Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Myths

Here is a list of my favorite Christmas myths - traditional parts of the Christmas story that we assume to be true, but they are not found in our two accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke.

Mary rode on a donkey and Joseph walked to Bethlehem? No donkey mentioned in the Bible. Maybe they had one, maybe not. The reason that a donkey and ox are always depicted in manger scenes goes back to the middle ages, when the two animals were placed in the scene as symbols of Isaiah 1:3.

Mary gave birth the night that they arrived? "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:6). Sounds like they arrived some time before. They were smart enough not to make a 9-month-pregnant woman travel!

Joseph delivered the baby? Almost impossible in their culture. Joseph is from Bethlehem (Luke 2:3-4), so he has plenty of extended family. His female relatives likely served as midwives.

No room in the inn? This myth is understandable, since our Bibles say "inn" (Luke 2:7). However, the Greek word is kataluma, which more likely means "guest room" (Luke 22:11, Mark 14:14). Jews in general did not stay in inns, and it is unlikely that Bethlehem had an inn. Since Joseph had family in Bethlehem, Luke probably meant that there was no space in their guest room. Perhaps the family did not give Joseph and Mary their best reception, since Mary got pregnant before they got married?

Jesus was born in a stable? No stable is mentioned in the Bible. "She laid him in a manger" (Luke 2:7). Peasant homes sometimes had feeding troughs dug into the dirt. Some animals were kept in the house for safety. They probably kicked out the animals and used the manger for the baby because it was convenient and warm. Perhaps this was a "sign" to the shepherds because it showed that the Messiah was born as a peasant, rather than in the Herodium, Herod's nearby palace that overshadowed Bethlehem. (By the way, Herod's tomb was discovered in the Herodium just a few years ago).

Swaddling clothes are for dead bodies, symbolizing the coming death of Christ? No, the Greek word sparganao (Luke 2:7) merely means to wrap in cloths, and is not used elsewhere to refer to the cloths for dead bodies.

The Star of Bethlehem was some astronomical phenomenon? The star described in Matthew 2 does thing that real stars don't do - like change positions and hover over a particular house. Stars were regarded by ancients as supernatural, and that seems to be what Matthew is saying about this particular star.

Three kings from Persia came to visit? Matthew doesn't give a number. And they were magoi, astrologers and advisors to kings, not kings themselves. They may have been from Persia. In Greek "the east" is the same word as Anatolia, so it is possible that they are wise men from Anatolia rather than from Persia - but that's not certain (see Ben Witherington's blog on this).

The wise men came that night? We don't know exactly when they arrived, but it was some time between one month and two years after his birth (Matthew 2:16). The magoi came to a house, not a stable (Matthew 2:11). It must have been at least a month later, because Joseph was still poor when Jesus and Mary were presented at the Temple (after 33 days, Lev 12:1-3). They offered two turtle-doves instead of a lamb, which was only allowed in the case of poverty (Lev 12:6-8). If the wise men had already come, then Mary and Joseph would not have been poor.
Medieval and renaissance art often portrayed the shepherds and wise men at the stable, but that is because artists of the time would put all the related events in one scene with no concern for chronology. Nativity scenes sometimes included the annunciation, although that happened nine months earlier.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh symbolize... ? Various versions of this Christmas myth circulate - that they symbolize kingship, deity and death, or prophet, priest and king. But all three were appropriate gifts for a king, and were very expensive.

Herod killed hundreds of babies? Population estimates of Bethlehem make it likely that Herod's soldiers killed a dozen or so baby boys. Those who doubt that Herod was evil enough to do this should read Josephus' account of Herod's last years. In his attempts to preserve his throne, Herod killed court members, wives and sons. Caesar Augustus famously said about Herod that it was better to be his pig (hus) than his son (huios). On his death bed, Herod ordered the execution of every tribal patriarch in his realm to make sure that all would mourn at his funeral (fortunately, this command was not carried out).

Jesus was born on December 25, AD 1? The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but was not December 25. The first time his birthday was mentioned was in the late second century, and it was given as November 18, but that's not certain either. Jesus must have been born before March of 4 BC, because that's when Herod the Great died. 5 BC seems likely, although maybe it was as early as 7 BC.

The picture: The Vigil of the Shepherds, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459.


  1. Hi Gary,

    Nick Batchelor here. Haven't talk to you in awhile and wanted to take a look on what is going on in your blog.

