Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In Defense of the Innkeeper

As is my custom (at least when I’m not engaging in a “news fast” as a spiritual and emotional discipline) I watched the BBC this morning to get my “fix” of international news. (It’s such a frustration to me that our American news media are so provincial and frivolous in perspective. Hundreds of people are dying every day in Zimbabwe and all we hear about is what Jessica Simpson wore to the Cowboys game on Sunday! But that’s another blog.) One of the stories they did was a Christmas piece about what Joseph and Mary would have to deal with if they were to have to make the arduous trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem in today’s Israel. Two reporters (a man and a woman), together with their donkey, set out from Nazareth reporting along the way on the new modern West Bank “obstacles” the contemporary “Joseph and Mary” would have to face today, obstacles of which the first Joseph and Mary knew nothing – check points, papers in proper order, barbed-wire fences, machine-gun protected guard towers, and of course, “The Wall.” It was an interesting piece to say the least.

But what struck me about this news piece was the tacit and uncritical acceptance of one interpretation of the biblical narrative about Joseph and Mary’s journey. That interpretation, based solely on a particular reading of Luke 2:1-7, suggests that the Holy Couple struck out in the latter days of Mary’s pregnancy and made the arduous 113 KM (approximately 70 miles) trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem through incredibly rough terrain with Mary, “great with child,” astride a donkey, only to arrive at Bethlehem and be told by a hard-hearted innkeeper that there were no vacancies!

But a close reading of Luke’s account suggests another alternative. Two things stand out in Luke’s story that cause me to question the traditional telling of the trek. First, in verse 6, Luke says, “and while they were there (the Greek employs an accusative of general reference construction that has no exact parallel in English but translates roughly as I’ve done it here) the days of her child-bearing were accomplished.” The words “while they were there” suggest that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the afternoon of the first Christmas but had probably been there for some time. This makes sense in light of information Matthew provides that Joseph, when he learned that Mary was pregnant and he was not the father, determined to divorce her quietly. Following divine intervention, Joseph had a change of heart, but it is unlikely that his resolve to wed Mary silenced the gossip in Nazareth. And so, wishing to spare her further embarrassment, he used the occasion of the census to get her out of town, out of that gossipy and provincial setting, and took her to Bethlehem there to wait for the birth of the baby. Because he had a trade that could be practiced anywhere, he was able to make a living for them while they waited, probably taking up residence in a local inn.

Moreover, the tradition that Mary was in her ninth month is based solely on the King James Version’s translation of verse 5 that Mary was “great with child.” However, the Greek word Luke uses to describe Mary’s condition is egkuos which just means “pregnant” without any reference as to how far along in the pregnancy she was. And so Luke’s account does indeed allow what I’m suggesting; namely, that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth for Bethlehem early in her pregnancy (before she was “showing”) and relocated to Bethlehem there to await the baby’s arrival.

And that leads me to the second thing. The traditional interpretation suggests that the baby was born in a manger (Greek, phatne) “because there was no room for them in the inn.” That tradition has given birth (pardon the pun) to the notion that a Grinch-like innkeeper turned a hard heart and cold shoulder to the desperate couple in their hour of need, never mind that the innkeeper is never mentioned in the story and only extrapolated from the fact that there was an inn there! But again, a close reading of Luke suggests a different story altogether. The King James Version, on which most of our Christmas traditions is based, translates verse 7, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” However, the Greek word rendered “room” by the KJV is topos which means “place” not “room” which in Greek is mone rather than topos. The difference between the two Greek words is easily seen in John 14:2 where both are used in the same sentence: “In my Father’s house are many rooms (monai); if it were not so, I would not have told you that I go to prepare a place (topos) for you.” Jesus’ concern in this passage is not “booking a room” but preparing for them “an appropriate place.”

I’m suggesting that Luke here is saying that the baby was born in a manger not because there were “no vacancies” in the inn, but because the inn was not an “appropriate place” for the birth of a baby. Remember, in the ancient world, an inn was a building with an open courtyard (agora) with stalls (door-less windbreaks) opening onto it where you could unloose your pack animal (cf. the Greek word for inn, kataluma, literally means “a loosing down place”) and bed down for the night. However, the one thing such a place did not accord was privacy! And so, Joseph and Mary, living in such a place awaiting the birth of their son, approached the innkeeper and inquired if there were a more “appropriate place” for such an event to occur. What he came up with was a cave where the animals were kept on chilly nights. To be sure, it was a pretty strange "guest room" what with donkey dung on the floor, a feeding trough for a crib, and straw for a mattress, but Joseph and Mary made do. And besides, it had the advantage of having the one thing the couple needed most at that moment – privacy.

And so, rather than being the first century equivalent of the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” it just could be that the innkeeper was the opposite – a compassionate man who did what he could to help two “out-of-towners” in their time of need.

Could that be it? I don’t know, and I don’t know who knows. But it’s worth noting that the Greek word for innkeeper (pandocheus) occurs only once in the entire New Testament – in Luke, the story of the Good Samaritan and what an innkeeper did to provide a place (topos) of safety and refuge for a desperate traveler in need!


*While the development is my own, I was first put on to this possibility years ago when I came across Kenneth E. Bailey's Poet and Peasant: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1976), 238 pages.


Suzanne Pomeranz said...

About that "inn" - most likely, it was NOT a separate building at all, but the third room in the cave dwelling of a relative. Look up the word "kataluma" (not sure I've spelled it correctly) which translates to "guest room".

As Bethlehem is on a hilltop, it's probable that the homes were actually 3-room caves dug out of the soft limestone hill, which included one "living room" for the family; one "kataluma" for visitors; and one room for the animals... So try this on for something completely different:

"Hey cousin Moshe, any chance you have room in your kataluma for me & Miriam while we are in Beit Lechem?" "Sorry Yosef, but the kataluma is full of other relatives here for this dang-ed census. The room for the animals is warm and clean, though, if you don't mind bedding down on the straw!"

Guess all my Christian shopkeeper friends in Beit Lechem will have to start making little 3-room caves instead of the traditional stables out of olive wood! But since soft white Jerusalem limestone is actually easier to get than olive wood, I'd guess they'll do alright with it... as long as the Christian tourists get the message!

When will you next head over this way?

suzanne pomeranz
licensed tour guide, Jerusalem, Israel
(formerly of Sanford, NC and former Baptist)

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for your insight, Suzanne.

The Greek word, kataluma, literally means "a loosing down place." (Cf. kata is Greek for "down" and "luma" comes from the Greek verb luo meaning "I loose," and the "mat" suffix means "result." Hence, a place where "unloosing" or "loosing down" occurred. Most likely the reference was to a place where pack animals were "loosed down" for the night. It came to be associated with a "guest room" because when there was no need to use the kataluma for animals it could double as a "guest room."

Not sure when I'll be guiding a group to Israel again. Had planned to do so this Spring, but the declining dollar has caused me to rethink that. Trip just too expensive for most Americans these days. Soon, I hope.

Christmas Blessings,

R. Wayne Stacy

Suzanne Pomeranz said...

Except that the "katalumas" in Kfar Nahum were, actually, guest rooms, not for animals at all as you suggest.

And we do know that the 3-room cave was traditional and that people in those days did their "living" in one room... and their cooking, usually, outside, with their animals in another room of the cave, so what was the 3rd room in the cave for if not guests?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Interesting. Katalumas at ancient Capernaum? Been there many, many times and never seen one at the Franciscan excavations. And how can you be sure from the village ruins visible today just south of the synagogue that that's indeed what it was? Of course, as you know, the ruins of ancient Capernaum are by the lakeside, not up in the hills where there might be caves.