Kester presents an interesting item on his blog, which he entitles Ode to Joseph. It suggests that Joseph and Mary were not put out in the stable of an over-full inn but of a family home – much more scandalous!
I’m not quite convinced. The main evidence seems to be the suggestion of a Palestinian tour-guide who argued that “Bethlehem is such a short trip from Jerusalem, with nothing of any significance further south, there would never have been an ‘inn’ there”. Thinking back to pilgrims I met on the Camino de Santiago earlier this year (see the encounter at Monte de Gozo), it doesn’t beggar belief to suggest that there may have been a market for people wanting to stop a little way short of Jerusalem on their journey from places of “no significance”. Also, most Bibles insist on using “inn” to translate the Greek katalumati (Luke 2:7); my lexicon (Liddel and Scott) suggests “inn” or “lodging house” (although my Greek scholarship is at a very elementary level).
Putting the philology aside though, it does raise the question of where Joseph’s family were in all of this. As I understand the story, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem because of a census which required them to return to Joseph’s native town. Why were Joseph and his expectant wife forced to look for an inn? Weren’t there any family or friends who could have made just a little room to accomodate them?
The narrative of the gospels focuses on other things – two of the four don’t go into any detail about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. I don’t think there is an unequivocal answer to this set of questions that may be raised. However, while I might not be as taken with this story as Kester appears to be, I’d certainly agree with him that Joseph appears to have been a remarkable man; in life, he must have been more than just a name in the background.