    I have to agree with you when you point out that this could not be an ordinary "star" under 'The Star of Bethlehem was some astronomical phenomenon?'

    Who do you think provided the star that moved in the sky to guide the magi or astrologers?

    Remember, the star did not guide them directly to Jesus in Bethlehem. Rather, they were led to Jerusalem where they came in touch with King Herod, who wanted to kill Jesus.

    And he would have done so if God had not stepped in and warned the astrologers not to tell Herod where Jesus was. It was God’s enemy, Satan the Devil, who wanted Jesus killed, and it appears he used that star to try to accomplish his purpose.

    Check out this excerpt from a Bible study reference book,"Insight on the Scriptures" below.

    Take care,


    "Seen After Jesus’ Birth. The “astrologers from eastern parts,” hence from the neighborhood of Babylon, whose visit to King Herod after the birth of Jesus resulted in the slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem, were obviously not servants or worshipers of the true God. (Mt 2:1-18; see ASTROLOGERS.) As to the “star” (Gr., a·ster′) seen by them, many suggestions have been given as to its having been a comet, a meteor, a supernova, or, more popularly, a conjunction of planets. None of such bodies could logically have ‘come to a stop above where the young child was,’ thereby identifying the one house in the village of Bethlehem where the child was found. It is also notable that only these pagan astrologers “saw” the star. Their condemned practice of astrology and the adverse results of their visit, placing in danger the life of the future Messiah, certainly allow for, and even make advisable, the consideration of their having been directed by a source adverse to God’s purposes as relating to the promised Messiah. It is certainly reasonable to ask if the one who “keeps transforming himself into an angel of light,” whose operation is “with every powerful work and lying signs and portents,” who was able to make a serpent appear to speak, and who was referred to by Jesus as “a manslayer when he began,” could not also cause astrologers to ‘see’ a starlike object that guided them first, not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, where resided a mortal enemy of the promised Messiah." —2Co 11:3, 14; 2Th 2:9; Ge 3:1-4; Joh 8:44.

  2. Here are some other facts regarding things associated with Christmas that most Christians should realize.

    The Christmas tree “has precious little to do with Christian celebration and a lot to do with the stubborn survival through the millennia of pagan rituals of winter light and rebirth.” (The Boston Herald) “Trees with trinkets hanging on them were part of the pagan festivals for centuries.”—Church Christmas Tab.

    Holly was popular with the Celts “to keep the house goblins in order at winter solstice time. . . . It could deflect evil, help in the divination of dreams, defend a house from lightning.”—Beautiful British Columbia.

    Mistletoe “came from the Druids in England who used it in strange worship relating to demonic and occult powers.”—Church Christmas Tab.

    On December 25 “the Mithraists celebrated the birth of Mithra . . . There is absolutely no biblical authority for December 25 as having been the day of the Nativity.”—Isaac Asimov.

    Gift giving was a feature of Saturnalia. “You were expected at this festival to make some present to all your friends.”—Ancient Italy and Modern Religion.

    The star “atop the tree was worshiped in the East as a symbol of purity, goodness and peace 5,000 years before the nativity of Christ.”—United Church Herald.

    Could Christmas for Christians be syncretism?

  3. Hi Nick,

    Interesting proposal, that the star might have been a demonic sign. I guess I would have to see more evidence to regard it as a likely interpretation. Matthew gives no hint of this view. I also think that we have to be careful not to assume that stars are always related to astrology - lots of other passages in the Bible use stars as positive symbols.

    Syncretism - I think that an act is syncretistic if 1) it is consciously performed as an act of worship to another god; and/or 2) people around us still recognize it as as pagan act of worship. If I call the second day of the week "Monday," am I guilty of worshipping the moon god (not to mention worshiping Tiw, Odin, Thor, Freya, and Saturn the rest of the week)? I don't think so, because neither I nor those around me any longer associate those words with their pagan origins. This complicates matters for determining what is syncretism. One further point: symbols are not permanently tainted by their pagan use - they can be redeemed.

  4. Hi Gary,

    How have you been? It's that time of year again.

    Have you ever had a chance to see this interesting, well-put together video on Christmas? 34 mins. Might be good to watch with your family or study group.


    It is not produced by Jehovah's Witnesses.
    If you get a chance take a look and tell me what you think.

    Take care,

    Nick Batchelor


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.