Common Misconceptions about the Advent Narratives

There are several good reasons to expose and correct the apocryphal, Hallmark-card understanding of Jesus’ birth (which I will hereafter dub the mythical view): 

1. When people come to realize that the details of the Christmas story as taught by the church are factually incorrect, it threatens the credibility of the church’s teaching on other matters.

2. As we will see, the details of the birth accounts found in the gospels are not arbitrarily selected. They are chosen to communicate a particular understanding of the birth and person of Christ. The mythical view obstructs these significant points that the gospel writers are communicating.

3. The mythical view props up the non-Christian accusation that Christians don’t really know what the Bible teaches. Though they claim to believe it, they, in fact, are quite ignorant of its teaching and its events (I think this is a fair accusation for a large number of people who go by the name “Christian”).

4. The events surrounding Christ’s birth were orchestrated by God and consequently his action within his creation. When we consistently change these details we are, either wittingly or unwittingly, attempting to alter the freedom of God to act as he chooses.

Nativity PictureOf course, I am not the first to correct the mythical view, and I won’t be the last. Nevertheless, I hope to be another source of correct information for those who are misguided and a source of encouragement to others to correct these misunderstandings as well.

How do you know if you are operating with a mythical view of Christ’s birth? Here’s a short quiz to help you determine…

1. How many wise men were there?

2. Did the wise men visit Christ in the manger?

3. Were the wise men kings?

4. Were the wise men from the Orient (Eastern Asia)?

5. What was the bright star that appeared above the Christ child?

6. Was Christ born in December?

7. Did it snow when Christ was born?

8. What animals attended the birth of Christ?

9. Did the innkeeper turn Mary and Joseph away?

10. Was Gabriel the angel that stood above the stable that night?

11. Did Mary deliver Jesus with only Joseph’s help?

If you answered “yes” to any questions which required a yes/no answer then you have a misunderstanding of the biblical account of the events surrounding the birth of Christ. I’ll take each question one by one and explain.

1. How many wise men were there?
It is common for people to believe that there were three magi. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that the magi presented three gifts to Christ. This, however, is no indication that there were only three of them. Past knowing that there was plurality of magi, we should have no certainty on how many there were. However, since magi in a king’s court were not a loose collection of individuals but an advisory council to a king, it is perhaps likely that they traveled as the entire council and that there were more than three of them. But we simply don’t know.

2. Did the wise men visit Jesus in the manger?
The magi did not visit Christ in the manger. Matthew 2:11 tells us that by the time they reach the holy family in Bethlehem they find them in a house not a stable or cave. Incidentally, I don’t think we can determine very much about the timing of the magi’s visit from pairing Herod’s inquiry into the timing of the star’s appearance and his decision to have killed all the male children two years and under born in Bethlehem. If we are inclined to think that the reference to two years is a book end on the length of time that passed since Christ was born, then the fact that he killed all those under two as well has to be the other book end. So we really have no way of knowing within two years of Christ’s birth when the magi visited. In any case, the visit was not the night that Christ was born.

3. Were the wise men kings?
No. They were a king’s advisors. The best picture we have from Scripture of what the relationship of magi is to an eastern king is found in the book of Daniel. Here, they are employed by the king to make predictions and discern the future of the kingdom in order for the king to rule well. They were not a ruling council themselves.

4. Were the wise men from the Orient (Eastern Asia)?
Matthew tells us that the magi were from the East. Commonly, European geographical divisions are imposed upon the location of the East. Most likely the magi come from Persia not the Orient. The best explanation for their knowledge of a coming Jewish messiah is that they learned of it from Jews living in exile following the conquest in 587 BCE. This makes strike three for the song line “We three kings of Orient are…”

5. The Star
There are two major options for what the magi saw: a natural phenomenon in the sky and a supernatural light which God made manifest to the magi.

The support for a natural phenomenon is as follows. Typically translators translate the Greek word aster as “star,” but the Greek word is not precise enough to distinguish a star from a planet or a planetary eclipse. We don’t know what exactly they saw, but the most likely explanation is that they saw a relationship of heavenly bodies not a single star. Many scientists have worked in conjunction with ANE archeologists to determine what the magi saw. Some conclude that they saw a lunar eclipse of Jupiter. For a brief explanation of this evidence and an introduction to a recent book on the subject click here. Astronomist Hugh Ross claims that the only plausible explanation is “a phenomenon called a recurring nova.  An easily visible nova (a star that suddenly increases in brightness and then within a few months or years grows dim) occurs about once every decade.  Novae are sufficiently uncommon to catch the attention of observers as alert and well trained as the magi must have been.  However, many novae are also sufficiently unspectacular as to escape the attention of others. Most novae experience only a single explosion.  But a tiny fraction have the capacity to undergo multiple explosions separated by months or years.  This repeat occurrence seems necessary, for the Matthew text indicates that the star appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared and disappeared sometime later.” This theory has something going for it but the same can be said for other theories too.

