Challenging translation traditions in Luke 2

On another forum we have recently discussed Luke 2:14, but there are other interesting translation challenges in the Christmas story in Luke 2. It is always difficult to go against tradition, especially the Christmas traditions that have outgrown and added to the original text over the centuries. But it is one of my hobbies to challenge tradition.

One of the issues is the “inn” in Luke 2:7. Based on Luke’s usage of the Greek word KATALUMA and the customs of hospitality at the time, there is little doubt that this was not an inn at all, but the guest room (probably upstairs) in the house of a reasonably well-to-do relative. Both Joseph and Mary were from the clan of David, and Bethlehem was David’s ancestral city. Few translations dare to change the sacred “inn”, but the revised NLT has moved in that direction.

“She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the village inn.” NLT96

“She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.” NLT2004

I assume they deliberately wanted to be unclear rather than saying that the guestroom was already occupied. Joseph and Mary did apparently get lodging in the downstairs room/space used for the animals in wintertime. (Since Jesus was not born in the winter, the room probably had no animals in it, the sheep being in the grazing fields.) But it is also possible that NLT04 wanted to retain the ambiguity of the original KATALUMA.

Like in Luke 2:14, there is also a textual problem in Luke 2:2. Most manuscripts, including the good quality A and C have one text. Vaticanus (B) and a few others have the other text which for some reason has been adopted by the NA and UBS text, maybe because it is the more difficult reading. Let me quote the two readings here:

1. αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου.
hAUTH APOGRAFH PRWTH EGENETO hHGEMONEUONTOS THS SURIAS KURHNIOU 2. αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου.

NA apparatus claims that the original hand of Alexandrinus also supports 1, but this is questionable. One can look at this manuscript online in at least two places:

As far as I can see the original manuscript had AUTHN APOGRAFHN, which is clearly a mistake, since the accusative makes no sense in this context. The manuscript was corrected by rubbing out the backslash between the vertical strokes of the final N in AUTHN and replacing it with a horizontal line, producing an H. The final N in APOGRAFHN was crossed out. I suppose NA said it supported reading 1 because there was no H before APGRAFHN in the original hand. But when the original hand is obviously faulty, it doesn’t carry much weight. The same manuscript (Aleph*) has the order ἐγένετο πρώτη rather than πρώτη ἐγένετο. That helps to show that PRWTH is to be construed with the genitive phrase, but it does not have enough support for it to be considered original.

In the following, I will assume that 2 is original, so the rest has to do with exegeting the Greek text in its historical context. We know that Quirinius was the governor (legate) of Syria in 6-9 AD, but there is no record that he was also governor of Syria when Jesus was born. We also know that Quirinius presided over a very famous census in AD 6 which resulted in a Jewish revolt. THIS census was so well-known that Luke only refers to it as “the census” in Acts 5:37. Indeed he uses it as a known historical reference point (in the days of the census). There is little doubt that the probably well educated Theophilos knew about THIS census in AD 6, but had never before heard about the census the emperor ordered when Jesus was born.

To understand the phrase αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ hAUTH hH APOGRAFH, we need to know how the demonstrative hOUTOS (this) works in Greek. If it precedes the head noun, it indicates emphasis and contrast, i.e. THIS census as contrasted to another census. If it follows the noun as in hH APOGRAFH hAUTH, the focus is on the head noun and the phrase is a back reference to an already mentioned census. So, the word order leads us to look for another census that this one is contrasted and compared to, and the obvious choice will be the famous census of AD 6.

EGENETO is not the same as “was” as some versions have it, but it means “happened” or “took place” as GNB has. It gives a time indication of when THIS census took place as contrasted to another census.

PRWTH is the feminine form of PRWTOS, since it agrees with APOGRAFH. It basically means “ahead of” in terms of either time, position or status. PRWTOS is here followed by a genitive phrase. Now, in all other similar places where PRWTOS is followed by a genitive phrase in the NT it means “prior to” or “before”. I am excluding places where it refers to the first member of a class, such as the first day of the week or a leading city or person among a group of people or cities.

