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No Room in the Inn — What Inn?

Dwight Longenecker at The Imaginative Conservative

Photo by Walter Chávez / Unsplash

The typical re-telling of the Christmas story has Joseph, Mary and the donkey arriving in Bethlehem on a cold, winter night looking for a place to stay. All the hotels have “No Vacancy” signs on display because so many people, like Mary and Joseph, have traveled to Bethlehem to register for the census.

A grumpy innkeeper turns them away, but on second thought says if they want they can shelter in the stables. By now Mary is experiencing contractions and desperate for a place where she can give birth, Joseph finds a makeshift shelter in a drafty shed with the donkeys and oxen. He fills a rickety wooden feeding trough with straw to make a crib for the newborn, and when baby Jesus arrives he is wrapped tightly in strips of cloth and laid in the manger bed.

Is that how it happened? No, not really, and yes, but not quite. Was there an inn in Bethlehem? Probably not, as it was such a small village. Where did travelers stay in those times? In her study of travel in the ancient world Sabine Huebner records that along the official Roman roads, spaced  about ten miles apart, there was a network of relay stations called mutationes. The relay stations were places to change horses and pack animals.

Spaced about 25 miles apart were mansiones—guesthouses that offered free accommodation for officially sanctioned guests.[1] In addition to the official mansiones there were also public hostelries. St Luke uses the Greek word pandocheion for this kind of inn in the story of the good Samaritan.[2] “These inns, also called katagōgia in Greek, were located along the main transport routes and were often found on the outskirts of cities or larger villages. [3] They provided travelers from the lower social strata with cheap, hot meals and basic accommodation. Pandocheia were widely viewed as disreputable by ancient authors.”[4] Huebner goes on to explain how these inns were known for “drunken guests, adulterated wine, brawls, theft and prostitution.” [5] Quoting classical authors of the time she says, “It was not uncommon for a landlord’s daughter to sell her body as well as wine and a hot meal to travelers.”[6]

Because of Bethlehem’s small size, it would not have included a safe and official mansione which were only located on the main Roman roads, and were only available to travelers on official imperial business. If Bethlehem did have a more basic hostelry—given the reputation of the pandocheia, it would not have been a likely place for St Joseph, a just and righteous man,[7] to have sought shelter for his betrothed and pregnant young wife.

Furthermore, Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. Clan loyalty and generous hospitality is a hallmark of Middle Eastern culture.[8] Providing lodging for travelers became one of the characteristic ideals of the Jewish people. [9] Given the Middle East’s strong culture of hospitality and loyalty to family members, Joseph would have naturally sought shelter with family—not in some squalid brothel/tavern.

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