A strong case can be made, however, that this is simply not a natural event of any kind, but something like Yahweh’s Shekinah glory in the Old Testament. There’s quite a rich biblical motif of God revealing an event through a bright light. To name a few: The burning bush, the pillar of fire and glory cloud that led Israel in the wilderness, Mt. Sinai when Moses’ face shone, the Tabernacle and Temple was filled with such glory that the priests couldn’t enter, the light that Balaam’s donkey saw, Ezekiel’s vision, the mount of Transfiguration, and the conversion of Saul. The language of Matthew is strikingly similar to the language used in Exodus to speak of the glory cloud/pillar of fire that led the Israelites

 the star “went before them” (Matthew 2:9)
“the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud” (Exodus 13:21)

the star “rested over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9)
“And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it” (Exodus 40:35)

I’ve presented the evidence, I leave it to you, discerning reader, to decide which option has the best support.

How they concluded that an astrological anomily would lead them to the Jewish messiah is difficult to make sense of as well. Did they make the conclusion on the basis of something found in Scripture? Was it perhaps Jewish apocolyptic literature? Was it through some discernment of their astrological studies? Or was it some combination of some or all of these? A common explanation is that they knew the Hebrew Scriptures and came across this phrase: “A star shall come out of Jacob…” (Num 24:17). I am doubtful of this explanation because they weren’t looking for a star that came out of Jacob they were looking for one in the sky. It’s perhaps as likely as any other explanation. Or perhaps they knew to look for it from reading Isaiah: “…nations shall come to your light,and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). Perhaps, but perhaps not.

6. The timing of Christ’s birth
The likelihood of Christ being born in December is not good. There is only one source that I’ve ever seen argue with conviction for this conclusion. It is argued by John Stormer, a former fiction writer, who is not a biblical scholar and it is published by an institution with dubious academic credibility. Nevertheless, these ad hominems aside, the author builds his argument on the timing of Zechariah’s temple duties, but the dates are not certain enough to draw the hard and fast conclusions that he does. Gene Veith has argued convincingly that the church did not choose December 25 as the date of Christmas in an attempt to hijack the winter festival of Roman pagans, but he doesn’t argue that we can be certain that December is when Christ was born. At least he didn’t when he wrote his article for World Magazine in 2005. But by 2006 he seems convinced by Stormer’s argument. He seems unaware that Stormer’s dating is not as certain as he finds it to be.

Note that the question of when Christ was born is a different question than the one which Pr. Joseph Abrahamson recently addressed regarding how the church came to select December 25th as the date for celebrating Christ’s birth.

7. Did it snow when Christ was born?
Snow in Palestine is about as common as snow in Los Angeles. It has happened, but it’s very uncommon. The Bible certainly doesn’t give us any indication that it did. No, snow is added to the story by some for romantic and seasonal effect.

8. What animals attended the birth of Christ?
We don’t know exactly. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI released a book in which he claims with an unwarranted degree of certainty that there were no animals in the stable with Mary and Joseph. Apparently, his sole basis for his conclusion is that Matthew and Luke do not mention any animals in their accounts. To which I ask, when did the fact that something isn’t written in the Bible ever stop a pope from claiming something to be true? Furthermore, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Consider that Mary and Joseph were in a stable where they had just traveled to Bethlehem by donkey and where their relatives also traveled by animal. Where else would one keep these animals besides a stable? Furthermore, shepherds visited that night, so it’s quite likely that there were domesticated animals in the stable/cave.

9. Did the innkeeper turn Mary and Joseph away?
It seems that the Charlie Brown Christmas Special got it wrong. But it gets it wrong because most translations get it wrong. The ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV all translate the word kataluma in Luke 2:7 as “inn.” This conveys the idea that the family went to a public hotel and were turned away by an innkeeper because there was no vacancy. But the word kataluma simply means lodging place. It may refer to an inn, but Luke knew a better word in Greek for a place of public lodging than kataluma. Luke uses the word pandocheion in 10:34 to refer to the place that the Good Samaritan took the wounded Jewish man.

Mary and Joseph were returning to Bethlehem, the city of Joseph’s family origin. Certainly Joseph had family here. The lodging place in which they were unable to stay was most likely the home of a relative. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Mary and Joseph could have afforded a place of public lodging given their economic class. It seems then that Mary and Joseph were unable to lodge with the family because other family members were already lodging there.

The only Bible versions I’ve seen that translates Luke 2:7 correctly is The Complete Jewish Bible and the TNIV. The CJB renders kataluma as “living-quarters” while the TNIV renders it a little more vaguely as “guest room.” Incidentally, both versions also properly translate pandocheion as “inn” in 10:34.

So it’s unlikely that an innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph because it’s unlikely that Mary and Joseph sought lodging at an inn in the first place.

10. Was Gabriel the name of the angel that stood above the stable that night?
This is a bit of trick question. There was no angel above the stable that night. Luke 2:15 tells us that the angels went back into heaven after reporting the news to the shepherds. But that doesn’t stop Christians from fixing an angel above the stable.

