Nativity Story: Separating Fact from Fiction
Many of these might be familiar holiday traditions, but which are based in fact?
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New Testament scholars like F.F. Bruce, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener and Darrell Bock have written academic volumes demonstrating with scholarly rigor that the biblical account of Jesus’ birth is historically reliable. However, if you’ve ever heard the Christmas story retold or watched it dramatized on film, you may not have realized how many myths were added to the story found in the Gospels. In this piece, I will address five of them.
1. No Room at the Inn
Luke’s phrase “there was no room at the inn” is often taken to mean that Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a local Hilton in town. But this is highly doubtful. Bethlehem was a very small village with no major roads. So a traveler’s inn would have been extremely unlikely. In addition, Luke doesn’t use the common word for hotel inn (pandeion) that he uses other places. Instead, he uses a word that means guest room (kataluma). It’s the same word that he used to describe the place where Jesus took the last supper.
It’s far more likely that since Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestoral home, he had relatives there. And because of the census taking place at the time, none of his relatives had any room in their guest quarters. Guest rooms were typically in the front of houses and the animal shelters were in the back of the house or the lower level (in a cave). In the family shelter, the family animals were fed and protected at night from the cold, thieves and predators. So Joseph and Mary were lodged on the lower level or in the back of the house—the animal shelter. Most likely, the animals were removed while the couple lodged there. (There is no mention of animals in Luke’s or Matthew’s account. St. Francis is credited with building the first manger scene complete with live animals.)
2. Three Kings
You’ve heard the line “these three kings.” Well, there were no kings in the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth. The Magi were not kings as commonly understood. They were oriental priests schooled in esoteric arts, dream interpretation, astrology, reading animal parts to predict the future, etc. They were consultants—counselors and advisers to royalty. Their search for Jesus could only bring them to Jerusalem. They needed divine revelation to take them to Bethlehem.
The Magi came to honor the new born King and were probably in shock when they discovered He would be born in the place where animals were kept. Also, we are not sure how many of the Magi visited Bethlehem to honor Jesus. The text only says that they brought three gifts. It does not say that there were three Magi.
In addition, Matthew tells us that they didn’t arrive until after Jesus was born. They may have arrived and/or stayed well after the birth since Herod was concerned with male infants that were up to two years old—so much so that he ordered their deaths.