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The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2010

Stephen C. Carlson
Duke University, 209 Gray Bldg., Durham, NC 27708, USA. email:


The identity of the κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 has been debated among Western scholars for over five hundred years. Proposals have ranged from an inn to a guest room. This article argues that the term κατάλυμα has a generic sense of ‘place to stay’ and that the final clause of Luke 2.7 should be rendered ‘because they had no space in their place to stay’. Moreover, three clues in the context—Joseph's compliance with the census order, the betrothal of Mary, and the manger—suggest that the accommodations presupposed by Luke are a marital chamber too small for giving birth.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 El Brocense's proceedings before the Spanish Inquisition were published by Tovar, Antonio and de la Pinta Llorente, Miguel, eds., Procesos Inquisitoriales contra Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas (Documentos para la historia del humanismo español 1; Madrid: Instituto Antonio de Nebrija, 1941)Google Scholar and earlier by Navarrete, Martin Fernandez, Salvá, Miguel, and de Baranda, Pedro Sainz, eds., Colección de documentos inéditos para la historia de España (vol. 2; Madrid: La Viuda de Calero, 1843)Google Scholar.

2 According to the declaration of Juan Collado, El Brocense was originally circumspect about this matter: ‘Dijo: que en la dicha leçión el dicho maestro dijo que lo que se dice en la scriptura de que nuestro Señor estuvo en el pesebre, que no se avía de entender como comúnmente se piensa sino de otra manera: e que de la manera que se avía de entender no lo declaró’ (Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 9–10). El Brocense's actual position as summarized above became clearer during the proceedings.

3 El Brocense's exegesis of Luke 2.1–7 has been published in Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 51–3, and Fernandez Navarrete et al., Colección, 51–3. Credit for bringing this to the attention of contemporary scholarship belongs to Yubero, Dionisio, ‘Una opinión original del “Brocense” sobre Luc. 2,7’, CB 22 (1954) 36Google Scholar.

4 The least convincing of his arguments would have to be his appeal to the ‘house’ (οἰκίαν) of Matt 2.11. Not only would this now be considered an improper harmonization to the Matthean account by modern standards, but it also falls short by his own standards since he argued in another context that the Magi did not arrive in Bethlehem for another a year or two: ‘Magos Christum Dominum adoraturos post annum unum vel duos potiùs venisse’ (Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 53).

5 Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 52: ‘Diversorium autem non hic accipitur pro eo quod vulgò dicimus meson, sed pro quavis habitatione privata ut lib. [3.o Regum c. 18], et [D. Lucæ c. 22]: ubi est diversorium ubi pascha cum discipulis meis manducem? Græcè κατάλυμα’. (The Biblical citations are corrected from Fernandez Navarrete et al., Colección, 52, and appear to refer to 1 Kings 18.27 and Luke 22.11 more precisely.) The instance of κατάλυμα in Luke 22.11 where it does not mean ‘inn’, is routinely noted by scholars.

6 Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 52: ‘Venit igitur Joseph aut in domum suam (erat enim civis Beleemita de domo David) aut certè in domum alicujus propinqui, si propria domus erat inquilinis locata’. Less persuasively, El Brocense goes on to cite Theophylact's view that Bethlehem was also Mary's hometown. That Joseph could count on the hospitality of his relatives has often been pointed out in the literature. See, for example, Malina, Bruce J. and Rohrbaugh, Richard L., Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2d ed. 2003) 376Google Scholar: ‘If close family was not available, mention of Joseph's lineage would have resulted in immediate village recognition that he belonged and space in a home would have been made available’. Also Grassi, Santi, Luca (Commenti biblici; Rome: Borla, 1999) 98Google Scholar: ‘Con tutta probabilità i genitori di Gesù erano ospiti nella casa natale di Giuseppe o presso parenti’; and Miguens, M., ‘“In una mangiatoia, perchè non c'era posto…”’, Bibbia e Oriente 2 (1960) 193–8Google Scholar.

7 Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 52: ‘Nec tamen necesse erat eodem die omnes adesse: satis enim fuit intra præscriptum aliquem diem profiterentur’. In fact, those subjected to the census had an entire year to register. See Llewelyn, S. R., ‘§15 “And everyone went to his own town to register”’, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri published in 1980–81 (vol. 6; Macquarie University: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1992) 121Google Scholar; and Hombert, Marcel and Préaux, Claire, Recherches sur le Recensement dans l'Égypte Romain (Papyrologica Lugduno-Batava; Leiden: Brill, 1952) 7980, 108Google Scholar.

