Some of you watched your precious babies act out the “greatest story ever told” at their preschool Christmas program. And chances are, your Nativity scene is still displayed today. But most of these traditions likely portray the birth of Jesus inaccurately. What are the real details about the Nativity—the events surrounding the birth of Jesus? Inquiring minds want to know. Or would you rather keep (you and your kids) believing that the wise men met the shepherds at the stable under the bright star on December 25th?
Trigger Warning: This article may invoke Christmas story disillusionment (not really) and/or a desire to stick your fingers in your ear while muttering “la-la-la-la.” And while I jest with the adults, I encourage you, parents, to teach the historical facts to your children as they become old enough to understand.
In journalistic fashion, I will address the who, what, when, where, and why of our Nativity scenes as compared to the biblical accounts. In the interest of space and time, those will not be printed in full here, but please take a moment to read them: Luke 2:1–20; Matthew 1:18–2:18.
Generally speaking, traditional Christmas stories get this right: baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men. Regarding the angel perched atop the stable, we should understand that he represents the host of angels present with the shepherds in nearby fields. Nothing to quibble over.
What and Where
Joseph frantically tries to find a place to stay as Mary is in labor as they arrive in town. Their attempts are rejected (cue the cute preschooler “innkeeper” gruffly saying, “we have no room in the inn!”) and they are allowed to stay in a stable with the dirty animals where Jesus is born and laid in the feeding trough used by the animals.
Luke reveals that Bethlehem was the town of Joseph’s family. We don’t know if he had close or distant relatives, but the town may have been crowded due to the census. Hospitality was highly valued in their culture, so the idea that a pregnant woman in the throes of childbirth might be rejected requires a vivid imagination. Two options emerge: They were taken in by relatives. The word for inn, kataluma, can be translated “guest room” (see Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11), and as Luke 2:7 says, “she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Average homes in that area during that time, archeology has revealed, were constructed as one- or two-room houses. The second room would be a guest room, which was apparently full when Joseph and Mary arrived. Some homes also had attached lower areas for the animals. This would, in the case of Jesus’ birth, allow for a manger to be appropriated for his use as a bed.
Similarly, kataluma can be translated “inn,” and early Christian tradition places the couple at a public lodging—likely the only inn in the small town—which was full. The innkeeper, as such, showed great hospitality in giving them access to the animal room at the back, where Mary gave birth. Note that there was no real sense of urgency to find lodging. “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth . . .” Luke tells us (2:6). The text gives no inference that her labor started “on the way” or “as they arrived.”
The Gospel accounts denote no hint of panic or rejection or fear. It is highly unlikely that Mary was turned away by grumpy innkeepers at her most desperate hour, or that Jesus was born in a stable or cave far removed from town. Rather, the Nativity story relates a normal birth of an extraordinary baby, a humble beginning for the King of kings. He was likely born with relatives nearby yet with little fanfare at first.
The First Month
Angels appeared to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem shortly after Jesus was born. “So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger” (Luke 2:16). A week later, Jesus is named and circumcised “on the eighth day” as the Law directed (2:21). A month later (according to the prescription of Leviticus 12:3), Mary traveled the six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present herself and to dedicate the baby to the Lord (2:22). Presumably they returned to a relative’s home in Bethlehem, for sometime later, the Magi arrived there looking for him.
The Magi’s Arrival
Also called wise men, kings, and scholars, the magi were “a caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science.” They were not royalty (sorry, “we three kings” only works in the carol), but intelligent men who apparently knew of ancient Hebrew prophecies. They understood the significance of a special star that signified the birth of a Jewish king. When they arrived in Jerusalem looking for him, local religious leaders quoted the prophet Micah to indicate Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah (5:2).
