By Marcia Hornok
Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem? Did an innkeeper reject Mary and Joseph? Was Jesus born the night they arrived? Did a multitude of angels sing? Did a special star guide the wise men all the way from the Orient to Israel? Did anyone kneel at the manger? Does Santa Claus know if you’ve been good or bad?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have believed traditions and Christmas carol lyrics instead of Scripture. Several of our ideas about Jesus’ birth have been influenced by pageants, crèches, and religious art rather than by our letting the text speak for itself. Nowhere in Matthew 1-2 or Luke 2 do we read of a donkey, an innkeeper, angels singing, shepherds or wise men kneeling at a manger, a star shining over a stable, or a little drummer boy.
Mary may have ridden on a donkey or a cart, but the Bible doesn’t say. Having experienced the third trimester of pregnancy six times, I’m sure I would prefer to walk rather than have a bumpy ride for 90 miles. Since everyone was required to show up and be registered, Mary and Joseph probably caravanned with relatives on the journey to Bethlehem.1 This also makes me speculate that Mary may have had the assistance of other women (not just Joseph and the barn animals!) during her labor and delivery.
When was Jesus born? Luke 2:6 suggests a time gap between His parents’ arrival in Bethlehem and His birth: “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered” (italics added). Perhaps Joseph thought that registering for the census wouldn’t take long and that they could return home before Mary was full term. The vast number of people in Bethlehem precluded that.
Did the angels sing? Possibly, but verbs associated with angelic communication in Scripture mean shouting or saying rather than a musical connotation. The significance was that they praised2 and gave glory to God.3
How old was Jesus when His parents took Him to the Temple? At eight days old He was circumcised, but that was not done at the Temple. Leviticus 12 specified that a woman who gave birth to a male child was to bring an offering to the priest forty days after the birth. That was Jesus’ age when Simeon grabbed Him up in his arms (Luke 2:22). Mary and Joseph presented their son to God at the Temple. God led Simeon to present to them Jesus, His Son, as “salvation,” a light to Gentiles and the Glory of Israel (Matt 1:21; Luke 2:22-32).
Most people know that Jesus was laid in a manger, not born in one, and that the Magi found Him in a house, not the manger. We speculate that there were three wise men because of the three different gifts they gave, but the Bible doesn’t say how many people made the 800-or-so-mile journey to visit the King of the Jews. We have been led to think they followed the star, but if they did, it led them to the wrong city—Jerusalem, not Bethlehem.
When they learned from Herod where the Christ was to be born, “They departed; and behold, the star which they had seen [when they were] in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Matt 2:9-10, italics added).
Why such great joy? Because the supernatural star had shown up again. Yes, they followed it, but only for five miles, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Since stars don’t move southward, we don’t know what celestial manifestation of glory moved with them and stood over the house where Jesus was.4 The wise men referred to it as “His star.”
God used angels, dreams (four times to Joseph), and a star to announce the Incarnation. Jesus’ birth account includes both Jews (shepherds) and Gentiles (the Magi) making their way to find Jesus, and both a man (Simeon) and a woman (Anna—senior citizens no less—who recognized Him as Messiah.
When Anna saw Him, she “spoke of Him to all those [in Jerusalem] who looked for redemption” (Luke 2:38). Likewise, shepherds “made widely known” the angel’s statement about the birth of “a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:17; cf. 2:12). Everyone who heard the shepherds, presumably in Bethlehem, “marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (Luke 2:18).
There must have been quite a stir when a great caravan from the East showed up in Jerusalem. Matthew 2:3 states that all of Jerusalem was “troubled.” Shortly afterward, all of Bethlehem and the surrounding districts were troubled by the senseless killing of their infant boys (Matthew 2:16-18). However, God protected Jesus and His parents by exiling them to Egypt for a few years while things died down in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In conclusion, God has recorded everything we need to know, not everything we want to know. Adding our traditional ideas to Jesus’ birth account distorts the details somewhat. Even so, this does not detract from our desire to honor Christ and to rejoice in the significant details of His first advent. Shepherds had a sign—a cloth-wrapped baby lying in a manger. Magi had a supernatural star. Herod’s chief priests and scribes had the Hebrew Scriptures. And we have a Savior. We celebrate Christmas by rejoicing that He came “to save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
However, don’t believe every Christmas card picture you see.
Marcia is Ken’s grateful wife, serving with him in Utah where he pastored for 39 years and they raised six children. Now they enjoy 13 grandkids. Her latest work is a guilt-free Bible study of Proverbs 31.
1 Compare Luke 2:44 where “relatives and acquaintances” accompanied the family to and from Jerusalem for Passover.
2 We tend to associate praise with singing, which is fine, but the Greek word aineō, related to ainos in Hebrew, denotes a saying or discourse. Even the Hebrew halal means to boast, or to tell what someone has done.
3 There is little Scriptural evidence that angels sing. See “Do Angels Sing?” at www.gotquestions.org, accessed June 13, 2023.
4 Some speculate that the “star” was actually God’s shekinah glory.