Post Author: Bill Pratt (re-posted from last year)
New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III has written a brief article that discusses the birth narrative as conveyed in Luke 2. Witherington reminds us that the modern version of Jesus’ birth is not exactly faithful to the biblical account. “Like works of art that have been lacquered with coat after coat of varnish, the original stories are hardly visible any more.”
Some the key differences are the following:
- “Today, it is difficult to conceive the Nativity without an ox and ass, for example, although neither Matthew nor Luke mentions animals. (Rather, St. Francis, the great medieval lover of animals, is credited with building the first manger scene complete with live animals.)”
- “The three wise men are also permanent fixtures in our image of the Nativity, although they don’t arrive, according to Matthew 2, until several days after the birth of Jesus (the epiphany to the shepherds does, however, take place the same day).”
- “It is not the case that Mary and Joseph were forced to stop somewhere beside the road because Mary suddenly went into labor. Rather, Luke 2:6 tells us that ‘while they were there,’ that is, in Bethlehem, ‘the time came for her to deliver her child.'”
- “Luke never suggests that this birth was in any way miraculous or unusual. (The miracle is said to have happened, rather, at Jesus’ conception.)”
One of the greatest differences has to do with the actual birthplace of Jesus. Here an extended quote from Witherington is warranted:
Where did they stay in Bethlehem? Luke tells us that after the birth, Mary put the baby in a “manger,” or corncrib, because there was “no room for them at the kataluma” (Luke 2:7)—a Greek term he uses elsewhere to mean “guest room” (see Luke 22:11). When Luke wants to speak about an inn, he calls it pandocheion (see Luke 10:34). Thus, Luke says nothing about the Holy couple being cast out of an inn and Mary having to bear the child in a barn. Historically, it is far more likely that Mary and Joseph had their child in the humble back portion of the ancestral home where the most valued animals were fed and, in the winter, housed, because the guest room in the family home was already occupied. In any case, Bethlehem was such a small village, on a minor road, that it is not even clear it would have had a wayside inn. Admittedly, Jesus’ beginnings were humble—but we don’t need to mythologize them into some story about a baby being cast out by the world.
There are lots of other interesting historical tidbits in the article, so make sure you read the whole thing.