Get Those Wise Men Out of the Stable!

The nativity stories don’t make any sense at all

Tis the day before Christmas, so what better time to take a close look at the nativity stories? If only we could get faithful church-goers to do the same. They could see that the church has been getting away with far too much. A couple of months ago I visited a church in a town near Milan. I found all the usual imagery, including, near the entrance—off to the side in the shadows—the traditional Nativity Scene, which included the Three Wise Men kneeling before the baby Jesus asleep in the manger. 


No: this is not what we find in the gospels. I wonder: if you ask Christians coming out of church: “Where do we find the stories of the birth of Jesus?” …how many could tell you? Actually, the birth event itself is mentioned only once, in Luke 2. In Matthew 2, we find a description of what happened some time later. Let’s take a close look at both.


Matthew 2:1-12 


Here—and only here—do we find the so-called wise men. And these twelve verses swarm with difficulties, improbabilities, absurdities. The King James translators came up with “wise men” as a translation of the Greek word magi. Matthew seems to have meant by this word Zoroastrian priests who specialized in astrology. He wanted his readers to know that there was a sign in the heavens that Jesus had been born, and that foreign priests had come to pay him homage; Matthew was doing his job as propagandist for the Jesus cult. Hence, to this day, we have the iconic images of a star over the stable, and regally dressed visitors offering gifts to an infant. 


But, oh dear, this is not a best practice! Does Christian theology really want to enlist support from astrology? Given the popularity of horoscopes in daily newspapers, many Christians would not sense the contradiction—nor do they realize that this ancient superstition has been falsified. Buttressing theology with astrology is a thoroughly bad idea. And it gets even worse. The magi saw the star, and set out to find the child. They ended up in Jerusalem, wanting to know where this “new king of the Jews” could be found. On what basis could they have surmised this precise information—that the star indicated the birth of Jewish king? Why would they have cared? But these are pointless questions because Matthew was writing a fantasy piece for his target market. And the fantasy got even better…or worse. The magi were told that this new king would be born in Bethlehem, and then the star—as Robert M. Price has pointed out—turned into Tinkerbelle, a GPS that guided them to Bethlehem, where it “stopped over the place where the child was.” 


Now readers must pay very close attention. That “place” is called a “house,” and Jesus is referred to as a “child.” The word for house, oikian is found also in Matthew 7:24, “a wise man who built his house upon rock,” and Matthew 8:14, “When Jesus entered Peter’s house.” Not a stable.The word for child, paidion, is also used by Matthew at 18:2, “He called a child, whom he put among them.” While Luke also used paidion to refer to the baby in the manger, Matthew could very well have had Jesus as a toddler in mind. Remember that, at the opening of the story, we read, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah,” the wise men made their way—from some distant place—to  Jerusalem to find out where they could find the child, and some time later were sent on their way, following the Tinkerbell star, with orders from King Herod to report back to him. It was when they decided not to, that Herod ordered the massacre of children in the Bethlehem area “who were two years old or younger, according to the time he had learned from the wise men.” So Matthew’s magi were seeking a boy under two years of age. This author certainly had no intention of presenting the wise men showing up at a stable the night Jesus was born. So get them out of the stable!


There are, moreover, major plot flaws in Matthew’s fantasy story. Why have the star guide the wise men only after they’d left Jerusalem? If God was paying attention—playing an active role in these events—why didn’t the star lead them directly to Bethlehem, and thus avoid arousing the anger of Herod? And how in the world does a star “stop over the place where the child was”? Christians seem to love the imagery of the star gleaming over the stable, but doesn’t that look too much like “Christmas by Disney”?  


Let’s review another of Matthew’s bad habits, and here again, readers must pay very close attention. Matthew searched the Old Testament for texts that—for him—could only have meant Jesus, but he was a Christian theologian on the hunt. We flinch at his fondness for taking verses out of context:


Matthew 1:23: “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14, a chapter that has nothing whatever to do with Jesus. 


Matthew 2:6: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.” This is a loose quote of Micah 5:2, in which a besieged Israel is promised deliverance by Yahweh. This might have made sense to Matthew, since Israel was under the boot of Roman rule, but his theology was delusional. If Micah had meant Jesus, he could have said so. And, of course, the prophecy as applied to Jesus was dead wrong: he never became a ruler to govern Israel. Matthew’s theology was mistaken in the hope that Jesus would soon initiate the kingdom of Yahweh on earth.


