Misconceptions of the Christmas Story


John Hoole – December 20, 2009





(Click on photos and charts for larger version)



I love the Christmas season as much as the next.  Unlike most men, I don’t mind going to the malls and the hustle and bustle.  I don’t, however,  like hunting for a parking space.  But, all too often, the focus of our attention is not on the real reason for the season.  This is the season for commemorating the birth of our Savior.  Let me tell you the Christmas story as it is often related.


The story starts with Augustus Caesar signing a decree that all the world would be taxed.  To establish a census, each family was to go to their family city or village.  Joseph was a descendant of King David and their home city was Bethlehem.  Joseph puts his espoused wife, Mary, on a donkey, and with him walking along side, they travel 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  But Mary is pregnant and they are slow in arriving, so by the time they get there, the local inn was full.  So they have no place to stay.  The local innkeeper has some compassion, seeing Mary is pregnant, and allows them to stay in the stable with his donkeys and sheep.  Having no other options, they enter the stable because Mary was about to give birth.


Amidst the many animals, Joseph helps Mary give birth to Jesus, and after wrapping him in swaddling clothes, they lay him in the nearby manger.


Meanwhile, out in the fields, angels appear to several shepherds and announce the birth of this Baby.  So, with several of their sheep straggling behind, they make their way to the stable to see what was announced by the angels.  They find the place and marveled that they were the ones contacted by the angels.


At almost the same time, three wise men – kings from the far east arrive in town. They are dressed in fancy clothes, according to customs different from the Jews.  They come riding on camels, and maybe even wearing crowns.  They are following a star in the sky that first leads them to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem.  Once they arrive at the place of birth, they each offer gifts to the newborn Baby.  The gifts are of gold, frankincense and myrrh.


So, we have Mary kneeling on one side with Joseph on the other.  The shepherds are standing on one side of the stable, with their sheep around them.  And the wise men and their camels are standing on the other side.  And in the back of the stable you can see the inn-keeper’s donkey and sheep.


This is a very idealistic scene of the birth of Christ.  And Christmas cards of the nativity often show snow on the ground, or snow on the ground where the wise men’s camels walk.  And the pictures seem to show no other building nearby.


But what is wrong with this picture.  As I listen to church pageants and drive by roadside nativity scenes, and look at the many Christmas cards, I wonder if Christians have a biblical view of the birth of Christ.  I am not here to do away with all our traditions.  I just thought it would be beneficial to look at what the Bible actually says.


Let’s look at the story when compared to the biblical account.


Augustus Caesar’s Decree


The traditional story starts out okay.  Caesar Augustus did issue a decree for some sort of registration of the people.  The words used actually says nothing about a tax.  I need to be careful here, because the King James Version does speak of taxes.  But the NKJV, NIV, NAS, ESV, Complete Jewish Bible, New Century Version, RSV, ASV all refer only to a census, or enrollment, that was to be taken in the Empire.  And, quite often, this was done so they knew how to tax people.  But, the actual Greek words used do not speak of taxes.


Luke 2:1-3 NIV


1       In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

2       (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

3       And everyone went to his own town to register.


The two passages where the birth of Christ is given in detail is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Matthew says nothing about Caesar’s decree or about the trip to Bethlehem.  The last two verses of Matthew 1 tell us that Joseph to Mary to be his wife as the angel told him.  The next verse, the first verse of chapter 2 begins: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,…  So, not much, if any of the nativity scene is recorded by Matthew.  So we will be taking most of our biblical account from the book of Luke.


The Trip


Luke 2:3 NIV


3       And everyone went to his own town to register.








         Bethlehem was the city of David, and Joseph belonged to the lineage of King David.


Luke 2:3-5 NKJV


3       So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

4       Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,

5       to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.


Now, let’s talk about the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  How did Joseph and Mary make the trip to the city of David?  Although the traditional story has Mary riding on a donkey with Joseph walking beside her, we are told nothing of their mode of transportation.  If Mary was truly close to her delivery date, I am not sure riding on a donkey would have been any less strenuous than walking.  The Bible simply does not tell us how they got to Bethlehem.


The Innkeeper


The traditional story says that Mary and Joseph arrive late, probably because she was pregnant.  They arrive at the Inn and the innkeeper had to turn them away because he had no room.


Luke 2:6-7 NIV            


6       While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,

7       and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.


First, notice there is no record of an innkeeper.  It is my opinion that there actually was no innkeeper in the biblical story.  You might ask, “The who told them there was no room in the inn?”  I think we will discover that in just a few minutes.


The Inn


That brings us to the subject of the Inn itself.


The first thing to look at is the inn they supposedly first went to.  The way the traditional story is told, it sounds like Joseph went to one of the local commercial inn.  They were hoping to rent a room for a night or more, but were told all the rooms were full.


