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Filtering Out Christmas Notions

Over the two thousand years of celebrating Christmas, believers and non-believers alike have woven into the event notions that are not true to the biblical account.

  • J. Grant Swank, Jr.,
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The Gospel of John relates the Christmas story. Right?


The Gospel of Mark tells of the shepherds kneeling before baby Jesus. Right?


We know there were twelve shepherds in keeping with a parallel to the twelve tribes of Israel. Right?


We know Jesus was actually born on December 25. Right?


Archeologists have discovered a part of the original manger. Right?


We know for certain that the "Christmas Star" was Jupiter. Right?

Not certain.

There were three wise men. Right?

Maybe; but not certain as to the number.

Wise men and shepherds huddled together around baby Jesus in the barn. Right?


One of the wise men had dark skin and we know his name. Right?

Perhaps on the first and not true on the second.

The innkeeper told Joseph that there was no room in the inn. Right?

Nothing is told us in the Bible about an innkeeper.

Michael the Archangel informed Joseph of the meaning of Mary's pregnancy. Right?


So it goes with Christmas fact and Christmas fiction.

Over the two thousand years of celebrating Christmas, believers and non-believers alike have woven into the event notions that are not true to the biblical account. Yet the biblical account is all that we have for reliability. Further, in that account, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only treatises that provide us with detail regarding the birth of Jesus. The Gospels of John and Mark do not.

Therefore, each Christmas I find it a delight to study the Christmas facts with other believers, filtering out the fiction so as to thrill in the residue — revealed fact provided us for our marvelous investigations. There is never an end to the scouring of Christmas fact according to the Bible. Every year supplies its own wonder.

But to return to separating fact from fiction:

The shepherds and wise men, though clustered together in our Nativity Scenes under Christmas trees, were not with one another in the original of two thousand years ago. Shepherds saw Jesus first and then the wise men saw Jesus apart from the shepherds.

Shepherds saw Jesus first in a stall (or barn or shelter or stable, whatever you want to term the enclosure). Then sometime later — the exact time not known — the wise men met Jesus in a house. The holy family had moved from stall to house for the wise men's visit.

Whose house? We don't know. What was its address? We don't know. How long was the holy family in the house? We don't know.

And the number of the wise men? There were at least two for in the biblical record the plural "men" is used. But there could have been two hundred or two thousand or whatever. All we know is that there were at least two of them.

How then did we come up with three wise men? Because the well-known Christmas hymn, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," heralds three. And also because the Bible relates that they brought to Jesus three gifts. So go figure.

It is assumed by biblical scholars that the wise men were Persian astrologers, that is, they were professionals, no doubt wealthy to some degree. They were also Gentiles knowledgeable of the Jewish deity as well as the Jewish prophetic records.

The wise men, according to the Bible, brought with them gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold for the kingliness of Jesus. Frankincense for the priestly role of Jesus. And myrrh in anticipation of Jesus' death as redemption for every repentant, sorrowful soul.

Did the wise men understand that significance of their gifts? We do not know. But we do know that they knew the divine significance of the baby for they told Herod that they were in search of Him in order to worship Him — "we have come to worship Him". To worship is to acknowledge the divinity of the subject. Therefore, these first Gentiles were aware of the Jewish Messiah as God.

Later, Jesus would tell His disciples that He came first to his own, the Jews, and then the Gentiles. So it was that at His birth, He was witnessed first by Jewish shepherds and secondly by Gentile wise men.

Though legend has given to the wise men names and colors of skin, the Bible does not. Though legend speaks of "the other wise man," the Bible does not.

Some of the updated translations of the Bible state that Mary and Joseph were "engaged." That is not the most correct term regarding their initial relationship. "Betrothal" and its synonym "espousal" are more accurate terms. "Engagement" is a modern concept that does not relate to the betrothal or espousal period of the first century.

Arranged marriages were in vogue then. So the parents of both Mary and Joseph would have concluded that their youths would marry one another. The youths could finally decide to negate the possibility if they so chose. But once the two were espoused, only a writ of divorce could terminate the espousal.

The betrothal or espousal period lasted for twelve months. During that time, the male and female were referred to as "husband" and "wife" but did not enjoy sexual relations. That would wait until they were fully, formally married.

In the twelfth month, the groom decided the day and hour that he would formally wed his bride, hence the parable of Jesus when he puts forth ten virgins attending a wedding, five prepared with oil in their lamps, five unprepared with not enough oil in their lamps. In the parable, the groom appears surprisingly at nighttime for the formal wedding to his bride.

Also, this parable relates to the Second Coming of Jesus as the Bible states that no human will know the day nor hour of that advent; it is known only to the heavenly Father.

It is assumed that Mary and Joseph were in their mid-teens, for that was the custom in first century Judaism concerning couples espoused. No one knows the names of their parents, though Roman Catholicism posits possible names for Mary's mother and father; however, such is legend and has no basis in the Bible. Roman Catholicism also posits Joseph as being father-like in age to Mary; however, there is no basis in the Bible for that.

All sorts of astrological theories have arisen regarding the star seen by the wise men. However, all the Bible tells us is that it was noted first in the east by the wise men, then moved westward, guiding the men first to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem.

As for the shepherds, as stated prior, they did not gather with wise men around the manger. Instead, they preceded the wise men in homage to Jesus. Shepherds were serenaded by angels, the latter informing them that the Christ was in Bethlehem. There the shepherds went to find Jesus, just as the angels had stated.

What were the shepherds' names? How many were there? Where did they live? What did they say and do after witnessing the Messiah Christ? We know none of the answers to these questions.

Likewise, where specifically did the wise men go after they left Bethlehem? Whom did they tell about seeing the Messiah? Where did they die? We know none of the answers to these questions.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is regarded as the actual site of the birthplace of Jesus. However, there is no definite proof of this. A lovely definition regarding the name, "Bethlehem," is that it means "House of Bread" from which the Bread of Life came to feed the world.

Angels figure significantly in both the first and second advents of Jesus. In the first advent, Gabriel is the actual name of one of the angels, according to the Bible. (The only other angel mentioned by name in the Bible is Michael, the archangel. One may, if referring to a third angel, include Lucifer, "Angel of Light," who staged a mutiny against deity so as to be cast out of heaven into hell, his name then changed to Satan.)

Siting names of other Christmas personages, "Mary" means "exalted by God." "Joseph" means "may God add." "Jesus" means "deliverer, redeemer." "Jesus" in Greek is parallel to "Joshua" in Hebrew, Joshua having delivered his people from the wilderness wanderings into Canaan land, a geography flowing with milk and honey. Jesus delivers His own from the wilderness of sin and hell into the heavenly Canaan land.

Jesus' actual birth date is not known. It is almost certain that he was born several years "before Christ." This anomaly took place because of a mistake in the calculations of Denis the Little, the 6th century monk, who concluded that history should be split into BC and AD. (Also, note that BC does stand for Before Christ but AD does not stand for After Death. AD stands for Anno Domini, Latin, meaning "year of our Lord.")

  • J. Grant Swank, Jr.
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