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6 Common Misconceptions About Christmas

Christmas in box

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have stories of the infancy of Jesus which function as different overtures to way each of them present the stories they will go on to paint. In our Christmas cards, crib scenes, children’s books, and nativity plays we tend to conflate these two overtures, thereby losing some of the very points that Matthew and Luke were making. And then we add further components that we can go on to assume are there – reading them back into the texts when we pick them up.

1) There’s no mention of a donkey.
We assume that Mary rode a donkey to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem (we are in Luke’s story for that journey). Luke may have wanted us to assume such an image (just as we assume an aeroplane if someone today writes about going from Christchurch to Singapore) but let’s be clear: there’s no mention of a donkey.

2) There’s no mention of an innkeeper.
In fact there’s no mention of an inn:

διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι. (Luke 2:7)

καταλύματι (katalumati) only occurs here in the Bible.
There are two other occurrences of κατάλυμά (kataluma) in the Bible: Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 where it is usually translated as “guest room”. So Wycliffe might have the best translation:

And she bare her firstborn son, and wrapped him in `clothes, and laid him in a feed-trough [and put him in a cratch], for there was no place to him in no chamber.

3) There’s no mention of a stable.
There’s no mention of animals at the birth.
Sure, there’s

καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ (Luke 2:7)

where φάτνῃ (phatnē – usually rendered as “manger”) is a ledge in the end of the room on which food could be placed for animals.

4) There’s no mention that Mary gave birth to Jesus on the night they arrived in Bethlehem.

5) There’s no mention of three wise men – just three objects: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
There’s no mention that they were kings.
Placing three kings [and a star] in with shepherds, animals, and angel(s), not only mixes the two overtures, but also telescopes chronology. Matthew’s story of the wise men is set when Jesus is a toddler. Herod, remember, “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).

6) There’s no mention of December 25
Sure, there’s one chance in 365 (366 if it was a leap year) that Jesus was born on December 25.

I’ve timed this post so that people are not too upset that I’m spoiling their (church) crib scene which has angels, animals, shepherds, and three kings all combined in one set of statues; or the children’s play depicts all these; or carols combine and add further details. I encourage you to reflect on how Matthew and Luke use their overtures to the story they are about to tell – for that reflection, you need to keep them separate. What is Luke’s message (with shepherds)? What is Matthew’s message (with magi)? As you, your church, your crib scene, your carol, your pastor’s sermon combine details and add (unprovided) details – that may be perfectly fine, but what is the message that is conveyed?

*****

Whether you regard the Christmas Season as concluding on Christmas Day, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, Candlemas, the Sunday following Candlemas, or are Orthodox, or Armenian, and celebrate the Incarnation on another day and see the season differently… in the Southern Hemisphere, and certainly in Aotearoa-New Zealand, this is our go-slow time…

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14 Responses to 6 Common Misconceptions About Christmas

  1. Fun facts! Thanks, Bosco.

    Should I put the front yard decorative wise men around the side of my house instead of right next to the nativity in order to show they were still two years away?

    • Thanks, John. I’m sure you will take away the shepherds and change from manger setting to house when the wise men finally round the corner 😉 Blessings.

  2. So strange this is your blog subject to day as this subject has been very much part of my Christmas season.
    I remember my, foundation shaking, shock when this story weeving was pointed out to me and how my faith was strengthened as we, during the meditation then identified our own essential truths from the story

  3. Instructive and stimulating as always, Bosco.

    Pope Benedict XVI was treated like Scrooge when he made many of these points in his Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. (The Daily Mail’s headline was “Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions.”) He was particularly scorned for pointing out the absence of animals from Luke’s narrative, even though he notes on the very same page that, in view of subsequent theological reflection on Isaiah 1:3, “No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass” (p. 69).

    Before Christmas 2015, the Primate of my own church mused in the national church newspaper: “As I read the Christmas story I’m always taken by the way in which we portray the innkeeper as the one who said to Mary and Joseph, ‘No room here,’ when in fact he did provide them a warm and safe place for the birth of the holy child.”

    While he was trying to make a point about welcoming refugees, this allowed a conservative critic to point out that there is no “innkeeper” in the story (implying that the Primate doesn’t read the bible carefully). But now, as you point out, Bosco, there may not even be an “inn”!

    I am very much struck by your observation that the same word for “guest room” also appears in Luke 22:11, where it is the upper room in which Christ celebrates the Last Supper. This makes me think immediately of Lancelot Andrewes’s celebrated comparison between Christ as animals’ food in Bethlehem, and as angels’ food in the Eucharist:

    “For Christ in the Sacrament is not altogether unlike Christ in the cratch. To the cratch we may well liken the husk or outward symbols of it. Outwardly it seems little worth, but it is rich of contents, as was the crib this day with Christ in it. For what are they but infirma et egena elementa, ‘weak and poor elements’ (Gal. 4:9) of themselves? Yet in them find we Christ. Even as they did this day in praesepi iumentorum panem angelorum, ‘in the beast’s crib the food of angels’, which very food our signs both represent and present unto us.”

