Thanks to the guiding wisdom of my teacher, Brother Francis, I have a strong disdain for modern biblical criticism. Initiated by eighteenth century Protestant rationalists, such as Eichorn and Schleiermacher, this school of skeptics for two centuries now have been on a mission to reduce the Bible to a discontinuous collection of moral aphorisms, historical fabrications, and myths. Pope Leo XIII condemned secular biblical scholarship divorced from the virtue of Faith in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus as did his successor Saint Pius X in Pascendi, his encyclical against the modernists. Textual criticism, however, when applied by knowledgeable Catholic scholars with piety and reverence, can enrich our appreciation of and knowledge of the sacred scriptures, especially when it comes to history, culture, language (and idiom) and also the personality of the writer whom God inspired.
Apropos of this healthy type of biblical exegesis I’d like to offer some considerations on the Bethlehem account of there being “no room in the inn” for the Holy Family at the Nativity. My reason for doing so is that I came across an article whose author suggested that the English word “inn” conveys an inaccurate impression of the Bethlehem story. He opted that the word Saint Luke uses in the inspired Greek, katalumaton (diversorium, in Latin), does not mean an “inn,” as in a hostel, but a separate room (or rooms) in a house reserved for guests. Interesting point. He then pointed out that a stable, such as that wherein was the manger that cradled the Baby Jesus, was, in a typical rural Judean home, adjacent to the house. Not only farmers and shepherds, but craftsmen as well, would raise at least some animals for domestic use and shelter them in a stable. So, in writing this column I am assuming that the author is correct about these two points.
We know from Saint Matthew’s Gospel that Saint Joseph was from Bethlehem. We know, too, that he was of the royal house of David. Mary knew his genealogy and provided it, and her own, for Saint Matthew and Saint Luke as recorded in their Gospels. Now Saint Joseph, being the most provident of men, would have had an appropriate place in mind for his pregnant wife to stay in Bethlehem, since her time for delivery was near at hand. There were no “inns,” as we are familiar with, in existence at that time except in the larger cities, like Jerusalem. And, according to Abbot Guiseppe Ricciotti, in his Life of Christ, these inns were often more like open air bazaars, with blankets for walls and not much privacy. Once a year, at the feast of Tabernacles, for example, the Jews would move out of their homes and live outdoors for seven days in these temporary abodes to celebrate the wandering of the twelve tribes in the desert. Tabernacle, literally, means “tent.”
Saint Luke was inspired to use a different Greek word for what would be equivalent to a hospice, or lodging place, in his rendering of the parable of the Good Samaritan. “And [a certain Samaritan] going up to [the man beaten near to death by robbers], bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine: and setting him upon his own beast, brought him to an inn (pandokeion, stabula in Latin), and took care of him (Luke 10:35).
On the other hand, there is a strong tradition that the Savior was born in a cave, which was used as a stable. This tradition is found in the writings of Justin Martyr and Origen, in the relations of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, in Saint Jerome (Letter 58, to Paulinus, Chapter 3, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers), and in the works of many other fathers and doctors. A particularly befitting tradition is that the cave wherein Jesus was born was part of the ruins of the royal residence of King David. Saint Luke tells us: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David” (Luke 2:4).
My own opinion — at least for now — is that Saint Joseph had a destination in mind when he left with Mary to register for Caesar’s census in Bethlehem. Shall we say, ‘Joseph knew the town.’ Perhaps, too, he knew the owner of this place of lodging, this house? Since he had to leave Nazareth quickly, for it was a long journey to Bethlehem — taking at least three days — there was no time to send a messenger and “reserve a room.” When the Holy Family arrived, the guest rooms were already taken. I see no reason to portray the innkeeper as inconsiderate (scripture does not), but rather that he was no doubt embarrassed, especially if he was a relative or friend of Saint Joseph.
Notice in the above paragraph that I have suggested that the inn may have been a “house.” Here is why I suggest that.
As I’m sure many of you know, the Holy Family was not in a stable when the Magi came to adore the Christ-Child. They were in a house: “And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him” (Matt. 2:11). I am inclined to think that this was the same place that had no spare room two weeks before.
We thank God for so many things at Christmas time, but most especially for becoming man in order to redeem us. We thank Him for creating the Immaculate Mary and choosing her to be His mother. We thank Him for exalting her as Co-redemptrix and giving her to us from the Cross. We thank him for His exquisitely pure fosterfather, good Saint Joseph. We thank Him for the hill shepherds who were worthy to be the first “go and see” the newborn Savior given to men.
Finally, as Father Feeney used to say, we thank God that there was no room in the inn.