Common Misconceptions About the Nativity

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst

I have been open on this blog before about my Christian faith, and this is one of the most important times of year for me as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. However, many aspects of the story we tell about the first Christmas are actually based not on the Bible but on popular culture, so I thought it would be fun to make a quick Christmas special blog sharing a few less well known facts about that most Holy of nights that even most Christians don’t know.

Myth: Jesus was born on December 25, 1 A.D.

The Truth: The Bible doesn’t actually tell us when Jesus was born.

The early Christian church had a habit of selecting dates for important Christian holidays so that they fell on or near Roman pagan festivals, in order to make things a little easier and more comfortable for converts to the faith. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the traditional Roman winter solstice celebration. Many common Christmas traditions from the hanging of wreaths to the use of mistletoe are originally pagan, not Christian, traditions.

As for the year Jesus was born, it is understandable that people think he was born in 1 A.D. After all, A.D. stands for Anno Domini (Latin for “In the Year of the Lord”) and B.C. stands for “Before Christ”. Indeed, when Dionysius Exiguus devised this system in 525 A.D., it was his intention to have 1 A.D. mark the year Jesus was born. But he miscalculated. Almost all scholars today agree that Jesus had to have been born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., since King Herod was an important part of the Biblical story and he was simply not alive anymore in 1 A.D.

Myth: The three wise men came on the night Jesus was born

The Truth: Actually, the Bible implies the “newborn King” might have already been two years old when they showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The story is told in Matthew 2:1-18. It says an unspecified number of men referred to as “Magi” (members of the Persian priesthood, who were noted at the time as the world’s best astrologers) came looking for Jesus after seeing a new star in the sky, following it to Bethlehem. We assume there were three of them, since they brought three gifts, but that’s just a guess. In any case, the Bible says they arrived at Mary and Joseph’s house. Not a manger, where Jesus was born, but a house. I think it’s safe to assume there has been some time between His birth and their arrival.

Another clue to Jesus’s age when these visitors arrived is the actions King Herod took when he found out about all this. The Bible tells how he killed all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under; Joseph and Mary managed to escape with the young Jesus because they had been warned in a dream. Why two years old? Perhaps at this time Jesus was already two years old, or perhaps Herod was just being thorough.

In any case, I think the reason for the misconception is our Nativity scenes, which traditionally show three wise men in the manger with the shepherds, in order to make sure they are included in the story, even though their story is actually a different one that occurred some time later.

Myth: Jesus Christ was the name given to the newborn Lord at His birth by Mary and Joseph

The Truth: The name “Jesus Christ” was given to Him later by the Christian faithful.

“Christ” is an honorific religious title, not His last name. Jews in New Testament times generally didn’t have last names. “Christ” comes from the Greek “Christos”, the closest translation the writers of the New Testament could come up with for the fundamentally Hebrew concept of the Messiah – the anointed savior of the children of Israel prophesied in the Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and so took to calling him Jesus Christ as a way of quickly asserting their faith in Him.

As for His name, when He was alive it would actually have been Yeshua, a Hebrew variant of Joshua. Of course, as I mentioned before, the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek simply doesn’t have the alphabet to accurately translate that name, so they rendered it as closely as they could: Iesous. We have evidence from other, non-Christian writings of the time that men named “Yeshua” would often have their names translated as “Iesous” in Greek. In any case, the Greek “Iesous” became the Latin “Iesus”, which became our English “Jesus”.

I hope you enjoyed this short little Cat Flag special. However you celebrate the holiday, I hope you have a wonderful one.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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