“And there was no room for them at the inn.”
It’s difficult to read that without thinking of the countless Christmas plays featuring a brave, costumed young soul stepping onto the platform to play the role of innkeeper. Similarly brave, costumed young souls play the role of poor Mary and Joseph, turned away to the straw-laden manger where Christ would be born.
How much of that mental image do we have right?
It might be less than expected . . .
Uncover common myths below, then get a free, Scripture-laden Christmas video to share with your church.
5 popular myths about the Christmas story
1. Jesus was born the night they arrived
The first one is that there is no indication in the text that the birth of Jesus was the night Mary and Joseph arrived. They come to Bethlehem, but the birth isn’t necessarily on that same night. It may have been days, weeks, [or] even longer after that. It simply says the time of her birth came while they were in Bethlehem. So that’s the first myth of the traditional way the Christmas story is sometimes told.
2. The inn and the innkeeper
The second myth is the inn and the innkeeper. Every good Christmas pageant has them arriving [and] coming to the inn, and the innkeeper says, “I have no rooms left, so you have to go and stay in the stable.” The Greek word for “inn” probably does not mean an ancient hotel. Bethlehem would have been much too small to have a roadside inn in the sense of a hotel. Normally, inns in that day would be along major highways.
The Greek word used for “inn”—katalyma—doesn’t normally refer to an inn or an ancient hotel. There’s a different word that’s used in the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example. When . . . the good Samaritan brings the wounded man to an inn, that’s a different word. The word katalyma, the Greek word, probably either refers to what’s called a caravansary, which is kind of an informal shelter where caravans would rest for the night, or it also refers to a guest room in a private residence. A guest room in a private residence—the same word is used of the room reserved for the Last Supper.
No room at the relatives’
So Joseph and Mary may have come and been trying to stay with relatives in Bethlehem, but because of the crowded conditions, there was no room in the guest room in their relatives’ home, so they had to move to an area reserved for animals. Again, [that’s] a different picture than we normally get. There’s no mention of an innkeeper—and probably no inn either—in that context.
3. Three men followed the star
A fourth major difference in the story of the traditional Christmas story is that Matthew does not say that there were three magi. We sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and yet there’s no mention of three. The three comes from the reference to gifts. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are the three gifts. And so we assume from that that there were three magi. And even later tradition gives the three magi a history, gives them names, and so forth.
4. Magi at the manger
All that Matthew tells us—and Matthew, not Luke, tells us about the magi—all Matthew tells us is that the magi came from the East. The magi also arrived long after. They didn’t arrive the night of the birth. Joseph and Mary are living in a house at the time that they arrive.
5. Kings worshipping the King
The magi probably also weren’t kings. We refer to them in the Christmas story as “We Three Kings,” but they probably weren’t kings. They were, rather, Persian or Arabian astrologers who would scour the sky, who would look for signs of significant historical events. The magi who occur in Matthew’s Gospel are . . . ironic in a sense because the king of the Jews, Herod the Great, who is the king of the Jews, tries to kill the legitimate King of the Jews, the Messiah, whereas pagan astrologers come to worship him.
This post is adapted from the Mobile Education course The Jesus of the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.
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