In praise of the innkeeper

That poor innkeeper at Bethlehem! For centuries the church has berated him for turning away a woman in labor and making her give birth in a stable. It is possible, though, that the innkeeper actually provided the warmest, safest, and most private place he could for Mary to give birth. Will we show the same level of hospitality for vulnerable persons arriving in our communities?

A modern painting in the chapel at Shepherds Field shows the birth of Jesus in a cave.

Bethlehem was on the highway south from Jerusalem to Hebron and Egypt. Along such a highway there were caravanserai, rustic inns for travelers and their animals, often with minimal privacy and with risk of crime.

Perhaps such an inn at Bethlehem was overbooked, and turned away Joseph and Mary. But when Luke 2:7 refers to the facility where there was “no place” for the visitors from Nazareth, it is not with the word inn (pandokeion). Instead, Luke uses a term (kataluma) meaning guest room or dining room.

Since Joseph had family roots in Bethlehem, it is likely that he and Mary stayed with relatives. Palestinian homes of the era typically consisted of one large room where the entire household lived, dined, and slept. If relatives in addition to Joseph and Mary also arrived needing lodging, the house would have been crowded and inhospitable for childbirth.

Today thousands of pilgrims to Bethlehem stream into Church of the Nativity, the sixth-century structure built where a fourth-century church once stood. Visitors descend into the church’s crypt—in reality, a cave. Here, by ancient tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus. This is a scenario for how that could have happened:

People of ancient Palestine commonly built their houses against or on top of a cave in the bedrock. Cave rooms were cool in summer and warm in winter, affording safe shelter for people and animals. Mary and Joseph may have planned to stay at such a cave-house at Bethlehem, sleeping in the main room with a gaggle of relatives. But Mary went into labor, and the main room of the house “was no place” for Mary to give birth. Instead, caring hosts took Mary and Joseph into the adjacent cave where there was privacy and animal warmth.

Bethlehem JNK with copyright.jpg
A woman kneels (lower left) to reach into the spot where, by tradition, Jesus was born. A scrum of pilgrims wait their turn.

It is hard to picture this humble scene when visiting Church of the Nativity today. Pilgrims crowd into the crypt, many so devout and moved by the holy site that they seem to jostle each other out of the way. Walls of the cave are garish with the barnacles of piety—candles, ornaments, precious metals. A silver star that once adorned the floor exactly where Jesus was born was stolen in 1847—a deed that helped trigger the Crimean War (1854-1856)!  

I visit Church of the Nativity whenever I can. But singing carols in a small cave at nearby Shepherd’s Field nurtures me more. Away from the crush of the crypt, I can better picture the unadorned and humble surroundings of Jesus’ birth. My mind turns to immigrants and refugees—millions around the world—who need basic shelter and safety. Will I do my part to show the hospitality that I believe unnamed hosts at Bethlehem showed to the mother of my Lord?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with

One Comment Add yours

  1. Tina Horst says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Nelson! It stirred my heart.


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