By Andrew Halloway

The Nativity: fact or fiction?

Does the typical nativity play reflect what really happened 2000 years ago in Bethlehem? You might be surprised...

Scene from The Nativity Story
Scene from The Nativity Story, 2006

1. Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem?

Perhaps. But the Bible doesn't say how she got to Bethlehem. It only says that she came with Joseph.

2. Was Jesus born in a stable with lowing cattle?

The Bible says Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the 'inn' (Luke 2:7). But the Greek word translated as 'inn' is 'kataluma', and can mean guest chamber, lodging place or inn. The only other place where this word was used in the Bible is in Mark 14:14-15, where it means a furnished upper room within a private house. Consequently, some modern Bibles translate this word as "guest room" (NIV) or "lodging" (NLT) rather than inn.

So, the most likely scenario is that the guest room in the relatives' house was already full with other relatives arriving for the census, so the holy family were housed in the only place left – where the relatives' animals were kept. This was either a cave in a hillside, or a lower room, possibly a cellar, in the relatives' house. There is a holy site in Bethlehem today called the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave, where it is held that Jesus was born. There are also shepherds' caves in the area around Bethlehem.

The manger itself was a stall or feeding trough for cattle or horses. So, there could have been some cattle in there at the time!

3. Was Jesus born on 25 December?

The tradition for 25 December is quite ancient, dating back at least as far as Hippolytus, very early in the third century. But the Bible does not specify a date or month.

One problem with December is that it would be unusual for shepherds to be staying out in the fields at this cold time of year. However, in its favor, early Jewish sources suggest that the sheep around Bethlehem were outside all year round. And these sheep were no ordinary sheep, but sacrificial lambs. In the early spring they would be slaughtered at the Passover, as an offering to God for the sins of the people.

Is it a coincidence that God first revealed the Messiah's birth to these shepherds – shepherds who protected the lambs that would soon die on behalf of sinful men? Jesus Himself is called the Lamb of God in the Bible – because He was slaughtered to take the punishment for the world's sin.

But the reason that specifically the 25th became the official date was because it was already a widespread festival day celebrating the annual return of the sun. The Church wished to replace this pagan festival with a Christian holy day (holiday), celebrating the arrival of the Son of God.

4. Was he born in 1 AD (there is no 0 AD!)

No. Our present calendar, revolving history around Jesus' birth, wasn't finalised till five centuries after Jesus, and they didn't have all the facts to hand.

But the Gospels tell us that his birth was shortly before Herod the Great died. Herod's death can be fixed with certainty at between 29 March and 4 April in 4 BC, so Jesus had to be born before then.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Herod killed Bethlehem's babies two years old and under, in an effort to kill Jesus. Obviously he had reason to believe that Jesus was no older than two, so the earliest Jesus could have been born, therefore, is 6 BC. Through a variety of other time indicators, we can be pretty confident that Jesus was born in either late 5 or early 4 BC.

5. Did three kings come from the East?

The number of wise men isn't mentioned in the Bible. It's assumed because of the number of gifts they brought. The Magi's names – Melchior, Gaspar/Caspar and Balthasar/Balthazar – are probably fictional. However, Marco Polo claimed to have seen the three tombs of the Magi on his journeys, and a golden sarcophagus in Cologne, Germany, is said to still hold the bones of the three Magi.

Were they kings? Unlikely. More probably the Magi would have been followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that studied the stars. These astronomer-priests probably came from present-day Iran. Since many Jews had lived in Persia ever since they were exiled from the Holy Land by the king of Babylon, their Scriptures would very likely have been known to the Magi. It seems that God brought them to worship Jesus through their knowledge of the prophecies in these Scriptures (many of them given by Daniel).

6. Was there a Star of Bethlehem?

The Bible is clear that a 'star' of some sort led the wise men to Jesus. It could have been a supernatural event, but if God chose to use a natural phenomenon, then there are plenty of candidates. Scientists and historians have identified several unusually bright astronomical events that occurred around the time of Christ's birth, including a nova, a comet, an occultation (when one larger heavenly body passes in front of an apparently smaller one) and a conjunction (gathering of planets). Any of these could have been viewed as a dazzling star by the Magi, and some would even have seemed to move in the sky in the direction of the Holy Land, when viewed from Persia.

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