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A Different Christmas Story

Bible Explorations:
What the Bible Gets ‘Wrong’ About Our Holiday

By Aric Clark

1116-bibleAmericans love to celebrate Christmas. Christmas is wrapped in numerous beloved traditions and well-known folk tales. Even non-Christians are familiar with key aspects of the story behind the holiday, which is why many people find it shocking that a lot of the story details aren’t, strictly speaking, you know, in the Bible. For the Advent season I thought it might be fun, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, to go over some things the Bible gets “wrong” about Christmas.

Let’s start with the date. Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod (Matt. 2:1, Luke 1:5). Herod died in 4 B.C., so right away we have a conflict with the established date of Jesus’ birth. But it gets messier, because Luke also tells us that it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria and conducted a census of Palestine (Luke 2:1–7), and that didn’t happen until 6 A.D. In other words, there was never a date when Herod was reigning and Quirinius was governor of Syria at the same time. So what year was Jesus born? We don’t know. Maybe this will be the 2,016th celebration of his birthday, but probably not.

Speaking of the date, the Bible doesn’t give us a clear indication what time of year Jesus was born. Many have theorized that the December 25 date for Christmas came about as a way for Christians to co-opt pagan celebrations around Saturnalia and the winter solstice. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but another possibility is that there was a strong folkloric tradition in the ancient Near East of saints and prophets dying on the same day they were conceived. Since it was believed that Jesus died on March 25, it must mean he was also conceived on that day. Add nine months to March 25 and you get December 25! Happy birthday, Jesus!

The little town of Bethlehem is another element of our story the Bible contradicts. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary just lived in Bethlehem. There’s no mention of a census, no journey to Bethlehem, no inn, none of that stuff. All of those elements are drawn from Luke’s version of the story. But before you just get comfortable assuming Luke got it correct, you should know there are a lot of problems with Luke’s narrative, too.

For example, the census would not have required people to journey to a different city to be registered. The purpose of a census is to figure out where people actually live and work so you can tax them. It would have been highly impractical and counterproductive to require everyone to return to some arbitrary ancestral home to register.

But even if we roll with Luke’s unusual depiction of a census, we’re still left with another big problem for our favorite traditional Christmas stories: there was no inn as we know it. The word that some translators have rendered in English as “inn” is the Greek word kataluma, which means “guest room.” It is the same word used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to that “upper room” where Jesus and his disciples had their last supper.

Since Luke has made it clear that in his version of the story Joseph is returning to Bethlehem because it is his family’s hometown, he wouldn’t be looking for a Motel 6 when he got there. He’d be expecting his relatives to put him up. Luke is telling us is that, due to all of the family coming home for the census-inspired reunion, the guest room at his family’s place was crowded. That doesn’t mean Joseph and Mary got kicked out on the street. It just means they were staying in a crowded house with all of their relatives, and when Mary went into labor, rather than give birth in a room full of second cousins and nosy aunts, they decided to seek some privacy in the stable.

Luke isn’t the only Gospel to get these important holiday traditions “wrong.” Matthew never mentions that the wise men were kings, and he doesn’t even say that there were three of them. He just says “magi,” plural. It could be two. It could be hundreds. Many early paintings of the visitation of the magi depicted them as being 12 in number, like the tribes of Israel and the disciples.

When it comes to comparing the Biblical versions of these stories with our holiday traditions the list of discrepancies is long. Those angels in the sky weren’t friendly choirs; they were an invading army. That donkey Mary rode into Bethlehem? Never mentioned. Even that stable I mentioned above isn’t in the text. A manger is mentioned, but many people in that region actually kept their animals in caves. Reading the Bible at Christmastime can be a dangerous activity if all we want to do preserve the traditional images we associate with the season.

Aric Clark is a writer, speaker, and Presbyterian minister living near Portland, Oregon. He is also the creator of LectionARIC, a YouTube channel devoted to reading the text of religion and culture with “geeky irreverence.”

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