What is the matter with the above picture? Take a long look. Guess what. Just about everything is wrong with it!

While the traditional nativity story is cherished, there are several misconceptions about the birth of Jesus that are worth exploring for a more accurate historical and biblical understanding. It is my purpose to help you revise that picture.

The Myth of the Inn Keeper

Their is a cranky character called the “innkeeper” in most Nativity stories. He is often depicted as the one who turned away Mary and Joseph at an overcrowded inn. But Gospels do not mention an innkeeper. This character likely emerged through artistic and dramatic interpretations of the story over time. This portrayal inadvertently assigns a negative reputation to some poor fictional character who never existed.

The Myth of the Inn

On top of that, there is the concept of an “inn.” However, as we understand it today, no inn existed in Bethlehem during that time. The Greek term often translated as “inn” (kataluma) actually refers more accurately to a “guest room” in some private home. This is crucial in understanding the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. Bethleham was far to small and remote of a town to need an inn.

The Myth of the Wooden Manger

Contrary to the popular image of a wooden manger, historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the manger in which Jesus was laid was likely made of stone. This conclusion is based on the common use of stone for constructing everyday items in ancient Israel, including animal troughs, due to its abundance and durability compared to wood​. [Source]

Myth of the Barn or Stable

Added to that is the barn. The traditional notion of Jesus’ birth in a distant, isolated stable or barn does not align with the biblical narrative. As explained earlier, the mention of a manger suggests a location within a family dwelling where animals were housed. Rather than a detached barn or stable, it was probably just the downstairs living quarters where their animals would come at night.

The Myth of the Star Guiding the Shepherds

The star in the nativity story, often misunderstood, actually appeared to guide the Magi, not the shepherds, to Jesus. Contrary to popular belief, this celestial sign manifested after Jesus was born, not on the night of His birth, indicating the Magi’s visit occurred sometime later (more later). [Source]

The Myth of the Wise Men at Christ’s Manager

Often depicted in the nativity scene, the Magi did not visit Jesus at the manger in Bethlehem as commonly portrayed. Instead, according to Matthew 2:1-12, they arrived when Jesus was older, probably up to two years after His birth. So, Jesus would have been walking and talking. Can you picture them with the toddler Jesus? This visit likely occurred in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, indicating a significant time lapse between Jesus’ birth and their arrival, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. This account contrasts with the traditional image of the Magi at the stable.

The Myth of the Three Wise Men

In the Bible, the exact number of wise men, or Magi, who visited Jesus is not specified. The common belief that there were three stems from the three distinct gifts they presented: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This assumption is rooted in the narrative of their offerings rather than any direct biblical statement on their number, leading to the traditional portrayal of three wise men in the nativity story.

The Myth of the Angels Singing to Shepherds

In the Bible, specifically in Luke 2:13-14, angels are depicted as appearing to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. However, the scripture does not explicitly state that these angels sang during this revelation. It describes them as praising God and speaking of peace on Earth, but the common portrayal of singing angels is more interpretive tradition than a direct scriptural account. The focus in the passage is on their celestial appearance and the message they convey. Maybe they sang. Maybe they didn’t.

The Myth of December 25th

Most of you know this, but some may not, so it makes the list. The Bible does not explicitly mention Jesus’ birth date as December 25th. The selection of this date for celebrating His birth came about for several reasons, including its alignment with pre-existing pagan festivals. While December 25th is widely observed as Christmas, the Bible does not provide a definitive birthdate for Jesus, leaving room for the possibility that it occurred on that day or at another time, the exact date remaining uncertain. [Further Intel]

The Myth of “No Crying He Makes”

“Away in a Manger,” a popular Christmas carol, has this line: “The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” But did Jesus cry at birth? This depiction of a “no crying” Jesus is Docetic. Docetism is an early heresy that ignores the humanity of Christ while emphasizing His deity. In reality, as a baby, Jesus would have likely cried, slept, and needed care just like any other human infant. He was fully God, yes. But He was also fully man. [A Great Christmas Read Concerning This]

Myth of the Animals

The idea that animals were present during Jesus’ birth is uncertain. While a manger suggests the potential for animals nearby, there is no explicit biblical mention of them being in the immediate vicinity during the birth. Additionally, considering the cultural norms of the time, animals might have been housed separately from the living quarters, especially during significant events like childbirth, making it much less likely that they were present in and around the birth scene.

Myth of the Rushed Birth

Most depictions of Jesus’ birth have Joseph and Mary rushing to Bethlehem, bringing Jesus into the world the moment they got there. However, Joseph, being a proper devoted husband, probably would not tempt such a circumstance to occur. The Gospel of Luke tells us, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born” (Luke 2:6; emphasis mine). More than likely, they may have been there for days, even weeks, before Christ was born. [Source]

Wise Men as Kings

This one you may already know. I hate to ruin my third favorite Christmas song, “We Three Kings,” but here it goes. The Magi are often called ‘kings’ in popular stories and songs, but they are not. The Bible describes them as ‘wise men’ or ‘Magi’ from the East. The idea of them being kings is a later addition, not found in the biblical text.

Can you think of any I missed?

 


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    4 replies to "Revising Our Christmas Story: 13 Things We Often Get Wrong About the Nativity"

    • Bibliophile

      “Can you think of any I missed?”

      Because you and I have been engaged in banter for some time now, I know you won’t take offence; but probably the only thing you missed – is the whole point of the nativity story! All of these traditional depictions of Jesus which you identify as ‘myths’ (by the way, myth is not fiction or falsehood; it’s a way of imagining truth) are meant to convey deep spiritual insights into the reality of God becoming man: they visually capture the essence of Christian humility, submission, poverty and obedience; basically, these biblical stories represent the truth of Christmas and the very reason we celebrate the occasion – they are true in general, even if they may not necessarily be historically accurate in every detail. Because historical accuracy is beside the point here.

      Historical truth is not the measure of all things, my dear rationalist friend: there is more to revelation than that 🙂

    • Brian P

      In terms of the ‘inn” I would concur that it is certainly not a commercial inn. I would even suggest its not even a guess room but an upper room (which may or may not be the same thing depending upon where the residents usually slept). Luke used “kataluma” only twice in his gospel: the nativity story and the last supper where Christ share a meal with his disciples in the “kataluma.” Luke knew the word for a commercial inn. He used it in the story of the good samaritan, “pandocheion.” For a great break down on our western cultural misconceptions of the nativity story, Kenneth E. Baily wrote an article for Theology Review (November 1979), entitled, “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7.” It’s hard to believe after all these years we’re still telling the story wrong.

    • Ewan Kerr

      All; of this under a Christmas Tree ?

    • Bibliophile

      Ever wonder what Christmas would be like today, if it had been possible in the 13th century for St. Francis of Assisi to be a disciple of Descartes? Read all about it here, only at Parchment and Pen 😏

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