To get a better understanding, we need to look at the Greek word translated, “INN.”  That word is, KATALUMA – at least that is the primary root word.  The actual word in this verse is katalumati.


This word is used in two other passages in the Bible.  That is: Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11.  These two verses are Mark’s and Luke’s recording of the same event.


Mark 14:14 NKJV


14     Wherever he goes in, say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says, "Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"'


Luke 22:11 NKJV


11     Then you shall say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"'


These two verse record the activity leading up to the Last Supper.  Where did the Last Supper take place?  In an Upper Room.  An upper room was usually reserved for guests – even in small homes of the poor.  Hospitality was an important thing back then.  It still is in many countries of the Middle East.  But, the first thing to note is that these guest rooms were not commercial hotels.


So, where we read, “there was no room in the inn,” could easily, and probably read, “no room in the guest room.”  This is clearly the meaning in the only other verses using this Greek word in the Bible.  Here are a couple of lesser known translations.


Luke 2:7 Young’s Literal Translation


7       and she brought forth her son — the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.


Luke 2:7 Complete Jewish Bible


7       and she gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living-quarters.


So, when the account speaks of an INN, it is I believe speaking of a guest room in a home.


         Additionally, there is another word in the Greek New Testament that is used for a commercial INN.


Luke 10:33-35 NKJV


33     But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.

34     So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35     On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.'


First, this is the only place where an innkeeper is mentioned in the Bible.  The Greek word translated, INNKEEPER is, pandocheus (pan-dokh-yoos')) pandoxeu /$And the Greek word for INN is, pandocheion (pan-dokk-i'-on) pandoxei/=on


We still have an issue to deal with.  If the house that Mary and Joseph went to wasn’t a commercial establishment, whose home were they turned away from?  Keep in mind that the people in Bethlehem at this time were all of the lineage of David.  Many of them were related.  Remember that when Mary became pregnant, one of the first things she did was to visit her cousin Elisabeth.  You read this in Luke 1.  And Elizabeth lived in a city of Judea.  Jerusalem and Bethlehem are in Judea.  That doesn’t mean Elizabeth and Zacharias lived in Bethlehem.  It is just to say that relatives lived in the area.


Undoubtedly, Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem, and was hoping to stay with one of them.  But when they arrived, the guest room was already occupied.  It could have been that other relatives had arrived earlier.  They were then allowed to stay in a place where there was a manger.


The Manger


So, where was the manger located?  The location could easily have been one of two possible places.


         1.      A different part of the same house.


         2.      A close cave owned by the residents of the home.


Luke 2:6-7 NKJV


6       So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.

7       And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [guest room].


The traditional understanding of the setting is that if Jesus is laid in a manger, then its location must be in a stable of some sort.  That means it was a place where animals are kept at night.  Keep in mind that except for the sheep of the shepherds out in the fields, there are no animals mentioned near the manger in the biblical record.  Neither can I absolutely say there were no animals there.  We just are not told.


I don’t know how poor Joseph’s relatives were.  So let me assume the worst possible situation – that the owners were poor.


Let me point you to an Old Testament verse in Isaiah.  The prophet is telling the Israelites about the folly of rebelling against God.  But he uses and example, an illustration if you will, that may add to your understanding of the nativity.


Isaiah 1:3


3       The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand."


The prophet is trying to illustrate how God feels when they seek after other gods – other masters.  Even animals know the crib of his master and returns there.  This illustrates what was true both in Isaiah’s time as well as when Mary and Joseph lived.  That is, animals were often brought into the owners home at night.


This would not be the case if the owner happened to have a cave nearby.  It was very customary to have animals sleep in the home at night.  There were some very good benefits for this.  The animals gave off heat – especially important in the winter-time.


From what I have learned from my research, here is a depiction of what the one-room home might have looked like.  The section of the home where animals were kept would be some two to four feet lower than the house proper.  This place did not have to be large, because poor people had only one or two animals.


Essentially, the poor had a one-room house with possibly a manger built into the floor at one end.  Let me insert into our quest another verse that I think is speaking of a poor family’s home.


Matthew 5:14-15 NKJV


14     You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.

15     Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.


This must have been a one-room house.  House else would one lamp shine to all who were in the house.  That is just a side-note which I insert, but has nothing really to do with our topic of the nativity.


William Thomson was a long-term Presbyterian missionary in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.  He wrote, in 1857:


“It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in the region.”


Let me also quote a German theologian, Gustaf Dalman.  He lived 1855 – 1941, and was considered an expert in modern and ancient Palestinian life.


“In the East today the dwelling place of man and beast is often in one and the same room.  It is quite the usual thing among the peasants for the family to live, eat, and sleep in a kind of raised terrace in the one room of the house, while the cattle, particularly the donkeys and oxen, have their place below on the actual floor near the door.  On this floor the mangers are fixed either to the floor or to the wall, or at the edge of the terrace.”


