Enough about that innkeeper already!

As Protestants, we’ve done our share of looking down our noses at apocryphal stories and narrative details not found in the text. We scoff at Veronica, the saint who wiped Christ’s brow on the Via Dolorosa, officially recognized through one of the stations of the cross. Where does that whole mythology even come from?

Maybe the same place as the donkey Mary rode to Bethlehem. Nearly every depiction of the Christmas story I’ve seen includes a donkey but none is ever mentioned in the Gospel accounts.

And then there’s the innkeeper. Granted, the innkeeper is the result of a translation problem, but the mythology grown up around him is quite substantial. Because one verse says “there was no room for them in the inn,” we’ve fabricated this elaborate scheme of the harried couple, arriving in town late at night, on the cusp of giving birth, going from door to door, turned away at every place until one innkeeper finally takes pity and makes room in the stable.

It works very well with the hymn “Have you any room for Jesus?” and can be milked for all kinds of sentiment. But it’s not there in the text.

What kind of lessons might we learn instead if the couple had been in town for days, weeks, even months already? If they were comfortably (but cosily) lodged with family and merely moved down to the stable because the busy communal upper room (alternate translation for “inn”) was a less than ideal place to give birth? Are the shepherds’ visit and the star that brought the wise men less spectacular events if the birth itself were more ordinary?

What questions might we be asking instead of “had I been there, would I have turned him away?”


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