Myths We Believe About the Birth of Jesus

How We've Gotten Christmas All Wrong

Every year at Christmastime, we remember, reenact, and commemorate the birth of Jesus.  It is such a familiar beloved story.  We all know it by heart.  Or do we?  What if we’ve got it all wrong? What if the ideas about Christmas we hold dear turned out to be no more than myths?

Christmas Myths

The Innkeeper

I wrote a short post about how we should think differently about the innkeeper who had no room in his inn.  I thought I was really thinking outside the usual box on this one, but I was so wrong. What I discovered about the birth of Jesus rocked my Christmas world.

First, I’ll share my initial post because even though I got the facts all wrong (as you’ll read next), I still think I make a good point.

When we tell the Christmas story, we have a tendency to cast the innkeeper as the bad guy.  It’s easy to picture him as a grumpy, stingy old man who has no time to waste on poor guests, no pity in his heart for a woman about to give birth, and no room for the Savior in his inn.

But what if there’s more to the story?  What if we’ve got it backwards?

In all honesty, it was a busy season in a tiny town overcrowded with folks from out of town. Little Bethlehem was overstuffed with people like a shopping mall in December.  I have no doubt that this man’s little inn WAS out of room.  He wasn’t running a Hilton.  What was he supposed to do?  Kick out the guests who were there first?  

In reality, he gave all he had to give—a manger and a stable; shelter from the elements and a safe place to keep the baby.  Even though all he had to offer was inadequate and unfit for a King, much less God Himself, he gave it anyway.  

He gave out of his poverty and God accepted it.

God is all-sufficient and He ultimately owns all the resources that exist.  If He had wanted to be born in a palace, He could have been.  He does not need our riches.  He wants our hearts.  

God is an expert at making do with what we’ve got.  We just have to be willing to give it to him.

Searching for the Real Christmas

While I was writing this, I decided to look up some historical information about inns and innkeepers in Jesus’ day.  What I discovered  altered my view of the Christmas story forever.

Rather than a lonely birth in a barn with only animals in attendance (thanks to a stingy innkeeper) as our Christmas traditions suggest, Scripture coupled with cultural and historical information seem to indicate that quite the opposite is the real Christmas story.

I already knew that Mary may not have ridden a donkey (none is ever mentioned) and that December 25th is not Jesus’ real birthday (shepherds would only be out in the fields from April to October), but this idea is new to me.  It completely changes my understanding of how God entered our world.

Already There

Mary didn’t arrive in Bethlehem as she was giving birth in the dramatic fashion The Nativity Story depicts (see minute 8:50 here).  They were already in Bethlehem for days before the birth.  Luke 2:6 tells us, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”.  Did you catch that sublte difference?  Grammatically speaking, “while they were there” is not the same as “as they were arriving”.  The Aramaic Bible in Plain English makes the distinction even more clear.   “And it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.”

It’s more like a pregnant mother visiting family in another town and giving birth a few days after arriving than it is being in labor during the car ride to granny’s house and pulling over to give birth beside the road because the hospital was full.

Welcomed Not Rejected

They were not turned away from a motel by a stranger.  Mary and Joseph were probably welcomed into a home by their kin.  As it turns out, no innkeeper is mentioned at all in the Scriptural account of Jesus’ birth and the word translated “inn” is actually the word for “guest room”, commonly called an “upper room” because it was on the 2nd story of the house. (You see now why I had to go a whole new direction with my post.)

Since Joseph was returning to his hometown for the census, it’s logical that he would have stayed with family.  Some scholars debate if a town as small as Bethlehem even had an inn at all.

The idea of there being “no room” could mean the one guest room was already occupied or that the space upstairs was too small for all the hustle and bustle of busy women who would be attending Mary and her baby during the birth. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not left all alone to fend for themselves.  They were surrounded by a family and community that mostly likely helped with the process and celebrated the of the birth of King David’s descendent.

Not Even a Stable?

He wasn’t born in a stable or a cave.  Jesus was likely born in a home.  We get the idea of a stable from the fact that Baby Jesus was placed in a manger.  Caves were often used as a place to keep animals, so some have suggested it was actually a cave that served as the Christ Child’s first nursery. Actually, families commonly kept livestock on the first floor of the house at night, so it was not unusual for a manger to be part of the main room’s furnishings.  They didn’t have Pack n’ Plays back then folks!

While traveling, I have often put my baby to sleep in a portable crib set up in a roomy closet. When you’re away from home, sometimes you just have to make do.

Though He was fully God, Jesus was also fully man.  He was not born in some mystical, unique way.  He entered the world just like all the other little boys did in His day.  Back then, homebirth was not a novelty, it was the norm.

