in Sermons

Common Misconceptions about the Advent Narratives

Steadfast Lutherans » Common Misconceptions about the Advent Narratives.

There are several good reasons to expose and correct the apocryphal, Hallmark-card understanding of Jesus’ birth (which I will hereafter dub the mythical view): 

1. When people come to realize that the details of the Christmas story as taught by the church are factually incorrect, it threatens the credibility of the church’s teaching on other matters.

2. As we will see, the details of the birth accounts found in the gospels are not arbitrarily selected. They are chosen to communicate a particular understanding of the birth and person of Christ. The mythical view obstructs these significant points that the gospel writers are communicating.

3. The mythical view props up the non-Christian accusation that Christians don’t really know what the Bible teaches. Though they claim to believe it, they, in fact, are quite ignorant of its teaching and its events (I think this is a fair accusation for a large number of people who go by the name “Christian”).

4. The events surrounding Christ’s birth were orchestrated by God and consequently his action within his creation. When we consistently change these details we are, either wittingly or unwittingly, attempting to alter the freedom of God to act as he chooses.

Nativity PictureOf course, I am not the first to correct the mythical view, and I won’t be the last. Nevertheless, I hope to be another source of correct information for those who are misguided and a source of encouragement to others to correct these misunderstandings as well.

How do you know if you are operating with a mythical view of Christ’s birth? Here’s a short quiz to help you determine…

1. How many wise men were there?

2. Did the wise men visit Christ in the manger?

3. Were the wise men kings?

4. Were the wise men from the Orient (Eastern Asia)?

5. What was the bright star that appeared above the Christ child?

6. Was Christ born in December?

7. Did it snow when Christ was born?

8. What animals attended the birth of Christ?

9. Did the innkeeper turn Mary and Joseph away?

10. Was Gabriel the angel that stood above the stable that night?

11. Did Mary deliver Jesus with only Joseph’s help?

If you answered “yes” to any questions which required a yes/no answer then you have a misunderstanding of the biblical account of the events surrounding the birth of Christ. I’ll take each question one by one and explain.

1. How many wise men were there?
It is common for people to believe that there were three magi. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that the magi presented three gifts to Christ. This, however, is no indication that there were only three of them. Past knowing that there was plurality of magi, we should have no certainty on how many there were. However, since magi in a king’s court were not a loose collection of individuals but an advisory council to a king, it is perhaps likely that they traveled as the entire council and that there were more than three of them. But we simply don’t know.

2. Did the wise men visit Jesus in the manger?
The magi did not visit Christ in the manger. Matthew 2:11 tells us that by the time they reach the holy family in Bethlehem they find them in a house not a stable or cave. Incidentally, I don’t think we can determine very much about the timing of the magi’s visit from pairing Herod’s inquiry into the timing of the star’s appearance and his decision to have killed all the male children two years and under born in Bethlehem. If we are inclined to think that the reference to two years is a book end on the length of time that passed since Christ was born, then the fact that he killed all those under two as well has to be the other book end. So we really have no way of knowing within two years of Christ’s birth when the magi visited. In any case, the visit was not the night that Christ was born.

3. Were the wise men kings?
No. They were a king’s advisors. The best picture we have from Scripture of what the relationship of magi is to an eastern king is found in the book of Daniel. Here, they are employed by the king to make predictions and discern the future of the kingdom in order for the king to rule well. They were not a ruling council themselves.

4. Were the wise men from the Orient (Eastern Asia)?
Matthew tells us that the magi were from the East. Commonly, European geographical divisions are imposed upon the location of the East. Most likely the magi come from Persia not the Orient. The best explanation for their knowledge of a coming Jewish messiah is that they learned of it from Jews living in exile following the conquest in 587 BCE. This makes strike three for the song line “We three kings of Orient are…”

5. The Star
There are two major options for what the magi saw: a natural phenomenon in the sky and a supernatural light which God made manifest to the magi.

The support for a natural phenomenon is as follows. Typically translators translate the Greek word aster as “star,” but the Greek word is not precise enough to distinguish a star from a planet or a planetary eclipse. We don’t know what exactly they saw, but the most likely explanation is that they saw a relationship of heavenly bodies not a single star. Many scientists have worked in conjunction with ANE archeologists to determine what the magi saw. Some conclude that they saw a lunar eclipse of Jupiter. For a brief explanation of this evidence and an introduction to a recent book on the subject click here. Astronomist Hugh Ross claims that the only plausible explanation is “a phenomenon called a recurring nova.  An easily visible nova (a star that suddenly increases in brightness and then within a few months or years grows dim) occurs about once every decade.  Novae are sufficiently uncommon to catch the attention of observers as alert and well trained as the magi must have been.  However, many novae are also sufficiently unspectacular as to escape the attention of others. Most novae experience only a single explosion.  But a tiny fraction have the capacity to undergo multiple explosions separated by months or years.  This repeat occurrence seems necessary, for the Matthew text indicates that the star appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared and disappeared sometime later.” This theory has something going for it but the same can be said for other theories too.

A strong case can be made, however, that this is simply not a natural event of any kind, but something like Yahweh’s Shekinah glory in the Old Testament. There’s quite a rich biblical motif of God revealing an event through a bright light. To name a few: The burning bush, the pillar of fire and glory cloud that led Israel in the wilderness, Mt. Sinai when Moses’ face shone, the Tabernacle and Temple was filled with such glory that the priests couldn’t enter, the light that Balaam’s donkey saw, Ezekiel’s vision, the mount of Transfiguration, and the conversion of Saul. The language of Matthew is strikingly similar to the language used in Exodus to speak of the glory cloud/pillar of fire that led the Israelites

 the star “went before them” (Matthew 2:9)
“the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud” (Exodus 13:21)

the star “rested over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9)
“And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it” (Exodus 40:35)

I’ve presented the evidence, I leave it to you, discerning reader, to decide which option has the best support.

How they concluded that an astrological anomily would lead them to the Jewish messiah is difficult to make sense of as well. Did they make the conclusion on the basis of something found in Scripture? Was it perhaps Jewish apocolyptic literature? Was it through some discernment of their astrological studies? Or was it some combination of some or all of these? A common explanation is that they knew the Hebrew Scriptures and came across this phrase: ”A star shall come out of Jacob…” (Num 24:17). I am doubtful of this explanation because they weren’t looking for a star that came out of Jacob they were looking for one in the sky. It’s perhaps as likely as any other explanation. Or perhaps they knew to look for it from reading Isaiah: “…nations shall come to your light,and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). Perhaps, but perhaps not.

6. The timing of Christ’s birth
The likelihood of Christ being born in December is not good. There is only one source that I’ve ever seen to argue with conviction for this conclusion. It is argued by John Stormer, a former fiction writer, who is not a biblical scholar and it is published by an institution with dubious academic credibility. Nevertheless, these ad hominems aside, the author builds his argument on the timing of Zechariah’s temple duties, but the dates are not certain enough to draw the hard and fast conclusions that he does. Gene Veith has argued convincingly that the church did not choose December 25 as the date of Christmas in an attempt to hijack the winter festival of Roman pagans, but he doesn’t argue that we can be certain that December is when Christ was born. At least he didn’t when he wrote his article for World Magazine in 2005. But by 2006 he seems convinced by Stormer’s argument. He seems unaware that Stormer’s dating is not as certain as he finds it to be.

Note that the question of when Christ was born is a different question than the one which Pr. Joseph Abrahamson recently addressed regarding how the church came to select December 25th as the date for celebrating Christ’s birth.

7. Did it snow when Christ was born?
Snow in Palestine is about as common as snow in Los Angeles. It’s possible but extremely unlikely. The Bible certainly doesn’t give us any indication that it did. No, snow is added to the story by some for romantic and seasonal effect.

8. What animals attended the birth of Christ?
We don’t know exactly. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI released a book in which he claims with an unwarranted degree of certainty that there were no animals in the stable with Mary and Joseph. Apparently, his sole basis for his conclusion is that Matthew and Luke do not mention any animals in their accounts. To which I ask, when did the fact that something isn’t written in the Bible ever stop a pope from claiming something to be true? Furthermore, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Consider that Mary and Joseph were in a stable where they had just traveled to Jerusalem by donkey and where there relatives also traveled by animal. Where else would one keep these animals besides a stable? Furthermore, shepherds visited that night, so it’s quite likely that there were domesticated animals in the stable/cave.

9. Did the innkeeper turn Mary and Joseph away?
It seems that the Charlie Brown Christmas Special got it wrong. But it gets it wrong because most translations get it wrong. The ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV all translate the word kataluma inLuke 2:7 as “inn.” This conveys the idea that the family went to a public hotel and were turned away by an innkeeper because there was no vacancy. But the word kataluma simply means lodging place. It may refer to an inn, but Luke knew a better word in Greek for a place of public lodging than kataluma. Luke uses the word pandocheion in 10:34 to refer to the place that the Good Samaritan took the wounded Jewish man.

Mary and Joseph were returning to Bethlehem, the city of Joseph’s family origin. Certainly Joseph had family here. The lodging place in which they were unable to stay was most likely the home of a relative. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Mary and Joseph could have afforded a place of public lodging given their economic class. It seems then that Mary and Joseph were unable to lodge with the family because other family members were already lodging there.

The only Bible versions I’ve seen that translates Luke 2:7 correctly is The Complete Jewish Bible and the TNIV. The CJB renders kataluma as “living-quarters” while the TNIV renders it a little more vaguely as “guest room.” Incidentally, both versions also properly translate pandocheion as “inn” in 10:34.

So it’s unlikely that an innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph because it’s unlikely that Mary and Joseph sought lodging at an inn in the first place.

10. Was Gabriel the name of the angel that stood above the stable that night?
This is a bit of trick question. There was no angel above the stable that night. Luke 2:15 tells us that the angels went back into heaven after reporting the news to the shepherds. But that doesn’t stop Christians from fixing an angel above the stable.

11. Did Mary deliver Jesus with only Joseph’s help?
Perhaps, but I think it is more likely that the women of Joseph’s family helped her deliver. Of course they may not have helped her if they believed that Joseph and Mary engaged in sexual intercourse during the betrothal period. Again we simply don’t know.

On many of these questions we have to suspend judgment or hold our views loosely. Unfortunately, our nativity scenes have taken precidence over the teaching of Scripture. I don’t deny that many of the representations of Christ’s birth reflect events that are possible. However, these possibilities have become entrenched in the minds of many people as the facts of Christ’s birth. Add to this that most nativity scenes include wholesale inaccuracies and we have a compelling reason to take the time to return to Scripture and remind ourselves of what it actually says.