11. Did Mary deliver Jesus with only Joseph’s help?
Perhaps, but I think it is more likely that the women of Joseph’s family helped her deliver. Of course they may not have helped her if they believed that Joseph and Mary engaged in sexual intercourse during the betrothal period. Again we simply don’t know.

On many of these questions we have to suspend judgment or hold our views loosely. Unfortunately, our nativity scenes have taken precidence over the teaching of Scripture. I don’t deny that many of the representations of Christ’s birth reflect events that are possible. However, these possibilities have become entrenched in the minds of many people as the facts of Christ’s birth. Add to this that most nativity scenes include wholesale inaccuracies and we have a compelling reason to take the time to return to Scripture and remind ourselves of what it actually says.

About Pastor John Fraiser

Pastor Fraiser didn't begin as a Lutheran, but he became one as soon as he could. He grew up as a Baptist and received his M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With time on his hands following his seminary studies, he began reading the writings of Martin Luther and became convinced that Lutheran doctrine was a faithful presentation of the doctrine of Scripture and answered many of his perplexing Baptist questions. After joining the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, he went on for graduate philosophy studies, while also taking post-graduate courses at Concordia Seminary. Though he intended to teach philosophy in a university setting, he also applied as a candidate for ordination through the Synod’s colloquy program with the plans of bi-vocational parish ministry. Following colloquy, he assisted in a vacancy at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in LaGrange, Kentucky where he was eventually called as pastor. He said 'no' to a philosophy PhD fellowship and was ordained on Luther’s ordination date – April 3rd – in 2011. Pr. Fraiser is married to Emily, and they have a four-year-old daughter named Jillian.


Common Misconceptions about the Advent Narratives — 49 Comments

  1. See also “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Cultural Studies in the Gospels” by Kenneth E. Bailey. Mr Bailey, who lived and taught in the middle East, does an excellent job of researching and describing the culture and social assumptions that we often miss when reading Scripture.

    ” It seems then that Mary and Joseph were unable to lodge with the family because other family members were already lodging there.”

    Actually, they probably did stay there. The typical lower-middle class house of the region, up until the 1900’s even, was a single room divided into two parts, one lower than the other by about 3 feet. The family stayed in the upper half, the animals (cows, sheep, donkeys) were brought into the lower half (which, if tradition holds true – which there is no reason to disbelieve, is located in a cave) during the night for security. The term that is mistranslated “inn” refers to the guest room, usually located on the roof. (See, for instance, Elijah staying at the widow’s house in 1 Kings 17:23). Since the guest room was probably occupied by Grandpa Joe, Joseph and Mary simply stayed in the main room with the rest of the family. She gave birth in the stable – the lower half of the house – because, let’s face it, birth is a messy process and that’s where the straw was. This, BTW, also explains why they were still “in the house” when the wise-men showed up.

  2. I think maybe you’re being a bit picky. The word “Orient” comes from the Latin “Oriens” or east. In the Eurocentric mind anything east of Europe is Oriental.

    E.g., oriental rugs come from Persia/Iran, not China.

    E.g., note the book “Ctesias’ ‘History of Persia’ Tales of the Orient” by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, James Robson.

    E.g., the original Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul, Turkey.

    Hence, the wise guys were from the Orient or, as the Word of God (ESV) puts it, “wise men from the east.”

  3. @Pr. Don Kirchner #2

    You are right, etymologically, but in today’s use of the term, people do not regard the Middle East as the Orient. It is generally understood to refer to the Far East.

    Thank you for pointing out this out. It is an important detail. I suppose that “We Three Kings” is only deserving of two strikes.

  4. Interesting post. Here are a few thoughts, and feel free to disagree with any of them. The numbers are based on your numbering.

    3. The Magi were certainly not kings. The first time in church history that these men were considered kings was during the middle ages, when popes arrogated to themselves a higher temporal authority than emperors and kings. Popes claimed the right to crown emperors and kings because of this. Hence, Mt. 2 was a popular text that was used to support this view. Redefining the Magi as kings, the popes could claim that just as the kings of the earth bowed before Jesus, so the kings of the earth should also bow before Jesus’ successors (i.e., them as papal vicars of Christ). It was at this time that songs like “We Three Kings of Orient Are” came out as propaganda for this understanding.
    (P.S. – This makes for an interesting Bible study, but I am not in any way condemning Christians who sing We Three Kings. Honestly, I think it’s a pretty harmless song.)

    4. The Magi certainly came from the East, and saw the star there. Mt. 2:1-2. I like the possibility that it could be Persia where they came from. Dan. 1:20 uses the same term for those advisors, as you rightly point out. That said, some also attribute that the Magi came from modern day Yemen of Jerusalem. This comes on the basis of Isa. 60:6, understanding the Biblical country of “Sheba” to be the location of Yemen.

    That said, it would not have been unlikely for the Magi to enter Jerusalem from the east, since there was a major gateway to Jerusalem on that side. Coincidentally, there was a road from Jerusalem that went north east from that eastern gate. This, however, seems unlikely that the Magi would come up from Yemen to go there, but if they were from Persia, this would not be a problem.