Yes, He Did Cry

Speaking of being fully God and fully human at the same time, I have long had a bone to pick with “Away in a Manger” and this seems as good a place as any to bring it up.  “No crying he makes”?  Seriously?  This idealistic myth denies his humanity which is the whole point of Immanuel “God with us”.  I just love this quote from Jason Boyett, who apparently agrees with me.

“It implies that the baby Jesus didn’t cry when the cows, apparently peeved at the unorthodox use of valuable manger space, woke him up with noisy moos. Yet a fairly important precept of Christianity is that Christ was fully human—and not some blissful, preternaturally calm superbaby. This means the little Lord Jesus acted like an infant. He spit up. He peed. He left a few, um, deposits in his swaddling clothes.

He cried like a baby.”

The Truth Behind Christmas Myths

I’ve only touched the surface here.  I highly recommend you also read these other articles if you are interested in digging a little deeper.

Was There Really “No Room in the Inn”? 

The Bible’s Story of the Birth of Jesus

What Are Some of the Most Common Misconceptions About the Christ’s Birth?

Debunking Christmas Myths

I haven’t even mentioned all the myths surrounding the famous “Three Kings” (as we call them) or the fact that many of our beloved Christmas traditions originated in non-Christian celebrations of lengthening winter days and have nothing to do with the birth of Christ.  I will have to save those for other posts.

Examine the Scriptures

When I set out to write a post about how we think about the innkeeper all wrong, I had no idea how wrong I was.  Turns out, there is no innkeeper!  How many times have I read the second chapter of Luke and not picked up on that fact? Where else have I allowed the habits and traditions of Christians around me to blind me to what God’s Word actually says? 

So what can we learn from this? I believe it is imperative that we make sure we are passing on Truth above tradition, and not just with the Christmas story, but with all Scripture.  It’s very easy to repeat what we’ve been told without checking it out for ourselves to see if it’s even accurate, but we are called to a higher standard than that.

We are called to be like these that Luke describes, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed.” (Acts 17:11-12b)

The Bereans didn’t just accept or reject the message they heard.  The received it and examined it carefully, testing it to see if what Paul said was consistent with the Truth God had already revealed.  The result of their research was faith in Jesus as their Messiah, and an assurance that Bethlehem’s baby really did come to set them free and rescue them from darkness.

Jesus at Home in Our Hearts

This whole idea of Jesus being born in a home surrounding by a loving and helpful family and community creates a big paradigm shift in my mental picture of that very first Christmas.  How about you?

I like this “new” version better.  It is consistent with Luke’s account as well as the whole of Scripture and what God says about who Jesus is.  It also has historical, archeological, and cultural support.

I love the beautiful unity of the “upper room” being a significant aspect of Christmas as well as Easter.  The upper room, a place where you welcome and invite your guests, is mentioned both at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ earthly life.

May we always make room for Jesus to be welcomed into every room of our hearts.

Merry Christmas!

Blessings, Elizabeth

P.S. – I’m not advocating ditching your nativity set, throwing out the Christmas pageant script, or refusing to sing historically inaccurate Christmas carols.  Let’s not get crazy in our quest for truth!  Traditions can be an enjoyable part of any celebration as long as we remember not to elevate human tradition above divinely inspired revelation.  In fact, even after I learned all these great new ideas about that first Christmas, this song and video still moved me to worship God.

It’s our heart’s response to Jesus that matters most.  That’s where Christmas really happens.  Everything else is just to help us point our hearts in the right direction.

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Your comments make my day! What you do think about what you just read?

13 thoughts on “Myths We Believe About the Birth of Jesus

  1. P.S. I forgot to mention the documentary “The Star of Bethlehem”. If you have never seen this, you would find it fascinating when it comes to trying to date some of the events surrounding Jesus’ life. There is one date in particular that is simply amazing, but I won’t give it away. You simply must watch it sometime. It is a big reason why we actually returned to celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25th after not doing so for the first 5 years of our marriage (not the only reason, but one of them). 🙂

  2. This was a fun read as I hadn’t ever considered the whole inn thing either and also love to have more layers of truth revealed as it seems to help jar me out of my spiritual complacency at times. One of our prayers that we’ve been praying a lot in this last year has been, “Lord show us where we are deceived (or perhaps just confused), where we are failing to believe the truth.” If you want to have a popular Christian tradition/belief rocked I encourage you to watch the movie “Hell and Mr. Fudge”. We watched the movie and then read both of the man’s books. In the end we were convinced of his view. It didn’t change our walk so much but I believe it caused me to be more aware of how many areas there are in our lives that we have just assumed things to be true because those around us have said they were. It is fun to own a conviction by studying it out for ourselves.

