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The Christmas Story in Its Context

As we prepare for Christmas, the commercialization and busyness of the season often detracts from the true meaning of Christmas - the birth of Jesus, our Savior who came to save us and the world from the curse of sin. Another potential danger, however, is that our familiarity with the story of Christmas can cause us to focus on elements that might be more tied to tradition or imagination rather than the biblical text.

There are many details that we often associate with Jesus’ birth that are not actually found in the biblical text. I am not saying that these details are necessarily wrong or inaccurate, but rather that they should never become the main point or a key focus of the story. Hopefully, looking at a few of them will put the Christmas story in a new light and help us keep the main thing the main thing.

Mary Riding on a Donkey

My family uses pieces of felt to tell the Christmas story throughout the season of Advent as we prepare for the birth of Jesus. One piece is a donkey that Mary rides on to travel to Bethlehem. We know that she obviously didn’t take a plane, a train, or an automobile, and a donkey would most likely be the way she travelled. However, the Bible never tells us this (it could have been a different way), and the word “donkey” is never found in the story. Does it matter? No. But what this means is that we are probably wise not to spend a lot of time focusing on the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem; Luke 2:4 simply states that Joseph went to Bethlehem and Mary, who was with child, came with him. The focus is not on the journey, but on this baby who was born in the city of David and from the line of David (note two references to David in 2:4, as well as the statements in 2:11). It is not about how they got there but where they were and why.

The Desperate Search for a Hotel Room

We are told that Jesus was laid in manger because there was no place for them (Mary, Joseph, and the baby) in the inn. Retellings of the story often talk about a desperate search for a hotel room (as if they were visiting the Marriott, Holiday Inn Express, etc. and found no vacancy), with the innkeeper and his wife saying there was no room available. However, there is no mention of a desperate search to find a place to stay nor an innkeeper and his wife. There is even some question on how we should understand “inn” since Bethlehem was not a place likely to have a lot of “hotels” in that it was not a significant city and the word used often refers to a guest room rather than a hotel. (The same word is used in Luke 22:11 for guest room, and there is a different word for “inn/hotel” in Luke 10:34.) Therefore, it might be better to think of it as going to grandma’s house and not having enough spare rooms for everyone to stay in, with Mary and Joseph pulling  the short straw (we don’t know why). Above all, the point of this detail is not the search or the innkeeper, but rather the fact that this king from the line of David had nowhere to rest his head and spent his first night in a feeding trough with the animals.

The Stable

Read through the Christmas story -- how many times does the word “stable” appear? None. We do know that Jesus was placed in the area where animals were fed, so it would make sense to be in a stable, but some early traditions have Jesus being born in a cave, as animals would be kept there, too. It is also good to know that at that time, animals and people often slept in one enclosed space, with the animals on the lower level and the people on the upper level; so perhaps Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus were just on the lower level with the animals. Does the location make a difference? No, if it was a big deal, more details would be included in the story. The point is that the place where Jesus was born was nothing spectacular; he was not born in a palace but in humble circumstances and wrapped in swaddling cloths like a normal baby.

The Wise Men

Nativity scenes often have the wise men and shepherds worshipping Jesus in the stable. We just talked about the stable, but what about the wise men? First, we can’t be sure that there were three of them (it never says the number of wise men, just the amount of gifts and what these gifts were - gifts that fulfill what was spoken in Isaiah 60:6). Second, we read about the wise men in Matthew and the shepherds in Luke, so nowhere in the Bible are they together. In fact, when we look at the stories, they don’t seem to overlap. The angels appeared to the shepherds and they arrived that very night, while the wise men were traveling from the east after seeing a star, traveling first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. It likely took a year or two to get there (which is why Herod kills boys two years and under). Also, the wise men don’t go to a stable but rather into a house (see Matthew 2:11; of course, if there is no stable, that isn’t a problem). Does this mean it is wrong to have them in the nativity scene? No, but we need to remember that the story continues (the Christian day of Epiphany on January 6 celebrates the arrival of the wise men) and that Jesus’s birth is good news for the common person (shepherds) and also for all the nations (wise men). We also aren’t told that they are kings, as the word “magi” connects them to the study of astrology in the ancient world, which was viewed as giving people wisdom about what was happening in the world. The tradition of them as kings reminds us of Psalm 72:10-11, which speaks about kings coming (so this tradition reminds us of other passages that speak about Jesus’s work), but that might not be the intent of this story. With the visit of these wise men from the East, we recognize that true wisdom for all is found in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Bottom Line

Those are some details that aren’t in the Bible about the Christmas story. Again, the point is not to ruin your Christmas celebration or to say that these things didn’t happen, but rather to make sure that as we read the story and think about it in the coming days, we focus on the point of the overall passage, which is that God has kept His promise to save His people by sending His Son, who became a real human born in humble circumstances to save people of all different stripes and classes. Praise God for this glorious truth!

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