Van Ens: Separate fact from fiction in the Christmas story
Several widely accepted “facts” regarding the biblical Christmas story are probably fiction.
The first two chapters in the gospels of Matthew and Luke recount the only biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. Their literary styles are lean regarding specific Christmas characters. Neither Matthew nor Luke wrote explanatory paragraphs detailing what precisely occurred during the first Christmas.
Their simple writing styles left gaps in the story of Jesus’ birth. Consequently, later Christians filled in spaces by embellishing the story. Their active imaginations added extra “facts” through paintings, music, scenic Christmas cards and birth narratives that add details to the biblical script.
What was Mary’s mode of transportation when she and her husband Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem? An easy answer, huh? Of course, she road on a donkey.
However, the Bible makes no mention of Mary’s donkey. Luke simply tells us in the second chapter of his gospel that “Joseph went from the town of Bethlehem in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”
Matthew skips mentioning any journey from Nazareth. He simply states, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,” in Luke 2: 1. Again, a donkey isn’t part of the original Christmas story.
Cattle lowing in the manger are missing in the biblical narratives, also. Luke is the only biblical writer who paints a picture of baby Jesus laid in a feedbox for animals. But there no specific reference to animals surrounding the manger.
Familiar Christmas carols spread false news about a Christmas story the Bible barely recognizes. Matthew tells us that mysterious travelers arrived days after Jesus’ birth when this baby lived with his parents in a house. Matthew, in the second chapter of his gospel, uses sparse prose to tell how “wise men” told King Herod, “We observed his [Jesus] star at its rising and have come to pay homage to him.”
There’s nothing in scripture about whether the star was bright or dull. Nothing about whether other stargazers, such as shepherds tending their flocks by night on the Judean hills, spied its brilliance. The popular Christmas carol “The First Noel,” has worshippers singing in the second stanza, “They [the shepherds] looked up and saw a star/ Shining in the East beyond them far.” These lyrics invent a picture of wise men and shepherds seeing the same star that’s not part of the Bible’s Christmas story.
Through the centuries, the manger scene has become populated with animals and wise men. There’s no biblical mention, however, of cattle lowing there, no donkey near-by, no “wise men” bowing, no squinting shepherds virtually blinded by a brilliant star above the manger.
It’s wise not to speculate about what the Bible says for certain regarding these Magi. Luke doesn’t include them as part of his Christmas story. Matthew reports “Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’” (Matthew 2:1-2).
How many wise men traveled to see Jesus? Sacred legend tells us their number was three because these foreign visitors (from Persia?) “offered him [baby Jesus] gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). In the Middle Ages, legends abounded about these mysterious travelers. They acquired names of Melchior, Casper and Balthazar. Later Christian pilgrims filled Cologne Cathedral after 1164 because Emperor Frederick Barbarossa exhumed three bodies in Milan, Italy and had them interred in Germany’s grand Cathedral.
Holy tradition identified these corpses as those of the wise men.
Back to carols that we lustily sing but wrongly interpret what the lyrics suggest. A familiar carol begins with a rousing “Joy to the World! The Lord is come.” Most choristers assume these lyrics point back to baby Lord Jesus born in Bethlehem.
This carol, however, describes a mature Jesus who appears at the end of history. Reigning as Lord over the world, he has the last word punctuating history’s final chapter. Christians refer to this end-time arrival as Christ’s “Second Coming” when God’s goodness prevails over all that’s wrong on Earth.
I preached at a Christmas Eve service about how fiction taints the first Christmas story. Some worshippers acted disappointed because I questioned some details pictured in the Christmas story they cherished. How could the Walmart stores’ displays be wrong, featuring a donkey, cattle, a star, three wise men with kneeling camels at Jesus’ manger?
It’s easier to believe in legends than the truth of Christmas, which is: God came down from the starry heavens and identified with baby Jesus who brings divine forgiveness, hope, joy and love to us. This fact is true. It’s glad tidings make for the merriest of Christmases.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.