Christmas Myths

Nativity

Each year, there are several often-repeated Christmas images that circulate in Nativity plays, television specials, and pastoral sermons. A number of them are technically right but misunderstood (for example, there were wise men who brought Jesus gifts, but there probably weren’t exactly three of them and they didn’t see Jesus in the manger…more on that in a bit). Others probably aren’t as right. Here’s a brief Christmas Eve rundown:

Christmas, December 25, originated as a pagan holiday

This isn’t a Christmas story myth, per se, but it gets around this time of year on cable television. The popular view regarding the origin of Dec. 25 as Christmas is that the early Christians borrowed it from pagan solar festivals — particularly the mid-winter celebration of the birth of god Sol Invictus.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this if it were true, but it has some problems: (1) No early church writer (and no writer until the 12th Century, in fact) claims that Christians deliberately chose Dec. 25 to coincide with pagan celebrations. (2) Here’s the real kicker — there is lots of evidence that the church in the first to mid-fourth century was not very accommodating to pagan worship practices. Rather, it’s not difficult to see another reason that date would have been chosen: the early church thought that Jesus was conceived on the same day he was crucified — March 25. Add nine months and you have Dec. 25. Any correlation with pagan festivals was likely coincidental (and early church writers like St. Ambrose treat it as such).

Even if the Christian observance of Christmas on Dec. 25 emerged from pagan festivals, that’s really just an indication of the victory of the Christian faith over paganism.

For more discussion, though, check out this Fox News story from last year, featuring my Systematic Theology prof at Southern, Gregg Allison: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/12/21/back-story-december-25th-1209634885/

Angels sang to announce the birth of Jesus

Everyone likes this one, and I admit that I hear Handel’s Messiah in my head every time I read Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

But the angels didn’t sing. Look at Luke 2:13 more carefully: “Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying.” You don’t even need to appeal to Greek for this one. They even render it “saying” in Messiah. There was no singing. The angels just said it (or proclaimed it, if that sounds more Christmas-y).

Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cave, because the nearby Bethlehem inn was full

This one is problematic on a couple different levels. First, neither Matthew or Luke mentions anything about a cave (or a stable, for that matter), and as far as I can tell that idea originated in the apocryphal (and utterly strange) Protoevangelium of James.

The second problem surrounds the word “inn.” The traditional image here is of Joseph getting turned away from innkeeper after innkeeper as he searches for a place for Mary to give birth. As many have pointed out, it’s doubtful that a tiny Israelite town like Bethlehem would have even one commercial inn, let alone several. Additionally, Joseph would have had close relatives staying in Bethlehem for the same reason he was — the census. Near Eastern hospitality being what it is, Joseph would have very likely tried to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem, not in public lodging.

The word here in Luke 1:7 is katalumati, from kataluma, which is apparently flexible and could conceivably mean something like “inn.” BDAG lists a number of different usages in both the LXX and NT. But what’s really interesting is how Luke uses the word. It appears twice in Luke’s gospel — once here in the birth narrative, and again in 22:11 for the large, well-furnished “upper room” Jesus used for the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed.

It seems to me that if Luke had wanted to say “inn” he could have — and in fact he did in 10:34, for the place where the Good Samaritan took the injured Jewish man. Except the word here is different; the Good Samaritan took the man to the pandocheion, not a kataluma, the word Luke seems to prefer for something like a house.

With these details in mind, several scholars (e.g., Ben Witherington, Preston Sprinkle, my IBEX prof Abner Chou, etc.) have suggested a scandalous alternative to the traditional story. It’s possible that there was physically no room, but again, think of the hospitality of that culture and Joseph’s Davidic lineage. There’s really no room at all for a young son of David and his very, very pregnant wife?

Instead, some scholars suggest that when Joseph knocks on the door of his relatives’ house in Bethlehem, they see his extremely pregnant wife betrothed Mary and refuse to let him in. Perhaps word of Mary’s indiscretion and Joseph’s ostensible ambivalence had already reached them. Or perhaps they realize the two aren’t married, Mary is quite obviously pregnant, and Joseph still hasn’t divorced her, indicating his tacit approval of her actions (or even his complicity).

Either way, Luke’s wording here is full of the biting, almost sarcastic response of Joseph’s family — there’s “no room” for kin who sin and tolerate sin. So they send the disgraced couple down to the small add-on to the house, where the animals would sleep and eat, to let the consequences of their sin sink in a bit maybe.

This detail is admittedly speculative, but the arguments are convincing. Regardless, considering Luke’s use of that word and the very small size of Bethlehem, there probably was no inn, and no innkeeper either.

Joseph hurried Mary to Bethlehem, arriving just in the nick of time

This is a very popular view, appearing in the movie from a couple years ago, The Nativity Story. Mary goes into labor during the trip (conveniently right on the outskirts of Bethlehem, actually) and Joseph has to frantically search for lodging, getting turned away repeatedly by heartless innkeepers.

Of course, the Bible gets in the way here, too. In Luke’s account, after Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem for the registration, Luke tells us that “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” Mary and Joseph had apparently been there for a little while when Jesus was born, and there’s no late-night, frenetic drama surrounding Jesus’ birth.

Since Mary and Joseph were traveling to Bethlehem for the census, they wouldn’t have needed to be there long, but it seems Joseph was a thoughtful and sensitive enough husband to stay in town until Mary gave birth.

[This is unrelated, but interesting: this myth also seems to have originated in the Protoevangelium of James, as just as they arrive in Bethlehem, Mary has a strange vision and goes into labor. Joseph searches frantically for a handmaiden to help deliver the child, eventually finding a woman named Salome (yes, the same Salome from Mark’s resurrection narrative in Mark 16). Salome’s Thomas-like unbelief regarding Mary’s virginity is the strangest part of the story. I’ll let you read it for yourself.]

Jesus was laid in a manger

Okay, this one isn’t a “myth” as such, but we usually think of the wrong thing when we hear “manger.” With all the Christmas pageants, it’s become such a cuddly word that we get desensitized to what it really is. A manger is an old English word for an animal feeding trough, not a comfy makeshift baby crib. There may not have been any straw and it certainly wasn’t made out of wood, but rather rough stone.

One could also imagine the remnants of some animal dinner still lingering in the trough. It’s a little bit like putting your newborn baby in a dog’s food bowl — an ignominious beginning of life for any child, let alone the King of Kings.

Three wise men visited Jesus on the night of his birth

First, as noted above, there weren’t three wise men but three gifts (each of which, by the way, were gifts due a king and have nothing to do with Jesus’ roles of prophet, priest, and king, which is something I read on Twitter this week).

Second, the wise men didn’t get to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth, and weren’t there at the same time as the shepherds (despite the indication of every Nativity scene ever). The wise men visited Jesus some time after his birth.

How long after? A small detail in Matthew’s account gives us a clue: we’re told that Herod ordered the murder of every male boy in Bethlehem “two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16). This is also evidence for the later arrival of the wise men, since there’s no other reason for Herod to slaughter children in a two-year age window. Based on this, the wise men could have visited Jesus as many as two years later.

Those are just a few I thought of. Do you have any others? Share them in the comments!

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