Last night, my family took time to discuss the Christmas accounts from Matthew and Luke with our nativity set. I loved the interaction, but was also reminded of some Christmas extras often added to the biblical account. At least five Christmas myths have been added.
1. Mary Riding a Donkey to Bethlehem
Nearly every video or church production portrays a pregnant Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem. While possible, this detail is not included in Matthew or Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth. Instead, Joseph and Mary simply arrive in the city and it is time for the child to be born.
2. Joseph and Mary Turned Away from the Inn
How many times have you seen a Christmas account where an innkeeper turns the holy family away? The biblical account merely states there was “no room” in the local inn. Instead, Joseph and Mary stayed in a location among animals, a fact highlighted by Jesus being placed in a manger (feeding trough) as a crib.
3. The Shepherds Brought Sheep to Visit Baby Jesus
This may not seem like a big deal, but my youngest daughter really likes sheep. In our nativity scene, the main shepherd carries a lamb around his shoulders. Several other sheep also appear around Jesus.
But according to Luke’s account, the shepherds were overwhelmed by the angelic visit that commanded them to visit the newborn Jesus. They likely left the sheep in the field and quickly proceeded into Bethlehem to find Jesus. The only actual mention of sheep is that they were watching their sheep in the fields at night when the angels appeared.
4. The “Three” Wise Men
How many wise men came to visit Jesus? Most people believe it was three, yet the Bible does not specify a particular number. We are told there were “magi,” a plural word indicating more than one wise man. In addition, there were three gifts, leading to the tradition of three wise men.
However, it is more likely there was an entire team traveling together. This would have included a small group of magi and their servants. Though the magi could at least fit in the home where they visited Jesus, the entire traveling team may have involved many more people.
Only Matthew’s Gospel mentions the magi or wise men from the east. Matthew 2:1 actually states, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” They either left after the birth of Jesus or arrived in Jerusalem after his birth. In either case, they did not arrive on the night of his birth (though the shepherds did).
It appears some time had passed, since Matthew 2:11 mentions Joseph, Mary and Jesus then in a house. The early church celebrated Epiphany or the arrival of the wise men on January 6, two weeks after his birth. The precise timing of this event is uncertain, but even the early church knew it was not the same day as the birth of Jesus.
There are other “myths” of Christmas we could mention. For example, the little drummer boy legend arose hundreds of years after the biblical account. In addition, the Bible never explicitly says the angels sang to the shepherds, though they certainly may have.
However, the concern for those who care about the true story of Jesus coming to earth is to find the facts of our story from Scripture. The story is already powerful enough. We don’t need to add to it or change it to make it more exciting or dramatic.
God came to us in human form. This is the true blessing of Christmas, Immanuel, God with us.
Dillon Burroughs is the author and coauthor of numerous books and blogs about his experiences of handwriting the Bible at the Holy Writ Project on Patheos.com. Find out more about Dillon at Facebook or Twitter.