Rudolph Bultmann, was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early twentieth century biblical studies and a prominent voice in liberal Christianity. Bultmann is known for his belief that the historical analysis of the New Testament is both futile and unnecessary. Bultmann’s approach relied on his concept of demythology, and interpreted the mythological elements in the New Testament based on empirical evidence. Bultmann contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus.
I was thinking of Bultmann when I wrote this piece.
They say that Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas. This is undoubtedly true, but despite what Nativity plays and Hollywood epics would have us believe, the story of the birth of Jesus is more complicated than many people think. Between the difficulty in reconciling different versions of the tale and the 2,000 years of popular interpretation and culture layered on top of them, much of what people commonly know about the story of Jesus’ birth is wildly different from what the Gospels have to say. Here, then, are five myths about the Christmas story for your digestion or indigestion, as the case may be.
Myth No. 1
Jesus was born on December 25.
The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on December 25. But there is no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day.
According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail – the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth – suggests that Jesus’ birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled.
As late as the third century, Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The earliest discussion of the birthday is found in the third-century writings of Clement of Alexandria, who raises seven potential dates, none of which correspond to December 25. The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 comes from a fourth-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on December 25, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”
Some have argued that the date of Jesus’ birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the fourth century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the seventh century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints’ feast days on the days of pagan festivals.
The real reason for the selection of December 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of the Annunciation – the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, thus marking his Incarnation.
Myth No. 2
Jesus was born in a stable.
As depicted in Nativity crèches and Renaissance paintings, Jesus was born in a simple stable. Generations of pastors and priests have used this notion as evidence that Jesus had a humble birth. As a theological argument, that is true. But this particular detail of the story is not in the Bible.
Luke 2:7 states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” This makes it sound as if they could not get a room at the local Holiday Inn, but the Greek word, kataluma, which is commonly translated as “inn,” does not mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hotel, pandocheion, which Luke uses elsewhere in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, if Luke had wanted to say that Mary and Joseph were turned away from a hotel, he had the vocabulary to do so.
The more likely interpretation, as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson has argued, is that Joseph and Mary intended to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem and that there was not enough room in the guest quarters – typically located in the upper level of a house – to accommodate an imminent birth. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere, most likely in the main room of the house, on the lower floor. There is no mention of animals being present, but the detail of the manger seems to be what has led to the image of a stable – and many live Nativity scenes featuring farm animals.
Myth No. 3
“Manger” is another word for “stable.”
When people talk about a manger scene, or Jesus being born in a manger, or a star shining down on the manger, it is not clear they always understand that “manger” refers not to a barn, but to Jesus’ makeshift crib.
A manger is a trough used to feed animals. The word is derived from the French verb manger, meaning “to eat.” In first-century Judean houses, mangers were found both outside and inside the home, sometimes separating an interior space for people from a space where animals were kept. Thus, in the Nativity story, Mary may have had one at her disposal, despite not being in the immediate vicinity of a stable.
Myth No. 4
Three wise men attended Jesus’ birth riding on camels.
The best-dressed attendees at the birth of Jesus were the three wise men. Often mistaken for kings – think of the Christmas/Epiphany carol We Three Kings – these visitors from the east are described in the Gospel of Matthew with the Greek word magoi, or wise men. Nothing about the story’s language suggests that these visitors were monarchs or even that they were three in number. People commonly think there were three because of the gifts enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew: We are told that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there could as easily have been two, four or eight wise men as well as three.
There is also no indication that the wise men visited Jesus as He lay in the manger, as is often shown on Christmas cards. When King Herod anxiously meets with them in Matthew 2:16, he thinks his reign might be threatened by the child they have come to visit, so he orders all boys two years old and younger slain. Thus Jesus could have been as old as two – a walking, talking toddler – when the wise men arrived.
In James Ussher’s, The Annals of the World, Ussher places the visit of the magi prior to the fortieth day. Some churches celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 (twelve days after Christmas) in honor of the visit of the magi. This is the origin of the “twelve days of Christmas” tradition. However, in light of the poor offering at the Temple, it makes more sense that Joseph and Mary were still poor and had not yet received the rather valuable gifts from the magi. Furthermore, they were likely still living with relatives during the census period and potentially in the same animal-housing portion of the place where Jesus was born and laid in a manger. It was not until later that they were living in a house when the wise men visited.
A few more facts that are frequently missed need to be noted by the readers of this story, so let me point them out.
First, there is no mention of camels in Matthew’s story of the wise men. Camels are only mentioned in Isaiah 60. Matthew does this by turning Isaiah 60 into a narrative of magi coming on camels to the place of Jesus’ birth and bringing with them the symbols of Jesus’ kingship, Jesus’ divine nature, and Jesus’ death.