All of this does not exclude the possibility of the birth taking place in a nearby cave.  Justin, more commonly known as Justin Martyr, lived AD 100-165.  He was one of the foremost apologist of Christianity in its earlier history, and in his writings, he says Jesus was born in a cave.  That is very possible because many Palestinian village homes are built into caves.


If you were to visit Bethlehem today, the traditional place of Christ’s birth is a cave.     I don’t know if it accurately locates the birthplace.


How long after their arrival was the birth?


The traditional way the pageantry unfolds is that arrive very late.  But it was also late at night.  I am not sure the biblical record agrees with this.


The tradition pageantry has the child born the very night they arrive in Bethlehem.  Let’s read the account in Luke.


Luke 2:4-6 NIV


4       So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.

5       He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

6       While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,


Notice that verse 4 establishes their arrival in Bethlehem.  Joseph went up from Nazareth…to Bethlehem…because he belonged to the house and line of David.  Verse five speaks of why they came – to register for the census.  Now notice verse 6“While they were there [in Bethlehem] the time came for the baby to be born.”


The New King James reads like this:


6       So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.


The inference here is that they may have been in Bethlehem for some period of time.  The days (plural) were completed for her to be delivered.  Those days took place in Bethlehem.  There is not indication that Jesus was born immediately after Mary and Joseph arrived.  It could have been many days – even a few weeks.


The Shepherds


This part of the traditional story is not too far off.  My only issue with some of the traditional accounts is, I doubt they brought any of their sheep into town with them when they visited Jesus.  But, having the sheep there makes for a nice picture.


The Wise Men


The next part of the pageantry would be where the three wise men arrive on their camels.  This part of the biblical story is recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew.


Matthew 2:1-2 NKJV


1       Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2       saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him."


This is one area where the traditional story really departs from the biblical account.  I know we have songs like “We Three Kings” and pageantry usually depicts these men as royalty.  First – most definitely, they were not kings.  They were so-called “wise men.”  And the traditional story, totally unsupported by the Bible, actually gives these three kings names. 


There is Melchior, king of Arabia, an elderly, fairly skinned man with a white beard.  His gift to the Christ child is Gold.


         There is Gaspar, king of Tarsus, a young man whose gift is Frankincense.


         The third is Balthazar, king of Ethiopia, a middle aged black man who brought Myrrh.


Also, we don’t know how many wise men were in the group.  Tradition says there were three.  That is totally taken from the three different kinds of gifts that were presented to the Christ Child.


The idea that they road on camels comes from the fact they came from the east.  That certainly is possible, but, like Mary and Joseph, how they traveled is not specifically known.


Before addressing other points of the visit by the wise men, let’s learn who these wise men were.  The Greek word used in the Matthew account is MAGOI.  Its root word is Magos.  Most sources in my research of this term links it to the Persians.  It is from this word we now call them Magi.  Our word, magic, is derived from the same root.


I am not going to spend much time on the background of these wise men.  Most kings of the ancient world had a group of “wise men” to help him make decisions.  We know that when Moses and Aaron did some miraculous things before Pharaoh, he called in his wise men who could duplicate some of the same.  King Nebuchadnezzar has wise men who were unable to interpret a dream he had.  Daniel was called on to give the interpretation.


Most often, these wise men were practitioners of the occult, whether that be astrology, sorcery, etc.  They were wise in the specific religion associated with that country or culture.  Many times, they were actually priests of their religion.  So, why are these men coming such a distance to see the new King of the Jews.


Personally, I am not sure what propelled these men to make the journey.  Had they gotten a copy of the Jewish Scripture and noted the prophecy of a child born of a virgin?  Had God Himself visited them personally or in a vision?  I don’t know.  But this one thing we do know – they didn’t come just to see the new king.  They came to worship Him.  One other thing that I think is important – at least to me.  These men were probably gentiles.


Were the Wise Men at the Manger?


The next question is: Were the wise men present at the manger with the shepherds.  I have read some article – not many – who do believe they were there on the first night.  But there are too many reasons for saying they were not.


You can read the account in Matthew of the entire story of the Magi.  We are told that before they arrived to see the boy, they had an audience with King Herod.  They asked him where the new king of the Jews was born.  Herod asks them to come back to tell him where he is to be found.  He also asks them when they first saw the star that they followed.


Herod sent them off to Bethlehem.  They leave Jerusalem and travel, but where did they actually go?  Herod did send them to Bethlehem, but Matthew 2:9 says, “the star…went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.”


There are some that say they went to Bethlehem.  Others say that by the time the wise men arrived, they had returned home to Nazareth.  Wherever it was, they give gifts to the boy Jesus.  Here is the verse telling us this part of the story.


