Does Your Congregation Believe These 5 Myths about the Christmas Story?

“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

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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.

mobile ed course about the christmas story

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 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.

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This post is adapted from the Mobile Education course The Jesus of the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.

For more focus on the Christmas story, download this free video to share.

mobile ed course about the christmas story

 

Comments

  1. The magi coming from Persia is interesting and some say that they likely heard about the coming King from Daniel as he revealed dreams to the Babylonians and Persians when in captivity. If they kept the writings of the dreams they would know that a star signified the coming Messiah. I like the extra biblical logic used to determine this theory, and have to acknowledge the shared culture due to the Babylonian and Persian captivity of Israel.

  2. You are missing a #3 but do have a #6 :)

  3. Interesting insights, I guess. More interesting is the Nature of the “Star” as described and the Wise Men’s ability to both follow it, then not be able to follow it, then to be able to follow it again, to the Christ Child, our Lord God (sandwiched between Mt 2:2 and 2:10):

    [3.] For if ye can learn what the star was, and of what kind, and whether it were one of the common stars, or new and unlike the rest, and whether it was a star by nature or a star in appearance only, we shall easily know the other things also. Whence then will these points be manifest? From the very things that are written. Thus, that this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course.
    – St. John Chrysostom, Homily VI Matt. 2:1,2

    Adventus

  4. Those of us who love the Christmas season and, most importantly, the Christ and the message of the season, are well aware of these “myths.” But I always find it interesting that these discussions even come up when the explanations are often laced with, and rightfully so, “isn’t necessarily,” “not necessarily,” “assume,” and “probably” — nothing any more definite than the “traditions” brought forth over the centuries. It would seem a much better use of time to focus in on, and share, that wonderful Hope born unto us and, from that fulfilled promise of God, be assured that Christ will return “with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26).

    Blessings to all this Christmas!

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