[b-greek] Re: Luke 2:7 - no TOPOS in the inn

From: Iver Larsen (iver_larsen@sil.org)
Date: Mon Dec 24 2001 - 05:05:15 EST

> At 12:05 AM -0500 12/23/01, Neal Stublen wrote:
> >Dear B-Greekers,
> >
> >Is it possible that Luke's account of Jesus' birth in Luke 2:7 does not
> >refer to the entire stay of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, but
> only that the
> >inn had no facilities to accommodate a woman giving birth? Would an inn
> >necessarily have had private rooms? Is it possible that an inn
> had a common
> >area for the guests to share?
> >
> >As I have always heard the story, Mary and Joseph ended up in the stables
> >because there were no vacancies in the inn, but does TOPOS give
> the idea of
> >vacancies or could it also mean there was no place, given Mary's
> >circumstances?
> >
> >My question arose while looking at verse 6. Is it possible (or
> even likely)
> >that Mary and Joseph had been spending some time in Bethlehem
> already (EN TW
> >EINAI AUTOUS) and at some point during their stay Mary went into labor?
> >Could we think that perhaps Mary and Joseph had been staying in the inn
> >while in Bethlehem, but when she went into labor the inn could not
> >accommodate the birth of a child and it was better for them to
> move to the stables?
> On the other hand, I think you have something in your raising the
> implications of EN TWi EINAI AUTOUS EKEI: the normal way to
> understand this
> is as meaning, "while they were there" -- and notice of the inception of
> labor raises the question where they were staying prior to this point.

There is no indication in the text that they moved house from the time they
came to Bethlehem, probably a couple of weeks before the birth of Jesus,
until the time they left, which I assume was after they had been to nearby
Jerusalem 40 days after the birth.
> Yet in the last analysis all this is speculation and it's impossible to
> derive from the text more than the meager details that the evangelist
> offers us in the narrative. As is the case with lots of little incidental
> stories, we often would like to know more than the narrator tells us, but
> we are obliged to take what we are given and assume that if more details
> were essential to what the narrator wants to tell us, he would have given
> them to us. The Greek text as it stands won't yield any more by way of
> facts.
> --
> Carl W. Conrad

Carl is right that we do not know many details from the text. Most of the
details people need for their Christmas pageants come from imagination and
tradition, e.g. the ideas that angels have wings and that there was a stable
with animals in it. Having them going from house to house at the last moment
before the birth knocking at doors looking for an inn with available space
is imagination. Let us look at the most relevant part of the text:


The main narrative event her is that Mary placed the infant in a manger.
(Not necessarily right away. It could mean that for the coming days after
the birth, Mary used the manger as a substitute bed for Jesus.) This
information does tell us that a manger was free, and there was no free bed
available in whatever place they were staying. Since we know from the
following verse that the weather was warm enough for the animals to be
outside on the grazing fields during the night, the room normally occupied
by the sheep was not being used and had an available manger, normally used
during the cold winter season. And Jesus was not born on a cold
late-December night.

The reason statement with DIOTI tells us why Mary and Joseph were staying
in a place that had a manger. There was no room in the usual place where
visitors are accommodated during a long stay.

Was the KATALUMA an inn? Maybe, probably not. Luke uses a different word for
an inn in 10:34 PANDOCEION. The word KATALUMA is used in Luke 22:11 and Mark
14:14 for the big upstairs guestroom where Jesus had the last supper with
his disciples. So, if we look at the NT context, a more accurate translation
would be (upper) guestroom.
BAGD says about this word: "Inn. This sense is possible in Lk 2:7, but in
10:34 Lk uses pandoceion, the more specific term for inn. k. is perh. best
understood here as lodging (PSI 341, 8 [256 bc]; Ep. Arist. 181) or
guest-room, as in 22:11; Mk 14:14."

It was not uncommon at that time to have two- or three-story houses where
one or more guestrooms were build upstairs. It was also common to have one
section of the ground floor set apart as a place for the animals during
winter time, like an in-built stable.

From a cultural perspective, it sounds highly unlikely that Mary and Joseph
would stay for an extended time at a costly inn when they had relatives in
Bethlehem. In non-Western cultures it is common still today to stay with
relatives even if it means very cramped quarters. Only rich people can
afford to stay for weeks in inns or hotels. So, an alternative reading of
the text has Mary and Joseph staying with unnamed relatives. Since many
people had flocked to Bethlehem, other relatives have already filled up the
available guestroom upstairs, which left only the empty room downstairs,
normally used by animals, and the only piece of furniture was probably an
empty stable.

Happy Christmas, with or without the inn.

Iver Larsen

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