Christmas Possibilities from Story of Christ's Birth
- Monday, December 22, 2003
'Tis the season when most Christians reflect on the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus. But we should always keep in mind that many Christmas traditions are not well supported by evidence, such as the Bible or any other reliable sources. As homeschool families, we all want to cultivate critical thinking in our kids. We can start by considering some of the facts and fancies about Christmas.
Perhaps the primary symbol of Christmas is the nativity scene. In this season, we always see depictions Baby Jesus in the stable with Mary and Joseph. Animals such as donkeys are all around and the shepherds are there with their sheep. And two weeks later, on the Feast of the Epiphany, the Three Kings are added to the nativity scene.
We've all grown up with this holiday tradition. In recent years, this tradition has come to include ACLU litigation. But there is little Biblical evidence to support this familiar picture. The Gospel of Luke describes the birth of Jesus and the visitation by the shepherds. The text in Luke 2:7 simply says:
"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in the manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
Notice that this text does not describe a "stable" with animals all around. A manger is a feeding trough, not a stable as many people believe. While it does seem that a manger would most likely be found in a stable, it could also have been outside. So Jesus could well have been born in the street. At any rate, the text isn't clear on this particular point, and the Christmas story is enshrouded with tradition.
In Bethlehem, there is a church called the Church of the Nativity, traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus' birth. This church is inside an underground cave where animals had purportedly been kept in the First Century. The Church of the Nativity was built in the Fourth Century by the Emperor Constantine and is one of the oldest surviving Christian churches.
The familiar "creche," i.e. the stable nativity scene, is attributed to Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century. Francis had made a nativity scene using live people and animals, including a real baby. And Francis's tradition has survived today, defining our familiar image of the Nativity.
The second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is the text that discusses the "Three Kings." But the text in Matt 2:1 and other verses only says that they were "wise men from the east." It doesn't say that they were kings, nor does it say that there were only three. The number three might be because of the three gifts they brought. Also, neither does the text say that they were astrologers, nor that they were "magi," which is to say "users of magic." And the account says that they went to the "house" where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were, not the "stable," which at least suggests that this visitation was at a later time after Jesus' birth.
Over the centuries, these traditions had become increasingly embroidered, departing further and further from the strict Biblical account. But these traditions are not necessarily wrong. Our family enjoys traditions as much as anyone, and they are a part of our traditional Christmas celebration. These thing are only pointed out to encourage everyone to critically inquire about things we hear and learn. We should learn to seek out specific evidence for truth and take care to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.
For example, at this time of year, one often hears explanations of the Star of Bethlehem. Many people would like to reconcile the Biblical account with modern science. One might like to say that there was a transient celestial event like a supernova, a star that burned brightly for a time and then dimmed down. Unfortunately for this notion, there are no recorded sightings of such an event from the time in question. Also, according to such theory, a supernova would have left a nebula behind as a remnant. No such nebulae are available that would fit both the Biblical account and the astronomical requirements.
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