We live in a world where Hollywood blockbusters, school plays, department stores, and our church hymnals all contribute to the way we understand and remember the birth of the promised king of Israel. This secularization has given rise to overfamiliarity with the story of Jesus’ birth. Our children’s books and nativity scenes, while helpful in some ways, have also given us a false sense of confidence when it comes to the details. Ask the average westerner today to tell you the story of Jesus’ birth and you will almost certainly hear things that are altogether inaccurate or utterly different from the reliable historical accounts we have in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
I’ve narrated through the birth of Jesus in detail in my video series on the Gospels, but as we approach Christmas, I wanted to give a handful of commonly believed details of the story that are misunderstood or absent from the Bible.
Getting the details right should matter to us - not just for the sake of our witness, but because we actually love Him. Not only does real knowledge lead to an overflowing heart, but is He worth us knowing Him deeply. Love is oriented outwardly and is focused on the object of our love, not on what we derive out of the person that we’re loving. This is why we should not be content with fuzzy or surface-level details of the story.
The Bible shares so many beautiful details of Christ’s birth, and each one is an invitation into a deeper knowledge of Him and closer friendship with Him.
Myth 1: Jesus was born on December 25th.
The Bible doesn’t tell us when Jesus was born, though some have speculated it might have been in the autumn season. December 25th was not celebrated as the day of Jesus’ birth until after the Roman emperor Constantine’s rise to power and "conversion" to Christianity in 325 AD. A December 25th dating cannot be traced back to either the teachings or the practices of the early church.
Myth 2: Jesus was born in a barn or stable with cows, sheep, and other animals around Him.
The Bible says that Jesus was born and placed in a manger after His birth (Luke 2:7). A manger is not a stable or barn where animals lived. A manger is simply a feeding trough for animals. In the first century, mangers were sometimes made out of stone. Even though animals would have certainly eaten out of this feeding trough that Jesus was laid in, there's no mention of any animals present at Jesus' birth. We mostly get that idea from Christmas carols. Church tradition holds that Jesus was born in a cave where the "Church of the Nativity" now sits, and there would have been a manger in this cave.
For more, watch these videos: The Birth of Jesus (part 1), (part 2), and (part 3)
Myth 3: The shepherds in the fields saw choirs of angels singing when Jesus was born.
Though it is not clear from the scripture if they were actually singing (as our Christmas hymns boldly declare), it is clear that they were speaking and giving glory to God. Luke 2:13-14 says that "a multitude of the heavenly host" were praising God and saying "glory to God in the highest!". In modern terms, the word "host" is often used to describe a large number of something - for example, we might say: "I have a host of things to get done today." A closer look at the Greek word used in this passage is highly revealing. The word used by Luke is στρατιά (transliterated: stratia), a word that in classical Greek denoted an army or a company of soldiers. Understanding "stratia" as a word with explicit military overtones transforms our "sweetly singing" choir in the fields of Bethlehem into a powerful angelic army robed in battle array.
For more on why this is significant, read this article: The Heavenly Armies at Jesus’ Birth
Myth 4: The three wise men showed up on the night of Jesus' birth.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that three wise men visited Jesus. An entourage of an unspecified number of Magi from the east (Matthew 2:1) did indeed visit Jesus and brought three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh), but it was not on the night of His birth. Matthew says that Mary and Joseph were residing in a house when the Magi visited (Matthew 2:11) and yet made no mention of a manger, thus giving the impression that the family had settled down in Bethlehem after the census had been taken. Additionally, Jesus was no longer a tiny newborn when they arrived. We know this because immediately following the visit of the Magi, Joseph receives a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The family fled by night and remained there until Herod was dead (Matthew 2:14-15). If the flight to Egypt occurred on the same night of His birth, Mary and Joseph would not have been able to present Jesus in the Temple according to the Law (Exodus 13:2,12; Luke 2:22-24).
For more, watch these videos: The Visit of the Magi (part 1), and (part 2)
Myth 5: Mary remained a virgin until the day of her death.
Though Jesus’ conception was of the Holy Spirit and not through Mary lying with Joseph, Matthew 13:55-56 goes on to tell us that the couple would have 4 other sons as well as an unspecified number of daughters as well.
For more resources on the birth of Jesus, check these out: