Warning: If you don’t want your traditional understanding of the first Christmas challenged then do not read any further. If you are a historically minded person who loves getting the real story behind the many popular myths, then Dr. Ben Witherington, a very reputable New Testament scholar and ancient historian, corrects some of our misconceptions often found in our Christmas hymns and children’s pageants regarding the wise men, snobby inn-keepers, barns and animals and more. Enjoy.
You can read his full article entitled “Star-Studded Wise Men: Rethinking the Christmas Story” HERE. Here is an excerpt to give you a taste:
Getting to the bottom of the historical well when it comes to Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke proves difficult at times. It is rather like what happened to the Sistine Chapel ceiling when it was finally cleaned and all the lacquer and dirt of the centuries was removed. The end result was startling, much more colorful…. and more beautiful too. Well, the real Christmas story is also more interesting and compelling than the usual stuff that passes for preaching at Christmas. Lets take those famous wise men of Matthew 2.1-12 First a little ground clearing exercise.
1) We do not know how many persons were involved. We are simply told that more than one showed up — Magoi is the plural of the Greek word Magos, from which we get the English word magic/magician. A Magos was an oriental priest of sorts, learned in various sorts of esoteric arts, including astrology (studying the sky for clues about the present or future), the interpretation of dreams, the reading of animal’s entrails, necromancy, etc.
2) These men were definitely not kings — so enough with the “We Three Kings…” Christmas carol. These are the kinds of persons who were counselors and advisors to kings, which is precisely how Herod in the story treats them. They were consultants. We could discuss why the Christmas mythology is more appealing than the Christmas history to some folks.
3) It is not clear whether they came to Bethlehem from the east, or from the northwest, namely Anatolia. Their profession might well favor the former conclusion but the Greek here should probably be rendered ‘we saw his star at its rising’. which presumably means they saw it rise in the east. But that in turn would likely mean they were looking east, not necessarily they were from the Orient. In any case the story focuses on their astrological work. They are star gazers.
4) The story very clearly tells us that they do not arrive in Bethlehem until after Jesus was born, indeed possibly well after because we are told that Herod was concerned with infants up to two years of age, and we also have the story of the parents taking Jesus to the Temple on the eight day, the proper day for circumcision. In other words, they seem to have stayed in Bethlehem after the birth of the child for a while.
So enough with the barn scenes with both shepherds and wise men present simultaneously, and this word also just in — there is no mention of any animals being present or very near the Christ child when he was born or thereafter. This whole barn, manger, animals tableau we owe largely to St. Francis of Assisi who came up with the idea. You will remember he loved all creatures great and small.
And one more thing — there is probably no ‘inn’ in Luke 2.7– the correct translation of the Greek word there is ‘guest room’ not inn. Its the very word Luke uses elewhere to speak of the room where the last supper transpired. He uses a very different word for Inn, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. So enough with the sermons entitled “No Room in the Inn” all about the world making no room for Jesus. Jesus was likely born in a relative’s home in the back of the house where they kept the prized beast of burden, hence the manger or corn crib. And it is likely they continued to stay with their relatives there when the Magi showed up.
Having cleared away some of the kudzu which has grown up around this Matthean story, lets now consider several more aspects of it.
Firstly, Bethlehem (Hebrew name meaning house of bread), was not even a one stop sign town. It was tiny, and chiefly known for its sheep fields, because here is where the sheep, to be used for sacrifices in Jerusalem, were raised. It probably never had a wayfarers inn in antiquity, as it was not on a major road. So when we are envisioning the slaughter of the innocents, can we please not give the story the Cecil B. Demille treatment. I would estimate we are talking about single digits when we are trying to count the number of infants through 2 year olds in that little burg in Jesus’ day.
Please keep reading HERE.