Catholic Classroom: Myths about Christmas

Question: What really happened at Jesus' birth?

Nativity scene with Mary and Jesus | Text: What really happened at Jesus' birth? (Catholic Classroom)

You may be able to rattle off the basic story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but have you ever wondered how much of that story is from Scripture, and how much was added in after?

Myth #1: Jesus was born in a stable next to an inn

Nativity, Neri di BicciYou know the tale: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem on a donkey, seeking shelter. They knock on the doors of inn after inn, and are turned away. Finally, they arrive at another full inn, but the innkeeper is kind enough to allow them to stay in his stables, rather than turning them away.

Well, maybe. But the text simply says: “ She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) The word translated as “inn” here, καταλύματι, means “lodging place”. The same word is used in Luke 22:11, where it is translated as “guest room”. So it seems safe to say that there was no room in the “guest room” of wherever they had planned to stay, which may very well have been Joseph’s family home

As for the “stable”, it seems unlikely that Mary and Joseph stayed in a building separate from the main home. A family’s animals were commonly brought into the home’s ground floor to protect them from the cold. So according to a simple reading of the text, Mary and Joseph stayed where they had been expected to stay, but in a part of the house not intended as a guest room. Jesus was laid in a manger, which is a trough for feeding animals. Interestingly, the Gospel of Matthew makes no mention of Bethlehem or a manger.

Myth #2: Three Kings visted Jesus soon after his birth

Three wise men on camelsThe story goes like this: 3 wise men or kings of faraway nations (named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar) travel together by camel in the direction of a bright star, motivated by the prophecy of the birth of a king. They first have an audience with Herod, and promise him that they will report back the location of the newly born child. But after visiting the child, they are warned by a dream to not report back to Herod.

Some of this is true. The text says: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod,* behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1). It also says that Herod called the magi to him and told him to search for the child and report back (2:7-8). The Scripture indeed says the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (2:12).

Other than this, we don’t know much about who these “magi” were. The word “magi” (often translated as “wise men” or “kings”) seems to refer to a tribe of followers of Zoroastrianism, a Persian monotheistic religion. Because of (possibly unfair) associations with Zoroastrianism, the word “magi” became used in Greek to refer to practitioners of astrology, alchemy, and other forms of magic (and is also the root of our English word for that practice). These people could have been Zoroastrians, or they could have been practitioners of magic.

We don’t know that they were kings, and we don’t know how many they were. We don’t know their names or from what countries they came, and there is no picture painted of their journey to Bethlehem. We know only that foreigners arrived in Jerusalem because they believed a king had been born.

Piero di Giovanni, Nativity

Myth #3: All the animals

Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem on a donkey. The caravan of magi includes camels and other animals. Donkeys, cows, sheep, and doves all look on as Mary gave birth to the Savior. Is there a nativity play or nativity scene in existence that lacks these elements?

They are all certainly part of the cultural narrative about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, but the Scripture does not mention them. While the Gospel of Luke does mention the manger (see Myth #1) and the presence of animals may be implied by that, the addition of specific animals to the stories of Jesus’ birth is just a fun source of color for the story.


Catholic Classroom: Myths about Christmas