Debunking 8 Common Christmas Story Myths

Debunking 8 Common Christmas Story Myths December 17, 2016

Around this time of year, many Christians take time specifically to celebrate the birth of Christ. Yet a number of myths have arisen around the story, ones with no actual basis in Scripture. Without further ado, here are eight of them.

Myth 1: “There were 3 Magi”

In actuality, we don’t know how many magi there were. Everything we know about the magi comes from Matthew 2:1-12, and it does not tell us how many there were. All we know is that there was more than one (μάγοι is plural) and that they brought three gifts – but that does not tell us how many there were, there could have been 2 or 14 for all we know.

Myth 2: “The Magi were kings”

Matthew doesn’t tell us whether or not the magi were kings but in all likelihood they weren’t. The word variously translated “wise men” (ESV) or “magi” (NASB) is μάγος, the same word used for Elymas the magician in Acts 13 and in Daniel 2 for “magicians.” The magi were probably some sort of eastern astrologers, but beyond that, we don’t have any specifics.

Myth 3: “The Magi arrived when Jesus was an infant”

This myth, propagated by nativity scenes that show the shepherds and magi at the manger at the same time, fails to read Matthew 2 closely. We know that Herod made a point of finding out when the star first appeared from the magi (2:7), and that later he ordered the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem two years and under, “according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (2:16). It would appear then, even if Herod had played it safe and ordered more children slaughtered than he needed to (which he probably did), that Jesus was somewhere between 1 and 2 years old, but not a newborn.

Myth 4: “Jesus was born the same night Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem”

Luke 2:6 says, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” The beginning of this verse contains a phrase (Ἐγένετο…ἐν τῷ εἶναι) used three other places in Luke (5:12, 9:18, and 11:1) and it always carries the idea of duration. The idea is that during Mary and Joseph’s stay in Bethlehem the time came for Jesus to be born.

Myth 5: “Jesus didn’t cry as a baby”

This myth is definitely the one I dislike most. It comes from the third verse of the sentimental Christmas song, “Away in a Manger,” “But little Lord Jesus, No crying He makes.” There is nothing in the Bible that even remotely gives this impression and this verse leads in a docetic way that downplays the true humanity of Christ.

Myth 6: “It was unusually quiet the night Jesus was born”

Like the previous myth, this also comes from a sentimental Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” Again, this myth has no basis in the accounts in Scripture. Given that Jesus was born during a census when everyone needed to travel to his place of origin, Bethlehem was probably rather crowded at that time and not too quiet. In addition, births are generally not silent, peaceful endeavors.

Myth 7: “It was snowy when Jesus was born”

This myth has probably arisen because in much of Europe and North America (the centers of the Christian west), it is very snowy around December 25th. However, we don’t know that Jesus was born in December and even if he was, Palestine is much warmer than most of North America and Europe given its southern latitude and proximity to the Mediterranean sea. Short story: there probably wasn’t a whole lot of snow around Bethlehem.

Myth 8: “Jesus was born in a random stable because the hotel was full”

This myth is different from the rest in that it is partially true. Jesus was laid in a manger, but probably not a manger in a random stable because a mean innkeeper turned Joseph and Mary away. The word translated by the ESV, NASB, and KJV as “inn” is κατάλυμα. This word is used two other places in the New Testament (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11) both with the meaning of “guest room.” In addition, elsewhere when Luke clearly refers to an “inn” he uses a different word (Luke 10:24, πανδοχεῖον). Kenneth Bailey argues for this understanding in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. He shows a diagram the layout of typical Palestinian house with a guest room:

graph

Bailey marshals much more evidence to support his view in the first chapter of his book, which can be found online here. The gist is that Jesus was laid in a manger “in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable” (Bailey, p. 36).

Let these myths teach us to read the birth narratives of Christ closely and carefully, being cautious to neither overlook what is actually there nor to read in to them what is not there. Simply put, let us read them as we should read any passage of the Bible, as God’s word and worthy of our attention and obedience. When we do this the message of the Scriptural accounts shines clear: Christ, the Son of God, has condescended and taken on human flesh in order that He might redeem a people for Himself; let us respond with the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest.”

 


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  • redhatGizmo

    All part of Matthean Nativity story be it three magi or some magical star or so called massacre of Innocents is a pure fiction.

  • Mark Buzard

    Aren’t there more important things to address? Some of these can’t be proven either way, so why take the time to make a blog post about them? And if you don’t want wise men at your nativity scene, don’t put them there……put them across the room. I shall put mine with the rest of the gang 🙂

    • There surely are more important things, whether or not there were three magi is no matter of importance. That being said, reading Scripture carefully is important; this post is my plea to read Scripture without reading into it what isn’t there. The Christmas narrative is fitting for the season and a text around which a particularly high number of “myths” have arisen.