    But I think it’s more important to ask what it means that in Luke Christ finds no guest room in Bethlehem at his birth, but finds one in Jerusalem on the eve of his death.

    The Oxford Bible Commentary informs me that the same word occurs in the LXX version of Jer. 14:8, which is rendered as “lodging” in NETS:

    You are Israel’s endurance, O Lord,
    and you save in time of trouble;
    why have you become like a resident alien in the land
    and like an indigenous person turning aside for lodging?

    (Brenton’s 1851 translation calls it a “resting-place,”)

    Our bibles, translating the Hebrew, don’t make the connection explicit:

    O thou hope of Israel, the saviour thereof in time of trouble,
    why shouldst thou be as a stranger in the land,
    and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night?

    The point is the same in both, that the Lord ought to be a like natural-born citizen in Israel, but because of our “iniquity” he is like a stranger who only stays for a night. Indeed, the infant Christ can’t even find the “lodging” that Jeremiah’s YHWH finds. And when he does find lodging in Jerusalem, it is only to be rejected and killed.

    The same paradox informs John 1:10-11: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” I expect it also underlies the early Church’s discernment of the manger in Isa. 1:3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”

    It is the paradox of the Homeless Creator, expressed in Matthew’s flight to Egypt no less than in Luke’s manger and John’s “tabernacling” Word: the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

    And yet Jeremiah concludes this oracle with hope, in the familiar Compline sentence: “Yet thou, O Lord, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name. Leave us not.”

    He has not left us. He is with us still: Christ in the Sacrament, like Christ in the cratch, nourishing us for the journey from this one-night guest room to the many mansions that he is preparing for us in his Father’s house.

    • Thanks, Jesse, for this enrichment – particularly by the LXX link. God is the one who makes human beings (reading the Letter to the Hebrews currently) and does so clearly in Jesus – and us with (in) him. Blessings.

  4. “Inn” or “lodging” is a reasonable translation of κατάλυμά in this context. And “manger” in context can reasonably be taken as synecdoche for a stable with animals.

    An Ojibwa poem runs:

    All night long I keep awake
    All night long I keep awake
    On a river I keep awake.

    The man is taking a boat to see his girlfriend. The words “man” “boat” and “girlfriend” nowhere occur, but the hearers are expected to fill them in using shared cultural assumptions. All writers prsuppose shared cultural assumptions with their readers.

    • Thanks, Timothy. Your argument (with which I agree), that “writers presuppose shared cultural assumptions with their readers”, leads me to the opposite conclusion to yours. I encourage you to read Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Kenneth E. Bailey lived for 60 years in the Middle Eastern countries of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Cyprus. He learned their languages, culture, and understanding of the Bible. He is very helpful in helping us understand the presuppositions that the authors shared with their readers. Blessings.

  5. I so appreciate you bringing out these misconceptions, brother. Neither does it say anywhere in the Word that His people should celebrate the birth of Christ at all. Rather, the Bible is quite clear that the day of one’s death is more important. “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” Ecclesiastes 7:1. And certainly, Christ’s death is particularly more important for our salvation and the fulfillment of God’s plan than His birth (Romans 5:6-21). So how did Christians come to believe our Holy God approves of them celebrating Christmas with all its UNholy pagan origins and traditions?

    • Thanks, Caryl. In general, Christmas traditions originating in “paganism” (whatever that may precisely mean) are misconceptions. There is generally an explanation of each one solely from within the Judeo-Christian context. The adapting and incorporating of positive traditions from the context in which Christians find themselves would be another discussion. Blessings.

  6. Hello dear Bosco, and sending you the best of new year greetings.

    My father died today, after a major stroke last week, I went to my mail box and there was his christmas card to me, delivered both late and timely,and he wrote ‘ALL LOVE’…you know from our long correspondence that I am the least superstitious person on earth, but I did so appreciate receiving that today.

    I remember once sending you a missive which arrived in such fashion.

    Mark’s gospel is the eldest of NT scripture, the nativity is not mentioned.

    Here in America one of the aggressive ‘christian’ bumper stickers is ‘keep Christ in christmas’…but also many of those stickers belong to people who think the earth is 6000 years old ( is that even in the bible??? or Torah??? ) and the dinosaurs never existed. I would happily confiscate all their gas-guzzling SUVs and suggest they ride a donkey…

    • Dear, Tracy. My condolences, thoughts, and prayers are with you.

      I think if you add up all the years of biblical genealogies back to Adam and Eve, you end up with a 6,000-year-old earth. 🙁

      I recently flicked through some NZ free TV channels. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of aggressive ‘christian’ channels. One had a man vehemently critical of majority Christianity because they did something he couldn’t find in his Bible. How could I point out to him that the microphone he was holding, and the technology he was using isn’t in the Bible!

      Blessings.

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