Merry Christmas to all! It’s a magical and special time of year, celebrating the most miraculous day in Christendom: the arrival of the promised Messiah - who was God become flesh... the incarnation.
We all know the wonderful Christmas story, with animals and shepherds and a baby in a manger. Nativity scenes are everywhere, and it’s a beautiful story of the simplicity of the first Christmas.
The story given in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke are lovely, but through the two millennia of Christian history, many mythical details have slowly crept into the Christmas story. It’s something I studied in depth and I wanted to share with us all, as the Christmas story is not what is often depicted in Christmas plays, movies and other popular depictions of the first Christmas.
Here are 3 of the most popular myths about the Christmas story you may not know about:
MYTH # 1 -
JESUS WAS BORN IN A HOUSE, NOT A BARN/CAVE
*artistic depiction of nativity*
*it is far more likely that Jesus was born in a Jewish home surrounded by family*
Most people believe Jesus was born in a stable (kind of like a modern day barn) or a cave). Most nativity scenes depict this view, and many popular adaptations have Mary and Joseph going to either a Jewish hotel or house to house looking for a place to stay. This popular narrative about Jesus original birthplace is based on a combination of mistaken interpretations and extra-biblical sources. Here are some things to consider:
A) Jewish homes had stables built into the home.
Animals would not be left in a field or a stable outdoors where they could easily be stolen. Early Jewish homes had a stable for animals built into the house like we have garages built into modern homes. This is why there would be a manger, because it would be built into the home itself.
B) The word for INN is the word for guest room
The word for INN is the Greek word “kataluma” which has a variety of meanings. It is used in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 to designate the upper room (or guest room) where Jesus and his disciples had the last supper. It is also is used in the infancy narrative to designate the guest room that would be unavailable to them, which is why they stayed in the main level of the house (like staying in the living room of a house today)
The story of the Good Samaritan does describe an actual Inn, and the word used there is the word “pandocheion” which does indicate an actual hotel-like place. Such a place would be in a heavily trafficked area, not a tiny town like Bethlehem
C) Israel was a hospitality culture
It would have been unthinkable for Jews in that time to turn away anyone in need, especially someone from the prestigious line of King David (which Joseph was). You see this in the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, where the two men don’t hesitate for a second to invite the stranger they met (Jesus) to stay the night (Luke 24:29). You also see this in the time of the judges, when the stranger in town is invited in and the town is cast in a bad light for not showing hospitality (Judges 10:15-21). It would have been a massive cultural taboo for two native Israelites to be sent to a field or cave, especially when in desperate need.
D) The Shepherds left Jesus there
Additionally, when we read that the Shepherds visited Jesus that very night, we read that they left the family where they were and praised God. IF the family had been in a cave or a stable (hypothetically), it would have been unthinkable for them not to bring them back to their own homes, especially knowing the incredible importance of the child, but we see no such invitation.
The most plausible reason would be because Jesus was in a home, surrounded by relatives and friends, and the Shepherds would have concluded that he was in the best possible place he could be.
Just imagine if you went to visit a family who had just given birth staying in a barn, would YOU not immediately offer them a better place to stay?
Also, one additional detail.. many depictions show the Shepherds bringing the sheep with them. This is just silly. They were watching over huge groups of sheep, and bringing them all into a small residential quarter would have been implausible as losing a sheep would have been very likely.
E) Mary’s cousin lived VERY close to Bethlehem
While we do not know the town where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, we do know it was relatively close to Jerusalem, as was Bethlehem. If there hypothetically were no place to stay, it would have been more than likely Mary and Joseph would have stayed in Elizabeth’s home, which, being the home of a priest would be quite decent accommodations.
F) The idea of Jesus being born in a cave and Mary giving birth upon arriving at Bethlehem comes from extra-biblical works
The idea that Mary rode on a donkey comes from the infancy gospel of James. Other elements, including the last minute arrival and birth in a cave come from sources like Pseudo-Matthew. These were legends written down centuries after the events of the gospels.