    8. While Matthew and Luke do not give mention on specific animals, early Christians read Isa. 1:3 as a reference to a donkey being present, since God feeds all animals as their master. “The donkey knows it’s masters crib” is not very satisfying for someone wanting definite proof of certain animals present. However, it did lead to the painting of icons of Jesus’ birth with a donkey present. See an example here:

    Again, interesting post. Keep it up.

    In Christ,
    Rev. Robert Mayes
    Beemer, NE

  5. Mary riding a donkey another Nativity common misconception?

    Rev. Fraiser declares in point 8: “Consider that Mary and Joseph were in a stable where they had just traveled to Jerusalem(sic)(Bethlehem?) by donkey…” Then Rev. Mayes refers to Christian tradition that a donkey was present and that Christians consider Is. 1:3 to be a reference to a donkey being present (at the manger I assume). Where in Scripture does it specifically say that Joseph and Mary traveled with a donkey? We might assume that they took a donkey since she was with child, but Scripture does not say that they and their donkey went from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Since this article is about dispelling assumptions and myth regarding the Nativity narrative, and Rev. Fraiser criticizes the Pope for declaring that there were no animals present, yet this article assumes as fact something that is not directly referenced in Scripture, I think we need to also rephrase how we report the transportation of Mary and Joseph. “They may have traveled by donkey, or they may have gone by foot or by some other means”. If you point to Is. 1:3 as some kind of reference to a donkey being at the manger, I guess you go ahead and go there, but it certainly doesn’t reference them travelling by donkey because there was another beast mentioned in Is. 1:3, the ox. Though possible, I doubt that Joseph and Mary took both donkey and ox with them to Bethlehem.

    Very good article otherwise. I think this issue of Nativity mythology is a very timely and important topic, and I applaud you for bringing it up and covering it quite thoroughly.

    I apologize if I sound nasty, but if we are trying to be thorough about the Nativity mythology vs. Scriptural fact, the donkey being ridden by Mary is also mythical and not substantiated by Holy Writ and should be addressed as such.

    Rev. Kangas

  6. Rev. Kangas,

    Mary probably rode on a donkey, so we wouldn’t consider it a myth that she traveled on a donkey.

  7. I am merely using the terminology of the author of this article:

    “There are several good reasons to expose and correct the apocryphal, Hallmark-card understanding of Jesus’ birth (which I will hereafter dub the mythical view):”

    I agree with his reasons for doing so. His first point for doing so is very commendable, and it is in that spirit that I point out the fact and call the other a “myth”. Though lovely and heart-warming, Mary (or Joseph) riding a donkey anywhere within the Nativity account is not backed up by Scripture as having happened. Therefore it is a “common misconception”, an “apocrypha”, a detail added by tradition not given in Scripture.

    “1. When people come to realize that the details of the Christmas story as taught by the church are factually incorrect, it threatens the credibility of the church’s teaching on other matters.”

  8. @Rev. Aaron G. Kangas #5

    Rev. Kangas,

    Thank you for the correction on Bethlehem. Saying Jerusalem was a slip up. I’ve corrected it in the post.

    I do think you’re overstating the matter about traveling on a donkey. It’s true that the text doesn’t say, but I think one can safely assume this. A pregnant woman in her third trimester simply cannot walk that distance. The beast of burden for their economic class is a donkey. It is worth pointing out (as you have) that the text doesn’t comment on this, but to classify it the same as other extrabiblical beliefs that are clearly a myth is an overkill by my lights. Other claims are made out of whole cloth. This actually has some support from custom and common sense.

  9. Not to mention that angels are very often portrayed as female when in Scripture they are spoken of in masculine terms.

  10. No harm is done to the faith when works of art are created by Christians which include historical inaccuracies.

    Sometimes the artist is required to give an answer where the text is silent. This explains why, traditionally, artists have chosen to portray three magi. The production of art requires a decision on the number of magi and since there are three gifts to present to the Christ child, the tradition has become three magi. Reasonable atheists will understand this.

    Concerning the inclusion of donkeys, sheep, shepherds, angels and magi at the manger, it should be noted that the conflation of multiple scenes of a story into one scene is a common artistic devise. Hans Memling’s Scenes from the Passion of Christ is a classic example from Holy Week: By including all of the elements of an account in one scene, the entire story is told, from Nazareth to shepherds to manger to magi, even if the art is historically inaccurate. Not really a problem.

    The nature of art has given rise to most of the traditions which you object to here.

  11. I like the theory that Jesus was born in the fall during the feast of Sukkot (tabernacles), mainly because of the Symbolic synchronicity of Jesus initially “Tabernacling” in Flesh (John 1:14) at the time the Jews were Tabernacling. I have also seen calendar based arguments for this time of year that probably hold as much water as arguments for Dec 25th or March. Also, the Romans were despots, granted, but it really does not make sense that they would order the census and force so much travel in winter. So spring or fall seems to make more sense than winter anyway.

