Many years before Jesus was born, God promised to send a Savior to save the world.
The Christmas story, as it is usually told, involves the newborn baby Jesus being born in a stable filled with animals and visited by shepherds and kings.
But how much of the familiar story is biblical? It may surprise you.
The nativity story starts thousands of years before Christ’s birth with the hundreds of prophecies of the coming Messiah. However, the event begins in earnest when an elderly priest named Zechariah was on duty, burning incense in the temple. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar.
Zechariah was startled and gripped with fear, but the angel assured him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah! Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. Name him ‘John.’
"He will be a joy and delight to you and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord."
Then the angel told Zechariah: "He is never to take wine or other fermented drink. From birth, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will bring many people to the Lord and turn the hearts of the fathers to their children."
Furthermore, Zechariah was told, he would preach repentance, which would result in a return of "the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous and make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
Can you imagine being the father of John the Baptist – and being given such an incredible prophecy by a heavenly angel before your son is even born?
However, the elderly Zechariah was not convinced.
"How can this be?" he scoffed. "I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
His unbelief would cost him.
"I am Gabriel," responded the angel. "I stand in the presence of God. I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. But, since you doubt me, here is a sign that may help you to believe.
"From this moment on, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day your son is born."
Indeed, when the stunned Zechariah walked out of the temple, he had been struck dumb – he could not speak. People in the temple realized he had seen a vision, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
And sure enough, his wife became pregnant.
"The Lord has done this for me," Elizabeth declared joyfully.
A few days later, Gabriel visited Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, a chaste, godly girl engaged to a carpenter named Joseph.
"Hail, Mary!" announced Gabriel. "You are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
She jumped with fright, but the angel assured her, "Don’t be afraid, you have found favor with God. You will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus."
But that wasn’t all:
"He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High," continued Gabriel. "The Lord will give Him the throne of David, and His kingdom will never end."
"How can this be?" Mary asked, " I am a virgin!"
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you," answered Gabriel, "and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. The one to be born will be called the Son of God."
Then, Gabriel added: "Your cousin Elizabeth is going to have a child in her old age, for nothing is impossible with God."
"I am the Lord’s servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said."
Her faith is amazing. Surely she knew the ridicule she would receive.
She must have feared that Joseph would dump her. But there was no hesitation, no fear, no doubt.
She went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
"Mary!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "When I heard your voice, the baby in my womb leaped for joy."
About that same time, Joseph learned Mary was pregnant. As you can imagine, he was upset. A righteous man, he loved her and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, but obviously she had been unfaithful, so he decided to end their engagement.
But an angel of the Lord appeared to him
"Joseph," it said, "do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins."
And the angel pointed out that all of this was taking place in fulfillment of what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, God with us."
So Joseph took Mary as his wife. What an exemplary man! Someone else might have just walked away, but Joseph made up his mind to do everything he could to protect her from disgrace.
Then word arrived that Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that a census should be taken of all the nations under Roman control. Everyone was ordered to return to their birthplace to register.
So Joseph and Mary left Nazareth in northern Israel near the Sea of Galilee and traveled to tiny little Bethlehem.
Did they walk?
There was no public transportation – no stage coaches. Did Mary ride a donkey as we’ve seen on so many Christmas cards?
No donkey is mentioned. Considering that she was nine months pregnant, it’s certainly possible – but the Bible is completely silent. She could have ridden in a wagon. Joseph could have pushed her in a handcart. The Bible simply does not say.
In Bethlehem, the Savior of the world was born.
Let’s look at Luke 2:6-16. As you read it, see if you can find the scripture that says that the innkeeper let them stay in the stable.
"And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the
glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
"And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
"And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."
Did you notice there’s not a single word about Jesus being born in a stable? However, the text does say three different times that He was laid in a manger.
Verse 7: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
Verse 12: "And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And verse 16: "And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."
Did they really get turned away from the inn?
No innkeeper is mentioned
There is nothing about him feeling bad and showing them the barn – suggesting they camp out there.
In fact, there’s considerable doubt as to whether they really went to an inn. The Greek word kataluma is translated in this passage as "inn," but the only other time kataluma appears in the Bible, it is translated as "upper room," the place where the Last Supper took place.
So it is entirely possible that all of the Christmas plays with apologetic innkeepers saying "No room" may have been pure fantasy. There is no mention of any hotel clerk in the Bible.
We do know for certain that Joseph came from Bethlehem. So, members of his extended family may have still lived there. Family bonds were very important in that society, so it is entirely possible that Joseph and Mary planned to stay in the kataluma or "guest room" of a relative.