  3. Excellent article and excellent attitude. (not to throw out the Christmas Carols or stop fellowshipping with those who hold old, traditional views) I appreciate your final thoughts on searching out the scriptures on EVERY area of teachings that have been passed down to us. I trust you are searching out other areas of doctrine with the same passion. Examples: the purpose of the church, Water baptism, end times teachings, etc.

    • Yes, searching the depths of God’s Word is a life-long adventure. We will never learn all the wonders and mysteries God has hidden for us. There is so much to learn and discover. It’s great to fellowship with other seekers and searchers along the way. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Excellent article! I love the research you put into this. So many people just want to say, “That’s not what it means to me…” It doesn’t matter what it has meant to us, it matters what it all mean to God. He is the one who did it and recorded it for us. We don’t have to be overly technical or ‘legalistic’ to search out the truth of His word and learn from it.

  5. Hi. I don’t often reply to these types of things but I really felt compelled here. I guess specifically, I want to share what I have learned regarding the date we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It doesn’t seem to me it was just picked arbitrarily, though I think all can agree that the specific date is not really known for sure. It has to do with Zechariah serving at the temple when the angel appeared to him. I will quote someone else on this…”St. John Chrysostom gave a homily on Christmas (in fact, five of his Christmas sermons survive) about 386 AD (Migne, Patriologus Graecae, vol. 49, cols. 351-362, esp. Section 5, col. 357) in which, by looking at the Gospel of Luke, he was able to argue that Christ was born in late December; he didn’t argue that it was merely an effort to replace a Roman or pagan festival. He argued that if Zachary was serving in the Temple “and all the multitude of the people was praying without” (Lk 1:10), it must be the greatest Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which occurs in late September or early October. Zachary returned home, Elizabeth conceived soon thereafter, and the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary while Elizabeth was “in her sixth month” (not after six months), which would be late March, and Jesus was born nine months after that, in late December. So Christmas doesn’t have to be a coopted pagan festival.” That is basically my understanding. Also, I wanted to mention where you stated that baby Jesus cried and your problem with “Away in a Manger”. You know, I wouldn’t be surpised if he cried. But I’m sure there were at least moments when he didn’t cry (as would also be normal for a baby). I’ve heard your arguement from others before and it just seems kind of silly to me. I always figured the song was just about a moment when the Baby happened to be silent, I have never thought of it meaning that He never cried at all. Just as I have never considered that the innkeeper was some kind of grumpy, selfish guy. And lastly, it seems like you made quite a few comments that stated “Jesus never…” (like it is a FACT) and then follow them with “Jesus LIKELY”. For example, “He wasn’t born in a stable or a cave. Jesus was likely born in a home.” Or, ” Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not left all alone to fend for themselves. They were surrounded by a family and community that mostly likely helped with the process and celebrated the of the birth of King David’s descendent.” On one hand you say quite like it is a fact that tradition has it all wrong, and then you follow it with just another possiblity of what happened. I certainly do not find anywhere is Scripture that Mary and Jesu were surrounded by family and community that helped, though it is a nice picture, I agree. It all just seems funny to me when you then tell your readers “It is imperative that we make sure we are passing on Truth above tradition.” I don’t feel like I’ve found the whole “Truth” by reading your article, just some new (or not so new) ideas. I do want to say that I agree that since not all the details of His birth were recorded, it is believable that some were assumed. I’m just not so sure that much of what you have written here is any different.

    • Thank you for your insightful and well-thought out comments. Your explanation of the timing of Zechariah’s serving at the temple is also new to me. That is very interesting. I’m glad you took the time to share it with me. I love learning new things! You are very right, Scripture does not give us all the details we often would like to have. That does make it very tempting to fill in our own ideas. I was surprised by how much of the Christmas story I just took for granted from the way I’ve always heard it told. When I discovered that no innkeeper is mentioned at all and the word that has been translated as “inn” doesn’t really even mean “inn” at all, it caused me to reimagine the whole scene. Scripture comes alive for me when I imagine what it may have been like to actually live through the experiences recorded. I agree with you. We don’t know for sure that family was present. They are not mentioned. It’s just a logical conclusion. But now I do know there was no inn! I love it when Biblical scholars and historians are able to add greater depth and meaning to what I am able to pull out from reading the English text alone. Admittedly, I am still thinking this one through. I would like to do further reading on the topic. I’m certainly not trying to substitute one tradition for another. I’m just saying that some parts of the story I thought were true are not and other possible explanations “may” be true. I never want to add to or take away from what Scripture actually says. I’m sorry if I created confusion on that point. Thanks so much for writing. I love intellectually stimulating discussion!

  6. You and I are on the same page today Elizabeth! I didn’t write about myths, but New Things I’ve Learned About Christmas. These are really interesting aren’t they? Merry Christmas!