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Interpreting Luke 2:6-7

We all know these verses from Luke’s infancy narrative: 

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7 ESV).

Because of the traditional interpretation of the Christmas story, we think we know exactly what these verses mean. However, the traditional interpretation has been called into question.

Bailey’s interpretation of Luke 2:6-7

Kenneth Bailey is known for his work on the parables of Jesus interpreted in light of Middle Eastern culture. Since he lived and taught in Beirut for many years, he was able to read the Gospels from the point of view of his first-hand experience with Middle Eastern culture (albeit millennia later). Based on his experience, he wrote an influential book titled Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke published by Eerdmans in 1976.

In 1979, Bailey published an article titled, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7” (Theological Review II:2 [1979]: 33-44). In this article, Bailey’s view is that Jesus was born in the main living area of a private home, and that the κατάλυμα (“there was no room for them in the κατάλυμα”) was a guest room of that private home. On this view, the “manger” that Jesus was laid in was in the main living area of the private home, since (Bailey argues) most peasant homes had a small area about four feet lower than the upper living area to keep the family cow at night. The mangers (feeding troughs) would have been built into the floor of the main living area at the edge of the lower area where the family cow resided at night.

Bailey sets the scene as follows: 

Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem; Joseph finds shelter with a family; the family has a separate guest room but it is full. The couple is accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home and the baby is laid in a manger (p. 40).

The arguments in support of this view include the following considerations. To begin with, Luke 2:4-6 says that Joseph and Mary went up from Galilee to Judea, to the city of Bethlehem and “while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth” (v. 6). This suggests that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for some time (days? weeks? months?) before Mary gave birth. This goes against the traditional view that they couldn’t find lodging on the night of their arrival, and since Mary was about to give birth, they had to act quickly and resort to a cattle stall.

In addition, Bethlehem did not sit on any major roads, so it is unlikely that it had a commercial inn. Jeremiah 41:17 is sometimes quoted to support the idea that it did have an inn, but that text states that the people stayed at Geruth Chimham, “which is beside/near” (not “in”) Bethlehem.

Bailey also places a great deal of weight on the sociology of the Middle Eastern village to further support the idea that the holy family would have stayed in a private home, not a commercial inn. If Bethlehem was Joseph’s home village, then he would have had relatives there. He would have surely sought them out, and they would have surely welcomed him into their home. Even if he had never been to Bethlehem before, he would have only needed to name his father and grand-father, and the village would have accepted him and found a place for him. It would have been an insult to his relatives if Joseph had come to his home village and stayed in an inn.

Finally, the term κατάλυμα occurs in the NT on two other occasions (Luke 22:11 || Mark 14:14) where it clearly means “guest room” not “inn.” The term that Luke uses for “inn” is πανδοχεῖον (Luke 10:34).

My thoughts on Bailey’s interpretation

Now we must admit that Bailey’s description of the sociology of the Middle Eastern peasant village is vivid, credible, and exciting. It is just the sort of thing that we who live in the affluent West two millennia later would miss, as we make all sorts of cultural assumptions without realizing it. However, as attractive and true as Bailey’s sociological observations may be, his interpretation is not without problems.

First of all, he presupposes that Joseph (or his father, or his grandfather) had moved the family from Bethlehem to Nazareth recently enough, so that when Joseph returns, there would still be living relatives in Bethlehem who would recognize Joseph as a relative and welcome him and his betrothed. Bailey writes: 

We have observed cases where a complete village has turned out in a great celebration to greet a young man who has suddenly arrived unannounced in the village which his grandfather had left many years before (p. 39).

But we simply don’t know when Joseph’s ancestors moved to Nazareth. It may have occurred so far in the past that no one in Bethlehem was still alive who would have been able to recognize any of the names in Joseph’s genealogy. In Luke’s genealogy, there are approximately 40 generations between David and Joseph. Who knows when Joseph’s Davidic ancestor first moved to Nazareth? Plus, let’s not forget about the major dislocation that occurred in 586 BC when the southern kingdom of Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon. At the time of the return, there is no guarantee that any of the descendants of David decided to make their homes in Bethlehem. They may have been scattered throughout Judea. When did some of them decide to make their homes in Galilee? We just don’t know. The very fact that Luke does not mention that he and Mary lodged with relatives suggests that they did not; surely Luke would have mentioned it if they had. Joseph simply went up to Bethlehem to register for the census “because he was of the house and family of David” (v. 4). In other words, he had been told growing up that his family lineage could be traced all the way back to David. Thus, logically, he believed he had to go to Bethlehem to register, since that was “the city of David” (v. 4). There was no need to think that Bethlehem was Joseph’s (or even his father’s or his grandfather’s) “home village” in the quaint sense that Bailey describes so vividly.

Another problem is that Bailey makes the circumstances of Jesus’ birth seem perfectly appropriate, whereas Luke seems to think the circumstances were less than ideal. Bailey writes: 

No unkindness or lack of hospitality is implied when the Holy Family is taken into the main family room of the home in which they are entertained. The guest room is full. The host is not expected to ask prior guests (or a recently married son) to leave. Such would be quite unthinkable and, in any case, unnecessary. The large family room is more appropriate in any case (p. 40).

So on Bailey’s view, it is actually “more appropriate” for Mary to give birth in the main room next to the animal stall than in a guest room. But Luke says that Jesus had to be wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger “because there was no room for them in the κατάλυμα.” Luke seems to think it would have been better if Joseph and Mary could have stayed in the κατάλυμα, thus avoiding the necessity of laying the baby in a manger.

Similarly, Bailey also says,

[Jesus] was born among them, in the natural setting of the birth of any village boy, surrounded by helping hands and encouraging women’s voices. For centuries Palestinian peasants have all been born on the raised terraces of the one room family homes. The birth of Jesus was no different (p. 42).

But then why does Luke make the point a few verses later, when the angel announces the birth to the shepherds, that “this will be a sign for you:  you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (v. 12). If Jesus’ birth was entirely ordinary, the way peasant boys had been born for centuries, why does Luke make these two characteristics – his swaddling cloths and being placed in a manger (the same language used in v. 7) – a special sign for the shepherds? There seems to be something out of the ordinary about this birth. Presumably, a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a feeding trough is something that would have caused the average shepherd to sit up and take note. In fact, Luke seems to be saying that even by the standards of poor Judean peasantry, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were extraordinarily mean and uncouth.

My view - Bailey is half right

In view of these problems with Bailey’s view, I’m inclined to think that the κατάλυμα was indeed the “guest room” of a private home, as Bailey argues, but with this difference – the private home was not that of a relative. After all, the κατάλυμα that Jesus and his disciples used for the last supper was not a room in a home of one of Jesus’ or his disciples’ relatives (Mark 14:14 || Luke 22:11). Perhaps it was akin to the sort of thing we see even today, where a family will rent out a room in their home to a college student in order to make some extra cash, although in this case, a Judean κατάλυμα would probably be rented out on a more short-term basis, i.e., for a few days or weeks. It seems unlikely that such rooms would have been rented out to relatives.

Thus I envision the scene as follows:  Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. Since his family roots are in Nazareth, Joseph has no living relatives in Bethlehem that he is aware of. Therefore, he needs to rent a guest room in the house of a family that is unrelated to him. But the guest room is already occupied, probably because other families have returned for the census, as the traditional view affirms. The owner of the house, not wanting to turn a pregnant woman away, offers to let Joseph and Mary stay in the main living area next to the lowered cow-pen, just as Bailey describes. There the baby is born and laid in a manger, i.e., a feeding trough for the family cow.

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