I'm sure many of our readers know of the manifold And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.inspirational stories, poems, songs and sermons that have been made through the ages on the innkeeper who either gave Mary and Joseph room or shooed them away. This rude man has been pretty much a mainstay of our Christmas pageants and Nativity scene and is usually made as a prime example of the cruel world that would not accept its Creator. However, did Luke really refer to an 'inn' (in the sense we often understand the word) in Luke 2:7?
-Luke 2:1-7 (Douay-Rheims Challoner)
First, we need to know what word it was that Luke used in his story which is rendered as "inn" in our Bibles. Luke had used the word κατάλυμά (katalyma). In extra-biblical literature, katalyma has a wider connotation than "inn;" it can also mean "house," "guest room" or "lodging-place". It is a noun form of the verb καταλυο (katalyo), a compound verb (kata "among" + lyo "break up" or "(un-)loose") which translates literally as "to disintegrate" or "to unyoke," i.e. "to loosen down." As a place of rest and lodging, a katalyma was a place to drop your baggage, to untie the straps and packs of the beasts of burden and simply sit down and relax. Such is the way that the word is used in the Septuagint: a place of hospitality for people on a journey.
Another place where Luke uses the noun katalyma is in 22:11, where it refers to the upper-room where Jesus and company held the Last Supper, which is clearly not a commercial "inn" but some available space in what is apparently, a private house (either a guest-room inside the home or even the flat rooftop of the home). Mark 14:14 also uses katalyma to describe the upper room itself. There are two other places where some form of it appears as well: in 9:12, where the disciples ask Jesus to "Send away the multitude, that going into the towns and villages round about, they may lodge" (katalysosin), and in 19:7, where the crowd complains of Jesus: "He has gone in to be the guest (katalysai) of a man who is a sinner." While katalyma can mean 'inn', we can see from these examples that the word does not have so narrow a meaning, and Luke does not necessarily employ it as such.
caravanserai, roadside edifices where travelers could rest and recover from the day's journey. These are to be found on the great trade routes all over the East.
Inns were not in great repute in those days. Innkeepers were seen as invariably untruthful, dishonest and oppressive, and such commercial lodgings were said to be dens of sin and vice, even disease and death (as inns were often the last resort of travelers who fell ill or were injured on the road). Pandocheia and other hostelries, usually lower-class ones - such as the Roman stabulum, also used to mean 'brothel' - were linked with prostitution, theft, drunkenness and even murder. The Roman laws in many places recognize this. In two places at the Mishnah, the word of an innkeeper was doubted, and they were placed in the lowest scale of degradation. Even the word for female innkeepers in Aramaic (pundaqit) eventually became synonymous with "harlot". Josephus (Antiquities III.276, 451) adds female innkeepers to the list laid out in Leviticus 21:7 of women whom priests may not marry.
In a positive sense, such roadside spaces could be places of unusual encounters, interaction and personal change, conversion and reform. One Midrash speaks of two merchants who despised each other, until one had difficulties with his pack animals, at which the other merchant assisted him. Both went to a pundaq, where they ate and were reconciled to each other. Another story from the Babylonian Talmud speaks of another chance meeting between two merchants, one from the south and one from the north, who wished to eat at the same table while one ate meat and the other consumed cheese (cf. the forbidden combination of meat and dairy products). The forbidden conjunction became permissible in this special context, as long as the two food items came from separate containers. The Greek orator Dio Chrysostom even speaks of how the happenstance of travelers in a pandocheion might lead to friendship between them.
We should note however that there were probably pandocheia or inns in Palestine at this period, but no structure discovered as of now were positively identified as one. Most likely, 'inns' in those days were just extra spaces in private houses that were rented to travelers for a price, which was not exactly the most comfortable place in the world: the accomodations would have been quite bad.
Now, to go back. Mary and Joseph has now arrived in Bethlehem and is now inside the house of someone who would kindly let them stay in. The problem is, there's no room for the delivery of the child! The house they were staying in were occupied by the host's family, and there were probably a group or two of fellow pilgrims who stayed as well. And since houses of the period tended to be small (and dingy, due to lack of windows) affairs, there's now the problem of lack of space for the pregnant teenage girl. The question now is: so then, Mary and Joseph went to the barn outside, right?
Not necessarily! The whole 'barn' is just assumed because of the manger. The word translated as 'manger' in fact is phatnē, which comes from pateomai 'to eat'. The Greek is more ambiguous in meaning here: while it could refer to the feeding trough itself (which in those days were usually made of stone), it could also refer to the place were animals are kept and fed itself.
Which still doesn't answer the question: where was the barn? Well, the answer was, there probably was no barn. In the ancient world, as well as in primitive modern cultures, animals are regularly kept in or near their owners' homes at night, and feeding troughs would thus have been located there. By being inside, the animals were protected from the elements and theft. In addition, their presence provided body heat for cool nights, access to milk for the daily meal and dung as a critical fuel source. In one possible scenario, the animals as well as the family stayed under one enclosed space that was divided so that the animals would usually be on the lower level, while the family would sleep on an upper level (cf. the rather crude model on the right of a small house divided as such, by yours truly courtesy of Google Sketchup). Another possibility was that the house would have been built in front of, next to or over a natural or man-made cave, which would serve as the holding place for animals. People in those days were known to use caves as an extension of the house (using it as stables and/or storage rooms) or perhaps - especially in the cases of the most destitute - even dwell on one. Even today, shepherds in the Middle East employ caves as shelters for their flocks. This is the scenario that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem presents. Consequently, because Mary and Joseph did not find any space in the living quarters of the family home for childbirth, the Infant was delivered where the animals are.
How did this tradition disappear in the West, we might ask. One interpretation thinks that this might be due to how the Latin Vulgate rendered Isaiah 33:16 (which followed the Hebrew more closely), which reads: munimenta saxorum sublimitas eius, "the fortifications of rocks shall be his highness;" hence, there was no prophecy to fulfill. The idea continues that because of Luke's mention of the 'manger' people seem to have just begun to assume that Jesus was born in a barn (because in Western cultures, that's where mangers are!) Some medieval artists, still bound by early artistic conventions, made a compromise and showed both a cave and a stable to accomodate both versions, but the cave was eventually done away with altogether in later medieval and Renaissance art as new depictions were born in its place such as depicting the 'stable' as a ruined structure (which represented the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one) or as the wooden barn we are all familiar with.
Now finally, for those who are interested: Stephen C. Carlson of Hypotyposeis has put out a very good and comprehensive article on katalyma (warning: PDF!): The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7.