8 Tovar and Llorente, Procesos Inquisitoriales, 52–3: ‘Itaque dicit Evangelista: quia non erat eis locus in diversorio, id est, quia in illa domo nec erant cunæ, nec alius commodior locus ubi collocatur puer, in præsepio posuerunt eum. Solet enim fieri multis in regionibus (quod sæpè videmus et in nostris) ut in eadem parte domus et domini et boves et jumenta commorentur’. Nowadays scholars bolster the observation by pointing to Near Eastern homes: e.g., Bailey, Kenneth E., Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008) 2830Google Scholar; and Dalman, Gustaf, Sacred Sites and Ways: Studies in the Topography of the Gospels (trans. Levertoff, Paul P.; New York: Macmillan, 1935; Germ. ed. 1924) 41–3Google Scholar.

9 Bell, Aubrey F. G., Francisco Sanchez El Brocense (Hispanic Notes and Monographs 8; Oxford: Oxford University, 1925) 30–1Google Scholar, makes the case that El Brocense was reprimanded instead of being imprisoned because he was under the protection of Pedro de Portocarrero, who later became Grand Inquisitor in 1594. Five days after the latter's death on September 20, 1600, the Inquisition again moved against El Brocense, who died the following December under house arrest at the age of 78.

10 The most thorough recent studies include Bailey, Jesus, extending the observations of Bailey, Kenneth E., ‘The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2.7’, NETR 2 (1979) 3344Google Scholar; and Benoit, Pierre, ‘“Non erat eis locus in diversorio” (Lc 2,7)’, Mélanges bibliques en hommage au R. P. Béda Rigaux (ed. Descamps, Albert and de Halleux, R. P. André; Gembloux: Duculot, 1970) 173–86Google Scholar.

11 A case in point is Trudinger, L. Paul, ‘“No Room in the Inn”: A Note on Luke 2.7’, ExpT 102 (1991) 172–3Google Scholar, who argues that the innkeeper was actually ‘compassionate’ and ‘sensitive’ for turning away the family from a place infested with ‘thieves and cut-throats’. Trudinger did not extrapolate his thesis, however, to the story of the Good Samaritan, who arranged for the beaten traveler to be put up in an inn (Luke 10.25–27).

12 So Danker, Frederick, ‘κατάλυμα’, BDAG (2000) 521Google Scholar: ‘The sense of inn is possible in Lk 2.7, but in 10.34 Lk uses πανδοχεῖον, the more specific term for inn. κ[ατάλυμα] is therefore best understood here as lodging…or guest-room, as in 22.11; Mark 14.13, where the contexts also permit the sense dining-room’ (citations omitted). Also favoring ‘guest-room’ include Fabris, Rinaldo, I Vangeli: Luca (Assisi: Cittadella, 2003) 61Google Scholar: ‘stanza degli ospiti’; Bailey, Jesus, 32–3; Green, Joel B., The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997) 129Google Scholar; Witherington, Ben III, ‘Birth of Jesus’, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992) 6074Google Scholar; and Byrne, Matthew, ‘No Room for the Inn’, Search 2.2 (1982) 3740Google Scholar.

13 So Legrand, L., ‘The Christmas Story in Lk 2.1–7’, ITS 19 (1982) 289317 at 308Google Scholar: ‘the use of the article (the kataluma) implies that the text does not speak of any inn but of a well defined place’.

14 Blass, F., Debrunner, A., and Funk, Robert W. [hereinafter ‘BDF’], A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961) 102 § 189(1)Google Scholar; Robertson, A. T., A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 4th ed. 1923) 541Google Scholar.

15 E.g., Benoit, ‘Non erat’, 184.

16 Noted, e.g., by Bailey, Jesus, 32.

17 Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, new upd. ed. 1993; 1st ed. 1977) 400Google Scholar.

18 Brown, Birth, 400.

19 Brown, Birth, 400, also arguing for the first option: ‘Yet Luke's use of the definite article seems to preclude his referring to a totally unidentified home’.

