We tend to feel this way about out traditionally held beliefs too. There are many “facts” about the nativity story that are merely traditions mistaken as facts. They can be hard to spot, because we are so use to thinking of these traditions as facts. There are also several parts of the story that confuse us because we struggle to understand biblical culture. I want to address some of the confusing parts and traditionally accepted “facts” of this great story, using my personal research and study. I do not claim to know everything, and there are some things that we cannot know for sure because the Bible simply does not tell us. But my hope is to help you better understand what the Bible actually says happened, and not to rely on traditional beliefs.
1. Joseph saved Mary’s (and Jesus’) life when he chose to still marry her
This part of the story is not as much misinterpreted as it is just misunderstood in our culture, especially since engagement is not as binding in our society. Although they had not said their vows officially, they were committed to marry each other and the only way that was allowed to be broken was by divorce. The truth is that if Joseph has followed through on his plan to divorce her, everyone would know the child wasn’t his. Mary would have labeled as an adulteress and would have most likely being stoned to death.
2. Mary probably walked to Bethlehem
3. Mary was probably not in labor when they arrived in Bethlehem
It is popular tradition to portray Mary in labor as they arrived in Bethlehem. However, the way Mary’s time is phrased calls this in question. It says that Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census, and he took Mary with him. Then, in the next sentence, it says, “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” (Luke 2:6 ESV) In other translations, it says the days were completed or accomplished for her to give birth. “While they were there” could also be translated as “in the time they were there.” I personally believe that phrase means while there were in Bethlehem, not as they arrived.
4. Mary and Joseph may not have been rejected by every place in Bethlehem
Those that interpret this passage this way have a major misunderstanding of Jewish culture. The Jews had a high sense of hospitality, and it would have been highly unlikely for them to turn people away, especially a young couple with child. The fact that the place where they stayed still found somewhere for them to stay even when there was no room illustrates this kind of hospitality. If they had gone knocking on several doors and had been rejected all over town, it most likely would have been recorded.
This is also a misunderstanding of the concept of an inn. Inns were a Roman concept, and Bethlehem probably didn’t have a real inn since there were such a small town. Most people that would have wanted to stay at an inn probably would have gone to Jerusalem, which was only 5 miles north. The word “inn” is probably better translated as “guest room,” inferring a private house. It is also quite possible, since Joseph was from the family of David, that whoever took them in was actually a relative, who would have been unlikely to turn them away. This may be confusing to those of you that have the picture of the wooden stable in your mind, but that is probably not accurate either. Read the next point to see what I mean.
5. Jesus was probably born in a private house, not a wooden stable
6. There may not have been any animals at the birth of Jesus
7. Joseph probably didn’t delivered the baby
If they were already settled in when she gave birth, they would have had time to call for help when she went into labor. She most likely would have been helped by a local mid-wife, possibly with the assistance of the women of the household. Men were not involved in childbirth under normal circumstances. They didn’t know what to do and it would have made them unclean. If the circumstances surrounding the birth had been abnormal enough for Joseph to have been involved, they probably would have been recorded in the account made by Luke the physician.
8. Jesus was not born on December 25
9. The angels did not sing to the shepherds
10. The star probably did not appear over Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus
Everyone loves to picture the star hanging over the little town of Bethlehem the night that Jesus entered the world. But the star is not mentioned at all in the account of Jesus' birth in Luke 2. If the star had already been over the manger when Jesus was born, Luke probably would have mentioned it in his account, and Herod would not have had to ask when the star appeared. When you read the text carefully, you will see that the star did not land over the town of Bethlehem until the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, which was most likely a separate event from his birth (see #12). In order for the Magi to follow the star as the account in Matthew says they did, it would of had to have started further in the west to lead them to Bethlehem.
11. The number of wise men are unknown
12. The wise men were not at the birth of Jesus
It's also a commonly held tradition that the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus, around the same time as the shepherds came to visit the child. But this idea started with artwork from the Middle Ages or earlier. This artwork depicted the Wise Men at the nativity, trying to show the complete picture of the nativity story. However, over time, tradition altered the actual events recorded in the Bible. Because of this, it became the most accepted tradition not based on fact. There are several reasons to believe the Wise Men were not at the birth of Jesus.
- First, the account in Matthew describes Jesus’ birth in the past tense: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem” “Where is the one that has been born King of the Jews?”
- Third, according to what Herod learned from the Magi, the star had appeared two years before. The Magi said they “saw the star when it rose” (Matt 2:2 ESV). The star had risen in the east two years earlier, either when Jesus was born, or possibly when he was conceived. It is because of Herod's knowledge of this timing that he orders the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem that were born in that time frame.
- Fourth, by the time the Magi found him, Jesus is described as a child, is living in a house, and has a name. The word that describes Jesus in Matthew 2 is the word for a child, not an infant. He was old enough by this time that the word used to describe him seems to imply that he was a toddler. The text also mentions they were in a house in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had decided to settle into town in their own house. Jesus was definitely not in the manger anymore. You also see that Jesus had a name by the time the Magi arrived, and a child usually wasn’t named until they were dedicated 8 days after their birth.
- Lastly, if these events (the birth, the shepherd’s visit, and the Magi’s visit) had overlapped each other, it most likely would have been recorded in both accounts (Matthew and Luke)