Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Anachronistic Innkeeper

Just fair warning here: I don't have a PhD in ancient near-east anthropology. I've got enough degrees to make me dangerous, but not enough to make me bulletproof.

There's no innkeeper. He doesn't exist. I know we see him in all the children's plays around this time of year - and he's become the unofficial scapegoat of Christmas, turning away a pregnant woman in the middle of winter - but there's no innkeeper. There's probably no stable either, but there's definitely no innkeeper. The Bible doesn't mention an innkeeper; we infer that because Luke Chapter 2 says "there was no room in the inn," or at least it says that in English, anyway.

The innkeeper doesn't exist, though, because the inn doesn't exist. That's the real problem. We make a poor inference because the translation makes no sense to us. People simply did not stay in hotels in Jesus' time. There were places we might call inns, but they were for the rare merchant or perhaps a military detachment headed some place without barracks. In Jesus' time, if people were traveling, they made personal connections. You arranged to stay with family or family of friends. You knew someone, who knew someone, who had a place. Often people would just show up at a relative's house unannounced - this kind of hospitality was infused into Jewish culture from the very beginning. The Torah even calls people to welcome strangers. If your cousin doesn't have room in his house, try the neighbor's, they might have room.

So what of the inn? Well, that's the tricky part. There was no inn. We're not just crossing language barriers, but cultural barriers, plus barriers of time (and we're doing it twice - once between Jesus' birth and 1611, when the King James Version came out, and another between 1611 and today). The King James Version twice translates a Greek word as "inn." Both instances are in Luke (very convenient for comparative purposes), but they're two different Greek words. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes the injured man to an inn, promising the innkeeper he'd pay for the man's care. In that instance, there is a word used which means "public lodgings." That's an inn, any way you cut it. The word used in chapter two, though, really means "guest quarters." The very fact that the same book uses two different words in what are really two different circumstances is good evidence that they're not meant to imply the same thing.

Here's where a nerdy working knowledge of traditional lodgings comes in handy. Most families, at the time, lived in one room, essentially. They had a kitchen or sorts, perhaps, with a work space, and some area where they could lay a mat out at night (the family would likely all huddle together as they slept). As the family grew - subsequent generations, cousins, uncles, parents, whatever, they would add rooms onto the home. In the cities, they'd build up (they still do in Jerusalem today), or, if there way space, maybe out. Then each nuclear family would have a place of their own.

Since homes were designed to be added on to at a later date, most reserved the roof for guests. If the family had some money, they might have a designated guest room, but there's not a ton of rain in Israel, so the roof would do. If they had my mother's manners, they might kick someone out of the "good room," so guests could use it and extra people would cram into the first floor (or main room, depending on construction).

So this leads us back to the scripture text - likely Joseph and Mary showed up at a relative's house, perhaps someone distant cousin or what-have-you, and requested hospitality. In reply, they were told the roof was full and there was no space for guests. This is where, if there was genuinely no room, they likely would have hopped next door or moved down the list of distant relatives who lived nearby and tried another place. They didn't, though (another pet peeve is when it's portrayed that Joseph and Mary tried a lot of hoteliers with no success), because they were offered an alternative.

While it's entirely possible the relative they visited had a barn out back, it's extremely unlikely. Those families with livestock (and almost everyone had livestock of one kind of another - eggs and milk and such didn't grow at Safeway, after all) would use them during the day for work (pulling carts and whatnot) or leave them outside to graze. At night, the animals were brought into the house, where they'd bed down on the other side of the main room from the family. Other rooms were guest quarters or the living spaces of older relatives because it was polite to not make people you wished to honor sleep with the goats.

Joseph and Mary likely found a relative with a full house, but one generous enough to offer space with his own wife and kids for this distant cousin and his poor, pregnant betrothed. The Bible mentions Jesus being laid in a manger (a feeding trough for animals), but there's no mention of a stable or a barn - I think, because there wasn't one.

So, if this is true (and while I think it makes sense, I might be entirely wrong), how did this inaccurate portrayal of the event get passed down so thoroughly through the years? I have no proof of this at all, but I suspect it has something to do with how these words might translate to seventeenth century England.

The King James Version came about at a time when scripture in the common language was just emerging. It was written for the common people (if you had money, you were educated, and thus could read scripture in Latin, if you so desired), and I'm guessing "guest quarters" would have been entirely foreign to the common people. People of the time rarely traveled - most would never get more than six or seven miles from the house in which they were born FOR THEIR ENTIRE LIVES! Houses were hovels - and anyone you knew lived nearby and could stay at their own house. Inn - a public housing option for travelers without the means to call upon the local noble - was likely the best they could do to convey the message to the people at the time.

Subsequent English translations were loathe to change the words, which had become so familiar to people in such a familiar story (although the newest version of the NIV does say "guest room," as Luke intended). Today, we all just assume, I guess, that there was a Motel 6 on every corner in Jerusalem and Joseph didn't have the money to spring for an Embassy Suites.

I'm not sure what the point of this whole thing was, really, other than to explain my frustration with the way we tell this story.* Perhaps it's simple to illustrate the importance of further questions, of not taking everything at face value. Investigation is good for the soul - and, at the very least, it may keep some of us from perpetuating the tale of the anachronistic innkeeper to another generation. Merry Christmas!

Just be thankful we didn't delve into the historicity of the census that drives this journey in the first place - you do not want to go there!

No comments: