What are the traditions and myths mixed with the Christmas we observe?
John A. Braun
We have only a little reliable information about Jesus’ birth from those who were there. Matthew, Mark, and John were among those who walked and talked with Jesus. Most think that Mark was part of the larger group of followers and wrote for Peter. God guided their recollections so that they wrote what we needed to know.
Luke was a physician who may have known Jesus before his ascension, but he is most likely a later convert who traveled with the apostle Paul and heard information about the birth of Jesus. But he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). It is not a stretch to believe that he talked with Mary and learned the things she treasured and pondered in her heart (Luke 2:19).
But so much of Christmas does not come from the gospels. The Christians of the first two centuries were content with the gospel accounts. They came to know Jesus as their Savior and, like us, treasured Luke’s account of his birth. With simple faith they learned of his humble birth in Bethlehem. They relied on Matthew to tell them about the coming of the wise men or Magi.
But there are gaps in the story. Isn’t there anything more we know about his birth? Curiosity lay sleeping in those first centuries after Jesus’ birth. Christians at that time believed, it seems, that Jesus would return soon and there was no need even to celebrate Christmas. But as Jesus delayed his second coming, the curiosity awoke.
WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
We know where he was born, but do we know when? That’s a fair question. After two hundred years, identifying the date Jesus was born was difficult. Christians had adopted a dating system that chose to make the birth of Jesus the beginning of a new age—the time before Christ and the time after Christ. Unfortunately, the date chosen was not accurate. Later searches for the exact year proved that Herod the Great died four years before the dating system said Christ was born. That makes our current dates at least four years—perhaps even six years—off. Remember that Herod killed the boys in Bethlehem two years old or younger (Matthew 2:16).
And what about the day and time Jesus was born? No one could go to the town clerk of Bethlehem to find a birth certificate. The records, if there were any, may have been part of the Roman census, but they were gone. Could anyone suggest the day he was born?
Clearly, the answer to that question is no. But Christians in the third century felt that the coming of Jesus occurred on the day that God created the world. Really? Who knew that? Well, the cycle of seasons always began with the first day of spring and the coming of new life. So the first day of spring was also considered the day God created the world. For these people, spring began on March 25. Some adopted that date for the birth of Jesus, but others began to adopt that day as the day that Jesus was conceived. If you count nine months from March 25, you come to Dec. 25.
Add one more thought from these ancient Christians. The shortest day of the year occurs near that date. From that day the sun grows every day after that. It seemed to suggest that the Son of God could be born in the darkness of that short day because he brought light to the world just as the sun grew in intensity.
The Eastern Church settled on a different day for the birth of Jesus. It chose Jan. 6. Some still celebrate that day, or the day after, as their Christmas. Watch the news on Jan. 6 or 7, and you may find a story on the orthodox Christmas. Others suggest that Jan. 6 is the day the Magi came to Bethlehem because they came and visited Mary and Joseph “in the house” (Matthew 2:11), not in a place where one would find a “manger.”
None of this is necessarily true. The gospels don’t give us such information. We are free to follow the practice of the Christians who have come and gone before we were born. No one knows for sure when Jesus was born. Some suggest that these dates came into being because Christians wanted to make use of the pagan festivals at the time. It’s interesting, but one has to read these as opinions and conjecture. We have no eyewitnesses to interview.
OTHER QUESTIONS ABOUT CHRISTMAS
Curiosity is difficult to satisfy.
Who were these Magi, and how many of them were there? In the middle of the third century, one church leader suggested that there were three. It seems that his choice of three was based on the three gifts the Magi brought with them. But who were they? Their identity and number remain hidden, but that did not satisfy the curiosity of ancient Christians. In the sixth century the Christians in Egypt gave them names. Those names have come down to us as Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. In my nativity, they represent three races. One of them is African, another Asian, and another European. Nice thought, but who knows? Others claim that there were 12 Magi.
And what about Mary and Joseph? Do we know any more about them? We know their names from the gospels. Tradition suggests that Mary was about 15 or 16 when she gave birth to Jesus. That is only based on the age when girls gave birth in that era. She was a virgin—a belief we hold because that’s what the Scriptures clearly say.
Was she always a virgin? Some Christians believe that Mary did not give birth to Jesus in the normal way. They believe that Mary miraculously delivered Jesus without birth pains and left her still a virgin. She then always remained a virgin. Yet the Scriptures say clearly, “she gave birth to her firstborn son” (Luke 2:7), and the simplest way to understand that is she gave birth in the normal way any woman gives birth.
Did Mary have other children? Matthew records that the mother and brothers of Jesus wanted to speak to Jesus (Matthew 12:46-49). He later even names them: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas—not to be confused with Judas Iscariot (Matthew 13:55). Were they sons of Mary and Joseph? The debate continues. Some believe that they are later children of Mary and Joseph. Others believe they were children of Joseph by a previous marriage, and still others believe that they were cousins or other relatives. Depending on which of these opinions you adopt, Joseph may have been an old man with grown children or a man who loved Mary and had a normal marriage after Jesus was born.
Of all these opinions and traditions the only sure information comes from the gospels. It may not satisfy our curiosity, but it is enough. We believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is our Lord (Explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed). We need no other information no matter how curious we may be.
John Braun is executive editor of Forward in Christ.
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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015
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