Time for our yearly Christmas history post that I’m sure you’ve been waiting for. It’s always interesting to track down the origins of holiday traditions. Now that Christmas is upon us, many have displayed their Nativity scenes with the usual stable, wise men and donkey. Some interesting facts:
- The Bible doesn’t state how many wise men there were. Three is divined from the number of gifts. Some traditions list many more Magi.
- We Three Kings tells us they are from the Orient. Some people may think this means the Far East, i.e. Japan and its neighbors. True today, but not back then. These terms referred to Persia (centered in modern-day Iran).
- Nowhere does the Bible record Mary riding a donkey, as many images depict. That comes from the Protevangelium of James 17:2: “He [Joseph] saddled the donkey and seated her [Mary] on it; and his son led it along, while Joseph followed behind.”
- While the “no room in the inn” and Christ being humbled by being born in a barn account is an inseparable part of Christian culture, is it correct? Would Joseph find no relatives and friends in the town of his origin? Did not Mary know people nearby as well? In fact, Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for a “commercial inn,” but the word katalyma, which means “a place to stay.” Luke also defines this as “guest room” in Luke 22:10-12. So they very well may have been with friends or family.
- The Bible simply reads “manger” as to where Jesus was placed. Assumed to mean that he was in a stable, but very early traditions state that a cave was being used. The mother of Constantine, Helena, had a church built over a cave, the Church of the Nativity. This is all probably wrong. Consider that a “manger” in Middle Eastern homes was in the home itself. This gives us an entirely different Nativity story. We have one where Joseph wasn’t irresponsible in getting his pregnant wife somewhere safe in time (Technically Luke doesn’t state Christ was born the night of arrival in Bethlehem, as commonly misconstrued).
Planets, stars, novas or even UFOs, all have been presented as the source of the account in the Gospel of Matthew. He was the only gospel writer who felt it necessary to include the star, which make many wonder if it really happened. Like many of these topics, one can choose to be quickly dismissive or delve deeper.
The latter is what Michael R. Molnar does in his book The Star of Bethlehem. It’s one of the most complete studies of the topic I have run across and draws out many overlooked details in the biblical account and from history. Some additional studies from a science-faith think tank can be found here, but Molnar’s book would be a great study for this Christmas season.
If you want more Christmas lore, try Revelation of the Magi by Brent Landau. This is a translation of a once popular, now largely forgotten, apocryphal Christian story. It’s a fascinating account for students of early Christian history and Christmas traditions. Does it add any truth to the gospel account? Maybe, maybe not. It has the style of fiction rather than historical reporting.
Now Landau’s speculations about the story and the biblical account are, at times, poor theology. He thinks the infancy accounts have no value and supposedly the “majority” of scholars agree. It didn’t take me long to find many who disagree with that. He also seems to be promoting some sort of pluralistic variety of Christianity by somehow concluding this Magi text points to all religious beliefs coming from Christ. It’s sad that some “scholars” seem to ignore scholars who don’t agree with them and try to dumb down Christianity (I’m not saying other religions don’t have any truths in them, but pluralists like to pretend everyone is the same). So don’t buy Landau’s book for the theology. If ancient texts interest you, his translation of the Magi text is a good read.
Instead of non-stop rushing around this month, take some time, sit by the Christmas tree, and learn about the history and traditions that surround us this time of year.