    About the Magi, I have never imagined them as oriental, and most of the “mythical” representations seem to show them appearing as being from what we call the near-east. As for being kings, obviously they were not kings, they were magicians (in the original sense of the word).

  12. @Matt Thompson #12

    I fully agree that there can be a value added when an artist compresses multiple details spread across several narratives into a single painting, but only so long as people understand that this is what is going on. At the point that people stop being able to tell the difference between the historical events and artistic rendering, we have a problem — despite your assertion to the contrary.

    No harm is done to the faith when works of art are created by Christians which include historical inaccuracies.

    A blanketed statement if there ever was one. Really? No harm? None at all when people believe historical inaccuracies and hold ideas contrary to Scripture? How about when the artistic rendering overtakes the biblical narrative, and people are ignorant of what the Scriptures teach? Good art is important, but not more important than good exegesis. Laypersons appreciating art is important, but not more important than them understanding and appreciating the Scriptures.

    Also, I see that you claim that “the nature of art has given rise to most of the traditions which you object to here”, but I don’t see that you present any evidence for it. Please tell us what pieces of art have done this?

  13. @Rev. Robert Mayes #4
    A Medieval “best seller” was The History of the Three Kings by John of Hildesheim, (died 1375) a monk. They were kings who were eventually baptized and later ordained as bishops. It seems this fiction put together in one book all the legends regarding the magi and so have greatly influenced the popular imagination.

  14. Pr. Fraiser, fwiw, years ago I found a “Christmas IQ Test” in a youth group magazine and adapted it for Bible study for the same purpose as your article: to de-mythologize the sentimental portrayal of Christ Mass in song, story and art. Here it is. It was done in a fun fashion and I thought it was light-hearted way to get to an important point: what does the Scripture actually report thereby proclaiming the truth of the Incarnation. But I soon discovered that some folks took umbrage (to put it mildly) that I was bursting the mythological bubbles. Thanks for your article.

    ________1. As long as Christmas has been celebrated, it has been on December 25. (True or False)

    ________ 2. Joseph was from: A. Bethlehem B. Egypt C. Jerusalem D. Minnesota E. Nazareth F. None of the above

    ________ 3. How did Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem? A. Camel B. Joseph walked, Mary rode C. A donkey D. Joseph and Mary walked E. Volkswagen F. Who knows?

    ________ 4. Mary was a virgin when she delivered Jesus. (True or False)

    ________5. What did the innkeeper tell Mary and Joseph?
    A. “There is no room in the inn.” B. “I have a stable you can use.” C. “Come back after the Christmas rush and I should have some vacancies.” D. Both A and B E. None of the above

    ________6. Jesus was delivered in a: A. Stable B. Manger C. Cave D. Barn E. Unknown

    ________7. A “manger” is a: A. Stable for domestic animals B. Wooden hay storage bin C. Feeding trough
    D. Barn

    _______ 8. Which animals does the Bible say were present at Jesus’ birth?
    A. Cows, sheep, goats B. Cows, donkeys, sheep animals C. Sheep and goats only D. Miscellaneous barnyard animals E. Lions, tigers, elephants F. None of the above

    ________ 9. Who saw the “star in the east”? A. Shepherds B. Mary and Joseph C. Three Kings D. Both A and C E. None of the above.

    _______ 10. How many angels spoke to the shepherds? A. One B. Three C. ‘Multitude” D. None of the above

    ______ 11. What “sign” did the angels tell the shepherds to look for?
    A. “This way to baby Jesus” B. A star over Bethlehem” C. A house with a Christmas tree
    D. A baby in a feeding trough E. A baby that doesn’t cry F. None of the above

    _____ 12. What did the angels sing?
    A. “Joy to the world, the Lord is born” B. “Alleluia” C. ‘Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth with whom he is well pleased” D. “Glory to the Newborn King” E. “Unto us a child is horn, unto a Son is given” F. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”

    _______ 13. What is a “Heavenly Host”? A. The angel at the gate. B. An angel choir C. The angel who invites people to heaven. D. The angel who serves refreshments in heaven E. An angel army F. None of the above

    ________14. There was snow that first Christmas: A. Only in Bethlehem B. All over Israel C. Nowhere in Israel D. On Mt. Hermon E. Mary and Joseph only dreamed of a white Christmas.

    _______15. The baby Jesus cried: A. When the doctor slapped Him on His behind B. When the little drummer boy started banging on his drum C. Just like other babies cry D. He never cried.

    _______16. What is frankincense? A. A precious metal B. A precious fabric C. A precious perfume D. an Eastern monster story E. Hardened sap from a special tree D. None of the above

    _______17. What is myrrh? A. An easily shaped metal B. A spice used for burying people C. A drink D. After-shave lotion E. None of the above.

    _______18. How many wise men came to see Jesus? (Write in the correct number).

    _______19. What does ‘wise men’ refer to? A. Men of the educated class B. They were Eastern kings
    C. They were astrologers D. They were smart enough to follow the star E. They were sages.

