(Originally published December 2015)
Perhaps like me you were drawn in by several articles this Advent season claiming we have gotten several details wrong in the Christmas story. There was this article at TGC, this one at Answers in Genesis, and this chapter by Kenneth Bailey all taking issue with the phrase “because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Now, hold on. Put the nativity set down. Don’t throw the inn in the garbage just yet. In the above mentioned pieces, they argue that the Greek word in Luke 2:7 καταλυμα only appears two other places in the New Testament–Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11. These two stories use the word to refer to a guest room–the famed “Upper Room” of the Last Supper.
Additionally, they argue that Luke uses a different word for “inn” in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which must mean that in Luke 2:7, he intends something more like a guest room in a family home. Rather than picturing Mary and Joseph wandering the streets, turned away from the town inn, we should see them dwelling in some kind of caged area below the floor of a family member’s home.
What about the Old Testament?
That’s all well and fine. But did anyone think to ask the Septuagint? The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and it can often provide helpful hints on rare words in the NT. I’m not going to pretend to be as smart as those who wrote the above articles, but I do know how to run a search on the Old Testament Septuagint. Turns out καταλυμα appears a whopping ELEVEN times in the Old Testament. Interestingly, none of this is discussed in the revelatory pieces cited above.
Below are all eleven occurrences of the word. My point is not to prove that Luke 2:7 has to be translated “inn” or that it couldn’t actually be a guest room. The point from these passages below is that it is quite reasonable to leave your nativity scene as it is–inn and all. What is apparent is that this word indicated a temporary intermediate dwelling place, particularly when on a long journey.
Exodus 4:24–“At a lodging place (καταλυματα) on the way the LORD met [Moses] and sought to put him to death.” [Moses is on a journey back to Egypt from Midian, probably not staying with relatives…]
Exodus 15:13–“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode (καταλυματα)”
1 Samuel 1:18-19–“And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then [Hannah] went her way and entered into her lodging place (καταλυματα) and ate, and her face was no longer sad.  They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her.” [Hannah and her family were staying at some sort of lodging place while on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year.]
1 Samuel 9:22–Then Samuel took Saul and his young man and brought them into the hall (καταλυματα) and gave them a place at the head of those who had been invited, who were about thirty persons.”
2 Samuel 7:6–“I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a lodging place (καταλυματα) and in a tent.” [The lodging place of the Lord in the wilderness is a temporary night’s stay kind of dwelling.]
1 Chronicles 17:5–“For I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up Israel to this day, but I have been in a tent and a lodging place (καταλυματα)”
1 Chronicles 28:11-13–“Then David gave Solomon his son the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat;  and the plan of all that he had in mind for the courts of the house of the LORD, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts;  and the lodging places (καταλυματων) of the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, for all the work of the service in the house of the LORD; for all the vessels for the service in the house of the LORD,” [The priests would come to Jerusalem to perform their duties and would need a lodging place to stay, a barracks of some sort, while doing their rotation.]
Jeremiah 14:8–“O you hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to a lodging place (καταλυματα)?” [This one speaks for itself.]
Jeremiah 32:38 (25:38 ESV)–“Like a lion he has left his lair (καταλυμα), for their land has become a waste because of the sword of the oppressor, and because of his fierce anger.”
Jeremiah 40:12 (33:12 ESV)–“Thus says the LORD of hosts: In this place that is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be lodging places (καταλυματα) of shepherds resting their flocks.” [Shepherds make temporary dwelling places and encampments from night to night. Again, not staying at family homes with relatives.]
Ezekiel 23:21–“Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, which you did in Egypt in your lodging place (καταλύματί)…”
First, the numerous occurrences in the Old Testament Septuagint, none of them give indications to translate the word καταλύμα as “guest room”. This doesn’t mean it can’t be, but I certainly wouldn’t put “guest room” as a primary definition.
Second, it is very reasonable to understand the word to mean an inn, or more generally as a place for travelers to stay.
The major issue I take with the insistence upon “guest room” is that it makes the word καταλύμα necessarily specific when it is clear from usage that it is more general. Perhaps Luke used καταλύμα because he did not want to draw unnecessary attention to where they were staying. His emphasis in the chapter seems to rather be upon where Jesus was lying–in a manger (φατνη), a detail mentioned specifically three times in Luke 2.
But that’s for another article.