No room for the inn

  • A talk on inns in the Bible
  • based on Luke 10.25-37. The Good Samaritan. Luke  9.1-6. Jesus sends out the Twelve.


The Old Bull at Inkberrow


The Old Bull at Inkberrow, Worcestershire

I thought we’d have a talk on inns. I mentioned this to one of our church members a couple of weeks ago and he said, “Great – have you got any recommendations?” Well, we were in the Worcestershire countryside at Inkberrow. We drove round the village green and came across the Old Bull Inn – a quintessential English pub.

  • What we didn’t know, until we walked in, is that Inkberrow, as a typical village of Middle England, was used as the model for ‘Ambridge’ in the long-running BBC radio series ‘The Archers’. And the ‘Old Bull’ is the village inn on which ‘The Bull’ at ‘Ambridge’ was based.
  • When we read the word ‘inn’ in the Bible, the image that comes to mind is ‘The Bull’ at Ambridge, or our own local pub; all very English. Many traditional Christmas cards show a Georgian coaching inn complete with stable yard and the post coach leaving for London.
  • The problem comes when we take these cosy images of 18th century English country life, and then transpose them back into the Middle Eastern landscape of 1st century Palestine. The result is an anachronism where we imagine Mary and Joseph arriving at a typical English village pub in Bethlehem, and because there’s ‘no room in the inn’, Jesus is born in the stable at the rear.
  • But this image is pure make-believe. If we look closely at what the original Greek actually says in Luke 2 v.7. it tells us that there was ‘no room in the kataluma’which means the guest chamber, notthe inn’. It’s the same word that Luke uses in Luke 22 v.11. to describe the ‘upper room’ used for the Last Supper. Jesus says to the disciples he is sending into Jerusalem, “tell the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with my followers?’”
  • And, of course, you won’t find any reference to a “stable” in Luke’s account. He tells us that Mary used a ‘manger’ - an animals’ feeding trough – as a makeshift crib, but there’s no suggestion of a stable and no mention of any animals!


The star of BethlehemA star marks the place where Jesus was born
in a cave below the Church of the Nativity

The truth is that a kataluma was exactly that – a guest room – probably in the home of Joseph’s parents, who lived in Bethlehem. And as the guest room was full – possibly because other family members were already lodging there – Mary and Joseph used the only available space – maybe a cave room at the rear where a few domestic animals were kept overnight.

  • Quite sensibly, someone suggested to me that, while kataluma might well mean a guest room, couldn’t it have been the guest room in an inn?
  • Well, linguistically, that’s possible. But, culturally, geographically and historically, it’s all wrong! If Jesus was born in an inn in Bethlehem, then it was the one and only time in his entire life that he ever stayed in an inn! Look carefully at the New Testament, and you’ll discover that Jesus and his disciples – although they were constantly on the move from village to village and town to town never once stayed in an inn.
  • Jesus always stayed in the home of someone eager to hear his message. He stayed with Simon Peter and his family in Capernaum (Mark 1.29-34); with Zacchaeus the tax collector in Jericho (Luke 19.5); with Levi the customs officer in Bethsaida (Mark 2.15); at the home of a secret follower in Tyre (Mark 7.24); and with Simon the Leper (Mark 14.3) and Mary and Martha at Bethany (John 12.1-2) when he was visiting Jerusalem.
  • The same is true of the disciples – Peter and Paul, for example – who clocked up thousands of miles of missionary journeys between them never once stayed in an inn! Look closely and you’ll see that they always stayed in people’s homes. Peter stayed at the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa (Acts 9.43), then stayed with Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, in Caesarea - the Roman capital city of Palestine (Acts 10.48).
  • Paul stayed with Aquilla and Priscilla for several months in Corinth (Acts 18.3) and later for two years in Ephesus after they’d moved there (Acts 18.19-21 & 1 Corinthians 16.19). He stayed in the home of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16.15), and then at Gaius’s home in Corinth (Romans 16.23). At Antioch, his ‘home church’, he always stayed with Jewish Christian friends (Acts 14.28); while at Colossi, he asked Philemon to ‘prepare a guest room for me’ in anticipation of his visit (Philemon v.22).
  • The whole point is, if you read the Bible in its 1st century context, the suggestion that Mary and Joseph arrived at an ‘inn’ in Bethlehem is really quite silly – as there weren’t any inns in Bethlehem at that time. Ordinary people didn’t stay in ‘inns’; they stayed in the homes of other ordinary people. It was the custom to offer hospitality to travellers, and to listen to ‘travellers’ tales’ was a good way of livening up the evening.
  • Indeed, it is still the custom to offer hospitality to travellers in the Middle East. And in more remote places where travellers are rare, families will almost fight for the privilege of accommodating travellers overnight. In his book ‘Among the Mountains’ the explorer Wilfred Thesiger wrote, “ Time and again these villagers pressed me to stop and drink tea, and towards evening many people working in the fields shouted out to us as we passed, inviting us to spend the night with them.” This was the 1950s, but Jewish society in Jesus’s day was not dissimilar. And interestingly, the few cows, sheep and goats in these Afghan villages were always taken inside the house overnight, as it was too cold for them outdoors.
  • So, in Jesus’s day, ordinary people simply didn’t stay at ‘inns’. They stayed overnight in other people’s homes –  for free. The owner of the house would, indeed, have been most offended if anyone had suggested any sort of payment. Entertaining was a duty and a privilege, and the interesting conversation would have been regarded as ample reward.
  • So, when I came to prepare this talk on ‘Inns in the Bible’, I had an immediate problem: To be blunt - there aren’t any! And before you rush off to get your concordance to check, I can tell you that my copy of Cruden’s Concordance –which is a genuine Victorian artefact based on the King James Version – lists just two instances of the word ‘inn’ in the New Testament.


