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serving jesus christ the king

Christmas myths

We play a game in our household at this time of year—with Christmas cards, storybooks or TV programmes. It’s called “Spot the mistakes in the Nativity story”. I don’t mean mistakes in the Bible—but in the popular retellings and perceptions that go with the Christmas story. Here’s a few of the common misperceptions:

- No room in the inn? This myth is understandable, since some Bible translations say ‘inn’. However, the Greek word means ‘guest room’. Jews tended not to stay in inns, but houses often had a guest room. Since Joseph had family in Bethlehem, there was probably no space in their guest room, and so they had to squeeze in with the family—not much privacy or comfort for a pregnant woman.

- Jesus was born in a stable? Sorry, but bang go all those lovely images of cattle lowing and oxen looking on lovingly at the little mite in the trough. Families often kept their animals in the house for safety, but on a lower level. Feeding troughs (mangers) were built into the change of level. The animals were probably kicked out and the lower level given over to Mary and Joseph. The manger, cleaned out, would have been an ideal place for the baby—being both convenient and warm.

- Mary gave birth the night that they arrived? "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:6). It sounds more like they arrived some time beforehand. Joseph wasn’t stupid enough to make a long journey with a heavily pregnant woman.

- Three kings came to visit? Matthew doesn't give a number. And they weren’t kings. Instead they were magi—advisors to kings, not kings themselves. Also it isn’t likely that they arrived at the same time as the shepherds. Jesus seems to have been somewhere between one month and two years, and Mary and Joseph were living in a house, not a stable (Matthew 2:11)!

- Jesus was born on 25
th December? The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but December 25th is unlikely. Nor was it in 1 AD. The first time his date of birth is mentioned isn’t in the Bible, but late in the second century, as November 18, but even that's not certain. Jesus must have been born before 4 BC, because that's when Herod the Great died. The date ‘25th December’ comes from a pagan feast that was ‘christianised’ by the later church.

Many others could be mentioned, but what does it all matter? In some ways not a lot, because it isn’t the Bible that is being disproved, but man-made distortions. The central fact hasn’t changed, God came into our world as a little baby in the humblest of circumstances—this was the start of his great rescue plan for mankind. Yet in another sense it does matter—for too long we have got into the habit of paying more attention to what we are told about the Bible and its message, rather than what the Bible actually says. We can listen to preachers mything the point, yet we don’t check to see for ourselves what the point actually is. It isn’t so important when we look at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but it is crucial when we look at the other end—his death. To misunderstand it is to misunderstand everything.