If you analyze the events described in Luke and Matthew, you can see that they do not explicitly make those claims. For instance, Luke says that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem and while they were there
So there we have a number of good reasons why most scholars believe that Jesus was born in a house, not a stable/cave. Most of these traditions come from oral and other sources, but don’t fit the archaeological evidence nor the historical context of Israel in the first century. If you’d like to read more, here are some sources:
MYTH # 2 -
THE MAGI ARRIVED THE NIGHT OF THE BIRTH
If you Google the nativity or something similar, you will see countless images of the wise men there (it should be added that given how wealthy they were, even IF they had been there that night, why wouldn’t they arrange for a better home than a stable?). The truth is, the wise men arrived much later. There are a number of myths surrounding the wise men you should know:
A) THERE WERE MORE THAN 3 PEOPLE
Considering the considerable distance travelled, the importance of the trip, and the gifts given, it would be inconceivable to believe that there were only 3 people present. We know there were three GIFTS but a group of this kind would have been part of a large entourage of servants, attendants, security (travelling can be treacherous), equipment and animals. The size of this caravan would likely be a reason why they came to Herod’s attention and why they were given an audience in his court. If you consider the story of Abraham’s servant and his simple journey, he was surrounded by a large caravan of servants, attendants and materials.
B) THE WISE MEN LIKELY ARRIVED LONG AFTER THE BIRTH OF JESUS
If you read the story in Matthew (the only place it appears), it says that their visit came AFTER his birth:
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,” Matthew 2:1 ESV
Additionally, when they arrived, the word used was “paidion” which designates anything from an infant to a young boy. We know from the narrative that after the Magi left, Herod threatened to kill all children under 2 “according to the time he had ascertained from the wise men.” (Matt 2:16) This means two things:
1) The magi left after the birth, and theirs was a long journey, likely meaning several months at least before their arrival, not counting the preparation time (it takes time to prepare for such a trip).
2) Herod determined the range of possible ages of the child to be up to two years. If the Magi arrived the very day of his birth, such a large age range would have been terribly unlikely.
Now, to this we need to add the various things that happened in Luke’s Gospel. It describes several events that had to happen BEFORE they fled to Egypt:
1) 8 days until circumcision (Lk 2:21)
2) 40 days until the purification at the Temple (Leviticus 12:2, Exodus 13:2).
These two events point to the fact that Jesus HAD to have been in Bethlehem at least 40 days (over one month) at the bare minimum, in order to fulfill these requirements. So we have a range of between a month and a half and 2 years for the visit to take place.
We should also note that the Magi went to a HOUSE, not a stable/cave, which again undermines the idea of 3 wise men in a stable myth.
C) THE STAR WAS NOT A COMET
Far too many depictions of the Magi portray the star as a massive glowing orb in the sky. Not only would this have been unheard of in the ancient world where they were extremely skilled in mapping the sky, but such an event would have been an incredibly massive omen, being recorded everywhere on earth as a once in a generation event. It’s also depicted as a moving object, leading the Magi like a lightning bug to the very house Jesus was at.
The depiction seems to describe a comet rather than a star, as stars do not behave in such ways. What is far more likely is that these men from the east come from a culture that is exceptionally skilled at reading the stars, and understood the hidden prophecies in the sky. Consider the following:
1) These men hail from the same region as the Prophet Daniel, and he provided countless predictions about the arrival of the Messiah. Many scholars believe that people of this time had detailed mapping of the sky, including a region of the sky designated for various areas, including one for Israel. To see a star appear in the sky would be to see patters emerge which have meaning attached (like when planets align, or certain stars arrive at particular areas of the sky).
It is quite likely that the Magi saw certain features in the sky that were predicted to be signs that the fulfillment of the promised Messiah had come. The fact that the Magi had to ask Herod’s scholars where this Messiah would be located demonstrates that the sign in the sky was only indicating what had occurred, not where it occurred.
2) What is described in the second part of the story is a completely different phenomenon. We no longer see the star described as a star (far off in the night sky) but as a glowing orb that eventually comes to rest over a specific home. This is no longer an object in the sky but a light that directs them supernaturally, in very much the same way that the pillar of fire led Israel in the desert. Either way, the star does not behave like a star or any object in the night sky, but rather like a very supernatural phenomenon that specifically guides the caravan directly to the home of Jesus.
As one researcher noted: “How could a star in the universe go before the wise men? It could not. Bethlehem is to the south of Jerusalem. Stars do not move south; they move west. Also, stars do not settle over houses, as this one did.”
One should not that unlike the direction given to the Shepherds, which gave extremely detailed signs to look for, the Magi had no such direction. Any child under two may be the promised Messiah, and considering the number of children Herod likely killed, it demonstrates the difficulty of knowing which child was likely the Messiah. This may explain why God supernaturally intervened to point out exactly who the child was.
For more information on the wise men, you can read more about it here: