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.)
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 who 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.)
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.