    _______20. The wise men found Jesus in a: A. Manger B. Stable C. House D. Holiday Inn E.Good mood.

    _______21. The wise men stopped in Jerusalem: A. To inform Herod about Jesus B. To find out where Jesus was C. To ask about the star that they saw D. For gas E. To buy presents for Jesus.

    _______22. Where do we find the Christmas story in order to check up all these great questions?
    A. Matthew
    B. Mark
    C. Luke
    D. John
    E. All of the above
    F. Only A and B
    G. Only A and C
    H. Only A, B and C
    I. Only X, Y and Z

    ________23. When Joseph and Mary found out that Mary was pregnant with Jesus, what happened?
    A. They got married B. Joseph wanted to break the engagement C. Mary left town for three months D. An angel told them to go to Bethlehem E. Both A and D F. Both B and C.

    ________24. Joseph took the baby Jesus to Egypt: A. To show Him the pyramids B. To teach Him the wisdom of the pharaohs C. To put Him in a basket in the reeds by the river Nile D. Because he dreamed about it E. To be taxed F. Joseph did not take Jesus to Egypt G. None of the above.

    ________25. Joseph and Mary and Jesus finally settled down in: A. Bethlehem B. Jerusalem C. Capernaum D. Nazareth.

    ________26. Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day of life just like all His fellow Jews according to the Lord’s Covenant with Abraham and his descendants. True or False

    ________27. An old man was promised he would not die until he saw the Messiah. What was the man’s name? A. Waldo B. Simeon C. Hezekiah D. Zeke E. Zaphenath-paneah.

    ________28. An old widow, a prophetess, upon seeing the infant Jesus in the Temple, praised God. Her name was:
    A. Hannah B. Johanna C. Anna D. Leanna

    ________29. As Jesus grew older, Joseph and Mary brought Him to Jerusalem every year. Why?
    A. To go Christmas shopping B. To see relatives C. Observe the Passover D. To see the sights and stay in a nice hotel E. To celebrate Hannukah.

    _______30. This test has been: A. Super B. Great C. Fantastic D. All of the above.

  15. Mark at #17,

    Forgive me for being a dunderhead, but could you please give an answer key to the quiz above. I think I’ll use it at my ladies’ aid Christmas party, but I’m not sure that I’ve got all the answers right myself. Thanks

  16. @Joel Lillo #19
    Glad to! And if any of the answers are wrong, I ask the astute BJS readers to tell me!
    1. True
    2. A
    3. F
    4. True
    5. E or one could change that answer to “We don’t know” or change the question, The Bible tells us that Mary traveled to Bethlehem by:”
    6. E
    7. C
    8. F
    9. E
    10. A
    11. D
    12. C
    13. E
    14. D
    15. C
    16. E
    17. B
    18. don’t know: the guess has been 3 because of the 3 gifts.
    19. C or better yet, pagan astrologers, if you will, hard-core gentiles
    20. C
    21. B
    22. G
    23. F
    24. D
    25. D
    26. True
    27. B
    28. A
    29. C
    30. and of course the answer is D!

  17. Actually, wouldn’t 12 be a trick question. Luke 2 doesn’t tell us they were singing. He said that they were praising God and SAYING…

  18. @Mrs. Hume #18

    Perhaps you think you are contradicting me, but I don’t see how. As I said in the post, “Snow in Palestine is about as common as snow in Los Angeles. It has happened, but it’s very uncommon.”

  19. @Ken Atkins #14

    Ken, these are some excellent points. While we can’t be sure, I agree that there is more support for Christ’s birth taking place in the fall rather than in December.

  20. Interesting topic, lively discussion. In our community every Christmas season there is a rash of wise men stolen from nativities. Is this justifiable theft considering? Should the PoPo look no further than pietists for the perpetrator(s)? Gotta Love me,

  21. @Pastor John Fraiser #27
    Dear Pastor,
    I’m not going to lose any sleep over this, but if anyone got the date right it was probably the virgin Mary, and it’s a fairly direct line from her to Hippolytus through St.s John, Polycarp and Irenaeus.
    Just sayin’,
    -Matt Mills

  22. @Pastor John Fraiser #8
    I do think you’re overstating the matter about traveling on a donkey. It’s true that the text doesn’t say, but I think one can safely assume this.

    If we’re going to correct “mythologies” and “assumptions” it would be best not to make any oneself, wouldn’t it? People can argue that their assumptions are as good as yours, after all. (I can assume that Joseph and Mary didn’t own a donkey.)

    I haven’t tried it, but it seems to me that riding a donkey at nine months would be about as much fun as riding a bicycle, which, I assure you, I did not attempt at that stage. [One of the ‘perpetually pregnant’ will now tell me that she has ridden the bicycle, no doubt. More power to her!]
    I’ll also tell you that my assumptions don’t prove a thing. The answer is not in the Book.

  23. This is a good post and, yes, the faithful need to know what’s actually in the Scriptures and what the Christmas story really is. Can I offer a nuance?

    Perhaps we are in danger of losing something in Western Christianity generally, and in American Lutheranism specifically. Look at the manger scene in the OP, presumably the visual embodiment of so much myth.