But there’s no good English translation for the word kataluma. Literally it means "to loosen down." In slang, you might say it was a place for visitors to "hang loose." The translators of the King James Version of the Bible debated what the term meant and decided on "inn."
However, the scholars putting together the International Standard Version said she "laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no place for them in the guest quarters."
In fact, the meaning of kataluma depends entirely upon the context in which the word is used, according to experts in ancient Greek.
Thus, there are many possibilities
Jewish culture demanded that each household should keep an area or room in the house for visitors. In a smaller house, such a kataluma might simply be a space in the corner for a traveler to lie down. In a larger house it might be several rooms.
But a kataluma could also be a public campgrounds, such as near an oasis or watering place. Such a permanent campsite would likely have had a manger for feeding the travelers’ animals, whereas a guestroom wouldn’t.
Another possibility is that when Mary and Joseph arrived, the family guest rooms of his various relatives were already packed with cousins, aunts and uncles who also had traveled to Bethlehem because of the census.
So, is it possible that Mary and Joseph decided it would be better for everyone if they moved to a more private area for the arrival of their child? Maybe they chose an area adjacent to the house usually used by travelers animals? There they would have found a manger.
One problem with this is that Joseph’s relatives surely would not have been so inconsiderate to an expectant mother on the verge of giving birth. It is also difficult to imagine that in the middle of her labor pains, Joseph’s relatives would have packed her off to the stables so they could party in the guest room.
Imagine your own family reunions
If the new bride of one of your younger, distant cousins showed up in labor, she would be the center of attention! What group of women would not have kicked the men out – and gathered around to help the poor little thing have her baby?
So, could it be that Mary and Joseph did not want to cause a fuss? Realizing that there was no place for them in the guest rooms, they quietly went to the stables on their own? Maybe they were uncomfortable in the large room or rooms where all their relatives had spread out for the night.
So, when her water broke and contractions began, Mary and Joseph slipped off to a quieter, more private place – without telling anybody?
Or here’s a thought: is it possible that the relatives weren’t all that friendly since it was well known the baby had been conceived before Mary and Joseph were married? The Bible says nothing about her being shunned although that idea has surfaced in books and films about the Nativity.
In the earliest icons of Christ’s birth, the painters show the holy family surrounded by cattle, sheep and donkeys. But the Bible is silent there as well. "The cattle were lowing" and "the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay" are poetic thoughts from a lovely Christmas carol, not the Gospels.
Around the second century, the notion was popular that the birth had taken place in a cave. An apocryphal gospel never included in the New Testament, the Protevangelium of James, states that Christ’s birthplace was a cave just outside Bethlehem.
That highly dubious account says the birth took place so suddenly that Mary and Joseph did not have time to get to a waiting relative’s house. Unable to travel the last few hundred yards, Mary was taken to a cave, which was the nearest shelter Joseph could find.
One enormous problem is that the Protevangelium of James is a low-regarded counterfeit account of the early years of our Lord. The writer pretended to be the Apostle James and showed significant ignorance of history, tradition and theology in virtually every sentence he wrote. So, this non-biblical account can’t be used to prove anything.
However, Bible’s account of the shepherds does offer a clue.
We do know that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them
The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
The shepherds rushed off to see this for themselves.
But how did they know exactly where to go?
As far as we know, the angel did not provide them with an address! The only description they were given was that they would find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
It seems unlikely that the shepherds worked their way through the streets of Bethlehem, knocking on each door in the middle of the night, asking to see the owner’s mangers! Neither is it likely that the shepherds systematically went rummaging through people’s barns looking for newborns.
But is it possible the reference to a manger implied something more to them than "any old manger." Perhaps they took it to mean one of their own public mangers? The caves around Bethlehem were used by the locals as winter shelters for their animals. So, when the shepherds found one of the caves lit by a lamp, did they find a mother, father with a newborn child lying in a manger? The Bible does not go into detail.
Was it a wooden manger? Did the great Renaissance artists and the icon-makers of the Middle Ages get that wrong, too?
Archeologists have found in the Bethlehem area several stone mangers in the lower floors of homes. It was the practice of the time to house the family’s animals underneath the house in the unfinished first floor. Today, many farmers throughout Europe still do the same thing. The practice was quite common in Poland and France. There, today, an older house may have a first story that was once used to house animals, but which has been converted for human use. Could Mary and Joseph have stayed in some great-uncle’s guest room – where there was no baby bed, but a very convenient stone manger left over from before the house was remodeled?
