In various and sundry English translations of the New Testament, we find an interesting word at the end of Luke 2.7. The verse reads: “…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The inn? The Greek word used here for “inn” is καταλυμα. Further on in Luke’s book, at 10.34 to be precise, in most English translations the word “inn” is used again. The NIV reads: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. The he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an ‘inn’ and took care of him.” Normally, we would expect that if we looked at the Greek here, we would find that previous term, καταλυμα, but that’s not the case. The word here is πανδοχειον.
The question arises then: Is there a difference between a καταλυμα and a πανδοχειον? Actually, yes there is! A πανδοχειον really was an ancient inn. The lexicons define it as a place that “receives all”; that’s literally what the term means. Perhaps a look at one more passage in Luke’s work will shed some more light on the topic at hand. Luke 22.11 says, “…the Teacher asks: ‘Where is the ‘guest room,’ where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” The term used in 22.11 for ‘guest room’ is καταλυμα. As we’ve seen, a πανδοχειον is actually an inn while a καταλυμα is the guest room of someone’s home. So, Luke reports Jesus here as going into the guest room of a house to eat The Last Supper.
It is quite interesting, then, that in both 2.7 and 22.11 the word is καταλυμα, yet the English translations render this one word differently. In my estimation we should either use the word “inn” in both places or the word “guest room” in both places. And since the word does not mean “inn” (again, Luke is perfectly fine using a different word for this term), “guest room” is our best option. I mean, it kind of ruins The Last Supper story if we try to import πανδοχειον into it. It would read: “…The Teacher asks: ‘Where is the inn, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”
However, if we take “inn” out of 2.7 and use the original, more fitting “guest room,” in context the story makes a lot of sense: “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest room.”
Think about this: Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a huge town. Some argue that in Jesus’ day, there were maybe 5 or 6 hundred people in the town proper; that’s not a lot. Others have been a little more generous on the numerical side suggesting that maybe 2,000 made up the town. Either way, the fact is, Bethlehem wasn’t that large of a town and so, there wasn’t much need for a hotel there. Archeology has yet to uncover any such thing either. So, we can reasonably conclude that there was not an inn there. As a kind of side note we might also refer to the writing of the prophet Jeremiah (41.14) who says that there was an inn miles outside of Bethlehem but not in the town itself. (See also 2 Sam 19.37-40). The point is, there was no inn in Bethlehem. There was a καταλυμα, however. In fact, there were probably quite a few of these—guest rooms that is!
Furthermore, when Luke talks about having the Passover meal in the guest room of a home, he of course, expects his ancient hearers to be able to relate (they would have been familiar with what a house containing a καταλυμα looked like, usually a two story house where the guest room was on the top floor). Let us consider another piece of evidence. If Joseph was going to his hometown, Bethlehem, it is practically unthinkable that in the ancient world, someone from his town would have turned him away. This would have brought shame upon that household. Even more, to turn away a pregnant woman would have been that much more shameful. Nobody would have done this, especially if, as I said, it was Joseph’s hometown. Moreover, this being Joseph’s hometown, if he had bypassed his family’s home or the homes of relatives to try to stay at an inn (with a pregnant wife), he would have been looked upon with shame by his family. Joseph would not have done this!
So, the evidence (textual, contextual and archeological) suggests that when Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem for the census, it was the “guest room” of his family’s home that had no room—this probably because everyone else had traveled there to register too. Since the guest room was full, Joseph and Mary would have slept downstairs in what we might consider a living room. This comports really well with how the birth narrative plays out. In Matthew 5.15, we read, “…if you put a lamp on a stand it gives light to all who are in the house.” This gives us a good image of what the downstairs portion of the ancient home was set up like. The living room was one big, open room and it was often separated from the kitchen / cooking portion of the home by a step (that is, the living room was a bit lower than the cooking room.
Here’s something else to consider: the animals often stayed in the living room portion of the home. Troughs and mangers were built into the floor. Often times these mangers also acted as partitions between rooms. In antiquity people brought their animals in at night so they wouldn’t get stolen. Just as well, in Jesus’ culture, to leave animals in the house during the day was unacceptable, so, they brought them back outside in the morning (by the way, this is how Jesus knows that the donkeys will be outside and can thus, tell His disciples to go and get them - Lk. 19.30). In the winter, this was actually quite helpful for heating the house as the larger animals put off much heat. So, in all likelihood, this bottom room of Joseph’s family’s home is where Jesus was laid in a manger (a manger which was readily available).
Thus, there was no inn at Bethlehem that Jesus was turned away from. Instead, there was not space in the guest room of the family’s home. This tells us that there were other family members there already, most likely, including other women. It is speculation but given the cultural norms, these women probably helped Mary birth Jesus. One last piece of evidence is in order. When you read on in Luke’s narrative, at 2.21-22 he writes this: “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise Him, He was named Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before He had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord.” Now, this is based off of Leviticus 12.2-4 which says that after giving birth, a woman could not go to the temple for 33 days—this was to ensure her cleanliness and purity. If you add 8 days to 33, you get 41. 41 days is a lot of time, about a month and a half. Joseph and Mary, then, were planning to stay a long time, not just a few days. Thus, it seems that they would have not tried staying in a hotel (think of the cost!) but with family who lived in that town. Besides, in that culture, this would have only been expected.
Hope this sheds some light on the subject for you!