20 Specifically, Brown, Birth, 400, dispels modern misconceptions about such an inn and appeals to a khan near to Bethlehem mentioned 500 years earlier in Jer 41.17. Other recent scholars supporting the ‘inn’ interpretation include: Miller, Robert J., Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003) 56, 58Google Scholar: ‘travelers’ shelter'; Louw, Johannes P. and Nida, Eugene A., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 2d ed. 1989) 1.82Google Scholar; Goulder, Michael D., Luke: A New Paradigm (JSNTSS 20; Sheffield: Sheffield University, 1989) 253Google Scholar: ‘a single public hostelry for travellers’; and Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Gospel According to Luke (I–IX) (AB 28; New York: Doubleday, 1970) 408Google Scholar: ‘a public caravansary or khan, where groups of travelers would spend the night under one roof’.

21 Brown, Birth, 400.

22 Brown, Birth, 400. Benoit, ‘Non erat’, 185, whom Brown cites, also suggests that it is perhaps wrong (due to our excessive historicizing and psychologizing of this text) for us to want to specify too much what Luke wanted to put there: ‘A côté de cela, le κατάλυμα a peu de poids, et on a peut-être tort de vouloir trop préciser ce qu'il a voulu y mettre’.

23 For a discussion of the distinction between sense and reference, see, e.g., Osborne, Grant R., The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991) 77Google Scholar; and Silva, Moisés, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, rev. ed. 1994) 102–8Google Scholar.

24 See, e.g., Danker, et al. , ‘καταλύω’, BDAG (2000) 521–2Google Scholar. This sense development is hardly unique; in Biblical Aramaic, for example, the verb שׁרא, ‘to loosen’, also means ‘to abide’, as does the Syriac verb .

25 Smyth, Herbert Weir, Greek Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1920) 231–2 § 841Google Scholar; BDF, 58–9 § 109(2).

26 Husson, Geneviève, Oikia: Le vocabulaire de la maison privée en Égypte d'après les papyrus grecs (Papyrologie 2; Paris: Sorbonne, 1983) 133–6Google Scholar. The usage in the Roman period is much less clear, however; it occasionally refers to some kind of agricultural building.

27 Husson, Oikia, 135: ‘c'est le logis où l'on descend, où l'on séjourne pendant quelque temps’.

28 Studies of the Septuagintal usage of κατάλυμα include: Iglesias, Salvador Muñoz, Los Evangelios de la Infancia III: Nacimiento e infancia de Juan y de Jesús en Lucas 1–2 (vol. 3; Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1987) 93Google Scholar; dell'Acqua, Anna Passioni, ‘Ricerche sulla versione dei LXX e i papiri’, Aegyptus 61 (1981) 171211, at 203–5Google Scholar; Benoit, ‘Non erat’, 179–80.

29 The Matthean parallel at 26.18 is even less specific: πρὸς σὲ ποιῶ τὸ πάσχα (‘with you [or, at your house] I will do the Passover’).

30 This is what caused Brown, Birth, 400, to back off from translating κατάλυμα as ‘inn’. Goulder, Luke, 253, on the other hand, merely sees πανδοχεῖον as synonymous.

31 Surveyed by, for example, Benoit, ‘Non erat’, 181 n. 2.

32 The Curetonian manuscript, containing the other Old Syriac version, unfortunately no longer preserves Luke 2.7.

33 Lewis, Charlton T. and Short, Charles, ‘deversorius’, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1879) 565Google Scholar.

34 Tovar and Llorente, Procesos, 52.

35 Lewis and Short, ‘stabulum’, 1749–50.

36 Bailey, Jesus, 32, states that the literal meaning of κατάλυμα is a ‘place to stay’, and then argues that it refers to a guest room. He does not, however, offer a specific translation of 2.7.

37 So McNamara, Elmer A., ‘“Because There Was No Room for Them in the Inn”’, The Ecclesiastical Review 105 (1941) 433–43 at 435–6Google Scholar: ‘That some such inn was meant by St. Luke, is attested to by his use of the definite article with the noun, i.e., there was no room for them in the inn. He supposes the inn was well known, probably because it was public and very likely the only one since Bethlehem was a small town’.

38 See generally, Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996) 215–16Google Scholar; Robertson, Grammar, 684; Smyth, Greek Grammar, 287 at § 1121: ‘The article often takes the place of an unemphatic possessive pronoun when there is no doubt as to the possessor’.

