Was the Bethlehem Innkeeper a Schmuck?
By Nathan E. Jones
How astounding that nearly 700 years before Jesus was born the Prophet Micah (5:2) prophesied the exact city the Messiah would be born in — Bethlehem Ephrathah! Every Christmas I read the wonderful story of that little town, but am always puzzled by the infamous inn. Luke 2:1-7 reads:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem… He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 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. (NIV)
What irony that the King of kings was turned away by the little town of Bethlehem’s local establishment! Certainly the unnamed innkeeper didn’t know the Messiah had just shown up at his doorstep, but what kind of person turns away a woman giving birth? Sure, the inn could have been filled to capacity, but could anyone be so heartless? Was the innkeeper, to use a Jewish colloquialism, a schmuck?
The Scriptures are silent about there even being an innkeeper, but we can assume an inn must have one. The bible is also silent about the character of this person. To track down just what kind of man or woman this was, the character of the innkeeper can be determined based on the definition of what an inn was in Bible times.
1) If the inn was a hotel, the Innkeeper was a schmuck.
Ask any Westerner to picture an inn and they’ll most likely describe a building with 10-100 cube-like rooms all tended by a front desk person who supplies coarse towels and magnetic swipe cards. This could have been what the Bethlehem inn was like (minus the cards), for Jesus describes a similar inn while telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.
If the Bethlehem inn was this type of hotel, then the innkeeper was indeed a schmuck. Even if he actually did not have any rooms available, he must have had at least a private room he could have lent to a poor young woman deep in the pangs of labor. Maybe he heard Joseph’s Galilean accent begging for mercy and a bit of prejudice crept into the innkeeper’s thinking. Nevertheless, the cretin sent the poor family away to retreat to an open stable filled with smelly animals in order to give birth to their first child. Great guy!
2) If the inn was a house, the Innkeeper was indifferent.
Because the Greek word for “inn” in Luke 2:7 is kataluma, a Western-style hotel was most likely not the setting for Bethlehem’s inn. Kataluma has a number of meanings. One in particular is used of the Upper Room where the Last Supper was held. If this is a truer description of a Bible-times inn, then it was not a hotel, but a private residence. Families were all returning to their ancestral homes due to the census, so the kataluma could very well have been Joseph’s own extended family’s house and the innkeeper the patriarch.
Family town homes in Jesus’ day consisted of two-story structures. The family slept in the large upper room while the animals were brought onto the lower floor for heat and protection. That there was no room in the inn could well have meant that Joseph’s extended family were all occupying the upper room, leaving Mary to give birth downstairs among the animals. If this is the true scenario, then Joseph’s family were the real schmucks for not giving up some space upstairs and the patriarch innkeeper was merely indifferent to the dire needs of yet another extended family member crowding his home.
3) If the inn was a courtyard, the Innkeeper was generous and shrewd.
Although kataluma could mean an upper room of a house, in essence it is defined as “a loosing down place.” Such places were widely known throughout the middle east as caravan rest stops. This type of inn would have been more like a campground surrounded by a stone wall that incorporated stall slots and provided areas to pitch tents.
If the Bethlehem inn was such a campground, then the thought of Mary giving birth out there in the open among the crowds of tents would have been just awful for any woman to contemplate. The innkeeper would have been sensitive to this lack of privacy and generously moved Mary far up into the hills to the caves where he kept his animals. This also would have made the innkeeper shrewd because he could still make a little extra money renting out his personal stable, the mark of a true Jewish businessman.
That the inn was a courtyard is the most likely scenario out of the three possibilities, for the hills of Bethlehem are filled with limestone caves. Justin Martyr in the 2nd Century AD stated that Jesus was born in one of those caves and Emperor Constantine built the Church of the Nativity over the widely accepted cave.
Since the historicity of the Bethlehem inn was most likely a courtyard, then the benefit of the doubt can be given to the innkeeper. History can go easy on this person for generously giving Mary the seclusion she would greatly desire.
The verdict? The label, schmuck, should not be granted to the innkeeper.
The story is a terrific reminder that we need to be prepared when the Lord sends our way a chance to serve those in need, or we may miss out on one of God’s amazing Christmas miracles.