  • HamburgerHelper1

    It should be kept in mind then that the manger scene is symbolic. Nothing more and nothing less.

    • Jack Lee

      you mean, Jesus was not actually placed in a physical manger? What is your proof?

      • HamburgerHelper1

        No I’m basing this on details of the essay above.

        • I believe Jesus was placed in a physical manger, how do you get think my essay takes away from that?

  • Greg

    Wonderfully insightful article!

  • Robin Warchol

    So two very gentle and beautiful Christmas carols, Silent Night and Away in the Manger are bad because in your view “they are not Biblically accurate”. Can we give it a rest? Considering all the other Christmas junk out there, two inspirational songs, done out of love, one inspired by a still winter night in Austria, the other a lullaby, is just beyond the pale and kinda shows what little you have. I think we could use a few more gentle, peaceful songs at Christmas instead of the hyper junk that now dominates the season.

    Another point is that Christian history didn’t begin with John Calvin in the 1500s. The earliest depictions of the Magi were always done in 3. In fact the Syriac Christians consider them a group of 12 so it is reasonable to think that it wasn’t just 3 men by themselves but most likely the 3 Magi traveled in a group, most likely up to 12 fits the earliest traditions around them and who they are. But all of that is before 1500, so again, your narrow view of what is “Biblical” is lacking and poor.
    Yes, there is some question on when they arrived because the Bible mentions that they entered a house, not a manger and some think that they might have arrived after the 40 day visitation to the temple and that Mary and Joseph went back to Bethlehem. The 2 year and under of Herod also could have been to when the Magi first saw the star and started traveling to Bethlehem, which probably was quite a dangerous and long journey.

    The nativity scenes started with St. Francis of Assisi, who used real people and live animals in order to bring to life the story of Jesus birth. Again, this turned into the beloved creches that most of us have. But that again is before 1500 and might not be “biblical” enough for you.

    With all that is going on in the culture and the fact that Christmas celebration has spun into an out of control hyper active greed fest, to see a sour puss post like this about what is or isn’t Biblical in some narrow Calvinist view point misses more of the story of Jesus birth than “Silent Night”, “Away in the Manger” and Christmas creches with 3 magi do.

    • RustySkywater

      I never got the point from this article that those aspects of the two hymns make those hymns outright bad. People can still listen to and sing these hymns, and at the same time know that the actual events did not happen as the song texts imply.

    • I’m a little confused, you seemed to prove my point further about the magi etc. My criterion for what is biblical is not that it be post 1500 (don’t think I mentioned John Calvin or any specific date), far from it. My argument is simply that these aspects, commonly associated with the Christmas story, cannot be supported from the actual text of the birth narratives. I don’t think any of them are necessarily serious errors. My purpose in writing that was to make a plea to read Scripture closely, being careful not to read into it what is not there. And when we do that, the true message shines forth clearly – Christ, the Son of God, has condescended and taken on human flesh in order that He might redeem a people for Himself, let us worship Him!

  • Old Fullback

    Taylor, this is interesting. The one challenge I have with it is that if this was such a common or normal living situation, and mangers were part of every day living rooms, why did Luke bother to mention it at all? Not trying to be a jerk with my question, but it seems that Luke was drawing our attention to something that was unusual, as opposed to business as usual.

    • Hmm…that’s a good observation. I think Luke could still be drawing our attention to it as something unusual; even if mangers were a part of every day living it probably wasn’t that often that a baby was laid in them. I think Luke is emphasizing the humble beginnings (so to speak) of Christ even in my reading of the story.

  • Foreign Grid

    Im having a bit of trouble with Jesus being born in a ‘house’ instead of a solitary place. Do you know any other reputable sources (than the book you mentioned) that back this up or at least mention it (preferably older sources)? Also Im curious as to how this myth came along and how the Church has seemingly been misinterpreting this for so long and without it being checked by most scholastics. Also most of the orthodox translations also relate the word as “inn” and not “guest room”

    From what Ive seen so far, this theory seems to be spouted mostly by the more liberal sects of Christianity who also hold various erroneous doctrines. Ive certainly never heard many theologians address this error and the best I can find are miscellaneous blog posts.

    • If you look in the footnotes of Ken Bailey’s chapter he cites a number of other sources. In addition, he himself lived and taught in the middle east for 40 years and is respected as an authority on middle eastern culture.

      I don’t think this is a serious issue and it certainly doesn’t bring into question any of the major doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the Virgin Birth.