually interpreted that "no room at the inn" in Bethlehem was a result of typical bureaucratic bungling of census arrangements. I wonder whether there is an alternative explanation. The term translated "inn" is kataluma, the same word as is used for the "large upper chamber" of the Last Supper. "Inn" would be pandokheion (a place that receives all). Ouk en topos gives "there was no room". But could the meaning be simply "the guest room was no place for giving birth"?


The first chapter of Kenneth E. Bailey's excellent Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural studies in the Gospels (SPCK, 2008) examines Luke's birth narrative in detail. Bailey expands the linguistic point made by the questioner with reference to both typical Middle Eastern architecture and that society's social and cultural norms. Useful diagrams of Palestinian homes illustrate the argument.

Bailey's conclusion is that Jesus was born in relative comfort in a peasant family home, though in the main (family) room of the house rather than the guest room. His interpretation of Luke is that Jesus's birth was among common people, and for common people.

Evelyn Sweerts, Luxembourg


The best treatment of this nativity story is by Bailey [as above]. There was no inn. There was no space in the guest room; so Joseph and Mary were welcomed into the main living room, which would have been on two levels: the family occupied the upper, while animals were brought into the lower level at night for their safety and heat. Between the two levels were mangers that would have provided a good crib for a baby -though Luke may have had 9.58 in mind ("Foxes have holes and the birds their nests, but the son of man nowhere to lay his head").

(Canon) John Goodchild, Liverpool


It is the nuance of the word topos which is crucial. "No room for them in the inn" (AV) may give the misleading idea that there was no space for them in the kataluma/guest room, whereas "no place for them" (RSV and NRSV) may more accurately suggest that the dilemma was no suitable place for a birth.

Acceptance of this understanding of topos invites fresh appraisal of the possible place of the manger. It has often been said that a manger (phatne) did not really imply a barn or stable (e.g. H. J. Cadbury: The Making of Luke-Acts, pages 249-50). Once dissociated from the guest house or an adjoining courtyard or cattle-shed, the birthplace could well have been sited in a cave, as attested by mid-second-century tradition.

If the alternative meaning of Luke 2.7 were to be accepted, Luke's infancy narrative would be supported by it. A cave would have offered privacy and solitude.

(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Monmouthshire

To help them keep fees down, I have been advising couples that a verger's services are optional at a wedding. But I haven't yet taken a vergerless wedding, and, with a dodgy back, am nervous about it. How do other clergy manage them (on their own)?  A. J.

Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG. questions@churchtimes.co.uk 

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