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Ruining Christmas: Do Popular Depictions of Jesus’ Birth Get It Right? (Bonus Section)

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.


Some people who challenge the truth of the New Testament gospels point out that the birth stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are extremely different. In fact, Bible-believing scholar Jonathan Pennington writes, “If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person” [1]. So, what are we to make of this?

First, each gospel writer had different themes and audiences in mind when writing, so they focused on different details. Different details aren’t the same as contradictory details. Something that’s contradictory is logically impossible. It’s an absurdity. In my wife’s retelling of a cupcake incident with our toddler daughter, she may give the detail that the cupcake was chocolate mint. In my retelling, I may not mention the flavor of the cupcake, but I’d certainly mention the icing on our daughter’s nose and cheek… and in her hair… and in her eye… and in her ear. Different, but not contradictory. Different, but complementary. A contradiction would be my wife saying that my daughter only ate a cupcake and me saying that my daughter only ate a double cheddar bacon burger.

Secondly, the Gospels have much more in common than they don’t. All four gospel writers focus on Jesus’ ministry and death, and then conclude with his resurrection from the grave, the bedrock of Christianity. (For example, see 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.) The authors may give different details surrounding Jesus’ birth, but all the key elements are shared: Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the virgin birth, announcements by angels, Jesus as a descendant of Abraham and David. Having two accounts of Jesus’ birth (and four gospels all together) is actually a benefit, not a liability, when we read them carefully and wrestle with these differences.

So, when we look at the two birth narratives together, what can be learned?

In Luke, we’re told the census is why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born and placed in a manger; the angels appear to the shepherds and they go to find the newborn Jesus; then, sometime after, Jesus was brought to the temple like a good Jewish boy (Luke 2:1–24).

In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem (no details about why—nor any details about a manger); the magi visit him; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape from King Herod to Egypt; then, they return from Egypt and settle in Nazareth (Matthew 1:18–2:23).

When we put all the puzzle pieces together, it seems clear to me that most of the birth events in Luke take place before the events in Matthew. Luke fills in a detail Matthew leaves out by telling us how Mary and Joseph end up in Bethlehem (because of the census) and tells us of the visit of the shepherds. Then, shortly after, Jesus is dedicated in the temple. According to Jewish religious law, this would’ve happened when Jesus was one or two months old (Leviticus 12:1–5). Sometime afterwards—as recorded in Matthew—the magi visit, followed by the escape to Egypt and the eventual return and settling in Nazareth.

I think this is reasonable. But maybe you noticed something that seems odd: I don’t have the magi arriving on the night Jesus was born. Where many of us are used to thinking of the visit of the “wise men” happening on the night Jesus was born, I think a chunk of time passed between the visit of the shepherds and the visit of the magi.


Did the magi come on the night Jesus was born? Latin America celebrates Three Kings Day twelve days after Christmas, and many churches celebrate Epiphany on January 6 to mark the arrival of the magi. So, did they not arrive on the night Jesus was born but days later? Or even months later? And while we’re asking questions: How many visited? Three? Or was it not three magi, but three kings? Or was it three wise guys from Staten Island? The answer is easy, right? After all, “We Three Kings” is a popular Christmas song.

Yet, the Gospel of Matthew only says that magi—non-Jewish religious leaders—visited Jesus. They’re “from the east,” (Matthew 2:1) but that’s all we’re told about their origin. Some theories have them coming from Persia, Babylon, or Arabia. “Magi” is where the English word magician comes from. It’s likely the magi were pagan priests who studied astrology, astronomy, and the occult. The New Testament makes no mention of any kings visiting the young Jesus.

Also, Matthew doesn’t report how many magi came. It could’ve been two; it could’ve been twenty. The idea of it being exactly three is so embedded into my consciousness from depictions of the Christmas story that it’s almost impossible to read that section of Matthew’s gospel without imagining the magi being three in number. The tradition of three magi likely arose from the three types of gifts brought by them: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

With this, we’re only told they arrived “after Jesus was born,” (Matthew 2:1) and we have reasons to suspect Jesus was not newly-born when they arrived. As I’ve studied the Bible, I’ve noticed that the writers don’t often mark the passage of time. Often events are recorded with no indication of how much time passed between them, so we may incorrectly imagine one event happening straightaway after the other, though a period of time sits between them. Though Matthew records the story of the magi right after Jesus’ birth, it doesn’t mean they arrived that night.

During their search to find this new king, the magi stop in Jerusalem. King Herod the Great, learning from the magi of the birth of the new king of the Jews, asks the magi to inform him when they have found him so he, too, could honor him. However, Herod secretly planned to kill him. The priests and religious experts tell the magi that, according to scripture, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2–5), so the magi go there next. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, after visiting Jesus, the magi return to their home country “by another way” (Matthew 2:12).

