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The Greatest Myths About Jesus Christ’s Birth

Is Christmas on the 25th because of a pagan holiday? Was he really born in a stable? And about those three kings…

It’s Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Jesus to Mary (his mother) and Joseph (in modern parlance, his stepfather) in Bethlehem. For Christians this event is a celebration not only of the birth of the Son of God, but also of God’s merciful salvation of the human race. Nativity scenes, crèches, and children’s plays around the globe will tell the traditional story of how Mary and Joseph undertook the arduous journey to Bethlehem to participate in a census, how they were turned away from an inn, and how the king of kings was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and visited by a cluster of shepherds and three foreign kings.

That story, in its entirety, is not contained in a single book of the New Testament. It is a composite image crafted out of the nativity stories of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and augmented by later Christian tradition, artwork, music, and interpretation. A number of the details that make it onto the canvasses of Renaissance artists, for example the “three kings,” aren’t in the Bible at all. We assume that there are three visitors because they bring three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). But the Bible doesn’t actually specify their number.

We think that the magi (as they are called in the New Testament) are kings because of later guesswork. Dr. Brent Landau, author of The Revelation of the Magi, told The Daily Beast that the idea that there were three kings comes to us from the imagination of early Christians. “Matthew’s story about the Magi does not imply that these mysterious visitors are kings; Matthew either regards them as magicians/astrologers or Zoroastrian priests. But early Christians noticed passages like Psalm 72:10-11, about kings from far-off lands rendering tribute to the King of Israel, and wondered whether this might have been a prophecy about the Magi. Tertullian in the third century describes the Magi as ‘almost kings,’ and almost two hundred years later, Augustine flatly calls them kings. From there, the belief became commonplace.” All of which means that the magi were wise men, likely schooled in astrology or even Zoroastrianism. Sorry to ruin the carol.

The presence of three kings is an obvious and easy-to-identify addition to the New Testament but there are other, equally surprising, interpretations that have slipped into our Christmas canon. The first is the idea that Jesus was born in a stable. According to the Gospel of Luke and every modern nativity play Joseph and Mary were turned away from an inn because there was no room them there. But, as a number of scholars—including, most decisively, Dr. Stephen Carlson—have argued, the word usually translated as “inn” (kataluma) more likely refers to something like “usual space” (PDF). According to the story, Mary and Joseph were going to Bethlehem because Joseph’s family was from that city. It stands to reason, therefore, that Joseph had family there. But not enough space, Carlson has argued, to accommodate the rapidly expanding family.

What this means is that Mary and Joseph did not stay in the guest quarters of his relative’s house. Instead Mary likely delivered on the ground floor of their house, possibly close to domestic animals, and laid Jesus in a manger that was kept in the house. But he was not, as later tradition tells us, born in a stable.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Jesus was not born on Dec. 25. This much we can deduce from the story itself. Luke tells us that, when angels appeared to them, the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks in the field. But given plummeting winter temperatures, it is unlikely that shepherds would have been braving the elements during winter. If the angels appeared to shepherd on a hillside at all, it is likely that the shepherds were found there during the lambing season, better known to us as Spring.

One might wonder then how it is that we have come to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. There’s a popular myth, especially widespread on the internet, that the selection of the date of birth of Jesus was timed in order to coincide and thus supplant either the festival of Saturnalia or the birthday of Sol Invictus, the victorious sun god. It seems like a compelling argument: In 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast in honor of the birth of Sol Invictus on Dec. 25. Certainly the winter solstice is around the same time and pagans did have festivals celebrating various deities but, as Professor Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkley Divinity School, has written, these were not the reasons for selecting late December as Jesus’s birthday. In fact the idea of deliberately attaching Christian festivals to pagan ones wasn’t raised until the turn of the seventh century and no one noticed that Sol Invictus and Jesus shared a feast day until the 12th century.

In the early church a whole host of dates were raised as possible candidates for Jesus’s birthday. The noted Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria was aware of at least seven, none of which was Dec. 25. “By the fourth century,” McGowan writes, “we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor).”

So why those dates? McGowan argues that the selection of these dates is attached to various ancient theories about the date of the crucifixion. Two North African Christians—Tertullian and Augustine—argued that the date of Jesus’s crucifixion and conception fell on the same day, March 25. It is because of the date of his conception, Augustine writes in On the Trinity that “he was born, according to tradition, upon December 25.”

This explains the date of Christmas among Western Latin speaking Christians, but remarkably the very same argument was advanced by Greek speaking Christians in the East. The key difference was that in their calendar the crucifixion took place on what is now called April 6. This meant that the crucifixion/conception of Jesus took place nine months before what Western Christians call the fest of the Epiphany. To this day the Armenian Church celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6.

If the selection of Dec. 25 is theologically motivated, surely the year of Jesus’s birth is based in historical fact? After all, the entire world is keeping time from the year of his birth.

But even this much is difficult to say. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus’s birth took place during the time of Herod the Great. This presents a problem. We know from other evidence that Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. If Jesus was born during Herod’s reign then he must have been born at least four years before the Christian era. To this we can add some conflicting evidence from Luke. Luke notes that Jesus was in his thirties when he began preaching and that this took place during the 15th year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius. If Luke was correct on this point then Jesus would have been born in 1 CE. The difficulty here, as Duke professor Mark Goodacre has noted, is that “thirties” can mean a lot of things, from a sprightly 31 to a staring-the-forties-in-the-face 39. Perhaps Luke miscalculated, or perhaps the linguistic reference of “thirties” is broader than we have assumed. In either case the majority of scholars would place the birth of Jesus to between 6 and 4 BCE.

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The important thing to remember here is that all of what seem to be calculation errors are the product of later interpretation. No one living in the first century thought they lived in the first century. They used Roman or Jewish calendars. The New Testament never says that there were only three magi, or that they were kings, or that Jesus was born in December, or that he was born at what we now call the turn of the Common Era. If there are mistakes here it’s not because the Bible is lying. It’s because of the traditions that attached themselves to the nativity story. But one thing is for certain: No matter what the carol says, Christ was not born on Christmas Day.