The narrative of the birth of Jesus is one of the most famous stories in all of history. Yet much of what we believe about the event is rooted in folklore and popular tradition than in biblical scholarship.
To help you better appreciate the narrative, here are nine things you should know about the Christmas story:
1. Throughout church history, the date of Jesus’s birth has been proposed on numerous days, including March 21, April 15, and May 20. Since the fourth or fifth century, though, Christians have traditionally dated the Annunciation—the angelic announcement of Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:28-37—as having occurred on March 25. Since pregnancy lasts approximately nine months from the date of conception, the church settled on Jesus’s birthday as December 25.
2. Most modern translations say that Mary gave birth and laid Jesus in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn or guest house. But as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson argues, the end of Luke 2:7 should be translated as “because they had no space in their place to stay.” As Carlson says, “The problem facing Joseph and Mary in the story was not that they were denied a particular or well-known place to stay when they first arrived, but that their place to stay was not such that it could accommodate the birth and neonatal care of the baby Jesus.” The result would be that the birth of Jesus occurred in the main room of the house—likely belonging to relatives of Joseph—rather than in the couple’s smaller marital apartment attached to the house.
3. Although the presence of the manger (i.e., a trough for livestock to eat from) might seem to suggest a barn, it was common for mangers to be kept in the main room of village houses during this time period, New Testament scholar Michael Kruger says. Animals were often housed with the human residents of the home just a few feet away in an adjacent room.
4. The inclusion of the manger and swaddling clothes in the nativity story appears to have a two-fold significance. First, as Peter Krol explains, this detail provided for the shepherds corroboration of what the angel said. Within the brief narrative we have a fact (the baby was laid there [Lk. 2:7]), the prediction (the angel said they’d find him there [Luke 2:12]), and the testimony (the shepherds did in fact find the baby Jesus there, just as they were told [Luke 2:1]). Second, as Peter Leithart says, “The baby in swaddling cloths…