Separating Fact from Fiction in the Nativity Story – Christmas Myths Exposed

If you’ve ever heard the Christmas story retold or watched it dramatized on film, you may not have realized how many myths were added to the story found in the Gospels . In this piece, I address some of them.

The Date of Christ’s Birth

Jesus was born “before Christ” (B.C.). Probably 4 or 5 B.C. As for His birthday being December 25th, this is unlikely. For the church’s first three centuries, the Lord’s birth wasn’t celebrated in December. If it was observed at all, it was lumped in with Epiphany on January 6th.  While it’s possible that Jesus was born in the winter, this is uncertain. In short, the exact day of Jesus’ birth is unknown.

It is for this reason that the early Christians ended up confiscating a pagan holiday to celebrate the Lord’s birth, thus redeeming the day – December 25th – for Christ. The early writers of the church disagreed on the Lord’s birth date. Some like Clement of Alexandria argued that He was born on May 20th. Others like Hippolytus argued He was born on January 12. Other proposed dates were March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 29, November 17, and November 20. The eventual choice of December 25th was chosen as early as A.D. 273.

No Room at the Inn

Luke’s phrase “there was no room at the inn” is often taken to mean that Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a local Hilton in town. But this is highly doubtful. Bethlehem was a very small village with no major roads. So a traveler’s inn would have been extremely unlikely. In addition, Luke doesn’t use the common word for hotel inn (pandeion) that he uses other places. Instead, he uses a word that means guest room (kataluma). It’s the same word that he used to describe the place where Jesus took the last supper.

It’s far more likely that since Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestoral home, he had relatives there. And because of the census taking place at the time, none of his relatives had any room in their guest quarters. Guest rooms were typically in the front of houses and the animal shelters were in the back of the house or the lower level (in a cave). In the family shelter, the family animals were fed and protected at night from the cold, thieves, and predators. So Joseph and Mary were lodged on the lower level or in the back of the house—the animal shelter. Most likely, the animals were removed while the couple lodged there. (There is no mention of animals in Luke’s or Matthew’s account. St. Francis is credited with building the first manger scene complete with live animals.)

Three Kings

You’ve heard the line “these three kings.” Well, there were no kings in the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth. The Magi were not kings as commonly understood. They were oriental priests schooled in esoteric arts, dream interpretation, astrology, reading animal parts to predict the future, etc. They were consultants—counselors and advisers to royalty. Their search for Jesus could only bring them to Jerusalem. They needed divine revelation to take them to Bethlehem. The Magi came to honor the new born King were probably in shock when they discovered He would be born in the place where animals were kept.

Also, we are not sure how many of the Magi visited Bethlehem to honor Jesus. The text only says that they brought three gifts. It does not say that there were three Magi. In addition, Matthew tells us that they didn’t arrive until after Jesus was born. They may have arrived and/or stayed well after the birth since Herod was concerned with male infants that were up to two years old—so much so that he ordered their deaths. (Josephus tells us that Herod had several members of his own family murdered around the same time because he was paranoid of plots against his life.)

The Death of the Hebrew Infants

In nativity films, we have the image that when Herod ordered the deaths of all the male infants, that thousands of Jewish mothers were wailing because of the loss of their babies. But this is unlikely. Because Bethlehem was extremely tiny, the number of infants that were up to two years old was very small—perhaps less than 10.

After the census, Joseph, Mary, and the child probably moved from the animal shelter and stayed in one of the guest rooms with their relatives when the Magi arrived. Matthew 2:11 says the Magi came to a “house” and found the baby there. The Magi’s presence at the Lord’s birth in giving gifts and honor seems to foreshadow that this Jewish Messiah would also be Savior to the Gentiles.

The Virgin Birth

Perhaps greater than the supernatural phenomena surrounding the birth of Jesus (the way the Magi were led, the chorus of angels praising, etc.) was the miracle in the way that Jesus was conceived. We often hear the phrase “the virgin birth.” While a virgin did give birth to the Messiah, the real miracle was in the conception. We are in full agreement with the ancient Christians that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Matt. 1:18-22; Luke 1:34).

For details on this question, see Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (WBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 21; Craig Keener, A Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 81-95; Craig Blomberg, Matthew (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 56-61; Ben Witherington, “The Birth of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992).

The Old Testament prophets were not silent about our Lord’s birth. They predicted that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). That He would be born from a virgin (Isa. 7:14), He would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15; Matt. 16:18; Rom. 16:20), and He would be a blessing to all the nations (Gen. 22:18; Gal. 3:16). He would be the root and offspring of David (2 Sam. 7:12ff; Acts 2:30; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 22:5) and come from the royal line of Judah (Gen. 49:10; Rev. 5:5). He would be a son, a child, and sit on the throne of David forever (Isa. 9:6-7). They predicted (foreshadowed) that He would be called out of Egypt by God, His Father (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:13-18), and He would be raised in the despised town of Nazareth in the fameless region of Galilee, for they prophesied that “he shall be called a Nazarene” (John 1:46; 7:52; Matt. 2:23).

Let me end this somewhat longish post with some comic relief. Click here to listen to my favorite Christmas spoof song.

