Most Americans are deeply familiar with the nativity — the traditional Christmas scene that captures the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s a display that typically shows the baby Christ surrounded by stable animals, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and the three wise men.
But the nativity of Jesus in the biblical story is a bit different from the popular images we see in modern culture. So, let’s dive into some of the Christmas myths and misconceptions that have clouded facts about the birth of Jesus:
Fact #1 About the Story of Jesus’ Birth: The Date
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” - Luke 2:8-9 (NIV)
First fact about the birth of Jesus: Jesus wasn’t necessarily born on December 25. In fact, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Bible doesn’t mention when he was born. There are a plethora of theories about the date of Jesus’ birth, with some looking at facts about the birth of Jesus in the Bible to try and determine in what season the Christian Savior arrived on Earth.
But, as GotQuestions.org notes, “It is impossible to prove whether or not Jesus was born on December 25. And, ultimately, it does not matter.” To this point, the date is not important to the details and purpose surrounding the nativity of Jesus.
The Bible offers numerous details about the story of Jesus’ birth, but for whatever reason, the date was left out. There are many explainers about the nativity of Jesus and the date of his birth — accounts that detail how we came to observe it on December 25.
While this date doesn’t date back to the Bible itself, it does have deep roots in the Christian church. Biblical Archaeology has more:
By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor).
So, there you have it. The date surrounding the story of Jesus’ birth has deep roots, though we can’t definitively say Christ was born on December 25.
Fact #2 About the Nativity of Jesus: The Wise Men’s Arrival
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” - Matthew 2:11 (NIV)
Another myth or misconception surrounding the nativity of Jesus is the arrival of the wise men. When we look deeply at the story of Jesus’ birth, it’s likely the wise men arrived on the scene well after the event took place.
The story of Jesus’ birth tells us that — contrary to the facts about the birth of Jesus that have made their way into traditional nativity scenes — the wise men likely didn’t make it to visit Mary, Joseph and Jesus right after Christ’s birth.
Answers in Genesis calls it “highly unlikely” that the wise men saw Jesus on the day of his birth, though we aren’t quite sure when they arrived. Some of the facts about the birth of Jesus seem to point us to the reality that they very likely weren’t there on the day of Christ’s birth. Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV) reads:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”
The nativity of Jesus that we see in churches and place in our homes generally shows the wise men as giving gifts to Christ on the night of his arrival, though this is something that likely happened days or even a year or two after the birth.
Fact #3 About the Story of Jesus’ Birth: The Location
“And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” - Luke 2:7 (NIV)
The nativity of Jesus we see in traditional displays leads us to believe that Christ was born in a stable, but is this true? As we explore facts about the birth of Jesus, some have noted that the stable claim might not be as solid as we assume.
Historian Candida Moss has more about the story of Jesus’ birth and, in particular, the location he was born:
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 couldn’t get a room at a Holiday Inn, but the Greek word “kataluma,” which is commonly translated as “inn,” doesn’t mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hostel, “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.
Answers in Genesis has also tackled this element of the story of Jesus’ birth, noting that the “inn” and the innkeeper many people discuss at Christmastime might actually be more similar to a guest room in a family member’s home than a modern-day hotel.
When you remember that the entire reason Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem — the place of Christ’s birth — was for the census, one begins to wonder if they instead stayed with family or friends. In the end, we can’t know for sure, but facts about the birth of Jesus don’t really point us to a stable.
“Joseph and Mary probably stayed with Joseph's relatives in Bethlehem, but because of the large influx of people, the house would have been crowded and the kataluma (guest room) was full,” Tim Chaffey wrote for AiG. “Consequently, Joseph and Mary would have been relegated to living in the lower level of the house. It is hard to believe that pregnant Mary would have been turned away from a relative's home in a society that greatly valued familial ties.”
Fact #4 The Story of Jesus’ Birth: The Number of Wise Men
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” - Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV)
When you dig deeper into the facts about the birth of Jesus, you’ll quickly learn that there’s another issue surrounding the wise men: while we typically see three of them coming to visit when we read about the story of Jesus or look at displays of the nativity of Jesus, the Bible actually never tells us how many wise men there were.
“People commonly think there were three in number, because the Bible details the fact that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh,” Pastor Shane Pruitt wrote. “But, this doesn’t mean there were three magi; there could just as easily have been four, eight, or 10.”
The story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2, which you can read in Biblica in its entirety, tells us that “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem,” but as Pruitt said: there are no facts about the birth of Jesus in the Bible that give us a definitive number of magi.
Fact #5: The Story of Jesus’ Birth Doesn’t Include Animals Around His Manger
Popular depictions of the nativity of Jesus show animals surrounding his manger, but the Bible doesn’t mention animals in this context. In fact, an exploration of facts about the birth of Jesus barely mentions animals at all.
Luke 2 does tell us that there were shepherds watching over their flocks when an angel arrived to tell them about Jesus birth, but the nativity of Jesus itself includes no such animals.
Still, the nativity of Jesus — working off the misconception that Jesus was definitely born in a stable — many times shows animals surrounding Christ after his birth. Is it possible the shepherds brought their flocks with them? Sure, but the story of Jesus’ birth simply doesn’t tell us that for sure.
We hope these facts about the birth of Jesus are helpful and thought-provoking. The story of Jesus’ birth is without a doubt incredible, which is why it is essential to understand the facts, myths and misconceptions surrounding the biblical moment.
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