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2015 Abstracts

An Improbable Inn: Texts and Traditions Surrounding Luke 2:7

Andy Mickelson, Brigham Young University


The infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke is one of the most popular passages of Christian scripture: the story of Jesus’ birth has been recited and depicted in Christmas celebrations for centuries. Yet modern readers are far removed in time, language, and culture from the first-century world in which Luke was composed. Because of this distance, our traditional understanding of this text may differ from what Luke intended to convey. One particular misunderstanding of the text centers on an ambiguous Greek term used in Luke 2:7. Most English translations of this verse state that Mary, after delivering Jesus, “laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” However, the term translated as “inn” in this passage—κατάλυμα—had a wide variety of meanings in Hellenistic Greek. Even within Luke itself the term is translated differently: the “upper room” in which Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples is, in Greek, a κατάλυμα (Luke 22:11). Properly understanding κατάλυμα profoundly impacts how we read Luke’s infancy narrative: were Mary and Joseph turned away from a crowded inn on the eve of her delivery? Or does a nuanced translation of κατάλυμα change the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?This paper philologically examines how κατάλυμα is used by other Hellenistic Greek authors: Xenophon, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and others. Their writings created the literary milieu in which the Gospel of Luke was composed; their use of this term may have influenced Luke as he crafted his account. Based on this philological context, κατάλυμα here most likely means “guest room,” and infers that Joseph and Mary were staying with another family (possibly relatives) in Bethlehem. This reading, though nontraditional, brings us closer to approaching the text as Luke’s original audience would have understood it.