Matthew 2:18: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” Here Matthew plucked a verse at random from Jeremiah 31:15, to indicate that the ancient prophet had predicted Herod’s slaughter of children in and around Bethlehem. The prophet, however, had the suffering at his own time in mind.


Matthew 2:23: “And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” This is a reference to Joseph moving the family to Galilee after the return from Egypt (more about that next). Matthew here has indulged in feeble wordplay: because a couple of words sounded similar, he felt it could be construed as a “prophecy.” The word from the Old Testament is Nazirite, and referred to men who had taken vows not to cut their hair or drink wine, among other things, as signs of holiness. 


Matthew 2:14-15: “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’” That is, Matthew wanted his readers to know that, because of Herod’s murderous rampage, Joseph took Mary and the baby to safety in Egypt. On the very face of it, this story is absurd. Why Egypt, of all places? Please note that Matthew invented the story of Herod’s massacre (it is not mentioned in the other gospels, nor by any historians of the time). The farfetched story of the flight to Egypt is an invention as well. Why would Matthew tell such a tall tale? He wanted to use Hosea 11:1 as a prophecy about Jesus: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” But Hosea says explicitly that Israel was Yahweh’s son. No, he would not have been thinking about a guy named Jesus, several centuries later. However, our Christian theologian, Matthew, was lost in his fantasies that Jesus had replaced Israel as Yahweh’s son. 


Above all, moreover, the flight-to-Egypt story is totally out of sync with the birth narrative we find in Luke—so let’s get on to that.


Luke 2:1-20


Now back to that stable, where we find the manger for baby Jesus. But Luke doesn’t mention a stable, although it can be inferred. We read in Luke 2 that when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, the “time came for her to be delivered.” We all know that there was no room for them in the inn, so she “laid him in a manger,” i.e. a trough for feeding animals. VoilĂ , the stable. Shepherds showed up because an angel—accompanied by a heavenly host—had alerted them about the momentous event in Bethlehem (more Disney). When they saw the baby, “they made known what had been told them about the child.” 


Here again we bump into a plot flaw: “…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Had Luke forgotten about the long story he told in Chapter 1: the angel Gabriel had told Mary about the child she would bear: 


“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33)


Likewise, when the infant Jesus was presented at the Jerusalem Temple, a man named Simeon, made this declaration upon seeing Jesus:


“…my eyes have seen God’s salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)


How did Mary and Joseph react? “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” (Luke 2:33)


And then we see this stunning collision with Matthew’s story: “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” (Luke 2:39) No mention of Herod killing children, no flight to Egypt. Mary and Joseph just returned home. But Matthew had no idea they lived there! Here’s how he ended his tale of the trip to Egypt: 


“Then [Joseph] took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.”  (Matthew 2:21-23) 


In a way, Matthew had it easy: as far as he was concerned, Mary and Joseph already lived in Bethlehem. He didn’t have to come up with the contrived story of Joseph returning to his ancestral home for a census—from whence we get the Christian art depicting pregnant Mary riding on a donkey for ninety miles! Or as Luke puts it:


“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”  (Luke 2:1-4)


Yes, there was a census, but not when Luke said it was. These verses that we’ve heard since childhood are simply wrong. Here’s the analysis we find on Wikipedia:


“There are major difficulties in accepting Luke's account: the gospel links the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great, but the census took place in 6 CE, nine years after Herod's death in 4 BCE; there was no single census of the entire empire under Augustus; no Roman census required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors; and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee.”


It’s important to note, by the way, that Mark knew nothing of these birth narratives. The author of John’s gospel—the last to be written—for sure knew what Matthew and Luke had written, but decided to leave these stories out of his account. Just as he left out the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. The four gospel authors had different agendas, different theologies—and they set the precedent for the pattern that has prevailed ever since: Christian theologians disagree about Jesus and the god he supposedly represents.


What will it take to get the laity to read the gospels carefully, critically, with the same rigor that professional historians bring to the task? Even devout Christian scholars have acknowledged for a long time that the Jesus birth narratives fail as history. What does it say about a religion when it doesn’t tell the truth, when it keeps on hyping phony stories, hoping no one will notice? This should be a red flag: on a wide range of other theological issues, how much else is as shallow as the birth narratives? How much else have preachers, priests, and theologians just made up? We’re tempted to say, “Don’t go there!” —if the laity want to hold on to their faith. But actually they should.    




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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