PRWTOS in the sense of before is not very common, but it does occur a few times in the NT:

Jhn 1:15,30 ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν. hOTI PRWTOS MOU HN (that he existed before I did)

Jhn 15:18 γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐμὲ πρῶτον ὑμῶν μεμίσηκεν. GINWSKETE hOTI EME PRWTON hUMWN MEMISHKEN (know that it hated me before (it hated) you)

1Tim 2:1 Παρακαλῶ οὖν πρῶτον πάντων PARAKALW OUN PRWTON PANTWN (So I urge you before everything else). This may not necessarily be time, but could be first in terms of importance.

To conclude then, I suggest that the Greek text should be understood to be saying: THIS census took place before (the one you know about when) Quirinius was governing Syria.

The exegesis is based both on the Greek text and relevance theory (RT). Why would Luke mention a “first” census unless the addressee was familiar with the later and famous census? Luke is forestalling and correcting the potential connection in the mind of the addressee to the later census.

So far, I have not seen any translation go this way. I think there are two common objections. One: oh, it is just a pious attempt to twist the text to conform with historical facts. My point is that it is not at all a twisting of the text, but the most reasonable understanding of the text in view of RT. Two: If Luke had meant prior to, he should have used PROTEROS. But that is a mistake based on Latin grammar and Classical Greek. In the NT, the concept of “prior to” is shown by PRWTOS, whereas PROTEROS means “formerly”. This mistake is reflected in the comment by Marshall: “PRWTOS has been taken as equivalent to PROTEROS with a genitive of comparison: ‘This census took place before Quirinius was governor’ (cf. Jn. 5:36; 1 Cor. 1:25; so Lagrange, 66-68; MH III, 32).” I say: PRWTOS can mean “before”, but it is not equivalent to PROTEROS in NT Greek. It may be worthwhile to quote A.T. Robertson on this:

“Thus in the N. T. πρότερος an adjective occurs only once, κατὰ τὴν προτέραν ἀναστροφήν (Eph. 4:22).  It is rare in the papyri (Moulton, Prol., p. 79). Elsewhere πρῶτος holds the field when only two objects or persons are in view, like πρῶτός μου (Jo. 1:15), πρῶτος and ἄλλος (20:4), etc.  Cf. our ‘first story’ when only two stories are contemplated, ‘first volume,’ etc. And as an adverb πρότερον survives only ten times (cf. 2 Cor. 1:15), while πρῶτον is very common.  Luke does not use πρότερος (adjective or adverb) so that πρῶτος in Ac. 1:1 with λόγος does not imply τρίτος.  Moulton finds πρότερος only once in the Grenfell-Hunt volumes of papyri so that this dual form vanishes before the superlative πρῶτος.  Winer (Winer-Thayer, p. 244) sees this matter rightly and calls it a Latin point of view to insist on “former” and “latter” in Greek, a thing that the ancients did not do. The LXX shows πρῶτος displacing πρότερος (Thackeray, Gr., p. 183). So in English we say first story of a house with only two, first edition of a book which had only two, etc. It is almost an affectation in Greek and English, however good Latin it may be, to insist on πρότερος.”

Let me also quote from Exegetical summaries:

QUESTION—Why is this called the ‘first’ census?

1. It is called the first census since there had been none before it [AB, BAGD (1.b. p. 725), Lns, TH; REB]: this was the first time there was a census taken in Judea. ‘First’ looks back to when there was none at all and does not look forward to an additional census [BAGD]. Nothing like this had ever been decreed before [Lns].

2. It is called the first census to distinguish it from following censuses [BECNT, ICC, My, NIC, NTC, Rb, Su]: this was the first of the censuses that took place. The emperor ordered a regular system of censuses that would occur at equal intervals and this was the first of them [NTC]. It was the first of at least two censuses decreed by Quirinius [BECNT] ??. It is distinguished from the enrollment that took place in A.D. 6 that is mentioned in Acts 5:37 [ICC, My, Rb, Su, WBC].

