They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Wise Men and the Star

Another little interesting chapter in our misunderstanding of the setting of the Christmas story is found in our perception of the wise men. This story, only found in the book of Matthew, is one that is seemingly familiar to all Christians. However, when you really look into the story culturally and historically, it is amazing to see how may misconceptions surround this event. Let’s do a careful reading and look at several things we thought we knew about the wise men and discover what the facts really are.

Adoration of the Magi by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

  1. There were three wise men: No number is mentioned in the account in Matthew. The fact that three different types of gifts were presented (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) has given rise to the idea that there must have been three men that carried them. There actually could have been any number of men.
  2. They were kings: The bible account does not call them kings, but calls them magi. The word magi, sometimes translated wise men, is the root word from which we get our word “magic”. They were learned men who were knowledgeable about many things including the stars. They were often placed in positions in the king’s court and were consulted for interpretation and guidance. For example, Nebuchadnezzar, in the Book of Daniel had a stable of court magi whom he consulted on various items including interpreting his dreams. When Daniel was able to interpret the King’s dream and the magi couldn’t, Daniel was promoted to head magi.
  3. They were from the Orient (the Far East): The Bible says “from the east”. The east in Bible times was the desert land east of the Jordan and more specifically present day Saudi Arabia. This is where frankincense and myrrh were grown and produced. Another interesting thing to note is that the wise men said they saw the star “in the east” and they followed it. If they were from the east and the star was in the east and they followed it, they would have ended up in a far different place than Israel! This problem stems from the translation, “in the east”. That same phrase can also be translated, ”at its rising”. The magi saw the star when it appeared in the sky in such a position that made them think that it said to them that the savior of the Israelites had been born and they actually followed it to the west to get to Jerusalem.
  4. One of them was a black man: Highly unlikely considering where they came from. One thing most scholars now agree upon was that at least one of them was probably a woman. The reason they have come to that conclusion is that the wise men stopped and asked for directions (just kidding)!
  5. They visited the baby Jesus at the manger scene: Nativity scenes all have the wise men with their camels standing around the manger. The wise men aren’t even mentioned in Luke’s account of the nativity scene. In Matthew 2:1 it says, “ Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem”. Then in Matthew 2:11 it says, “when they came into the house”, this was not the same Greek word that they used to describe the place where Jesus was born. Also, it says that they saw the “child” and this is not the word that Luke uses to describe the baby Jesus. The word that is translated child in Matthew is a young boy and not the word for baby. Jesus could have been as much as two years old when the magi finally saw him because that was the age that Herod thought the baby might be after he talked to the magi and asked them how long it had been since they saw the star. Whatever age Jesus was when the wise men saw Him, He was not a baby in a manger, but a young child living in Bethlehem with His parents before they fled into Egypt and eventually settled in Nazareth.

All of these differences surrounding the Nativity Story were very revealing to me because I realized that I had let someone else explain God’s word to me. A careful study exposed some interesting facts that were different than I had been taught. None of these facts really change the meaning of the story, but it definitely helps give you a better mental picture of the story as it probably played out. Next Christmas season try to remember some of these new mental pictures as you celebrate the birth of our Savior.

The Christmas Story: Part 1 Joseph, Mary and the Imminent Birth

Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus and the donkey

Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus and the donkey --David Jones, C.H.

The events that comprise the well-loved Christmas Story are known to almost everyone and especially all Christians. Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, no room in the inn, the baby born in a stable and the manger scene; shepherds in the field, three wise men bearing gifts and the star that they saw are all scenes that immediately bring up pictures in our minds. They are very familiar to us and are deeply embedded in our Christian consciousness. However, is it possible that over the centuries, special ways of seeing the story have developed that are not necessarily part of the Text? The more familiar a passage becomes and the more people that are telling the story, the bigger the chance that some interpretive glitches could occur. Is there a difference between what the Text says and our traditional understanding of our beloved Christmas Story? Let’s take a look first at Joseph and Mary as they return to Bethlehem about the time of Jesus birth.

In the first three verses of Luke 2, it says that the Romans ordered a census to be taken and everyone had to return to their own town to register for the count. For Joseph, the town of his origin would have been Bethlehem. The telling of the Christmas Story over the years has led us to believe that Joseph and Mary were going to a town where they didn’t really know anyone and weren’t really treated all that hospitably. Nothing would have been farther from the truth. In the Middle East, historical memories are long and very important. Joseph was the son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi (Luke 3:23-24) and because of that lineage almost every home in town would have welcomed him. Joseph was from the royal lineage of the family of King David. The family of King David was so famous in Bethlehem that the village itself was called, “City of David” (see Luke 2:4). Being from that family, Joseph would have been welcome anywhere. The would have been thought of as “royals” in Bethlehem and important people. Mary was also of the House of David and would have also been required to register. In addition, Mary had relatives living nearby. Elizabeth and Zechariah also lived in the hill country of Judea around Bethlehem.

Another interesting piece to our picture of the story is that Mary arrived riding on a donkey. The Text doesn’t say this and it is unlikely that Joseph and Mary owned a donkey. Donkeys and mules were the mount of kings and only the most wealthy owned them. We know later in Luke 2:24, when the parents took Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord, they offered a sacrifice of two doves or pigeons, which was what the poorer people offered (read Leviticus 5:7) if they couldn’t offer a lamb. Common people walked everywhere and it is very likely that Joseph and Mary made the three day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot and not riding on a donkey.

Next, lets take a look at Mary and the timing of Jesus’ birth. In every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention by the community. Surely Bethlehem was no exception. They would have never have turned away a descendant of David in his home town while his wife was about to give birth. This would have brought much shame to the entire community. Also, our knowledge of the Christmas Story always assumes “the imminent birth”, or the fact that they had the baby as soon as they got to Bethlehem. They were willing to accept any shelter, even a stable, because of the almost immediate expected arrival of the Child. However, this is not what the Text says. Luke 2:6 says, “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” This actually implies that they were in town some days before the baby was born. Joseph would have had adequate time to arrange a place for them to stay while they were in town. They would have been among people who knew them, respected them and were willing to assist them in the birth of their baby.

To summarize, we have noted several differences from the traditional understanding of Joseph and Mary returning to Bethlehem for the birth of their baby found in Luke 2:1-6. Joseph and Mary were returning to their home village where they could have easily found shelter because they were well known. Also, because Joseph and Mary were descendants of King David, they would have been well received. Mary had relatives nearby and they could have even gone there if there wasn’t any space in Bethlehem. They would have made the three day journey on foot. The Text seems to imply that they were in Bethlehem for at least a few days before the baby was born. The community would have definitely wanted to help a young Jewish woman as she was about to give birth. These interesting illuminations about the events don’t cheapen the story, they really enrich it. But, it just shows how the story over the years took on different elements that are not found in the actual reading and understanding of the Text and the culture in which the story is set. Next, let’s look at the inn and the manger scene and see what we find any differences there.