December 23, 2015

Seven Misconceptions About the Birth of Christ

Adoration of the Magi
Adoration of the Magi, Giotto di Bondone, c. 1312. 

1. Our Savior wasn’t born in 1 A.D.

Scripture gives clues as to Christ’s year of birth based on references to rulers at the time.

Matthew’s Gospel states that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod [Matthew 2:1-2]. We know Herod died in 4 B.C. It was Herod who ordered all boys two years old and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem to be killed in an attempt to destroy the Messiah. Jesus could have been as old as two before Herod’s death.

Luke 3:23 asserts that: "Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age." Jesus commenced His ministry during the time John the Baptist preached in the wilderness. John’s ministry began “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" [Luke 3:1-2].

If Christ were "about thirty years of age" in c. 27 A.D., his birth would have occurred sometime between 7 and 4 B.C., an assertion that Pope Benedict has himself endorsed.

2. Jesus wasn’t born in a manger.

Luke 2:7 states that Mary laid Jesus in a manger. We usually associate mangers with stables or barns.

First century dwellings used in Jesus’ day incorporated caves as part of their structures. Guest and family rooms were in the front of the house and animals were sheltered in the back [in a cave]. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over just such a cave. Joseph took the expecting Mary to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. Because of the census taking place, none of his relatives had room in their guest quarters. Therefore, it is a near certainty that the Holy Family took up lodging in the back of the house in a cave typically reserved for animals.

The Church of the Nativity sits atop a Grotto wherein lies the cave that St. Jerome professed and both archeology and popular piety testifies to be the actual site of the Nativity of our Lord.

3. Donkeys and cattle were not present at the Nativity of our Lord.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, contended that the presence of animals such as cattle and donkeys in Nativity scenes is based on little more than a myth. "There is no mention of animals in the Gospels," Benedict wrote. The belief that animals were in the stable where Christ was born has proved an enduring notion. The Vatican’s elaborate Nativity scene featured in St Peter's Square in the weeks before Christmas has included livestock such as sheep and goats. Even though Joseph and Mary were probably lodged on the lower level or in the back of the house, most likely, the animals were removed while the couple stayed there. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with making the first manger scene complete with live animals. 

4. There were three wise men. 

The Gospel of Matthew records that wise men visit Jesus after his birth, however, their number is not given.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. [Matthew2:1] … And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:11]
Tradition holds that there were three wise men based largely on the fact that three gifts were offered to our Savior: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The wise men are often pictured as three solitary figures roaming the desert in search of the just born King. In reality, their traveling caravan was far larger, most likely consisting of servants, soldiers and attendants. It is all together probable that the number of wise men who visited Jesus was greater than three [perhaps substantially more]. 

5. The wise men, or magi, were kings.

The wise men were not kings according to our common understanding. They were members of a caste of oriental priests and soothsayers who practiced the esoteric arts, dream interpretation and astrology, by way of predicting the future. They functioned primarily as consultants to royalty. The word "Magi" is not used in the Bible. "Magi" is a transliteration of the plural of the Greek word "magos", from the Septuagint, that is found in Matthew 2:1. The wise men’s quest for Jesus brought them to Jerusalem. Divine Revelation led them to Bethlehem. When the wise men finally paid their respect to the prophesied Messiah, the poverty of His surroundings doubtless astonished them.

6. The wise men arrived the night of Christ’s birth.

Sacred Scripture says nothing about the wise men’s arrival Christmas night. Instead, Matthew 2:11 testifies: "and on entering the house they [the wise men] saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." 

Countless depictions of our Lord’s Nativity picture wise men, shepherds, angels and animals all assembled around the newborn Jesus flanked by Mary and Joseph. Yet Matthew’s description leaves open a number of possibilities. First, the wise men enter a house, not a barn or stable. Second, they see a “child”, not an infant. Scholars theorize that Jesus might be anywhere from two weeks to two years old, according to St. Matthew’s account. Furthermore, Matthew 2:16 states Herod ordered killed all boys two years old and under, based on the time he obtained from the wise men. It is not inconceivable that the wise men arrived two years after Jesus’ birth. 

7. Jesus was born on December 25.

The Bible does not designate a date or month for Christ’s birth. A majority of scholars who reject December 25th argue that it would be unusual for shepherds to be “abiding in the field” [Luke 2:8] at this time of the growing season.  Those who subscribe to this view cite the practice of keeping flocks in the fields from Spring until Autumn. Additionally, winter would be an especially challenging time for the expecting Mary to travel the seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Although in the minority, defenders of the December 25th designation point out that Bethlehem is located below the snow line. The fleece of sheep enables them to stay warm, and even now sheep are pastured in the Shepherds' Field near Bethlehem at the time of year in question.

While we don't know for certain when Jesus was born, and ancient Christian writers advanced a variety of dates for his birth, none of the aforementioned misconceptions detract from the fact that the birth of Christ is the most momentous event in human history — an occurrence more magnificent than words can express.

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