I love traditions, don’t you? At this time of the year, many dearly held traditions of gatherings with family and friends are revisited, and despite the fact that we've done it all before, they never get old. From the games to the food to the movies, we love our holiday traditions. We get comfortable with the way that we have always known things to be. We would never call these traditions into question. We continue to do these traditions as long as we are able, hoping that they will never change.
We tend to feel this way about out traditionally held beliefs too. There are many “facts” about the nativity story that are merely traditions mistaken as facts. They can be hard to spot, because we are so use to thinking of these traditions as facts. There are also several parts of the story that confuse us because we struggle to understand biblical culture. I want to address some of the confusing parts and traditionally accepted “facts” of this great story, using my personal research and study. I do not claim to know everything, and there are some things that we cannot know for sure because the Bible simply does not tell us. But my hope is to help you better understand what the Bible actually says happened, and not to rely on traditional beliefs.
1. Jesus probably wasn't white (and probably not one else was either)
How many of us have seen a black Santa? Some of us think that’s weird, because we are so used to seeing him as the jolly white man we know and love. I actually know of a white guy that used to live in my neighbor that brought and used the black light up Santa in his yard just because it was cheaper. Somewhere along the line, someone wanted to adapt the normal image of Santa to identify within a different cultural context.
Do you know that people have done that with the nativity story too? We did the exact same thing when we made Jesus white.
The truth of the matter is that Mary, Joseph and Jesus probably looked Middle-Eastern. They probably have had a darker complexion, brown or black hair, and brown eyes. They might have looked like the kind of people that we might be quick to label as Muslims or terrorists today. So did most of the other people in the story, probably including the wise men. It’s very common to portray them with three different ethnicities: one black, sometimes one Asian, and one white. However, there is nothing in the text to indicate the ethnicity of any of them. Historical research shows that the eastern school that they most likely came from was located in Babylon, which is located in present day Iraq. It’s possible that these men were scholar who moved to Babylon to study, but the Bible doesn’t actually tells us for sure. There’s a good chance that they were all Middle-eastern. That presents a different appearance to these scenes than we are used to seeing.
2. Mary probably walked to Bethlehem
Despite the popular traditional belief, the Bible mentioned nothing about Mary riding a donkey. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was only 70 miles, which would have taken 3 or 4 days. Joseph probably would not have been able to afford to buy and keep a donkey, considering that he was a newly married craftsman. Although it can't be confirmed that she didn't ride one, the fact that it is not mentioned in the biblical account calls it into question. She most likely had to walk. The text also mentions nothing about the difficulty of the journey because it was a normal kind of trip in those days. It wasn’t quite as difficult and treacherous as some film versions make it out to be.
3. Mary was probably not in labor when they arrived in Bethlehem
Because of the size of the census, they had to go to Bethlehem as soon as they could, but they probably had to wait for their turn to register. It was probably during this waiting period that Mary’s time came and she gave birth. If she had been in labor when they arrived, it probably would be have been detailed in the gospel written by the Luke the physician, since he is often very detailed in his accounts of illnesses and ailments in other places in his books. They also may not have had the time needed to gather things such as the swaddling clothes if the baby had come that soon. Besides, there were probably anxious to leave Nazareth for a time since they both were probably facing ridicule for Mary's unplanned pregnancy. They would not have waited until the last minute to leave.
4. Mary and Joseph may not have been rejected by every place in Bethlehem
It is also a popular tradition to portray their rejection by several inns before they found an innkeeper compassionate enough to squeeze them into their stable. However, this part of the story is completely made up! The text says nothing about them knocking on doors and being rejected by other inns in Bethlehem. It does say there was no room for them to stay, but this is misunderstood to mean several things that it doesn’t.
Those that interpret this passage this way have a major misunderstanding of Jewish culture. The Jews had a high sense of hospitality, and it would have been highly unlikely for them to turn people away, especially a young couple with child. The fact that the place where they stayed still found somewhere for them to stay even when there was no room illustrates this kind of hospitality. If they had gone knocking on several doors and had been rejected all over town, it most likely would have been recorded.
This is also a misunderstanding of the concept of an inn. Inns were a Roman concept, and Bethlehem probably didn’t have a real inn since there were such a small town. Most people that would have wanted to stay at an inn probably would have gone to Jerusalem, which was only 5 miles north. The word “inn” is probably better translated as “guest room,” inferring a private house. It is also quite possible, since Joseph was from the family of David, that whoever took them in was actually a relative, who would have been unlikely to turn them away. This may be confusing to those of you that have the picture of the wooden stable in your mind, but that is probably not accurate either. Read the next point to see what I mean.
5. Jesus was probably born in a private house, not a wooden stable
Although the wooden stable is a dearly loved tradition, the Bible mentioned nothing about a stable. The only thing that implies a stable is the manger. Wooden stables were not common in Israel because wood was scarce. In fact, stables separate from the house were also rare. This tradition also relates to a cultural misunderstanding of what an inn was verses a guest room. Based on biblical research, there is a high possibility that Jesus was born inside a private home, not in a stable. To show you what I mean, here’s a diagram to illustrate.
