The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7 -- By: Kenneth E. Bailey

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 20:4 (Fall 2007)
Article: The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7
Author: Kenneth E. Bailey


The Manger and the Inn:
The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7

Kenneth E. Bailey

Why would Joseph, “of the lineage of David,” in the city of his family’s origin have to seek shelter in an inn and be turned out into a stable? Recently this question was put to me here in Beirut. This paper presents an answer. In this brief study I will attempt to demonstrate that Jesus was born in a private home and that the “inn” of Luke 2:7 is best understood as the guest room of the family in whose house the birth took place. Recent studies have primarily focused on Luke’s theological interests.1 The concern here is the Palestinian cultural background of verses 6–7 which we understand to be traditional material. Indeed, a more precise analysis of that background is critical for both a clearer understanding of the original tradition as well as any interpretation of its use within the Lucan framework.

The Palestinian background of the entire text (vv. 1–7) is clear and strong. Five striking Middle Eastern details mark the passage. First, the author reflects an accurate knowledge of Palestinian geography when he has the Holy Family “go up” from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Second, the custom of “swaddling” infants is a Palestinian village custom, which is observable as early as Ezekiel 16:4 and is still practiced today. Third, the extended family of David is referred to in the oriental fashion as a “house.” This is then amplified for the non-Middle Eastern reader with the fuller phrase, “house and lineage of David.” Fourth, a Davidic Christology informs the text. Finally, Bethlehem is given two names, “city of David” (which presupposes some knowledge of Old Testament history), and “Bethlehem.” Given the Palestinian nature of the material, we will attempt to examine the Middle Eastern cultural background of the story with care.

The cultural assumptions of this text are particularly critical because the story comes to us through a long Church tradition. Most modern versions of that story follow a familiar pattern. The Holy Family arrives late in the night. The local inn has its “no vacancy” sign clearly displayed. The tired couple seeks alternatives and finds none. With no other option, wearied from their journey and desperate for any shelter because of the imminent delivery, they spend the night in a stable where the child is born. But the cornerstone of this popular pageantry is flatly deni...

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