I love Christmas. I love the music, movies, and manger scenes. These things help us experience the story of Jesus’ birth. These are the artifacts that inform our minds about what happened that first Christmas. But have you ever asked if they accurately portray the truth? It turns out that some of the details of the Christmas story that we’ve all come to cherish find their origin in cultural myth rather than biblical truth. Here are three examples of common misconceptions about Jesus’ birth.
Myth #1: There Was No Room in the Inn for Joseph and Mary
The modern picture of the nativity drama has Joseph and Mary (who is practically in labor) turned away by a heartless innkeeper. The Bible never mentions an innkeeper, though, and it’s possible there wasn’t an inn at all.
I know what you’re thinking: How can that be, when Luke 2:7 clearly says, “There was no room for them in the inn”? In a recent article, New Testament scholar Stephen Carlson explains that the Greek word for “inn” in that passage is “katalyma.” He convincingly argues that better translations would be “place to stay,” “guest room,” or “upper room.”
Joseph and Mary weren’t strangers in a strange land. They were in Joseph’s ancestral home, where he would have had friends and family who would have cared for them. Plus, Luke 2:6 says, “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.” Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for some time before Mary gave birth.
The picture of a desperate Joseph and Mary being denied lodging isn’t the picture Luke paints. Luke’s not saying there was no room in the inn. He’s saying there was no room for baby Jesus in either a guest room (which would have been incredibly small) or the upper room of the house where Mary and Joseph were already staying. This mistranslation leads to another misunderstanding and our second misconception.
Myth #2: Jesus Was Born in a Stable
Every Christmas, we unbox our nativity set: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherd, wise men, and of course, the stable, where all these figurines are assembled. We place it in a prominent place for everyone to see. It’s beautiful. There’s a problem, though: Jesus wasn’t born in a stable.
The text never mentions a stable at all, only a manger. This detail gives us an idea of where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were staying, though. First-century houses in that part of the world had two levels. The upper was where the family lived, and the lower was where the animals were kept during the night for protection and warmth in the winter months.
There was no room in the “upper room,” so Mary gave birth in the lower. Jesus was born in the lower level of the house and then placed in a manger or feeding trough. Why a feeding trough? Practically, they make good cradles.
Do you see how the first misconception led to the second? There’s another issue with our modern nativity scenes. Let’s talk about the magi and our final misconception.
Myth #3: Three Magi Were Present at the Birth of Jesus
First, we don’t know there were three. The number of magi is never mentioned in the biblical accounts. Matthew simply says, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” (Matt. 2:1). The idea of three magi probably comes from Matthew mentioning three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). The number of magi isn’t the only issue. There’s more.
The magi were not present at the birth of Jesus. Matthew 2:1 is clear on this: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem…magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” Also, in that same passage, Matthew uses the word “paidion” to describe Jesus. Paidion is translated “child” but references an infant or toddler, not a newborn. The magi came after Jesus was born.
These three misconceptions remind us that our understanding of the biblical narrative is sometimes shaped more by popular retellings than by the Scriptures themselves. But when we take a closer look at the true story of Christmas, a wonderful, more informed picture of what happened 2,000 years ago comes to light.
The Real Christmas Story
Looking at that first Christmas as it really happened, we see that Jesus was born into humble beginnings—not in a stable, but a home. The first people to worship him were not rich and powerful magi from afar, but family, friends, and shepherds.
This Christmas, I’m thankful that the King of kings came obscurely, miraculously, and mysteriously. A virgin birth. A perfect life. A rugged cross. A bodily resurrection. A heavenly ascension. This is not a fanciful story. This is the way the world really is, and this is what Christmas is all about.