Second, nowhere in Matthew are the wise men said to have been three in number. We read that into Matthew’s story from the list of three types of gifts that the wise men were supposed to offer. The text of Matthew says that “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts (note the plural) of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It does not say one gold gift, one frankincense gift, or one myrrh gift.
Finally, read Matthew’s story carefully and you will see that the wise men came to a house in Bethlehem over which their guiding star rested. In that house lived Joseph with Mary and their baby. There was no stable. There was no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled. There was no census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Those are details from a later source and one that we have blended into Matthew’s story. Our task thus far is to see Matthew’s original birth of Jesus story in its own integrity. This was the first story of Jesus’ birth ever to be written and it did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Common Era! About ten years after Matthew’s first birth narrative, a second and quite different birth story would be added to the tradition by a gospel writer we call Luke.
The literal accuracy of the Bethlehem birthplace for Jesus also depends heavily on the story of the wise men being true. Yet no reputable biblical scholar today would seriously defend the historicity of these magi. This story, which is told only in what it was that motivated the family of Jesus to leave his noble Judean place of birth in Bethlehem in order to grow up in rural and rustic Galilee. That contrived explanation involved a number of supernatural messages received through dreams and even included a little royal intrigue, pitting the household of the monarch, King Herod, against this humble child who was supposed to be a threat to the king’s power (Matthew 2:7–23).
Myth No. 5
Three wise men were led by a star.
In Matthew’s rendition, these kings or magi are led by a magical star that from its heavenly perch in the east announces the birth of a king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2). That star then floats across the sky so slowly that these Middle Eastern stargazers can follow it to their destination (Matthew 2:9).
After all, if you pick a random star in the sky, point at the horizon, and predict that there is a baby about to be born in that direction, statistics – and birth rates – are on your side.
Stars that appear in the sky to announce earthly events are conceivable only in a world that viewed the sky as the roof of the earth and the floor of heaven. Stars in that worldview were a kind of heavenly lantern that God could hang out to be seen on earth to announce important births and were often so used in Jewish folklore. In one interpretive tradition of the rabbis, a star was said to have announced the birth of Abraham, the father of the nation; another announced the birth of Isaac, the child of promise; and still another, the birth of Moses, the one who most dramatically shaped Jewish consciousness.
If God lived beyond the sky, as people in that day generally assumed, with the earth as the object of constant divine attention, perhaps such a thing might be imaginable. It is not imaginable, however, in our space age. We live with a consciousness of the dimensions of space that first-century people could not have conceived. In our world, first airplanes linked us to destinations on the other side of our globe and then spaceships carried us to the far reaches of the moon. Unmanned spacecraft later carried us to other planets in our solar system. With help from the Hubble telescope we have learned that our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, has over 200 billion stars in it, most of them larger than the star that we call the sun. Our single galaxy measures over 100,000 light years in size; in other words, it would take light 100,000 years (traveling at its approximate speed of 186,000 miles per second) to go from one end of our galaxy to the other. To find the distance roughly in miles, multiply 186,000 by 60 seconds and then by 60 minutes and then by 24 hours and then by 365.25 days and you will have the distance traversed in a single light year; then multiply that total by 100,000 for the total mileage. The result is beyond our ability to count. Our modern consciousness has also had to embrace the fact that the whole visible universe, of which our enormous galaxy is but a tiny part, contains hundreds of billions of other galaxies, with more being discovered almost routinely as space continues to expand outward up to and including this very moment.
Stars are impersonal physical objects that do not announce earthly events. There are no wandering stars in our galaxy. Ben Rumson in the Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon, may sing about a “Wanderin’ star,” but in reality, each star travels in a fixed trajectory that can be charted by computers, and its exact location in the sky on any date in the past or in the future can be calculated precisely. So in the real world there can be no such thing as a star able to lead the magi first to the palace of King Herod, where they learn from the king’s scribes that Bethlehem is to be the birthplace of the Jewish messiah, and then to their final destination—Bethlehem. Those ideas, so essential to the biblical story, are simply not credible except when we travel into the world of make-believe. They are pre-modern fantasies.
For most people the birth stories are probably the most familiar part of the New Testament. They are also probably the most misunderstood. They are victimized by the annual Christmas pageants held in most churches. They are distorted by hymns sung, oratorios heard, and sermons preached each Christmas season. They are celebrated in lawn crèches built, Christmas cards sent, and store windows dressed during the holiday season. Like all birth stories, however, they are not really about the birth of the hero, but about the adult life of the hero. Once we break them out of their literal prison, they take on a new wonder, a new meaning, and a new power.
Please keep these five myths in mind as you watch a Christmas pageant in your local parish church next year.