The Christmas story – often referred to as “The greatest story ever told” – is as familiar to us all as a comfy old pair of pajamas. It’s the well-known, centuries-old, heart-warming tale of Mary, Joseph, and little baby Jesus, a manger, and the three wise men that came to greet the child.
Sweet, innocent, and completely – wrong?
That’s right. There’s more fiction surrounding the Nativity tale than fact, and you might be surprised that many of the truths you hold near and dear to your noel-loving heart are fairly questionable.
So here are five things you think you already know about the Nativity, the wise men, and the biblical story: question is, how many of them are facts we can substantiate?
Think you know your Nativity? Think again.
Fact or fiction: Everything we know about the Nativity and the Magi comes from four Gospels. Fiction. The Nativity account appears in only two of the Gospels – Matthew and Luke, and their accounts differ dramatically. The Gospel of Matthew only devotes 12 verses to the Nativity, with the focus of the story on the interaction between the wise men and King Herod’s search for the baby. The Gospel of Luke deals mainly with the appearance of Jesus and his proclamation as God by angelic hosts.
Fact or fiction: We know that three wise men from the East came to the manger. Again, fiction. Only the Gospel of Matthew even mentions the wise men, but the number of wise men was never given. It’s been suggested that the number of wise men was assumed to be three because of the number of gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) presented; three is also a symbolic manifestation of the Holy Trinity of Christian faith. The Magi’s names – Melchior, Gaspar (sometimes Caspar) and Balthasar/Balthazar – seem to have been fictional creations as well. However, Marco Polo claimed to have seen the three tombs of the Magi on his journeys, and a golden sarcophagus/shrine in Cologne, Germany, is said to hold the bones of the three Magi to this very day.
Fact or fiction: Well, at least we know the wise men were kings from Asia, Arabia and Africa. Well, maybe; this one is kind of up for grabs. No Gospel verses account for the Magi’s royal status, although some Psalms (71:10, for example) indicate that they were kings from Tharsis, Saba and Arabia. Many historians, however, maintain that the Magi would have been followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that studied the stars. Expert opinion theorizes that the wise men were astronomer priests who journeyed from an area in present-day Iran.
Fact or fiction: The Star of Bethlehem is a myth, a convention cooked up by storytellers over the years. Actually, this one could be a fact. As we just learned, the Magi could have been priests who studied the stars. And according to Wikipedia, experts have theorized that the Christmas Star could be one of many things: “A nova, a planet, a comet, an occultation (when one larger heavenly body passes in front of an apparently smaller one), and a conjunction (gathering of planets) have all been suggested.” In his DVD “The Star of Bethlehem,” Rick Larson uses sophisticated computer modeling and historical evidence to show that there is indeed convincing astronomical data to support the appearance of a dazzling star at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Fact or fiction: Jesus was born in a manger, an ancient barn, with peaceful animals at his side. This one seems like fiction. The artistic license of Western art probably contrived the bucolic manger scene, but biblical scholars contend that Jesus was probably born in a cave carved into a hillside, and fitting animals in with three other people would have been a rather tight fit. To confuse matters even further, there is a holy site in Bethlehem today called the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave, where it is held that Jesus was born.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many of accounts that we consider to be fact are clouded with uncertainty and doubt; after all, the Nativity story is more than 2,000 years old, and some embellishment was sure to have taken place along the way.
And as sure as there children dreaming of sugarplums on Christmas Eve, you can be certain that for every expert opinion you can cite about Nativity history, there’s a counter-opinion with a handful of cryptic papyrus to challenge it.
So while the facts pertaining to the Nativity may be questionable, there’s little doubt that after more than two millennia, the Christmas story is one that continues to stir our imagination, and kindle a fire in our hearts.
Paul Harrington is a writer and author of Epiphany: The Untold Epic Journey of the Magi, a historical fiction novel that tells the tale of the Magi’s amazing adventures on their quest to Bethlehem.