Beside the road from Jerusalem to Jericho



Beside the road leading down
from Jerusalem to Jericho


  • There’s the supposed ‘inn’ in Bethlehem in Luke’s account of the Nativity of Jesus (Luke 2.7); and the ‘inn’ in Jesus’s story of the ‘Good Samaritan’  – to which we’ll come shortly (Luke 10.34). Cruden’s Concordance also lists 3 ‘inns’ in the King James Version of the Old Testament, but thankfully, modern translaters have realised that Joseph’s brothers didn’t stay in an ‘inn’ on their way to and from Egypt, so the passages in Genesis 42 and 43 now talk about the place “where they stopped for the night” (Genesis 42.27 & 43.21); while Moses, on his way to see Pharoah in Egypt, stayed overnight “at a resting place” (Exodus 4.24).
  • Which brings us to our Bible reading from Luke 9. v.1-6 where Jesus sends out his twelve disciples into the surrounding villages and gives them appropriate instructions – a sort of ‘heath and safety’ check. Jesus says to them, “Take nothing for your trip, neither a walking stick, bag, bread, money or extra clothes. When you enter a house, stay there until it is time to leave.” (Luke 9,3-4) The problem is, because we’re accustomed to thinking in 21st century Western ways, we get the ‘wrong end of the stick’. We think Jesus is saying something profoundly new – because it is radically different to us.
  • But, in fact, what Jesus is saying is just common sense and the ‘expected norm’ in the 1st century culture of the Middle East. It was polite – the ‘done thing’ – to stay in the same house until you moved on; and anything less was seen as an insult to the owner who had offered you hospitality.
  • We, mistakenly, see the instruction to ‘take nothing with you’ as an act of great self-deprivation. But, to be realistic, saying ‘don’t flaunt your wealth’ was just as good advice then as it is now. Jesus is simply saying, “If you flaunt it, you’ll lose it. Don’t take any money with you - (a) because you don’t need it – someone will readily provide you with a meal and a bed overnight – it’s the ‘done thing’, and (b) if you do take valuables with you, then you’re an obvious target for thieves along the road.”
  • Which brings us to Jesus’s story of the ‘Good Samaritan’. I want to point out one or two things that we often misinterpret because we don’t understand the 1st century culture.
  • The first point is that the story was aimed at the wealthy and influential individuals in 1st century Jewish society – not at ordinary people. The priest and the levite (both of whom worked in the Temple at Jerusalem were the wealthy religious elite of his day. By shaming them in his story, Jesus was clearly attacking the religious hierarchy of his day. In effect, Jesus is saying to the wealthy Jews among his listeners, exactly the same message that Isaiah and Jeremiah put across in the Old Testament: ‘This is what you should be doing with your wealth – don’t just walk away - help those who are in need.’
  • The second point is that the ‘hero’ of the story - the Samaritan who helped the victim who had been robbed and beaten up - was not only a hated foreigner but he was also a wealthy foreigner. He had his own donkey - which was expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. Donkeys were used as pack animals – they were the juggernaut trucks of the day. So he was probably a wealthy merchant – after all, he was some distance from his home in Samaria and was travelling the trade route from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and across the Jordan to the exotic lands of the East.


Mehmet Pasha Caravanserai at Kusadasi





Caravanserai in Kusadasi, Turkey

  • And the third point is that he stayed in an ‘inn’ – Well, not exactly an ‘inn’ as we would picture it. Not like the ‘Old Bull’ at Inkberrow. Luke uses the Greek word ‘pandochea’ – a ‘public inn’ – which is better translated as a ‘caravanserai’. Now caravanserais were the exclusive haunt of wealthy merchants who travelled in armed caravans for safety – to protect themselves against just the sort of robber that Jesus described in his parable. These merchants had all sorts of expensive merchandise on their pack animals – and, overnight, they needed a walled and well-defended compound in which to tether their donkeys or camels. All of which came at a price – When the Samaritan left the wounded man in the care of the caravanserai, he gave the owner 2 silver denarii – the equivalent of two day’s wages. So he was well off!
  • So there we have it – ‘Inns in the Bible’; or should this little talk be called ‘The only ‘inn’ in the Bible’ ? Or even, perhaps ‘No room for the inn?’

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