The first Noel

History suggests that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable or visited by three Wise Men. What’s the real Christmas story?

What’s the origin of the Nativity story?

Some of it is in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew mentions the Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem, while the Gospel of Luke describes awestruck shepherds and says that Jesus was born in a stable because all the inns were full. Over the centuries, the customary Nativity scene was embellished with other lore, giving us the image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger and surrounded by his parents, Mary and Joseph, as shepherds, oxen, asses, and three Wise Men look on. But we have it on no less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI that the traditional crèche tableau has little basis in fact. There were, for example, likely no animals present, the pope writes in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. The tradition of the ox and ass stems from early Christian teachings that even animals recognized Jesus as the Son of God. Benedict is not alone in casting doubt on the popular version of Christ’s birth. “It’s virtually impossible to reduce the accounts to a single core narrative,” said religious historian L. Michael White.

When was Christ born?

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Almost certainly not 2,012 years ago or on Dec. 25. Matthew places Jesus’ birth in the final years of the rule of Judea’s Rome-backed king, Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. Pope Benedict writes that Christ was probably born less than two years before that, putting his birth in 5 or 6 B.C. The Roman Catholic Church chose Dec. 25 as Christ’s birth date in the 4th century, in order to co-opt a pagan feast day. To define Christ’s actual date of birth, scholars look to when the Star of Bethlehem might have appeared.

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

There are various theories. According to Matthew, the Wise Men saw a bright light in the heavens and followed it to Jesus’ birthplace. Some say it was a nova, or the explosion of a white dwarf star, recorded by Chinese sky-watchers in 5 B.C., while others suggest it was the planet Jupiter, which would have appeared to be drifting westward in the sky from September of 3 B.C. until the following May. Astronomer John Mosley of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles recently theorized that the Star of Bethlehem was actually a convergence of Jupiter and Venus that took place on June 17 in 2 B.C. “The two planets had merged into one single gleaming object in the direction of Jerusalem as seen in Persia,” he said.

So the Wise Men were Persian?

The Gospel of Matthew says only that they came from the East and refers to them as “Magi.” That term can apply to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic Persian religion whose adherents seek guidance in the stars. The idea that there were three of them, and that they were kings, originated in much later texts identifying them as Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, kings of Arabia, Persia, and India, respectively. Biblical scholars say this element was incorporated into the Nativity tale to reflect the Christian tradition that all peoples recognized Christ’s divinity. University of Oklahoma theology professor Brent Landau has identified an 8th-century text that purports to be the Magi’s own account of Christ’s birth. In it, a dozen religious mystics travel, probably from China, to Bethlehem to witness the event. “There are no other early Christian writings that provide such a complete explanation of these mysterious figures,” said Landau.

Where was Jesus born?

Most scholars agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem—but not in a stable. The Gospel of Luke says that Mary laid Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the inn. But the word “inn” in the King James Bible is commonly agreed to be a mistranslation of a Greek term for “spare room”—and in those days, most families kept their animals inside the house, not in a separate outhouse. So Jesus was most likely born, according to historian R.T. France, in “the main living room of a peasant house, where animals are brought in at night.”

Should these discrepancies bother Christians?

The pope says no. “The aim of the evangelists was not to produce an exhaustive account,” he writes, “but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word.” The Nativity story emphasizes Christ’s humility, and the wonder of God taking on human form. The accounts of Jesus’ life are not intended as histories, said Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, but as gospels—“proclamations of the good news.” The true meaning of Christ, he says, lies not in “what really did happen,” but in “what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

What did Jesus look like?

The Gospels say nothing about Jesus’ ethnicity other than that he was Jewish. But scholars have painted him in many colors. As early as 1836, the English historian Godfrey Higgins suggested that Jesus was a dark-skinned Indian. Some African-American Christians, including Jesse Jackson, have claimed he was black, arguing that Mary descended from a tribe of African Jews. The earliest surviving images of Jewish people date to the 3rd century, so we have little historical record to go on—though it’s unlikely Jesus was the blue-eyed, fair-haired man of Western tradition. An anthropological study in 2001 concluded that it was most likely Jesus had olive skin; short, dark curly hair; and a swarthy appearance. The West’s inaccurate impression, said theologian Charles D. Hackett, is “a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.”

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