6 Things People Get Wrong About the Bible's Christmas Story
Every year around this time, everyone from your grandma to Linus goes on and on about how we've all forgotten the true reason for the season, buried as it is beneath a massive pile of dehydrated pine trees, broken strings of lights, and unwanted Starbucks gift cards. And Grandma is right! But it's not because the lumbering Commercialization Monster has gobbled up the real story of Christmas; it's because we never knew it to begin with. For example, most of you probably don't know that ...
There Was No Inn and Jesus Was Probably Born in the Kitchen
The worst role in any children's Christmas play is the innkeeper who gets to lecture the holy couple about how there's "no room for them in the inn." That's the role jerky little kids get to prepare them for a lifetime of managerial positions. Long story short, the holy family ends up in the stable. But wait -- the entire reason they made the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem was because it was Joseph's hometown. You'd think there'd be at least one family member with a futon they could crash on or something, right? So why did they even need an inn to begin with? The simple answer is that, in the Bible, there is no innkeeper -- and probably no inn. That's because inns were only found on major roads, and Bethlehem was the equivalent of a truck stop outside of a rural town in Wyoming.
It made Bethlehem, Georgia, look like Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Much of our picture of the story is based on the mistranslation of a single word: the Greek "kataluma," which was translated as "inn," when a far more accurate translation would have been "the guest bedroom." We actually have a pretty good sense of just what a kataluma is, because the only other time the word is used in the New Testament is to describe the room where the Last Supper takes place, which Mark describes as "a large upper room furnished and prepared."
So that's a great description of where they didn't get to stay, but we all know where they did end up, based on the fact that Jesus was laid in a manger -- i.e., a feeding trough for animals. However, just because there was a manger doesn't mean they were in a stable. See, the first floor of homes at the time (remember, there was no room for them in the "large upper room") were akin to large kitchens, where animals would be brought inside at night for heat and protection. Consequently, the lower floor of the house would have had a manger -- the Bible isn't saying that innkeepers are dicks and Jesus was born in a barn. It's saying that they stayed with the in-laws and had to crash on the downstairs couch with the pets -- a time-honored Christmas tradition most of us practice to this day.
They probably raided the fridge at midnight and watched cartoons till dawn.
The Christmas Story Doesn't Take Place in a Single Night, But Over Years
You know the Christmas story: The newly-wed Joseph and Mary arrive in town just as Mary's water breaks. Then, after that whole manger scene, which we all know like the backs of our hands, they must immediately flee into Egypt before King Herod's soldiers swoop in and murder all the babies. You gotta give it to Herod: his crack squad of baby murderers really had their response time down.
"And they told me 'baby murder' was a dying field. This will show 'em!"
Mary barely shot out that savior and already the Baby Squad are on the scene, tiny baby clubs twirling menacingly ...
Except that it didn't happen all in one night.
The Bible doesn't provide a precise timeline for all these events, but the gospels make it pretty clear that Mary didn't give birth the night they arrived in Bethlehem. They say "while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered," which strongly implies that the birth takes place days, if not weeks, after their arrival.
"We should finish traveling before the third trimester, according to Dr. Gamaliel's Baby and Child Care."
Christ didn't hit the ground running, either. Jesus was circumcised (eight days after he was born) and presented at the Temple, which could only happen after Mary's period of purification was completed -- because according to the laws of Leviticus, a woman was considered ritually impure for 40 days after giving birth to a boy (80 days for a girl, because cooties).
There are some hints that it's much longer -- perhaps up to two years -- before the wise men even show up: by the time they get there the family is living in a house, not a stable, and Jesus is referred to as a "young child," not a baby. This makes sense, since the reason Herod kills all the children up to 2 years old is because the wise men specifically told him that was Jesus' age. Now, admittedly, Herod wasn't exactly known for his restraint, so he might have started by killing the infants and then momentum just took over. You know, as it does.
The Three Wise Men Were Not Kings; They May Have Been Just a Trio of Shady Dudes
Picture a Nativity scene. You can build one out of action figures, for reference. We suggest He-Man and She-Ra for Joseph and Mary, Pokemon for the animals, and maybe a little Krang or something for Jesus. There are not a lot of baby-sized action figures to choose from. Got your scene? Good, now let's dissect it: First up, those three kings, the wise men (Power Rangers, obviously). Except the gospels don't mention kings visiting young Jesus, only a group of magi from the east. Magi weren't royalty, but rather priests or wise men versed in astrology and magic, because it's not a fucking birthday party without a magician, Mom.
"And look what's behind your ear! It's ... the entire universe?! Holy moly!"
Now, hopefully these were at least royal court magi, because your run-of-the-mill magi were a pretty sketchy bunch -- they're described throughout the Bible as frauds, snake oil salesmen, and swindlers. It's assumed that these weren't lowly street magi based on the luxury gifts they came packing, though one Old Testament verse suggests that they were just as likely to be traveling salesmen as they were wandering nobility -- an interpretation shunned by church authorities, but that was understandably popular with Renaissance businessmen.
Yeah, we know "and then a bunch of knife-salesmen showed up" doesn't exactly set a holy scene. It gets worse: The magi's choice of gifts would have raised some eyebrows, too, given how frequently the Bible mentions both frankincense and myrrh as aphrodisiacs. Now, we're not saying a bunch of shady, door-to-door sex toy salesmen showed up for the birth of Christ, but ...
"So, Joe. We hear you've been waiting till tonight to consummate your marriage ..."
It wasn't until the Middle Ages that the magi began to be described as kings, largely to make the New Testament story better match the Old Testament messiah prophecies, and probably because "kings" sounded better than "magical spice perverts."
