Posted by: alisonwalley | 7 December 2009

No room at the inn

So here we are in the run up to Christmas again. I’ve already been to two carol services, but that’s not much – I have a friend who has totalled five so far between the school where she teaches, her children’s school and church. As to how many our pastor is going to be taking, I don’t like to think!

For most of us brought up in the Christian tradition, the Christmas story is one that we do know well. And when you know a story well there’s always the temptation to skip over it. But the trouble about Christmas is that it’s had so many bits added. And I’m not talking about Santa and his elves here.

Ask a group of children about the Christmas story:

  • Who came to see baby Jesus?
  • How did Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem?
  • How many wise men were there?

Did we get ‘shepherds and kings’, ‘donkey’ and ‘three’ there? Shepherds, yes, but where are the other words in the Bible story? (OK I know there were three gifts, but there might have been more than three magi.)

And we all know that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, don’t we? Actually… the scholarly consensus seems to be coming round to the view that it doesn’t quite mean that. I see that the Today’s New International Version translates the verse in Luke differently: “Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

After living in the Middle East I was never convinced about our nativity play depictions of the unkind innkeeper turning Joseph and Mary away. This was Joseph’s ancestral town and in that culture you don’t turn family away. No, the word for ‘inn’ is more likely to mean the special room (usually on the roof of the house) reserved for guests, as indicated by the TNIV translation. This was already occupied, so Joseph and Mary had to share the family room, which would have had a raised part for people at one end, and the animals in the other half, with the animal feeding troughs in between.

In a way, it doesn’t matter. But to my mind, the difference is how very ordinary Jesus’ birth is. Not in a special room, in the everyday room, in the way hundreds of babies would have been born. An ordinary birth for a very special baby.

Let’s look again at what the Bible says about Jesus’ birth this Christmas and praise God he sent his Son as one of us.



  1. This is fascinating! Thank you so much! It makes a lot of sense, but still a difficult situation for a young woman giving birth, or certainly difficult by our standards. I imagine cloths hung up for privacy, a midwife called, the women of the house shooing the men out. (Where did they go? To the 1st century equivalent of the pub?)

    As you can see, my imagination is running riot…

    Thank you for a most interesting post.

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