*** See also Joel Miller’s St. Nicks Best Gift ***

Click Here to Receive a FREE Copy of My Upcoming Book – When the Pages Are Blank: How to Bring the Bible Back to Life

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  • Frank Viola

    It says they praised. That could have been singing but not necessarily.

  • Jeff

    Actually the Bible does not state there were angels singing, they simply spoke

  • Frank Viola

    Dwight: Glad you like the post. I am not sure I understand the date of Christmas being a Catholic jibe. A number of scholars agree with this analysis and they aren’t anti-Catholic, but see the date as a good thing. I actually think it’s good myself. But I’ll read your piece.

    I’m using “myth” in a popular sense not in a technical sense the way literary scholars use it. My blog is aimed as a popular audience not to academicians only. Hope that helps. :-)

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Good post Frank, but I’d like to pick you up on two details: first you assertion that Christians hi jacked a pagan holiday for the date of Christmas. This is an old anti-Catholic jibe which is doesn’t really hold up. Check out my article on this subject here: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2011/christmas-pagan-romans-frodo-baggins

    Also, your use of the word ‘myth’ is kind of sloppy. You’re using it as a term which simply means ‘untrue facts’ which a lot of people think are true. However, myth is a special literary term denoting a particular way that stories are used and understood. In my opinion the word ‘fallacy’ would be more accurate for the misunderstandings you’ve analyzed.

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  • http://www.kellyjyoungblood.com Kelly J Youngblood

    Well, I couldn’t find it in the book I thought it was in, but I’ll keep looking. I am almost positive that it is underlined and is on a right-hand page not more than 1/3 of a way down the page. I can just almost picture it. It’s driving me crazy that I can’t find it.

  • Hardik Modi

    I thank God for you brother Frank. My love to you.

  • Frank Viola

    Scholars disagree on that. But I cited the scholarly documentation that argues for “virgin.” I did that anticipating your question. ;-)

  • Frank Viola

    James: Let me repeat — it’s semantics. We don’t disagree. Israel’s story was embodied in Jesus. Hosea wasn’t fortune telling in that sense of predicting. “Out of Egypt have I called My Son” was applied by Matthew to Christ, but God foreknew and intended it. So in that sense it was prophetic and that’s how I’m using the term “predict” here. Keep in mind, this is a blog post. Not an academic book. And most of my readers have read my book “Jesus: A Theography” so they understand the larger and more nuanced framework.

    What interests me most about your last comment is larger than the semantic issue and is hugely substantive. That most apologists see the OT as containing a set of proof texts to “prove” that Jesus is the Messiah when in reality the ENTIRE FIRST TESTAMENT points to Jesus the Christ. He’s all over Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, in type and in shadow.

    Now that’s something worth talking about about and it’s why I wrote the Theography with Len Sweet.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Well, you said that they predicted, not that they wrote things which with hindsight could be viewed as foreshadowings. I focused on one example, but I don’t think it is a minor point. You still encounter apologists who talk about the hundreds of predictions that Jesus fulfilled, showing they’ve never actually read those texts from the Old Testament in their original contexts.

    I’ll probably say more on my blog and try to give your post the fuller attention it deserves.

  • http://www.smidoz.wordpress.com smidoz

    Did Isaiah really predict a virgin? A common criticism is that Isaiah ony refered to a young girl, virgin wasn’t specified, until the septuagint which translated it as virgin.

    The date is interesting, a priory reasoning for the 25th being nine months after the 4th day of creation, when “light ” was created, obviously only the sun and moon were created, light already existed. Wouldn’t this give more credit to the criticism that the 25th is the birth of the sun and Jesus is a solar deity? More on the date, the January date was a celebration of baptism in the early church as I understand it, birthday celebrations were seen as a pagan practise and largely rejected. This is covered by Encyclopedia Britannica.

  • Frank Viola

    Sure. Thx.

  • http://www.kellyjyoungblood.com Kelly J Youngblood

    Re: the date of birth. There is a Jewish idea/legend that the Messiah would both be born and die on Passover. If you want I can look it up for you; I am pretty sure I know what book I have it in.

  • Frank Viola

    James. You’re killing me with semantics here. I’m using the word “predicted” in the sense of foreshadowing. No doubt Hosea didn’t understand the implications in the mind of God. But God sure did and He knew all along that Israel’s story would be replayed in Jesus. So it was a prediction or prophecy embedded in a shadow.

    I have money hidden in my shoes that you’ve not read my newest book, “Jesus: A Theography” . . . it’s regarded as the first work that merges Christology, canonical criticism, and Jesus studies, putting together a narrative that tells the Jesus story from Genesis to Revelation. You can see the Introduction here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/jesus

    Albeit, I trust you read the whole article. Your critique is on a minor point at the very end. Interesting. ;-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It is a misrepresentation to claim that Hebrew prophets “predicted that He would be called out of Egypt by God, His Father (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:13-18).” It is clear simply from reading Hosea 11:1ff that the passage is not about a future Messiah but about Israel being called out of Egypt by God in the Exodus. Matthew applies the passage to Jesus by way of typology, but unless you want to say that Matthew was pulling a fast one, or had poor reading comprehension skills, then suggesting that he viewed Hosea 11 as a prediction about Jesus is a bad idea.

  • Greg

    Have you ever seen the film The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson? It is a great watch, especially around this time of year.


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