The narrative of the birth of Jesus is one of the most famous stories in all of history. Yet much of what we believe about the event is rooted in folklore and popular tradition than in biblical scholarship.
To help you better appreciate the narrative, here are nine things you should know about the Christmas story:
1. Throughout church history, the date of Jesus’s birth has been proposed on numerous days, including March 21, April 15, and May 20. Since the fourth or fifth century, though, Christians have traditionally dated the Annunciation—the angelic announcement of Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:28-37—as having occurred on March 25. Since pregnancy lasts approximately nine months from the date of conception, the church settled on Jesus’s birthday as December 25.
2. Most modern translations say that Mary gave birth and laid Jesus in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn or guest house. But as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson argues, the end of Luke 2:7 should be translated as “because they had no space in their place to stay.” As Carlson says, “The problem facing Joseph and Mary in the story was not that they were denied a particular or well-known place to stay when they first arrived, but that their place to stay was not such that it could accommodate the birth and neonatal care of the baby Jesus.” The result would be that the birth of Jesus occurred in the main room of the house—likely belonging to relatives of Joseph—rather than in the couple’s smaller marital apartment attached to the house.
3. Although the presence of the manger (i.e., a trough for livestock to eat from) might seem to suggest a barn, it was common for mangers to be kept in the main room of village houses during this time period, New Testament scholar Michael Kruger says. Animals were often housed with the human residents of the home just a few feet away in an adjacent room.
4. The inclusion of the manger and swaddling clothes in the nativity story appears to have a two-fold significance. First, as Peter Krol explains, this detail provided for the shepherds corroboration of what the angel said. Within the brief narrative we have a fact (the baby was laid there [Lk. 2:7]), the prediction (the angel said they’d find him there [Luke 2:12]), and the testimony (the shepherds did in fact find the baby Jesus there, just as they were told [Luke 2:1]). Second, as Peter Leithart says, “The baby in swaddling cloths becomes the crucified criminal in grave clothes, but he is ‘unswaddled’ when He bursts from the tomb. The baby laid in the manger becomes a crucified corpse, but death cannot hold him. The shepherds find baby Jesus, but when the women come to minister to His body, He is not there.”
5. The “magi from the east” (Matt. 2:1) were most likely to be astrologers and interpreters of omens. Their description of seeing a celestial body as a portent of a significant event appears to be an ancient type of mundane astrology (i.e., the study of significant celestial moments to social groups, nations, or all of humanity). Even if the magi (a term from which we get the word “magic”) were actual astrologers, this would not a biblical endorsement of astrology. Instead, it would be an example of how even pagans would recognize Jesus as God. As David Mathis says, “These magi are not respected kings but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus.”
6. Some scholars believe that the so-called Star of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:2) was not a star at all. In biblical times, most heavenly bodies—such as planets, comets, and meteorites—were colloquially referred to as “stars” (similar to how we refer to meteorites as “falling stars”). Over the centuries, there has been speculation the celestial body seen by the magi was Jupiter, a supernova, meteors, or an ordinary star. The New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl argues that only a comet could do all the things the star is reported to have done in the nativity texts—leading the Magi to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, then to the specific house in which the Christ child lay.
7. The ancient church considered the three gifts of the magi to have a symbolic meaning: the gold as emblematic of Jesus’s royalty; in the myrrh, of his humanity (specifically as embalming material); and in the incense, that of his divinity. But they were also standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. As Biblical Archaeology notes, ancient inscriptions record that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C. The prophet Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s restoration, also tells of how nations and kings will bring similar gifts: “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD” (Isa. 60:6).
8. Artistic representations or re-enactments of the Christmas story are often called nativity scenes. The word “nativity” is taken from the Latin nativus, which means “born” or “native.” Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223. Francis reportedly set up a manger with hay and an ox and a donkey in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.”
9. Despite the impression given by many nativity plays and Christmas carols, the Bible doesn’t specify: that Mary rode a donkey; that an innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph (see above about the translation of Luke 2:7); that Mary gave birth to Jesus the day she arrived in Bethlehem (only that it happened “while they were there”); that angels sang (only that the “heavenly host” spoke and praised God); that there were three wise men (no number is specified); or that the magi arrived the day/night of Jesus’s birth (they most likely arrived while he was a toddler).