The Wise Men

Though tradition holds that three wise men brought Jesus gifts after His birth, the Bible does not specify how many wise men visited Him.

Myths and misunderstandings about Christ’s birth have sprung up over the centuries—not just in secular groups, but in Christian circles as well. Some of these inaccuracies have become ingrained in culture by Christmas carols, Nativity scenes and church traditions. 

Here are six common Christmas beliefs not necessarily backed up by truth.

1. There were three wise men.

Though the Christmas carol “We Three Kings” is popular, it may not be completely factual. Scripture does not mention how many wise men traveled to Judea to see the Messiah. Some believe the number is three because the Magi gave three gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Some scholars believe there could have been a small caravan of Magi traveling to see the birth of Christ. As a side note, the Magi did not see Jesus the night he was born, but sometime after as indicated by meeting him at a house rather than in a manger (Matthew 2:11).

2. Joseph and Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey.

It’s nice to think that Mary, who was in her third trimester of pregnancy, rode on a donkey to make the 70-mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the Bible never says so directly. A donkey would make for a bumpy ride, so hopefully Joseph provided his pregnant wife with a smoother ride. Other typical modes of transport in ancient times were a horse, a camel or a cart drawn by an animal.

3. There was an innkeeper.

There is no specific reference of an innkeeper in Scripture, as Luke 2:7 says, “There was no room for them in the inn.” Jesus uses this same Greek word for “inn” in Luke 22:11 to refer to a “guest room” and Mark 14:14 says “guest chamber” or “upper room” when referring to where Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover meal. Though we can assume Joseph and Mary asked a person in charge whether there was space to sleep, it was unlike an experience today where a hotel employee is at the front desk awaiting your arrival to check in. This innkeeper could have been a relative, friend or complete stranger.

4. Jesus was born in a stable or barn surrounded by farm animals.

Though Christmas Nativity scenes and children’s books portray cute baby Jesus with His parents and all the farm animals hovering over Him to get a glimpse, that’s probably not the case. The text only says Mary “laid Him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). A manger may hint at a barn or stable, however, in Biblical times it was common for feeding troughs to be kept in the main room of village houses because the animals were often housed just a few feet away in an adjacent room.

Many scholars suggest this was a guest room in one’s home, alluding to the meaning behind the word “inn.” Most homes at the time had a single family room and a side guest room, which would be attached or on the roof.

In their excavation of first century Judean homes, archaeologists discovered that vulnerable animals would be brought in at night to protect them from the cold and theft. To this day, some European countries have the farmhouse and the animal quarters in different parts of the same structure.

5. Jesus was born Dec. 25.

This is probably the most well-known myth that people have realized isn’t true. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is uncertain. The oldest record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the Church of Rome in 336 A.D. Some historians believe Christmas was Christianity’s response to a Roman pagan holiday, when the Romans celebrated the invincible sun god, Mithras, during the winter solstice.

6. Abbreviating Christmas as Xmas takes the Christ out of Christmas.

Writing “Xmas” might not be an attempt to remove Christ from Christmas. The first letter in the Greek word for Christ is chi, which is represented by the symbol X. Some say writing Xmas was a popular practice used by scribes and religious scholars dating back at least 1,000 years.