Another tradition is that the Shepherds would have looked for the manger in Bethlehem’s Migdal Eder or "watchtower of the flock." Such towers existed around Bethlehem and were used by the shepherds as a lookout and a place of refuge for their flocks in case of attack.
Indeed, the prophecy of Micah 4:8 says: "As for you, O watchtower of the flock, O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem."
Bethlehem’s Migdal Eder was actually the watchtower used to guard the temple flocks – sheep raised for ceremonial sacrifice in Jerusalem’s Temple. Such flocks were kept on the hills around Bethlehem. How appropriate that the sacrificial Lamb who took away the sins of the world would be born where sacrificial sheep were born and raised!
However, the Bible does not say
For 2,000 years, mankind has just assumed His birthplace was a stable and that the cattle were mooing, the sheep were bleating and the donkeys were braying. The Bible is silent on the subject.
We do know that when the shepherds had seen the baby, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child – that this was the long-awaited Messiah. All who heard it were amazed. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke writes that the shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.
Eight days later, Jewish law required that the newborn boy be circumcised just as had every Israelite male since the time of Abraham. The Bible indicates that during this ceremony, He was formally named Jesus, the name the angel had given.
Some time later, again following Jewish traditions, Joseph and Mary took their newborn to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple.
They offered a pair of doves. As this was going on, an elderly man named Simeon, who was righteous and devout, received a word from the Lord.
The Bible says that he had been "waiting for the consolation of Israel," and that it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Christ.
Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When Mary and Joseph brought in, Jesus, Simeon took Him in his arms and praised God, saying that now he could die in peace, "For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
Among themselves, Mary and Joseph marveled at what the old man said about their baby. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.:
There was also an elderly prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher who "never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying."
Coming up to Mary and Joseph, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Then they returned to Bethlehem.
Some time later – and we really don’t know how much later – several scholars from the East arrived in Jerusalem and presented themselves to the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea, the corrupt King Herod.
The unexpected visitors asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
When Herod heard this, he was disturbed. The news raced throughout Jerusalem. A new king had been born? The long-awaited Messiah? Herod did not like the idea of an usurper and called together the chief priests and teachers of the law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, quoting to him from Micah and Isaiah.
Then Herod summoned the visiting scholars and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I may go and worship him."
So, they left with the star leading them until it stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed. Upon entering the house where the family was staying, they saw the child with Mary, and bowed down and worshiped Him.
Then they presented him with expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Then God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned home by another route.
The text does not give the visitors’ names – although tradition says they were Melchior, Baltazar and Gaspar. Nor does the Bible indicate they were kings. It doesn’t say where they were from.
Why do we think there three scholars? That’s based on the three gifts. However, there could have been two or ten or any other number. The Bible simply does not say
Also, it is assumed that they were not present the night of His birth since the Bible says they came to "the house" where He was staying – not a stable. So, time must have passed and Joseph must have found a house for his new family, right?
What if there never was any stable?
What if He was still in the guest room with its leftover stone manger that had been turned into a crib?
Tradition has it that the scholars did not arrive until six weeks after His birth – and some believe they may have arrived even a year and a half afterward. That’s based on the terrible thing that happened next – when evil King Herod ordered every male child under the age of two in the Bethlehem area killed.
Something must have made Herod think the birth could have occurred as long as two years before. Was that based on what the scholars told him concerning the first appearance of the star?
We really don’t know. We do know that when the visiting scholars had gone, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph to get up from his sleep and to take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. "Stay there," the Lord told him, "until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."
So Joseph got up from his bed, took the child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, where they stayed. How did a poor carpenter afford such a trip? Did the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh underwrite the trip?
When Herod realized the eastern scholars weren’t coming back to report what they had found, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity.
That fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy hundreds of years earlier:
"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
More than a year may have passed, then this monster of a king died.
An angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, telling him it was safe to return. But since Prince Archelaus now reigned in Judea on the throne of his father, Herod, Joseph took his family back to Nazareth.
Thus the prophecy was fulfilled: "He will be called a Nazarene."
So, that’s the Christmas story according to the Bible. Hopefully it was not disturbing to you that in the pages of the New Testament, we could find no donkey for Mary to ride, no inn, no innkeeper, no stable, no animals, no wooden manger, no three kings.
Here is a wonderful assurance: nothing can thwart the plans of God. Step by step Jesus moved closer and closer to the final destiny for which He was supernaturally conceived in the womb of a virgin – to die for the sins of all who believe in Him.