39 E.g., Bovon, François, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1.1–9.50 (trans. Thomas, Christine M.; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) 86Google Scholar; and Brown, Birth, 399.

40 Bovon, Luke, 86: ‘It contradicts the text to say that the parents found no room only for the child and accordingly laid it in a manger; it says there was no room for them, not him’ (italics original). See also Cadbury, Henry J., ‘Lexical Notes on Luke-Acts: III. Luke's Interest in Lodging’, JBL 45 (1926) 305–22 at 318Google Scholar.

41 BDF, Grammar, 102 § 189(1); Robertson, Grammar, 541. Cf. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 149–50; Smyth, Greek Grammar, 341 § 1476. See also Schürmann, Heinz, Das Lukasevangelium (HTKNT 3; Freiburg: Herder, 2d ed. 1969; repr. 1982)Google Scholar 1.105 n. 57.

42 On the use of τόπος to mean ‘room’ or ‘space’ in Luke, see 14.22, ‘And the slave said, Lord, what you have ordered has happened, and there still is room (καὶ ἔτι τόπος ἐστίν)’.

43 Much has been written about the practice of the Roman census; leading treatments include: Llewelyn, New Documents, 112–19; Benoit, P., ‘Quirinius [Recensement de]’, Dictionnaire de la Bible Supplément (vol. 9; Paris: Letouzey & Ané, 1979) 693720Google Scholar; Schürer, Emil, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 b.c.–a.d. 135) (ed. Vermes, Geza and Millar, Fergus; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, English rev. ed. 1973) 1.411–13Google Scholar; Braunert, Horst, ‘Der römische Provinzialzensus und der Schätzungbericht des Lukas-Evangeliums’, Historia 6 (1957): 192214Google Scholar; and Hombert and Préaux, Recherches, 67–70.

44 E.g., Brown, Birth, 396. Also, Green, Luke, 126; and Bock, Darrell L., Luke 1.1–9.50 (BECNT 3A; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994) 204–6Google Scholar.

45 Brown, Birth, 396. Brown, Birth, 549, also warns: ‘It is dangerous to assume that he described a process of registration that would have been patently opposed to everything that he and his readers knew’.

46 It is sometimes argued that the Romans might have accommodated their census practice in Palestine to Jewish customs (e.g. Olshausen, Hermann, Biblical Commentary on the New Testament [vol. 1; trans. Kendrick, A. C.; New York: Sheldon, 1863Google Scholar; orig. German ed. 1830] 237). Even aside from the lack of any affirmative evidence for this particular accommodation, Schürer et al., History, 412, point out that it would have been unworkable.

47 Brown, Birth, 396.

48 The Greek text used for the AV was an edition of the Textus Receptus, which was based on late and inferior manuscripts in the Byzantine textual tradition.

49 Robertson, Grammar, 690. Though Robertson did not also list Luke 2.39 in conjunction with 13.19 and 19.13, the relevance of Robertson's examples to 2.39 has been noticed by Smith, Jay E., ‘1 Thessalonians 4.4: Breaking the Impasse’, BBR 11 (2001) 65105 at 80 n. 65Google Scholar.

50 Another example of exegetical inertia in Brown's argument is his use of the term ‘returning’. That rendering is also fine for the Textus Receptus, which read ὑπέστρεψαν, ‘they returned’, instead of the blander ἐπέστρεψαν, ‘they went back’, in accordance with the best manuscripts and the Nestle-Aland critical text of the NT.

51 Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary, 376 (cited in n.6); Green, Luke, 129: ‘Mary and Joseph, then, would have been the guests of family or friends’.

52 There is also much literature on ancient Jewish marriage customs. Some of the most useful modern treatments include: Satlow, Michael L., Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University, 2001)Google Scholar; Ilan, Tal, ‘Premarital Cohabitation in Ancient Judea: The Evidence of the Babatha Archive and the Mishna (Ketubbot 1.4)’, HTR 86 (1993) 247–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Archer, Léonie J., Her Price is Beyond Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine (JSOTSS 60; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1990)Google Scholar. Roman marriage practices were generally similar in this respect except that it was easier to break off the engagement. See generally, Treggiari, Susan, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991)Google Scholar.