    The manger scene isn’t born of theological ignorance, it is designed to visually summarize the Christ event and to teach us deeper theological realities.

    + The angel is there (gasp! the Bible never says so) to remind us that the angels did sing, that this is not merely an earthly birth, but a cosmic event.

    + The stable structure is church-like, with pointed roof, for a reason.

    + Mary and Joseph are bowing (sheesh! the Scriptures never said they bowed) to teach us something.

    + The shepherds bring their temple sheep (o how unlikely!) because they are visiting The Lamb.

    + The magi are there because He has come for gentiles as well.

    + The ox and the ass are there as a portent of judgment and things to come (Is. 1:3).

    Let me repeat that the faithful need to know what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But there is also a point at which biblicism obfuscates theological truth. Have we lost our ability to think visually? Have we lost our ability to understand church art, the idea of communicating theological ideas visually, the concept of icon? In our quest for a historically accurate Christmas, how many manger scenes have to get smashed, how many children’s Christmas services need to be interrupted?

    Just as the manger scene is not born of theological ignorance, much of the “myth” is not either. It comes from people willing to sacrifice a little historicity or chronology, willing to set aside a little skepticism, in order to communicate theological truths and realities in a way easily depicted, easily understood , and easily grasped.

    I know of some Gospel writers equally susceptible to that charge.

  24. @Dies Irae #31
    Just as the manger scene is not born of theological ignorance, much of the “myth” is not either.

    Next Sunday afternoon our congregation will celebrate “Old Fashioned Christmas” with food, and carols (some of which probably include “myth”) and the children’s re enactment of the Christmas story, complete with a doll for baby Jesus, lots of angels and shepherds, impressive wise men (3), and some children in animal costumes, even, (if I remember from last year) a ‘camel’. And all of us will know, (or learn some day) that that isn’t exactly the way it was. But we will also be reminded again that Christ was born a child, God grew up a human being, and as a GOD-man, He died for us.

    And that’s what Christmas is all about.

  25. @Joel Lillo #25 I did not intend it to be a trick question…really! (But other questions, yes trick questions!) You are right: the text is “saying”. The use of “saying” is used in the Divine Service right before the Presiding Minister invites the Faithful to sing the Sanctus! There are literally 4 Psalms in Luke 1 and 2. The Psalms of the OT were sung, therefore it is reasonable to think the angelic Hosts also sang. Even if they spoke it, it might have sounded like a hymn to mortal ears.

  26. Dies Arie got it right. The people do know what Luke and Matthew say. Both are read to them every year.

    The manger scene is a theological summary of the Christmas season, not a snapshot. We can teach the facts without being picky. We do not need to condemn a century of children’s Christmas pageants.

  27. @Richard Lewer #35

    Indeed, Rev. Lewer. Consider the various nativity sets and artistic renditions of the nativity with a black or Far East holy family et al. Throughout the years, some have taken offense at such obviously inaccurate renditions. Ironically, the complaints often were by those who had no problem with a Germanic looking Holy Family.

    And then there are the artistic renditions of our Lord and his Northern European look. Note the famous Jesus’ graduation portrait. Or the popular, at the time, picture of a relaxed, smiling Jesus with the nicely trimmed beard and the shag haircut.

    Biblically, from a historical perspective, inaccurate? Of course. Theologically inaccurate? No. All of the above examples send the artist’s message, which is a Biblical message, of Christ for us. For you and for me, no matter what nationality or what era.

  28. @Richard Lewer #37

    Seeing that *I’m* not the one picking a fight with a stranger, I’m not disposed to take seriously any comments about my “attitude” coming from someone who *is* picking a fight with a stranger.

  29. Concerning #5

    Many folks believe the star also appeared on the night Christ was born, based on the art and nativities seen. Would this be considered to be within the realm of “possible”? Or too much human supplementing? If the latter: that is too bad because The Nativity Story used the star to great artistic effect in that film.

    Also, here is what Luther says about the star (this is quoted from Bainton’s ‘Martin Luther’s Christmas Book’, which is selection of excerpts from Luther’s sermons on Christmas themes. Specifically this quote can be found in the ‘Herod’ section):

    “…The star was simply a sign to the Magi, and the astrologers are not in a position to base their art upon this passage of the Gospels. The Wise Men did not try to cast Christ’s horoscope. They simply saw that this was a sign of a great king and they asked only where he was. In order to give no comfort to the astrologers, Christ made a brand-new star as as sign of his birth. How the Magi knew that this star meant the birth of a king is more than I know. But I don’t see any great miracle here. The Arabians were descended from Abraham, whose sons by Keturah dwelt in the East. Abraham was very well informed because God said, “How can I conceal what I am doing form Abraham?” He would surely have passed on His knowledge, not only to Isaac, but also to his other sons. Thus from the sons of Abraham the Wise Men could know that a king was to be born among the Jews, particularly when they saw His star over Judea.