Whereas I normally don’t rely on the Anchor Bible and Lenski, I am surprised that BAGD put this verse under 1b, when it should have been under 1a, where they say:

“Used w. a gen. of comparison (Manetho 1, 329; Athen. 14, 28 p. 630c codd.) PRWTOS MOU HN he was earlier than I=before me J 1:15, 30 (PGM 13, 543 SOU PRWTOS EIMI.—Also Ep. 12 of Apollonius of Tyana: Philostrat. I p. 348, 30 …. So perh. also EME PRWTON hUMWN MEMISHKEN 15:18 (s. 2a below) and PANTWN PRWTH EKTISQH Hv 2, 4, 1.)”

11 thoughts on “Challenging translation traditions in Luke 2

  1. Theophrastus says:

    I believe that BDAG (as it is now called, no longer BAGD) deliberately put the verse under 1(b) where it states:

    πρῶτος is also used without any thought that the series must continue: τὸν πρῶτον ἰχθύν the very first fish Mt 17:27. αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο Lk 2:2, likewise, does not look forward in the direction of additional censuses, but back to a time when there were none at all (Ael. Aristid. 13 p. 227 D. παράκλησις αὕτη [=challenge to a sea-fight] πρώτη ἐγένετο; for interpolation theory s. JWinandy, RB 104, ’97, 372–77; cp. BPearson, CBQ, ’99, 262–82).

  2. Iver Larsen says:

    I don’t have a copy of BDAG, which is the third edition, so I was quoting from the BAGD, which is the second edition. Yes, I am sure that they put it under 1b deliberately, but I am suggesting that in doing so they made a mistake. There is no basis for their statement that this “first” does NOT look forward to a later census. This is not part of the meaning of the word, but is an implication from context.

    Iver Larsen

  3. exegete77 says:

    Your comment on πρωτος follows what my Greek professor taught 30 years ago. “This was prior to the census when…”

    The immediate predecessor of GW, then called GWN published in 1989, had “first” in the text but then in a footnote offered this alternative: “This took place as a census before Quirinius was ruling Syria.” At the time it was the only translation that even hinted at this possibility. This and many other reasons convince me that the 1989 NT of GWN was and is a better translation than the 1995 edition that was formally published as GW.

    Rich Shields

  4. Daniel Buck says:

    This translation has been floating around for quite a while, so it’s good to see it finally land in a Bible translation. But its impact on Christmas pageants and Life of Christ films are still afar off. No room in the guest bedroom, but room in the stable, means no Holstein oxen or Suffolk sheep in the stall. Perhaps room, though, can be found for the faithful donkey who carried Mary from Galilee. As one who has found a donkey much more effective at disrupting one’s sleep than a mere cock, I’m wondering if they might have decided, in all the hubbub of the census, that it would be quieter having him in the next stall than just outside the window. I would also suggest the presence of a nanny, brought in for the night’s milking from pasturing in the surrounding hills. And as for the doves in the rafters, they needed something for the purification sacrifice in 40 days, so I’d let them stay, although I’d send the cock and his hens out to roost in the courtyard.

    Continuing with the conclusion that this wasn’t winter and therefore most of the animals were on summer pasture, this verse has implications on the early tradition that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, when no one would have been staying in the spare bedroom, or any bedroom, but everyone would have been tenting it in the courtyard.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    Iver, Thanks for the post with all the detail!

    You say, Few translations dare to change the sacred “inn”, but the revised NLT has moved in that direction.

    Ann Nyland has “guest house” with a fn: “This has a wide meaning: guest house, inn, place where burdens were unloosed, general’s quarters, reception room for messenger.” Nyland, of course, is looking to the uses of NT Greek words in various contexts (i.e., LXX, the Greek philosophers, sophists, poets, playwrights, etc.)

    It’s interesting that Luke uses the same word (κατάλυμα) in 22:11 — and most if not all English bible translations have something closer to “guest room” there. (And does any have “inn” there? Is tradition or context the best determiner of narrow “equivalents” in translation?)