53 The clearest recognition of this aspect of the Lukan infancy account I could find is Box, G. H., The Virgin Birth of Jesus: A Critical Examination of the Gospel-Narratives of the Nativity, and Other New Testament and Early Christian Evidence, and the Alleged Influence of Heathen Ideas (London: Pitman, 1916) 214Google Scholar: ‘If Joseph's home was in Bethlehem, by taking Mary, his betrothed, with him when he left Nazareth for his home-town, he was performing the central and public act which proclaimed the marriage’.

54 E.g., Bock, Luke, 205: ‘It does not suggest that Mary is not yet married to Joseph, since this trip in a betrothal situation would be unlikely’. Marshall, Luke, 105: ‘it is unlikely that she would have accompanied Joseph had she been merely betrothed to him’. Schmid, Josef, Das Evangelium nach Lukas (RNT 3; Regensburg: Pustet, 1960) 65Google Scholar: ‘Wäre Maria in diesem Zeitpunkt erst (gegen Mt 1, 24) die Verlobte Josephs gewesen, so wäre es ein grober Verstoß gegen die Sitte gewesen, wenn er mit ihr zusammen nach Bethlehem gereist wäre und dort mit ihr zusammenwohnt hätte’. Plummer, Luke, 53: ‘Had she been only his betrothed (i. 27; Mt. i. 18), their travelling together would have been impossible’. None of these commentators adduce any evidence for their claims.

55 Archer, Price, 197–8; and Satlow, Jewish Marriage, 150–1.

56 This may be another case of exegetical inertia. Both the Textus Receptus and the Vulgate read the apparently contradictory ‘betrothed wife’ in Luke 2.5 (τῇ μεμνηστευμένῃ… γυναικί and desponsatauxore, respectively), which had prompted many exegetes to weaken the force of ‘betrothed’.

57 E.g, Bock, Luke, 206; Schmid, Lukas, 65; Leaney, A. R. C., A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke (HNTC; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) 23Google Scholar; Lattey, Cuthbertus, ‘“Ad Virginem desponsatam viro” (Lc 1,27)’, VD 30 (1952) 3033 at 32Google Scholar; and Lagrange, M.-J., Évangile selon Saint Luc (Paris: Lecoffre, 8th ed. 1948) 70Google Scholar.

58 Schaberg, Jane, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 91Google Scholar.

59 Brown, Birth, 397.

60 Fitzmyer, Luke, 407.

61 Times have changed. Now, many couples prefer to honeymoon in hotels.

62 See generally, Ilan, Tal, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995) 116–19Google Scholar; Levin, S., ‘Obstetrics in the Bible’, Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Empire 67 (1960) 490–8CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and de Vaux, Roland, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (trans. McHugh, John; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961; French orig. 1957) 42–3Google Scholar. For childbirth in Greco-Roman contexts, see also French, Valerie, ‘Midwives and Maternity Care in the Roman World’, Rescuing Creusa: New Methodological Approaches to Women in Antiquity (ed. Skinner, Marilyn; Helios ns 13/2; Lubbock: Texas Tech University, 1987) 6984Google Scholar.

63 Bailey, Jesus, 26; and Levin, ‘Obstretics’, 494. This was still true well into twentieth-century Palestine; see Granqvist, Hilma, Birth and Childhood among the Arabs: Studies in a Muhammadan Village in Palestine (Helsinki: Söderström, 1947) 56–8Google Scholar. Even the Protevangelium of James 18.1, which recounts a miraculous birth for Jesus, includes a midwife.

64 Discussed by, for example, Bailey, Jesus, 28–31; and Dalman, Sacred Sites, 41.

65 Safrai, Jonathan, ‘Home and Family’, The Jewish People in the First Century (ed. Safrai, Samuel et al. ; CRINT 1/2; Assen: Van Gorcum, 1976) 730–31Google Scholar (footnotes omitted).

66 Cf. Büchler, A., ‘The Induction of the Bride and the Bridegroom into the חופה in the First and Second Centuries in Palestine’, Livre d'hommage à la mémoire du Dr Samuel Poznański (Warsaw, 1927) 82132Google Scholar, who argues that such a marital room built for the bridegroom corresponded to the חופה (chuppah) in its first- and second-century guise.