This diagram illustrates the way that many houses would have been set up in Jesus’ day. The room for the guests was on the second floor. The main floor would have probably been the last place that would have the room and privacy needed for giving birth. This main area of the living quarters would have had a manger for when they usually brought the animals in at night. Mark Moore’s commentary, The Chronological Life of Christ, suggests this paraphrase of Luke 2:6-7, “Sometime after Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, Mary gave birth. Since the guest room was already filled, she delivered in the main living area of the house and used the manger as a crib.” (Moore 50) I think there is a possibility that they actually did stay in the crowded guest room until Mary gave birth, then they moved downstairs. This is something that we cannot know for certain, but it is interesting to see that it has been presented as fact.
6. There may not have been any animals at the birth of Jesus
It is very popular to depict animals at the birth of Jesus, because of the belief that he was born in a traditional wooden stable. However, the Bible mentioned nothing about animals at the birth of Jesus. Again, the only thing that indicates animals is the manger, and there’s a possibility this manager was in the house or brought inside the house for the baby. But the only animals mentioned in the entire nativity narrative are the sheep of the shepherds outside of town, and the account doesn’t tell us if they brought any of the sheep with them to see the baby. It appears that there were excited enough by what they heard that they might have abandon their flocks to see the child. If Jesus was born inside, and the house was crowded enough to have people staying the main living quarters that night, there probably did not have the room to bring the animals inside. They probably stayed outside. Besides, the animals obviously couldn’t use their feeding trough! And again, if animals had been there, it probably would have been recorded.
7. Joseph probably didn’t delivered the baby
8. Jesus was not born on December 25
Although we celebrate Jesus’ birth on this date, most scholars agree that Jesus was not born on December 25. The most obvious argument against this date is the shepherds. The shepherds, who are described as being nomadic, simply would not have been watching their flocks at night in the winter. It is not practical or logical. Also, the idea that the governor would have called for a census right at the start of winter is not practical or logical. We are unsure of the date of Jesus' birth at all, although it is more likely to have been in spring or summer for these same reasons.
9. The angels did not sing to the shepherds
How many of you have seen a Christmas play put on by kids or with kids in it when they cutie angels would sing a song? I’ve been one of those angels. Although it’s cute, it’s not necessarily accurate. It is very common to portray the angels that came to shepherds outside of Bethlehem singing their message of peace and goodwill. It sounds nice, but it is simply not true. There is no mention of these angels (or any other angels in all of Scripture) singing their message. It clearly says that they spoke their message. Besides, I personally think that the shepherds would have been less terrified by a company of heavenly hosts singing than to them than by the heaven hosts speaking with a mighty unified voice.
10. The star probably did not appear over Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus
11. The number of wise men are unknown
It is a commonly held tradition that there were three wise men that visited Jesus, because they had three gifts. Tradition even made up names for them. However, we do not know the number of Magi, or their names. Magi is the plural of Magus, so the only thing we know for certain is that there were at least two. There may have been three, but it is also likely that there was a bigger group of Magi that studied together that made the decision to travel to Bethlehem. I have heard someone argue that Herod would not have been so disturbed about the announcement of Jesus’ birth if only two or three Magi had come to Jerusalem to see him.
12. The wise men were not at the birth of Jesus
- First, the account in Matthew describes Jesus’ birth in the past tense: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem” “Where is the one that has been born King of the Jews?”
- Second, Herod had to ask when the star had appeared. This is very interesting clue that is often ignored. Most people did not realize the significance of the star, because it says that all of Jerusalem was disturbed, or shocked, along with Herod by what the Magi said. No one had taken notice of it, even in a culture where people were familiar with the stars. After all, they didn’t have the same light pollution we have today, which meant their eyes were adjusted. When they slept on their roofs during the summer, they were seeing the stars. Maybe they didn’t know as much as the Magi, but they were familiar with them enough that they would have noticed something out of the ordinary. That’s why it’s interesting to notice that everyone was shocked when they heard about the star the Magi had been following. It took scholars that studied stars to realize that what was happening in the sky indicated the birth of a Jewish king. If the star has been as out of the ordinary as it is often portrayed, Herod would not have had to ask.
- Third, according to what Herod learned from the Magi, the star had appeared two years before. The Magi said they “saw the star when it rose” (Matt 2:2 ESV). The star had risen in the east two years earlier, either when Jesus was born, or possibly when he was conceived. It is because of Herod's knowledge of this timing that he orders the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem that were born in that time frame.
- Fifth, it is unlikely that Jesus could have been dedicated at the temple on the eighth day (as is recorded in Luke 2) if the Magi had arrived at his birth. Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem (5 miles south on the main road), that Herod’s order to kill the baby boys probably would have come within the week and they would have had to flee from the baby slaughter before they could have gone to Jerusalem. Mary would have also been unclean from the birth, and therefore unfit to travel by the Law of Moses (A woman was unclean for 7 days about giving birth to a male child, until she offered her purification offering on the eighth day). If the slaughter was a few days later, it still would have been unsafe for them to go to the temple if Herod was looking for the child.
- Lastly, if these events (the birth, the shepherd’s visit, and the Magi’s visit) had overlapped each other, it most likely would have been recorded in both accounts (Matthew and Luke)
Hopefully, this inspires you to look at the nativity narratives again with a better understanding of what the Bible says and you are able to see some of the areas in which our culture has embellished the story. It's crazy for me to see how off some of these traditional versions of the nativity story have exaggerated what is actually written. But even amid all the traditions and alterations that this story has gone through over the last 2,000 years, one thing remains the same:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14a (NIV)