The typical story we hear repeated is: “It’s about 2000 years ago, the evening of December 25. Mary rides into Bethlehem on a donkey, urgently needing to deliver her baby. Although it is an emergency, all the innkeepers turn them away. So they deliver baby Jesus in a stable. Then angels sing to the shepherds. Afterwards, they all join three kings with camels in worshipping the quiet, newborn.”
Was Jesus born in a stable? Or a barn? Or a cave? The Bible does not mention any of these three places in connection with Christ’s birth, only a manger. Scripture simply reports that they laid Jesus in a manger, (a feeding trough) because there was no room for him in the guest room. For “Inn,” the Greek word used in Scripture is kataluma, and can mean guest chamber, lodging place or inn. The only other time this word is used in the New Testament, it meant a large, furnished, upper room within a private house. We know this to be the room of the Last Supper. It is translated guest chamber, not inn (Mark 14: 14-15). According to Biblical archaeologists, Jesus was probably born in the house of relatives, but outside (under) the normal living and guest quarters. In Jesus’ day, animal sheds were typically attached to houses. In Palestine, a manger was not normally found in a separate stable; rather, it was in the main living room of a peasant house, where animals are brought in at night.
What about the angels? Sorry, no beautiful winged women. In a verse of the Christmas carol, “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” we read that the angels song from “the cloven skies” with “peaceful wings unfurled.” Or in the carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” they are summoned to “Wing your flight o’er all the world.” The Bible speaks of angelic beings such as cherubim and seraphim as having wings (see Isaiah 6). However, what most people do not remember is that the specific use of the word “angel” (messenger) in scripture indicates that they do not have wings. Angels in the Bible never appear as cute, chubby infants. When angels do appear, they always appear in the form of full-grown men…and always strike fear into those who they visit! The archangel Michael had special charge of Israel as a nation. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and Mary.
Did baby Jesus cry? As the familiar line from “Away in a Manger” states, “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” This picture presents a Jesus who apparently never cried as an infant—and perhaps never soiled his diapers or made a mess with his food. We must be careful about overemphasizing Jesus deity and underemphasizing his humanity. This is the heresy of “Docetism.” (The word Docetism is derived from the Greek dokeo, meaning, “appear; seem.” The docetic Christ seemed human but really was not.) As true God, Jesus cannot sin, but as true man, he has the capability to suffer, experience pain, and perhaps even get sick or cry. Being God, however, he may not have succumbed to though he those ailments, even could.
Did three kings riding camels come to Jesus’ birth? Scripture does not say that any kings or camels visited young Jesus. In the Gospel according to Matthew, it does report wise men “magi” came, but it does not say how many. None of the Early Church Fathers suggested the magi were kings. Since the word “magi” used is Scripture is plural, there were apparently at least two, and there could have been several more. The Bible simply mentions three costly gifts they presented—gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but this does not necessarily indicate the number of magi. There is an Armenian tradition, identifying the "Magi of Bethlehem" as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. However, there no proof of what country the magi came from, except that they came from the East (The traditional origin of these three figures is based on where these gifts are found in abundance). Also, the wise men clearly did not arrive to see Jesus until sometime after Christ’s presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 22-39). At this time, Scripture calls Jesus a “child,” not an “infant.” It is possible that little Jesus was walking and talking by then. While traditional nativity scenes depict three "kings" visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, in a manger accompanied by the shepherds and angels, the Biblical account simply presents an unnumbered party of unnamed "wise men" visiting much later after his birth, with Jesus described not as a babe but a child, and residing in a house, not a stable, with only "his mother" present. Based on the calculations of King Herod and the magi (Matthew 2:16), Jesus could have been two years old or under. The visit of the Magi is commemorated in most Christian churches by the observance of Epiphany, 6 January.
Was Jesus born on December 25 or in December at all? Although it is not impossible, it seems highly unlikely. The Bible does not specify a date or month. One problem with December is that it would be unusual for shepherds to be “abiding in the field” (Luke 2:8) at this cold time of year when fields were unproductive. The normal practice was to keep the flocks in the fields from Spring to Autumn. Also, winter would likely be an especially difficult time for pregnant Mary to travel the long distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem (70 miles). A more probable time would be late September, the time of the annual Feast of Tabernacles, when such travel was commonly accepted. Thus, it is rather commonly believed that Jesus’ birth was around the last of September. The conception of Christ, and the angelic visitation to Mary, however, may have taken place in late December of the previous year. Our Christmas celebration may well be recognized as an honored observation of the incarnation of the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14). (The word “Christmas” means “Christ Mass,” a special celebration of the Lords Supper—called a Mass in the Roman Catholic Church).
Why do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, if that is not when he was born? The date was chosen by the Roman Catholic Church. Because Rome dominated most of the Christian world for centuries, the date became tradition throughout most of Christendom. The original significance of December 25 is that it was a well-known pagan festival day celebrating the annual return of the sun. December 21 is the winter solstice (shortest day of the year), and December 25 is the first day that ancients could clearly note that the days of sunlight were definitely getting longer. Since no one knows the day of Christ’s birth, the Roman Catholic Church felt free to choose this date and wished to replace the pagan festival with a Christian holy day (holiday).
Despite human misconceptions, the facts about Jesus are more marvelous than words can express. He was indeed born of a virgin (prophesied by Isaiah 7:14), in the city of Bethlehem (exactly as prophesied by Micah 5: 2-5). Jesus was conceived in Mary, not by man, but by the Holy Spirit of God (Luke 1:35). As the apostle John reveals, Jesus existed before the Creation of the world (John 1). He is part of the Holy Trinity we know of as God (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit) (Philippians 2:6-11). The Son of God came into human form for a purpose—to die as a willing (and only true) sacrifice in payment for the sins of humanity…for your sins—to win victory over death, and the power of evil…to win victory for you!
Pastor Aaron Boerst