Unraveling Two Christmas Legends

Urban Legends of the New Testament is a new book that I’ve been enjoying. Written by David Croteau, and published by B&H Publishing, the book surveys 40 of the most commonly misinterpreted passages in the New Testament. Here’s a brief summary of the author’s correction of two legends related to the birth of Christ.

Legend 1: There was no room at the inn.

The legendary teaching on Luke 2:1-7 says that as Joseph and Mary approached Bethlehem, “Mary started to feel the baby pressing. Joseph began to panic, and as they entered the town of Bethlehem, he went from house to house looking for a place for them to stay. Everyone was turning them away, door after door, house after house. Carrying Mary, he finally received permission to use someone’s stable, a place where only animals should be kept. Joseph took Mary inside, and she gave birth to Jesus.”

Is this what the Scripture says? Not really. First, it does not say they arrived in Bethlehem just in time. It says, “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” They were already there and the time came, that’s all it says. It does not say how long they had been in Bethlehem. Second, the word translated “inn” most likely refers to the guest room that most residents had adjacent to their house. Instead of having the privilege of receiving guest room hospitality, Mary and Joseph had to stay in the main part of the house, in which a side portion of the family room contained a manger for animals.

Legend 2: Three kings came from the Orient.

The legendary teaching about the wise men originates, in part, from the famous Christmas carol We Three Kings of Orient Are. The teaching says there were three kings who had traveled from the Orient, and they visited the baby Jesus at the same time as the shepherds. But is this what Scripture says? According to Matthew 2:1, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” From this, “what can we glean about the ‘three kings from the Orient?”, asks David Croteau.

First, the word for wise men is plural, so there were more than one. But the word is magi, not kings. And it does not say there were three, only that there were three gifts. “All the theories and traditions advocating there being three wise men are late and unreliable documents…There is no compelling reason to believe there were three wise men. On the other hand, if three men were traveling hundreds of miles with expensive gifts, it would seem to be unwise for them to do in a group of only three. On the other hand, they could have had an entourage go with them. While, theoretically, there could have been three, there could also have been thirty. We simply do not know the precise number.” Second, were they wise men or kings? Furthermore, historically, magi were priests, astrologers, dream interpreters, and fortune tellers who practiced magic. From their inquiry of King Herod, it appears they most likely were also Gentile religious scholars. Third, were they from the Orient, a term that typically refers to East Asia, near China? Most likely, no. Instead they were probably from Babylon or Persia, given that they had a little knowledge of Judaism, and the nature of the gifts they brought fit that area.

What’s the main point, the main takeaway from the story of the magi? It’s worship. Croteau concludes, “Matthew’s focus is not the number, origin, or identity of the wise men, and that is probably why he is so ambiguous about some of the details we want to know. His main point is communicating that these non-Jewish men came to worship Jesus the king.”

And that should be our main point, too. Christmas is about worship.

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