Learning that the magi had foiled his evil plot, Herod throws a tantrum (I always imagined him doing so, anyway) and—like a true super villain—orders all boys ages two and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed. Herod had questioned the magi about the exact time when the star had appeared that had brought them searching for this rival king (Matthew 2:7). So, it’s possible Jesus was around two-years-old since Herod gave orders to kill all boys ages two and younger. When the magi found him, Jesus is described as a “child.” Like English, the Greek word could mean either a baby or an older child. They also visited Jesus in a “house,” not a stable or cave—another detail to consider (Matthew 2:11). Keep in mind, the magi had no planes, trains, or Audis. Roman roads were a huge blessing to the ancient world, but they fell short of the glory of the New Jersey Turnpike. And we have no idea how far the magi traveled. It could’ve taken them months to get to Bethlehem.

Again, I hope this doesn’t ruin anyone’s Christmas, but that beloved nativity set passed down to you from your dear Aunt Gracie with the three wise men surrounding the newborn Jesus is most likely a sham. If it’s any comfort, your dear Aunt Gracie would want you to know the truth.


Evidence outside the New Testament definitely supports that Herod was capable of doing such a diabolical thing as commanding the murder of the male children of Bethlehem. Though a Jew in a religious sense, Herod was of Edomite descent and didn’t have any of the right credentials to be the Jewish king. He rose to power (and maintained power) in Judea because he and his father had powerful friends in the mighty Roman Empire, including Pompey, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor. As you can probably guess, Herod wasn’t popular with the Judean locals. People tend not to like foreign military powers occupying their land, and they like their local leaders appointed by those foreign powers even less. Herod was seen as a sell-out and fake Jew to many of the Jews he ruled over.

Not unlike his Roman friends, Herod was perfectly fine with using violence to protect his power, and he grew more paranoid with age. He killed his second wife, his firstborn son, his two sons from his second wife, his second wife’s grandfather, his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, several close friends, some pharisees, and his poor barber, who he had stoned and bludgeoned to death—and not because of a bad haircut [2]. When he had an idolatrous golden eagle placed over the gate of the Jerusalem temple, some faithful Jews tore it down, so Herod had the two ringleaders burned alive [3].

As both his physical and mental health deteriorated and death was approaching, Herod had distinguished men from throughout Judea gathered and shut up in the Hippodrome, a stadium he built to introduce chariot racing, criminal-versus-animal fights, and other pagan entertainment to Judea. He gave the order for all of these men to be slaughtered at the moment of his death so there would be mourning throughout the land instead of celebrating. Luckily, after he died, no one carried out the order [4].

Yet, he wasn’t all bad. Herod the Great was responsible for some of the most amazing architectural feats of the ancient world—but, yeah, he was still a nut. The wise men were wise to avoid him, and Joseph and Mary were wise to flee to Egypt with their infant or toddler (but not newborn) son. After Herod died, Jesus’ family headed back to Judea only to learn that Herod’s son Herod Archelaus was now in power and, thus, Joseph was “afraid to go there” (Matthew 2:22). Without further explanation, Matthew tells us they reset their GPS to Nazareth in Galilee.

This is all the gospels tell us about this situation, but we learn more about Herod Archelaus from a Jewish historian Josephus. Due to the tensions between the Jews and Romans, and still dealing with the fallout created by his extremely unpopular father, Josephus reports that Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at the temple during the Passover to quell a possible uprising. All this happened shortly after he came to power and promised—in perhaps the greatest unfulfilled political promise of all time—to be a kinder, gentler ruler than his father [5]. No wonder Joseph and Mary suddenly decided to avoid Judea.

Luke tells us Mary was from Nazareth (Luke 1:26), but nowhere are we told where Joseph lived. My guess is he was from somewhere in Judea because that’s where they were heading after Egypt (Matthew 2:22). So, where many are aware that Jesus was raised in Nazareth, this wasn’t where Mary and Joseph originally planned to raise him. Upon hearing about Archelaus, they detoured to Nazareth—north of Judea in Galilee with the land of Samaria between them—a safe distance away from those horrible Herods.


Many of us get used to hearing (or seeing) the stories of the Bible portrayed in particular ways, especially the most popular ones—Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale (or was it a big fish?), David and Goliath, and definitely the Christmas story. So, it’s good for us to go back to the primary source, see what it actually says, and imagine the story for ourselves. Doing so will bring to life passages that many of us have taken for granted, and it may lead us to seeing something new that we have overlooked dozens of times before.

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Kindle, Loc 1139.

[2] Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Writings, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1988), 250-251.

[3] Same as above, 252.

[4] Same as above, 252–253.

[5] Same as above, 255.


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