The Bible details Jesus Christ’s birth in Matthew 1:18-25, Matthew 2:1-12, Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20. The intricate elements surrounding history’s most talked about figure, which have been retold again and again in churches, within families and by popular media, are generally well-known by the faithful around the world.
But did you know that there are some minor misconceptions — some traditional details that are not in the Bible, but that have been added into the story as time has progressed?
Here are some of the biggest misconceptions and clarifications surrounding Jesus’ birth:
Three Wise Men? Maybe Not
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the birth of Christ is that there three three wise men who came to visit him following his arrival. While it is commonplace to see this group of men in popular re-tellings and depictions of the story, reality — at least based on the Biblical account — is not so definitive.
Religion News Service recently interviewed Bible experts who weighed in on this phenomenon, offering some important clarifications. As they noted, Matthew 2:1-11 refers to “magi from the East” (magi means wise men or priests who studied the stars). As you’ll notice, “magi” is a plural word, but the Bible does not definitively say how many men came to see Jesus. The holy book never claims that there were only three wise men — it simply says that there was more than one.
Wise Men’s Gifts to Jesus Cause Confusion
It’s the three gifts that were given to Jesus — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — that seem to be at the root of the claim and popular depiction surrounding the wise men. Based on the fact that these three items were bestowed upon the child, some have claimed that each person must have given one item (i.e. there were three wise men).
While it is certainly possible that this number of attendees is accurate, as stated in the last point, we aren’t quite sure. The number of gifts being given may actually have had little to do with how many people went to see the newborn Christian savior. After all, a group of 10 may have given three gifts collectively — or two people may have done so.
The Magi: Kings or Astronomers?
According to experts who spoke with RNS, some have assumed that the three wise men were also kings. This notion is based on Old Testament interpretations of Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60:6, among other verses (Psalm 72:11 reads: “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”).
However, the magi, at least described by Ben Witherington, New Testament professor for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminar, told RNS his definition of these revered men — one that certainly doesn’t encapsulate the word “king.”
“Magi were astrologers,” he said. “They were normally counselors to kings and priests, and hence considered wise men, able to read the signs of the skies and the times.”
So, here, too, it seems there is some debate — however most have settled on the men as astronomers and not kings in the sense that they would be traditionally viewed.
Did the Wise Men Even Visit Jesus as a Baby?
One of the more common — but still often overlooked — debates around Christmas time is when the wise men visited Jesus. While most nativity sets come complete with the “kings” to set next to a newborn Jesus, there is actually evidence to suggest they visited Jesus much later when he was a young “child” and not a “baby.”
For starters, a close reading of Matthew 2: 1-12 reveals that the wise men visit Jesus in “house.” (Although as you’ll see in the next section, there is some confusion even regarding the use of this term.)
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him,” verse 11 says.
Additionally verse 16 notes that after the wise men told King Harod of their plan to visit the little “king” and they never returned, Herod ordered all children under two years old killed. That seems to suggest that Jesus was not a baby at the time, and that even Herod thought he could be older.
So what does all this mean? It seems quite possible that the wise men didn’t visit Jesus until he was older than a newborn. But even if that wasn’t the case, we must at least admit the Bible isn’t crystal clear that they came while he was still a baby.
Where Was Jesus Born?
Many popular interpretations of Jesus’ birth show the baby sitting near farm animals in a stable. However, we’re not quite sure that this is how the events actually unfolded. Let’s start with the word “inn.” According to Witherington, in Greek (the word is “kataluma”) it can also mean “guest room.” The Biblical expert continues:
So what we must envision is that the holy family had to stay in the back portion of the ancestral home in Bethlehem, where they would have kept the beast of burden (hence the feeding trough referred to).
Archaeology has shown that in such homes you had a petition wall between the main front part of the house and the place where you kept your prized animal. But these are Jews of course, so the animal would have been left outside, and the place quickly cleaned for Mary and the baby in view of ritual purity issues. This also explains Luke’s later reference to Mary going and doing the ritual purity procedures after giving birth, due to the possibility of uncleanness being contracted in such a locale.
Witherington argues that there was likely not a commercial “inn” in Bethlehem. Bible expert Mary Elizabeth Sperry, who works with the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, adds that “katalumati” likely means “guest chamber.” She notes that the same word is used to describe the room that Jesus met the disciples in for the last supper.
Also — a different word — “pandocheion” — was used in Luke 10:34 to refer to a commercial inn, she contends. If Mary and Joseph were attempting to reach such an establishment, some claim that the Bible would use this word and not “katalumati.”
The idea that the Jesus was born at a family’s home and possibly in the area where animals were kept is fascinating. If Joseph’s family members had other company when he and Mary arrived, such a notion makes sense.
“Some have speculated that the family did not treat them well because of questions about the legitimacy of Mary’s pregnancy,” added Todd Bolen, a professor of biblical Studies at The Master’s College.
When Was Jesus Born?
While the “where” question is certainly important when discussing Jesus’ birth, so is the “when.” Christians have been celebrating their savior’s birth for quite some time, but no one is really sure when it actually happened. Dec. 25 is merely the anniversary that has been chosen to commemorate Christ’s birth — not the actual date.
In 2008, for instance, some scientists contended that Jesus was actually born in June — likely a surprise to those who may not realize that December is not the definitive month that he entered the world. While we may never know the exact time frame, the world has been commemorating the event for hundreds upon hundreds of years — a celebration that continues to be revered by children and adults, alike.
Carousel image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.
This story has been updated with an additional section. TheBlaze’s Jonathon M. Seidl contributed to this report.
(H/T: Religion News Service)