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Was Jesus really born in a barn? Did the angels actually sing? How many wise men were there, really?

There are lots of components of the Christmas story that we’ve come to accept as gospel truth, but that the Bible doesn’t actually teach. Here are some great resources to help us better understand the details surrounding the biblical account of the birth of Christ.

Please note, I am not thoroughly familiar with the theology of every site linked below. I have only vetted the specific articles that are linked. I do not endorse anything at the sites below that conflict with my theology as outlined in my “Statement of Faith” and “Welcome” tabs at the top of this page. Please reject any theology you come across at these sites that conflicts with God’s Word.

 

Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem?

The Bible doesn’t tell us, so we don’t know for sure. She could have ridden a donkey. She could have ridden in a cart. She could have walked. All Scripture tells us is that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem. It doesn’t say how they got there.

 

Was Mary in the throes of labor when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem?

It makes for dramatic nativity movies, but it’s very unlikely. God Himself had given Joseph the enormous and grave task of taking care of Mary and Jesus. You’ve seen first time dads and the weight of responsibility they feel to protect and provide for their wives and their own babies. This was God’s Son. Joseph must have been quaking in his sandals to make sure he got everything right. He certainly would not have waited until Mary was near her due date and risked her delivering the baby in the open country on the trip (not to mention outside of Bethlehem, which would have failed to fulfill prophecy).

Luke 2:6 says:

And while they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to give birth.

“While they were there,” not “as soon as they got there.” “The time came,” not “IT’S TIME, JOSEPH! Find me a room NOW!” The phraseology of this verse suggests that Mary and Joseph spent some time in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. Rather than taking Mary to Bethlehem at the last minute, it’s much more likely that Joseph carefully prepared for the trip, made sure to get there with plenty of time to spare, and made arrangements to stay in Bethlehem until the baby was born.

 

Was Jesus born in a barn or stable? And what about that innkeeper?

Luke 2:7 tells us:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

To our western minds, an inn is like a hotel – a business that rents rooms to travelers.  But in biblical times, the cultural rules of hospitality dictated that travelers stay with family, friends, or anyone who would extend hospitality to them. Thus, there was no hotel-like “inn” in Bethlehem, and, of course, no innkeeper.

The Greek word kataluma, usually rendered as “inn” in Luke 2:7 is more accurately rendered “guest room” or “upper room” (of a home) – the same sort of “upper room” Jesus used for the Last Supper. One of Joseph’s relatives would have welcomed him and Mary into their home when they got to Bethlehem. But because Bethlehem was packed with visitors arriving for the census, the guest room of the home they stayed in was likely already full. So instead of giving birth in the crowded upper room of the home, Mary moved to the lower room. This lower room would have had space for the animals to be brought in at night, complete with a feed trough (manger), giving her a convenient cradle for the little Lord Jesus to lay down His sweet head. Jesus was not born in the kind of barn or stable we think of in America and usually see in traditional nativity scenes.

Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable by Ian Paul

Born in a Barn (Stable)? at Answers in Genesis

Jesus Was Born in a Barn? at When We Understand the Text

 

Did Jesus cry as a baby?

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes

Until I started researching this article, I didn’t realize that some people think Jesus never cried as a baby because of these two lines from the Christmas carol Away in a Manger.

I don’t think that was the hymnist’s intent. The stanza reads as though, in that particular moment when He woke up, Jesus was content and happy, not that He never ever cried.

Furthermore, we know from Scripture that Jesus was not only fully God, He was also fully human. Human babies cry when they’re hungry or tired or sick or in pain or a thousand other scenarios. That’s how they communicate. Jesus was a real live human baby who cried, nursed, spit up, burped, needed His diaper changed, fell down when He was learning to walk, and had to be potty trained. The only type of crying we know He never did was sinful crying – because He didn’t get His own way, because He was angry and frustrated, etc. – since we know Jesus was without sin.

 

Hark! Did the “herald angels” actually sing?

It’s possible, but we don’t know for sure. We know that the gloria in excelsis deo proclamation was spoken to the shepherds because Luke 2:13-14 says.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

But it also says they were praising God. In the Bible, though praise can be expressed in many ways, singing is one of the most common and natural ways of praising God. So while we know the angels weren’t singing exclusively, there’s no reason they couldn’t have been singing at some point.

Hark! The Herald Angels Said? at Answers in Genesis

Do Angels Sing? at Got Questions

 

How many wise men were there, exactly?

At least two (because the Bible speaks of them in the plural), but possibly a whole passel of them. Our minds are set to “three” because the Bible mentions that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, because of Christmas carols like We Three Kings, and because every nativity set comes equipped with three wise men. But it’s just as possible that two wise men gave three gifts, or that three gifts were given corporately by a larger group of wise men.

We Three Kings at Answers in Genesis

What does the Bible say about the three wise men (Magi)? at Got Questions

How many wise men came after Jesus was born? at CARM

 

Were Anna and Simeon married to each other?

Nope.

The end of Luke 2 tells us the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice for Him as “the first male to open the womb”. While they’re there, Simeon shows up and prophesies over Jesus and Mary. And “at that very hour” Anna also “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” But nowhere does the passage even hint that they were married to each other, or that they even knew one another.

I think a lot of people mentally marry Anna to Simeon because their stories are back to back, because they showed up at the temple at the same time, and because we tend to assume they were both elderly. (Anna was at least 84, but, technically, we’re never told Simeon’s age or that he was elderly.) But verse 37 clearly tells us that Anna “lived as a widow”. She wasn’t married to anyone, including Simeon.

Who was Simeon in the Bible? at Got Questions

Who was Anna the prophetess in the Bible? at Got Questions

 

How many babies were murdered in the slaughter of the innocents?

Matthew 2:16 tells us that an enraged King Herod “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” in an attempt to murder Jesus. We tend to think of scores, even hundreds, of babies being murdered in this event which has come to be known as “The Slaughter [or Massacre] of the Innocents.” But as the beloved Christmas carol states, it’s “O little town of Bethlehem”. Bethlehem had a population of approximately 1500. Statistically speaking, scores or hundreds of baby boys age two and under in a population that size would have been impossible. Twelve to fifteen – still a horrifying tragedy- would be more accurate.

Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem? by Paul Maier

The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction? at Associates for Biblical Research


(Bonus Resource: Pastor Gabe Hughes over at When We Understand the Text is running a special series this month called 25 Christmas Myths and What the Bible Says.)


There are lots of sentimental and striking details of the Christmas story we’ve come to embrace over the years, but it’s imperative that we get our theology from the Bible, not Christmas carols, traditions, and assumptions. Yet even more important than donkeys and stables and wise men is why Jesus came – to save sinners like you and me.


If you have a question about: a well known Christian author/leader, a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

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