5 Things Christians Get Wrong about Christmas
- Liberty University Sponsored Article
- 2015 21 Dec
For many people around the world, the Christmas story is summed up in the nativity scene. Mary and Joseph are usually at the center of the stable scene, kneeling by baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by sheep, donkey, horses, cows, goats, and shepherds, with an angel blasting a trumpet in celebration while three elaborately decorated wise men on camels bring their precious gifts.
When you look at the story told in Matthew and Luke, though, the scene is depicted differently. We’ve become so familiar with the nativity scene and the many tellings of the Christmas story in our culture that it’s become ingrained in our minds, but there are things that we get wrong about Christmas.
“Christmas is one of the greatest examples on how contemporary culture has influenced our perspective of the stories in the Bible,” Professor Chris Hulshof, Assistant Professor of Religion in Liberty University's Divinity School, says. “Over time some of the elements of the Christmas story have been filled in by what we have come to know about that period of time. These elements have been infused into our Christmas productions.”
Let’s look directly at the passages of Scripture that tell the “Christmas story” and consider these five things:
1. Mary and Joseph probably weren’t in a stable or barn.
Luke 2:7 says that she wrapped the baby in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Never is an inn or a stable mentioned. In our contemporary world, this thought makes sense, since travelers go to inns for rest in our world today. “However, a closer look at the Greek words used for “room” (topos) and “inn” (kataluma) shows us how incorrect this type of story line actually is,” Hulshof says.“The Greek word topos is best translated as space rather than room. The Greek word kataluma is used only three times in the New Testament. In Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 the word is used to reference the upper room where Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover together. The event we know as the Last Supper. These two references help us understand that what is probably being referenced by the word “inn” is a designated space in a family residence.”
2. They also probably weren’t surrounded by farm animals.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that there were any animals around the new parents as they brought the Christ child into the world, although many nativity scenes include them. Since they likely weren’t even in a stable or barn, the chance of having animals around would be even slimmer. Some animals, however, were kept indoors, if they were “either significant to the family monetarily or helpless and in need of safekeeping,” Hulshof says, giving one explanation for why we might assume they were there.
3. There were no angels with Mary, Joseph, and the baby.
We commonly put angels in the nativity scene, but they weren’t present at the birth of Christ. It’s understandable that an angelic, holy, glorious presence might have been felt because of Jesus Christ being born, but the angels themselves were not there. Luke 2 says that an angel of the Lord appeared the shepherds living out in the fields nearby. A great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, but then verse 15 continues, “when the angels had left them and gone into heaven…” making it clear that they were no longer physically present on Earth. “ Neither the events recorded in Matthew nor the ones recorded in Luke place angels around the house where Jesus is born,” Hulshof says. “Luke tells us that the angels returned to heaven after their announcement to the shepherds and that the shepherds ‘found’ Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They did not follow an angel to the house or look for the house that had angels around it.”
4. There weren’t necessarily three Magi.
Matthew 2 is where we find the Magi in this story, but their specific number is never mentioned. I can assume it’s because three gifts are given to the baby (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) that we have created three of them for our retellings of the story, but it isn’t Biblical. There might have been two Magi (we know there was at least two because the pronouns describing them are all plural) but who knows-- there might have been five or 10 or more! Another thing to note-- The Magi didn’t come the same night as the shepherds or when Jesus was just born. They arrived several months later.
“Matthew records them seeing the star they spotted earlier above the house where they find Mary and Jesus,” Hulshof explains. “The star did not continuously lead the Magi to Jesus from the time of its first appearance. If this were the case they would not have needed to stop in Jerusalem to ask Herod where the King of the Jews could be found. Rather, the text indicates that the star appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared. The Scripture also tells us in Luke that the Law of Moses was followed for Jesus’ circumcision and their purification. The Magi probably arrive sometime after this but before their flight to Egypt.” Since their visit is what prompts Herod’s slaughter of all baby boys under the age of two, some scholars say they may have even visited more than a year after Jesus was born, or Herod would have not have made two years the cut-off age.
It’s striking to note that although the Magi weren’t kings or necessarily wise sages, their role in the story still holds significance for us today. “The Magi remind us that there are no limits to who and how God will draw people to himself,” Hulshof says. “The Magi were, at best, astrologers whose religious beliefs were based on their study of the stars. At worst, they practiced a form of magic, divination, and plenty of other things that run counter to the commands of God. Yet, God calls them out of their pagan religious practices and into a worship-filled encounter with Jesus Christ.”
5. The birth of Jesus likely didn’t happen in snowy winter.
It’s probably because much of the world is experiencing winter weather in December that we assume Jesus was born during winter weather, too. Since we don't know the exact date of his birth, we can't assume it was during winter. Bethlehem does experience cold winters, so it’s possible that it might snow there during December, but picturing baby Jesus surrounded by snow most likely isn’t realistic.
So while the nativity scene might not be the best model for the true story of the birth of Christ, the story we see in the New Testament is a powerful and beautiful one full of joy and reason to celebrate.
“There is a danger in seeing the Christmas story as another story in a book of stories,” Hulshof adds. “When we adopt this kind of mindset we miss the fact that the Christmas story is the story that all of the Old Testament stories point too. This is the story that brings into focus God’s plan to rescue and redeem mankind through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Without the Christmas story the rest of the stories in Scripture would make very little sense.”
As you read the Christmas story this year, may you see the bigger picture of God’s plan for redemption and His heart for His people shine through this great gift of Jesus.
Written by Rachel Dawson, editor for BibleStudyTools.com. Sponsored by Liberty University, training champions for Christ since 1971; and Liberty University Online, the largest Christian university in the world with over 200 online programs.
Publication date: December 21, 2015