Matthew 2:11 NKJV


11     And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


First notice that this verse calls Jesus a “young Child.”  The Greek word used here is not talking about a newborn baby.  The Greek word used here is:  paidion (pahee-dee'-on).  This word is used 52 times in the original text.


When Jesus says, “Allow the children to come unto me and do not forbid them,….” (Mark 10:15),  he was using this same Greek word, paidion.  This seems to indicate Jesus had grown somewhat before the wise men arrived.


Before they leave the Christ Child, the wise men are provided a dream, instructing them to leave the country by another way, which served to greatly anger King Herod when he found he had be tricked.


King Herod used the information he received about when the wise men first saw their star.  He had all baby boys, two years old and under, killed in Bethlehem and the surrounding area.


This has led some to believe that Jesus may have been as much as two years old when the magi arrived.  The question, however, that can be raise is this: Did the wise men first see the star two years before the birth or on the night of the birth.  And we simply do not know the answer.


Let me present only one more evidence for the wise men showing up after the night of the birth.  This could be a few weeks – maybe two years.


If we go back to the account of Luke’s gospel, we know quite firmly they stayed in Bethlehem for the next 8 days.  And I believe we can say that she was in Bethlehem for possibly 40 days before leaving.


Luke 2:21-24 NKJV


21     And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

22     Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord

23     (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord"), 

24     and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." 


Mary is considered unclean for 40 days following the birth of a boy.  When that 40 days had occurred, she was now to go to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice as well as present the boy to the Lord.


Some might object and ask, “is it not possible that after Jesus was circumcised, they return to Nazareth, and then after 40 day, traveled again to Jerusalem?”  Technically, yes.       Probable, not likely.  Luke 2:39 makes a point to say that when they had completed all the things according to the Law of the Lord, it was then that they returned to their own city, Nazareth.


Now, someone may ask, “what does all this have to do with the timing of when the Magi arrived to where Jesus was?”  If you were to read Leviticus 12, when God instituted this purification law, you would read the entire possible offerings that could be offered by the mother.  We are there told that the mother was to bring a lamb, plus either a turtledove or pigeon.  But, if they were poor, they were to bring two doves or two pigeons.  The latter is what we are told that Mary did.  This meant that Joseph and Mary were poor.


I contend that had the wise men visited Jesus prior to this offering, they would not have been considered poor.  I believe the Magi arrived some time after the first 40 days of the life of Jesus.  Exactly how long, I don’t know – somewhere between 40 days and 2 years.




I am not sure that the specific details surrounding the birth of Jesus are really that important.  What is important is that God loved us so much, He sent His only Begotten Son.  Within that, we must also believe that He was born of a virgin just as Jesus said.


Larry King, in his talk show, was once asked who he would most want to interview if he could choose anyone from all history.  He said without hesitation, “Jesus Christ.”  The questioner said, “And what would you like to ask Him”  Larry King replied, “I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin-born.  The answer to that question would define history for me.”


Of course, the Bible makes it patently clear, that Christ was God come in the flesh.


         “And the angel answered and said unto [Mary], The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee:  therefore also that Holy One which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” [Luke 1:35]


The original Grinch of Christmas was King Herod.  A Grinch or Scrooge is one who dampens or steals the joy of the season.  I personally don’t want to let that happen to me.


I know there are well-meaning people who have been taught not to celebrate Christmas.  They have been taught that it was designed after a pagan holiday.  The have been told nobody knows when Jesus was born anyway, so it’s hypocritical to celebrate December 25th.


It’s true, of course, that nobody knows exactly what day Jesus was born.  But the fact is, then, you don’t know that it wasn’t December 25th.  The issue isn’t which day – but that it ought to be some day.  And Christmas on December 25th is the day that has been celebrated since Julius I authorized it in AD353.  There are those who say that all this celebration is irreverent.  I have actually read some saying Santa is a representative of Satan.  After all, they have the exact same letters in them.


But, for me, Christmas is a marvelous chance to touch the world with the love of God.  As most of you know, I am a frequent customer of my favorite Starbucks.  I know all that work there, and they know me and my Christian stance.  The other day, I complimented the manager for playing traditional Christmas Carols along with some of the more contemporary.  He told me he like listening to them also.


Some of the words of our Carols have the message of Christ all through them.  The world is particularly vulnerable to the tender touch of the love of God during this season.  And I don’t want to be a Grinch or Scrooge.


I am so glad that Jesus loved us so much that he came one day long ago.  When the wise men came to the place where Jesus was, we are told “they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy…and they fell down and worshiped Him.”  I hope you will join me in doing the same.





1.  Was Jesus born on December 25.


2.  Was snow on the ground as is depicted in so many Christmas cards?


3.  Did the wise men visit Christ in Bethlehem or in Nazareth?


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


5.  Who was Quirinius and was he governor?


6.  What is the full extent of Herod the Great’s edict to kill all boys two years and under?