  6. Jonathan Frankl says:


    Here is the Luke 2:2 translation found in the Dallas Seminary’s translation (the NET Bible):

    This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

    What is your disagreement with this translation?

    [a list of typos in the post has been sent privately to the author, since they are not relevant to the point of the post–BBB administrator]

    Jonathan Frankl

  7. Iver Larsen says:

    Dear Kurk,

    Ann Nyland is an expert in general Hellenistic Greek, and I am sure she is right that the word KATALUMA has a wide range of meanings. What these meanings have in common, is, I suggest, “resting place” for visitors or travellers. From a linguistic point of view, the translation “inn” is possible. However, a translator or exegete looks at more than linguistics. We need to look at the cultural context and how the original hearers/readers would have interpreted the text in their context and what Luke intended them to understand. It is this cultural context plus the use of the same word for an “upper room” in Luk 22:11 and a different word for “inn” in Luke 10:34-35 which has caused many modern interpreters to move towards the guest room suggestion.

    PS. Some of my mistakes are typos or what a friend of mine calls “senior moments” and others are based on English being a foreign language to me.

  8. Iver Larsen says:

    Dear Jonathan,

    The problem with the NET translation is that it is a rather poor and inaccurate translation of a Greek text that has such bad grammar that I don’t think Luke could have written it. Most translations assume that the text found in B, D and a few later mss is what should be translated, but this text has serious syntactical problems. (Aleph* went completely astray in this verse.) Let me repeat it here:

    αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου.

    First, αὕτη must be a noun phrase by itself with an implicit head noun: This (census). The noun phrase “this census” would be αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ.
    Second, πρώτη cannot be an adjective modifying the noun ἀπογραφὴ within a noun phrase. NET says “the first registration” but in Greek that would have to be ἡ πρώτη ἀπογραφὴ. The adjective πρῶτος is inherently emphatic and would have to precede the noun it modifies. There is no similar construction anywhere in the NT.
    There are two places that might look superficially similar, but they are not really the same:
    Mrk 12:28 Ποία ἐστὶν ἐντολὴ πρώτη πάντων;
    This text does not mean “which is the first commandment of all”, but “which commandment is (the) most important of all (the commandments)” NET got this one right.
    Eph 6:2 ἥτις ἐστὶν ἐντολὴ πρώτη ἐν ἐπαγγελίᾳ,
    This means “which commandment is (the) first with a promise.” NET did not get that right, maybe because they wanted to smoothen the English rather than keep strictly to Greek syntax.
    (The two English which’es are grammatically different.)
    There are a number of examples in the NT where the adjective πρῶτος is part of a noun phrase and modifies the head noun, but in each and every case the adjective precedes the head noun because that is how word order in Greek functions.

    So, what I am saying is that it is impossible to give a proper translation of the NA text of Luke 2:2, because the Greek text itself is not proper. The correct text is what the better and the majority of mss have:

    αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου.

    Here we start out with a perfectly normal noun phrase αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ which means “THIS census” with emphasis on THIS to show contrast to another census. Then πρώτη is used substantively as its own noun phrase (which is very common). Since there is no article, it does not mean “the first one”, but only “first/prior/ahead of”:

    “This census happened prior to the governing of Syria by Quirinius.” The genitive phrase is not an absolute genitive but a genitive of comparison (originally an ablative). In this way the text can be translated without having to resort to adding words as the NET has done. They added “taken” and introduced a non-existent relative clause “registration (which was) taken”. It is also better to translate ἐγένετο with “happened/took place” than with “was”.

    KJV had the correct text, but didn’t seem to recognize the use of πρῶτος in the sense of “prior” with a following genitive.
    KJV: [And] this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.
    What does it mean that this census was first made at a particular time? Was the same census repeated later?

    Well, this is my take on it, and there are certainly commentators who agree, even if few English translations do.

  9. Gary Simmons says:

    Kurk and Iver: this may be informal, but given the relation between kataluo and taking down a tent, I’d almost say kataluma is a “place to unwind.” That’s a little too colloquial, though.

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