    …Very probably they were close to the border of Judea near Egypt, otherwise they could not have seen the star, especially since it must have been low in the heavens. Had it been like an ordinary star, men ten miles apart would equally have supposed it to be directly over them. Since it was able to stop, not merely over the town, but over the very house, it must have been low. It was a star created for this very purpose and not like other stars that traverse the heavens.

    …When the Wise Men received the divine revelation that the king of the Jews was born, they made straight for Jerusalem, for, of course, they expected to find him at the capital in a lordly castle and a golden chamber. Where else would common sense expect to find a king? But because they were so sure of themselves, the star left them….Nature wants to feel and be certain before believing, but grace will believe before she feels. Faith steps gaily into the darkness, trusting simply in the Word.

    …Why did the star not take the Wise Men straight to Bethlehem without the necessity of consulting the Scriptures? Because God wanted to teach us that we should follow the Scriptures and not our own murky ideas.”

  30. @Richard Lewer #37

    Thank you, Pr. Lewer.
    [I don’t expect a response, but I also feel free to write to any thread.
    That’s a risk the authors here have to take.] 🙂

    @Mrs. Hume #18

    Thank you for the pictures, Mrs. Hume. I grew up in “snow country” but don’t see it often in central/south Texas.
    Several captions said it last snowed there like that 4 years previously.

    Los Angeles had its last significant snowfall (2 inches) in 1932. 😐

  31. It is a minor point of course, but I remember Jerusalem had a full on blizzard in the ’90’s. Record snowfall is three feet. That is quite a bit of snow. According to Bethlehem and Jerusalem each have on average three days of snowfall per year. So, yeah, I wouldn’t guess that Jesus was born on the average one day of snow in December, but a 1 in 30 chance is a much higher chance of snow than for the average December baby in LA. According to wiki, Jerusalem usually gets at a little snow every year, and heavy snow every three or four years. Bethlehem is six miles from Jerusalem.

  32. Re: Which animals….
    Consider the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3:
    The ox knows his master,
    the donkey his owner’s manger,
    but Israel does not know,
    my people do not understand.

  33. @Pastor John Fraiser #27
    Nevertheless, there is a pleasing symmetry to the idea that the conception date is the date of death–March 25 as the first Good Friday (or thereabouts) making Dec. 25 the birthdate. And yes, there is a tradition that has been researched that says not this in quite so many words, but the general connection is there. There is a book–can’t remember the author, can’t find it on my partially-blocked (due to a major water-damage instigated renovation of our fellowship hall) shelves–“The Origins of the Church Year” I think is its title–that does an excellent job of debunking that “Christians-simply-took-over-Sol-Invictus-celebration” idea that is so popular, and does examine the tradition regarding Dec. 25/March 25.

    Frankly, I’m not particularly worried about what season it was when Christ was born. The early Church seemed more concerned with Conception/Annunciation/Incarnation and Epiphany–that is, Christ’s *appearance* in our human flesh than about the birth itself. Dec. 25 is good, and March 25 for Annunciation is wonderful, especially in that, upon occasion, it actually falls on Good Friday.

  34. @Rose #43
    Re: Which animals….
    Consider the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3:
    The ox knows his master,
    the donkey his owner’s manger,…

    Whether this has anything to do with the facts at Bethlehem, I will not venture to speculate. 🙂

    But just for the record, we had our “Old Fashioned Christmas” at noon today, with “turkey ‘n everything”, beautiful decorations on the tables (which the school children made), dinner music while we ate (piano and bell choir) and the children’s re enactment of the scene at Bethlehem.

    I haven’t asked why, but the purists may be interested to know that the Magi did not appear at the manger; the story ended today with the departure of the shepherds. There was a little flock of lambs, some too small to navigate the stairs to the stage without help. And there was a donkey. 😉

  35. I’ve been a little confused by all of the Christmas posts on this site recently. I thought it was Advent.

    @helen #46

    Why did your church have an “Old Fashioned Christmas” on the day when we traditionally look at Death? I could possibly understand a visit from the Bishop of Myra, at least his feast day is on the 6th.

  36. Why did your church have an “Old Fashioned Christmas” on the day when we traditionally look at Death? I could possibly understand a visit from the Bishop of Myra, at least his feast day is on the 6th.

    Sorry, I meant Judgement, not Death.

    The Sundays of Advent are, in order: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell.

  37. Erich,
    As I mentioned before, the Pastors would rather have Advent uninterrupted by Christmas celebrations. This custom was in place before they arrived.

    The school children are one program focus, and school is out by the third Sunday, (which would be marginally better). Modifications have been made. The school program used to be on a Wednesday, which eliminated an Advent service altogether, until the Pastor, in effect, held one in the fellowship hall that evening along with the school program.
    This year we had a couple of “occasions” combined, and on Sunday, which is progress for us.

    We did go to church and heard about judgment (also giving and vocation) in a chanted Lutheran liturgical service. [If I gave you the whole history of the congregation, you would know that was an achievement!]

    1. When people come to realize that the details of the Christmas story as taught by the church are factually incorrect, it threatens the credibility of the church’s teaching on other matters.

    The headline does talk about “Advent narratives” but in fact the first point is as given above.

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