Immaculate Conception Does Not Refer to the Birth of Jesus
Immaculate Conception refers to the time God knocked up Mary and skipped out on the child support, right? Nope: The Immaculate Conception isn't the conception of Jesus at all, but that of Mary herself.
"Conceived using old-fashioned boning, the wild mambo, the hunka-chunka ..."
Old-timey theologians, when thinking through this whole Son of God business, stumbled into a paradox. See, the doctrine of original sin states that, being descended from that filthy apple-eater Adam, all humans gush straight out of the womb on a crimson waterslide of immorality. But how could that be when Mary, mother of Jesus, was human? How could she, veritably dripping with sin, possibly have been a fit candidate to host the Big Guy's little swimmers in her lady pool?
The answer works on Terminator logic: Theologians proposed that God retconned his own love life, and visited Mary at the precise moment of her conception to scrub the original sin right out of her. The concept had been floating around since as early as the first century, but it wasn't until 1854 that Pope Pius IX declared it official dogma. The move was partially because Pius believed that Mary had cured his epilepsy, and partially to cash in on the rise of the cult of the Virgin (Mary's popularity skyrocketed when people started seeing apparitions of her in the years prior, 'cause heaven gets so boring you have to slum it on toast and water-stains, apparently).
"Hey, look at that giant vagi-- virgin. Erm. Virgin. Virgin Mary."
A Whole Petting Zoo Did Not Show Up for the Birth of Christ
Since most people thought that the Nativity was set in a stable, it made sense that there were animals present: donkeys, oxen, sheep, and of course the camels that those three "kings" rode in on, to name a few. But other than some sheep in the fields, not one of those animals is ever mentioned in the Biblical story. It turns out that the transformation of the Christ Child's makeshift maternity ward into a menagerie started when early Christians wanted to fill the scene with more animal symbolism than a C.S. Lewis story. (The plethora of roles in the Christmas play for children who can't be trusted with speaking parts was an unintentional bonus.)
"It's OK if they're peeing onstage. They're animals.
The most important animals in early Nativity scenes were the ox and the ass. Again, they weren't present in the original story: They were first mentioned by the theologian Origen in the second century, and became such an important element that while the earliest known Nativity scene doesn't depict Mary or Joseph, it does have an ox and an ass.
Gotta have dat ass.
Like the transformation of the wise men into kings, these animals were largely added to reflect the Old Testament messiah prophecies. The image of the clean ox and the unclean ass in the Old Testament symbolized how both the Jews and the Gentiles, respectively, would worship the Messiah -- because nothing fosters interfaith understanding like calling the other side lumbering oxen and filthy asses.
By the 13th century, the ox and ass got their gritty origin story: the couple brought them to Bethlehem; they brought the ass for transportation and the ox to sell to cover their expenses. The camels eventually showed up for the same reason: Isaiah's prophecy not only predicted kings, but also camels (a Biblical shitload of camels, to be precise). And we just kept adding whatever animal seemed like it would be funny to pair with a baby until, by the 15th century, the Nativity scene was a literal zoo. Artists decided that the wealth and exotic nature of the magi meant that they probably owned crazy menageries like modern-day rappers. Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi depicted hawks, leopards, a greyhound -- even monkeys.
We're 90 percent sure that's Mufasa in the upper right corner.
Christmas Was Not Stolen From a Pagan Holiday
Real quick, poke your head outside and yell to your neighbor -- the one that drives a Prius with a Coexist sticker -- "how did Christmas start?" You don't have to stay to listen to the full lecture about religious imperialism or whatever; you can duck out as soon as he mentions how it was stolen from a Pagan holiday.
"Jesus is just a mashup of Horus and that guy from Lost, man!"
The centerpiece of this argument is the fact that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th -- once observed as the winter solstice -- and that there was also a major pagan holiday celebrated around the winter solstice (Saturnalia). But Saturnalia wasn't on December 25th (it ran from December 17-23), and it's unlikely that there would have been much celebrating happening on the 25th, since everyone was still hungover from Saturnalia, and trying to build a foundation for the New Year's festival drunk, which (starting all the way back in 153 B.C.) began on January 1st.
Christ's unfortunate, one-gift-counts-for-both birthday of December 25th started with the A.D. 204 writings of Hippolytus of Rome. He figured it by starting with March 25th, the accepted date of Jesus's death since at least A.D. 200. Add in the fact that, according to Jewish Talmudic tradition, all righteous men died on the same day they were conceived, and Jesus' conception must have also taken place on March 25th. Then basic biology tells us that nine months after conception comes the birth: December 25th.
Admit it, you just calculated your own conception date. Annnd ... now you're picturing your parents doing it.
There was a smaller pagan festival called Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), which, besides sounding like a Vin Diesel movie, did celebrate the winter solstice on the 25th. However, Sol Invictus wasn't created until A.D. 274 (well after Hippolytus did his hump-math) by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. In fact, there's even a good possibility that Sol Invictus was created to provide a pagan alternative to the Christian celebration, rather than the other way around. So hey, there you go, Christians: Go find that hippie neighbor and give him a nice, long lecture about stealing your dang holiday. That is our Christmas gift to you this season.
If Michael Voll had a new twitter feed of idiotic imponderables, HypoPatheticals, would you follow it? (HINT: He does, and you would.)
For more ways we don't know the Bible at all, check out The 6 Raunchiest, Most Depraved Sex Acts (From the Bible). And then check out 30 Unseen Dark Sides of Famous Christmas Movies.
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