We Have The Christmas Story All Wrong
I collect nativity sets, and I must say I love the traditional setting and characters in them. But a careful reading of the Bible indicates that many of the ideas I’ve always harbored about the Christmas story are just not based in fact.
Each year when I pull out the nativity sets for display, I think about the real setting for this amazing birth and I always want to share that information with others. Here are a few of the problems I’ve discovered with our concept of the birth of Jesus that night.
Mary wasn’t required to register for the census
Jews of the time had to pay taxes, so the Romans forced Jewish men to make the trip to their ancestral homes to register for taxation. While it was necessary for Joseph to make this journey, it was totally unnecessary for Mary to go on that long trip. Women were not required to participate in the census as only men were counted -- they paid the bills.
Joseph probably took Mary with him because of the rumors and controversy surrounding Mary's pregnancy back in Nazareth. It was a tiny town at that time and gossip was the lifeblood of the community – especially among the women as they gathered to fetch water or perform other work together. Sure Mary and Joseph were reassured by the words of angels, but their neighbors would make judgements based on "normal" relationships.
It probably wasn’t winter
Shepherds didn’t take their flocks out into the mountains and hills during the winter months. Since the Bible prominently mentions them being out in the fields when the angels announced the glorious birth, it was most likely spring time.
The angels didn’t sing
According to Luke 2:13-14, the heavenly host praised God saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men." It doesn’t say the angels sang. While they may have sung this line, we cannot be sure. Scripture only tells us they "praised" and "said."
Likely, there was no 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 Marriott. But this is highly doubtful. Bethlehem was a very small village with no major roads, so for it to boast a traveler’s inn would have been extremely unlikely.
In addition, Luke doesn’t use the common word for a 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 the last supper was held.
It’s far more likely that, since Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, he had relatives there. The expectation was that they would open their home to visitors and make them comfortable. Because of the census taking place, probably 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). The family animals shared part of the family home where they were fed and protected at night (from the weather, thieves and predators). So Joseph and Mary were probably lodged on the lower level or in the back of the house—the animal shelter.
No animals, either
The area designated as the family "stable" was small and cramped. Most likely, the animals were removed while the couple lodged there to give them more room. (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.)
The manger wasn’t a wooden box
As I mentioned above, the stable was often a cave or a crude room dug into the surrounding earth to shelter animals from wind and rain. Mangers were generally carved out of the rock during this process. This made them water tight and sturdy so the animals couldn’t damage them – it also saved the family the time and cost of replacing wooden ones.
The Holy Family was probably only in the stable a few nights
After the families were counted, people likely left town as soon as they could to return to their homes and businesses. Joseph, Mary and Jesus then probably moved from the animal shelter into one of the regular guest rooms so Mary could rest and recover. It appears that’s where they were when the Magi arrived. (Matthew 2:11 says the Magi came to a "house" and found "the child".)
There were no kings at the manger
We’ve all learned about the "three kings," both in song and, probably, in Sunday School. Well, there were no kings in the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth. The Magi spoken of were not kings, they were the oriental priests, scientists and scholars of their day. They served as consultants, counselors and advisers to royalty but they were not, themselves, kings.
They needed divine revelation to take them to Bethlehem, and they received it in the form of a new star. The Magi spend much of their time studying the stars, so they would have been well aware of a new one suddenly appearing. It may not have even been especially bright – but they recognized it’s importance.
The wise men traveled to Bethlehem to honor the newborn King, so they naturally would have gone to the king’s palace. Getting no helpful information there, they moved on and did manage to find the baby. They traveled far, and arrived after the baby was moved from the stable to a house.
The myth of their names was added later, after a mosaic depicting the magi was created in the sixth century. The mosaic, now housed in Italy, contains the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. This apparently came from the artist's imagination, as did the art work.
Also, we are not sure how many of the Magi visited Jesus. The text only says that they brought 3 gifts. It does not say that there were only 3 wise men. (I will be writing more details on these interesting men and their quest in a future article. Stay tuned.)
Thousands of baby boys were not murdered
In films and church classes, we were told about Herod ordering the deaths of all male infants in Bethlehem under the age of 2. As a result, we generally picture thousands of Jewish mothers wailing over the loss of their babies. But Bethlehem was an extremely tiny town, and the number of male babies 2 years old and younger was probably fewer than a dozen. Of course, this does not make the suffering of their families any less – especially as sons were so important to them at that time.
While we have many of the details of the story wrong, we have the most important thing about the nativity right: Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was the first Christmas gift. I hope you will continue to set up your nativities and think about the real facts of the story every year.