Santa Claus, Reindeer, Decorated Trees, Colored Lights, Silver Bells, Mistletoe, etc. These are all things we associate with Christmas. They are part of the fun and excitement we all enjoy this time of year. As wonderful as those things may be, we understand, of course, that they are not based on the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus. In fact, most of those aspects of the season were adapted from pre-Christian pagan celebrations such as Yule Tide and Saturnalia and really have nothing to do with the birth of Christ.
But how many the other things do we believe about Christmas which may or may not actually be found in Scripture? Take the following True/False test to see how much of what you identify with Jesus’ birth is actually from the Bible.
True= Biblical False= Unbiblical
T F 1. Jesus’ genealogy was a pure line of Hebrew descendants all the way back to Abraham.
T F 2. Mary rode on the back of a donkey when Joseph took her with him to Bethlehem.
T F 3. Joseph and Mary were told by an innkeeper in Bethlehem that he did have a room for them.
T F 4. Jesus was born in a tiny stable surrounded by horses, donkeys, and sheep.
T F 5. Jesus was born on December 25th in the year 1 BC.
T F 6. Choirs of angels sang songs and carols at the time of Jesus’ birth.
T F 7. The shepherds in the fields saw a bright star shining in the sky.
T F 8. Three kings from the Orient saw the star shining in the Eastern sky and wanted to find out what it was.
T F 9. The Three kings, named were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.
T F 10. The men from the East, riding on camels, visited Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus at the stable.
If you answered True” to ANY of the above statements you may want to go back and reread the Bible accounts of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1- 2; Luke 1-2 (the Gospels of Mark and John say nothing about Jesus’ birth). None of the statements above are found in the Biblical accounts. They are all the result of later traditions that have crept into our Christmas lore. Let’s examine each one individually and see what Scripture actually does or does not say.
1. The answer is false. In Matthew 1:1-17, Matthew indeed traces the lineage of Joseph all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the progenitors of the Jewish people. However, when one looks carefully at the record we see that not all the people listed were actually Hebrews.
One example is Boaz. Matthew 1:5 indicates that he was descended from Salmon whose wife was Rahab. Rahab was a harlot in the city of Jericho who helped the two Hebrew spies, so she was not at all Hebrew. Later apparently she married Salmon.
Not only that, but Matthew 1:5 also states that Obed was Boaz’s son by Ruth. Ruth, of course, was the Moabite widow of Mahlon, one of Naomi’s sons. Later she wed Boaz and bore him a son named Obed who was the father of Jesse. Jesse and David were ancestors of Joseph and Jesus. The point is that neither Boaz or Obed were of pure Hebrew lineage, so, therefore, neither were David and Jesus.
2. The answer is false. There is no indication in Luke 2 that when Joseph carried Mary with him to register for the census (2:4-5) that she rode on a donkey or used any other means of transportation. The common image of Joseph leading the donkey with Mary on its back is only based on an assumption that, being pregnant, she would not be able to walk the whole way.
3. The answer is false. Nowhere in Luke’s account of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem does he mention an innkeeper, only that there was no room in the inn. Inns, in New Testament times, often were nothing more than walled-in areas with a well – just a place for travelers to sleep and drink. If they had animals, they would stay with them. Some houses, however, did open small areas in their courtyards to travelers.
All-in-all, inns were not safe. Robbers and murderers often attacked the travelers. In Joseph and Mary’s case, we simply do not have enough information to know what kind of “inn” was too full to house them.
4. This answer is false. Not only does Luke not tell us about the inn, he also nowhere mentions a stable or animals. All we know is that wherever they wound up staying it had a feeding trough (manger) in which they laid the baby Jesus (vs. 2:7,16). Mangers were usually hewn out of stone and found in various places, including caves, streets, and houses. There may have been animals around when Jesus was born, but from the Biblical text we cannot tell whether or not that was so, nor what kind they may have been.
5. The answer is false. We do not know the day or the year in which Jesus was born. One clue for the year, however, may be that King Herod, who tried to kill the infant Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-21), died in 4 BC. That is a well-established fact of history, so Jesus must have been born a year or more before then, perhaps in 6 or 5 BC. The calendar which begins its dating at the time of Christ (AD-Anno Domini) was designed in AD 525 and was widely accepted in the west by AD 800. It was, however, inaccurate by several years in its dating of the conception and birth of Jesus as AD 1.
6. The answer is false. Luke tells us that, when the shepherds were watching their sheep in fields near Bethlehem, an angel appeared to them who announced the birth of the Messiah. After the angel made his announcement Luke says a multitude of the heavenly hosts (more angels) appeared praising God. They may have been singing, but nowhere in the text does it say so. It is nice to assume they sang “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”
7. The answer is false. There is no indication in Luke’s Gospel that the shepherds in the fields saw the star of Bethlehem. They went to see Jesus only when the angel told them of His birth and commanded them to go (Luke 2:8-20).
8. The answer is false. The men who saw the star of Bethlehem were not kings. They were star gazers known as Magi. The Magi were a class of astrologers, priests, and wise men who probably lived in ancient Persia (modern Iran) or Babylon (modern Iraq). Matthew’s gospel (2:1-12) says they arrived in Jerusalem to inquire about a new king being born. They had seen his star “in the East” and came to worship him. The phrase “in the East” does not mean they were looking in the eastern sky and saw the star, otherwise the Magi would have gone in the wrong direction (Jerusalem was to their west). It probably means that they were “in the East” when they saw it. Some scholars have also speculated that the translation should be “we saw His star rising.”
9. The answer is false. The Scriptures make no mention of the Magi’s names. The three names some identify them with, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, were traditional names given much later that have no basis in Scripture or history.
10. Matthew does not say how many Magi there were or that they rode on camels. He only reports that at some point they had seen the star and, one way or another, traveled to Jerusalem to find Jesus. After they arrived they noticed that the star had moved and stationed itself over Bethlehem. They then traveled to that town and located the house where Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus then lived.
The Magi arrived in Bethlehem at a much later time, perhaps a year of more after Jesus’ birth. They were never at the manger in the stable (or wherever it was). Also, it may be that because the Magi brought three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) that the tradition arose of there being three of them.
“So,” you ask, “do I need to go and throw away all my Nativity Scenes in the house?”
“Should I not play the part of a Wiseman in my church’s Christmas pageant?”
The answer to those questions is, of course, “No!” Yes we do need to careful that we know what the Bible does and does not say. However, there is nothing wrong with the many traditions that have grown up around the birth of Jesus. Having nativity scenes (even if they may not be exactly Biblically correct) and participating in Christmas plays, pageants, and musicals, are all wonderful ways to instill the real meaning of Christmas in ourselves and our children. How many of us can recall the times we played the part of Mary, Joseph, an angel, or even a donkey or sheep at the side of the manger? Those are things we never forget.
© 2012 Tal Davis