The Birth of Jesus

Published by DonDavidson on

Merry Christmas! This is of course the time of year when we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. But did you know that many of the traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus are not what scholars think really happened?

For example, Jesus is usually depicted as being born in a stable. But actually, he was probably born in the house of a relative of Joseph in Bethlehem. The Bible doesn’t actually say Jesus was born in a stable—it merely says that he was laid in a manger, which is a feeding trough for animals. Many houses in those days had mangers inside because animals were often brought in at night for their protection and for the warmth they would provide.

Was there really “no room at the inn”? Actually, Bethlehem probably didn’t have an inn. In those days, inns were in large towns along trade routes, and Bethlehem was neither. The word Luke uses in Luke 2:7 is the Greek word, kataluma, which means “guest room.” (Luke uses a different Greek word, pandocheion, in Luke 10:34, where he says that the Samaritan brought the wounded man to an “inn” to take care of him.) It would have been a gross violation of Jewish hospitality customs for anyone to turn away a pregnant woman and her husband. Even strangers would likely have taken them in. However, since Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem (Luke 2:4), he and Mary probably found relatives there to stay with. Of course, with so many guests in town for the census, it is understandable that the guest room was already occupied, and therefore there was no space for them in the guest room.

Was Jesus born in December? Probably not. Luke 2:8 tells us that shepherds were staying in the fields watching over their sheep on the night Jesus was born. The average nighttime temperature in Bethlehem in December is in the mid-40s. That time of year most shepherds try to find shelter for themselves and their sheep at night, out of the cold. So it’s more likely that Jesus was born sometime in the Autumn, perhaps September or October. Incidentally, if true, this would complete the New Testament triad of events corresponding to the three Old Testament feasts, as follows:

Time of YearOld TestamentNew Testament
March-AprilPassover, Feast of Unleavened BreadCrucifixion and Resurrection
May-JuneFeast of WeeksPentecost
Sept.-Oct.Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of BoothsBirth of Jesus (?)

It’s also unlikely that Jesus was born on the night Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. This is based on the language of Luke 2:6, which says, “While they were there, the time came [literally, the days were completed] for her to give birth.” This implies that the couple arrived in Bethlehem and stayed for awhile, and sometime during this stay Mary gave birth to Jesus. This also fits better with the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem—a distance of about 100 miles, which would have taken at least several days to walk. This would be a particularly arduous journey if Mary were almost ready to give birth, but much less so if she were not quite as far along in her pregnancy.

Finally, the magi certainly did not visit Jesus on the night of his birth, but weeks or even months later. This seems clear from Matthew 2:1, which says that the magi arrived in Jerusalem “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” Matthew does not tell us how long after the birth they arrived. The magi had seen the star which signaled Jesus’ birth, and they had probably traveled a considerable distance before reaching Jerusalem. They also probably stayed for a time with King Herod—who questioned both his advisors and the magi themselves—before making the five-mile journey to Bethlehem.

To be clear, I do not dispute Christmas traditions that are explicitly discussed in the Bible, such as the virgin birth, which is attested by both Matthew (Matthew 1:22-25) and Luke (Luke 1:26-27 and 1:34); or the appearances of angels to Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20), Joseph (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 2:19), Mary (Luke 1:26-38), and the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). But as I discuss above, some traditional portions of the Christmas story are not part of the biblical story, but were grafted on later and are probably not historically accurate.

I have written some whimsical Christmas stories—and one poem—which I hope you will enjoy, and which you can read here: And of course you can read them for free.

I’ve also written a fictional account of the birth of Jesus, taking into account what scholars believe actually happened. That fictional account is Chapter 16 in my book, Beyond Shallow Faith, which you can purchase on Amazon. The e-book is only 99 cents.


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