Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
It’s a tale as old as time: pregnant couple travels home for the census, cannot find room at the inn when she’s ready to deliver the bun she’s been baking, stodgy innkeeper sends them out back to party in the barn. Cue baby Jesus, no-crying-he-makes (which is a fairly impressive feat for anyone spending the night among animals… much less an infant).
Seriously though, Away in a Manger is a terrible song because it tells a selective rendition of Jesus’ humanity and, when sung as a lullaby, basically amounts to telling your baby that (s)he needs to shut up to be like Jesus.
The word translated “inn” in this passage, kataluma, has a flexible range of meaning. The only other time kataluma shows up in Luke is in reference to the upper room, often translated guestroom, where Jesus ate with his disciples. The “inn” of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34), however, comes from the more travel-lodge-esque word, pandocheion.
What if, in fact, Joseph stayed with family when he traveled to his hometown from a distance? What if they left for the census early because Mary was expecting? What if she went into labor while they were there (Luke 2:6), having been prepped by the midwives? What if there was no room for Jesus in the upper room, because everyone had come home for the census? What if they cleared out space for Mary on the bottom floor of the house, where the animals stayed, laying him in a manger?
Why then, as you’re probably asking, is the kataluma of Luke 2 translated “inn”? Some believe that a preceding definite article (“the” kataluma) might point it toward a known, public house that welcomed visitors. I wonder if this, however, makes a mountain out of a molehill when the definite article could describe a specific room in any given house and Joseph probably had tons of family in his hometown?
You might argue that his family refused to take him in because he had knocked boots with Mary before marriage, but I’m guessing that his decision not to send her away (Matt 1) probably made their arrangement less than scandalous.
Which is what all of this is about. If Jesus wasn’t born in a barn, rejected by an innkeeper, rejected by his in-town family, then the story is less scandalous and far less sexy. I myself have focused on the scandal of the birth narrative more than most, but maybe this alternative telling makes for a more realistic and ultimately more relateable story than the family-less, rejected, no-crying, baby Jesus.
Or we could just stick to the story as usual? Some of us make fantastic innkeepers.