Three wise men and other myths

What your Christmas cards got wrong

Three wise men

We are all so familiar with the nativity scene as pictured on Christmas cards and in mall displays that we can often assume parts of the story are fact that are not in the historical, biblical account.

1. Jesus was born on December 25

The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on December 25. But there's no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day.

According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail – the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth – suggests that Jesus' birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled.

As late as the 3rd century, Christians did not even celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 comes from a 4th-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia, in the time of Constantine. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on December 25, "Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea".

Some have argued that the date of Jesus' birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. However, while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the 4th century, there is evidence Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the 7th century when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints' feast days on the days of pagan festivals.

However, some people still think that December 25th was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice or "Yule" and the ancient Roman midwinter festivals that took place around this date.

A very early Christian tradition said the Annunciation - the day when Mary was told that she would have a very special baby, Jesus - was on March 25th. Nine months after the 25th March is the 25th December. They believed that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date of the year and the 25th of March as the day of His death is calculated from other passages in the New Testament.

2. Three wise men riding camels attended Jesus' birth

The Bible does not say that any kings or camels visited young Jesus. It does report that wise men (magi) came, but it does not say how many. Since the word "magi" used in the Bible is plural, there were apparently at least two, and there could have been more – even several more.

Nothing about the story's language suggests that these visitors were monarchs. It is more likely they were pagan astrologers.

People commonly think there were three of them because of the gifts enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew: we are told that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there could as easily have been any other number of magi.

And the only indication of the country these men came from is that they came from "the east" (Matthew 2:1).

The nativity scenes put the wise men's visit on the night of Jesus' birth, at the same time as the shepherds, but the Bible tells us they visited him much later. Matthew 2:11 says the magi had found Jesus "on coming to the house". So by this stage He was out of the stable and living in more permanent accommodation.

When King Herod anxiously meets the Magi in Matthew 2:2, he thinks his reign might be threatened by the child they've come to visit, so some time later, when they fail to report back to him, he orders all boys up to two years old slain, based on when the star first appeared. Assuming Herod would have had a margin for error, we can infer that Jesus would have been between one and two years old when the wise men worshipped Him.

3. Jesus was born in a stable/barn/cave

The Bible accounts of Jesus' birth only appear in the book of Matthew and Luke and neither mention a stable, barn or cave in connection with Christ's birth, but only a manger. Luke 2:7 says "She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them."

We assume it was a stable, barn or cave because that is where the animals who ate from the manger would have been kept, but Bible archaeology experts suggest Jesus could have been born outside (under) the normal living and guest quarters of a house.

The various misconceptions about Christ's birth illustrate the need to test everything we hear or assume against God's Word, no matter what the source. The Bible is the final authority.

Despite human misconceptions, the actual facts about Jesus are more marvellous than words can express. He was indeed born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem exactly as prophesied hundreds of years before by the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit of God.

As the apostle John reveals, Jesus existed before the Creation of the world (John 1). The Son of God came in human form to die as a willing sacrifice in payment for the sins of mankind. He did this to provide eternal salvation as a free gift to all who will accept it and follow Him.

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