Being “from the East” these men served the Persian king (perhaps similar to the magicians with whom Daniel served centuries earlier)—not the “Orient” or Far East as our familiar carol suggests, but the Near East. Yet they searched for the baby king of Israel so they could fall prostrate in worship and present him with rare, expensive gifts (2:11; note also that while three gifts are named, the number of men is not. Another blow to the traditional song and children’s performances). These men would not have arrived shortly after his birth, but easily six months or more afterwards. Early celebrations of Epiphany, January 6, associate it with the arrival of the Magi. The Bible gives hints to the timing as well: when Herod discovers the Magi outsmarted him by leaving secretly, he determines to kill all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. In doing so he was covering all his bases, making sure he caught the child he sought. Such an age range would have been unnecessary for an infant.
Place your three wise men figurines at the end of the mantle and allow them to approach the manger gradually until January 6 when they finally arrive. Of course, no Nativity set will have a child Jesus for that date, so we’ll all just make do with the baby Jesus. Or just explain that the traditional Nativity scene is a composite to show all the characters who eventually visited the baby Jesus.
On a more serious note, consider that foreign scholars trekked for months to worship a newborn king. Their gifts likely financed the holy family’s time as refugees in Egypt (Matt 2:13–15). They, not the Jewish leaders or King Herod, recognized the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, the long-awaited Messiah. They, not the Jewish religious leaders or the king—neither of whom were willing to investigate the possibility that the Messiah had finally come—show us that God’s good news was never just for the Jews. He came for everyone.
The Bible gives no date for Jesus’ birth, but most scholars believe it happened either spring or fall. Using the birth of John the Baptist, one theory works back from Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, who was in her 6th month of pregnancy, then back to the time of Zachariah’s service in the temple to conclude that Jesus was likely born in August or September. Old tradition, dating back to Justin the Martyr in the second century, associate the Passover lambs of springtime with the shepherds who were in the fields watching their flocks. While we can’t know for certain which of those seasons is correct, no contextual clues at all point to deep winter.
So how did the church settle on December 25? Official celebrations of the Savior’s birth began after the year 250, first in the spring and then, with Constantine in the early 300s, on December 25. Having made Christianity the legal religion of his empire, Constantine appropriated the popular birthday celebrations of Mithra, the pagan god of light, which happened in the “deep mid-winter” along with the Saturnalia and Yule festivals in southern and northern Europe. These pagan festivals occurred during a natural lull in the annual agrarian cycle: think of no artificial light (long nights), abundant alcohol, minimal work on the farms. Such a celebration of light was a welcomed reprieve.
Scholars see a natural connection between those late December festivals and the themes of Christ, the “Light of the world.” Rather than attempting to abolish long-standing traditions, the emperor began changing the focus of them instead. Now Christ, not Mithra, was worshipped. Some of the language and secondary traditions remain: “yule” logs, greenery, evergreen tree, lights, candles, etc.
Because the actual date of Christ’s birth is unknown and was not even celebrated for several centuries, cultural traditions have grown up around the celebration of Christmas that have nothing to do with the biblical narrative. And that’s OK, as long as the central message of Emmanuel—God with us—remains the focus of the day for his followers. Why not imitate Constantine by using the culture to shine a light on Jesus? Keep your wreaths and trees and presents, and keep talking about Jesus.
The most important question we can ask about the Christmas story is, “Why did it happen? Why did God send his Son to earth?” No matter what we get “right” or, better yet, as accurate as possible in our portrayal of the Nativity, the questions of when and where and how pale in comparison to why.
Other than Jesus, the name of God’s Son most identified with Christmas is Immanuel. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 when he proclaims the prophecy fulfilled, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).” Mary openly wondered about her ability to conceive given her sexually untouched state (see Luke 1:34). Her child was miraculous, God himself come to earth as a human. Not only would he understand us through experiencing all that we experienced, he would be fully qualified to take upon himself our punishment for sin. To pay the price for all mankind.
Hebrews 2:17: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” He was “in every respect…tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
Jesus came as the perfect God-Man, sharing our human experience and saving us out of our sinful heritage. All of this because he loves us. “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So while the details of your Nativity scene or children’s Christmas program may be historically wrong, that’s alright. He came, and that’s what matters.