We hear the Bible’s accounts of Jesus birth from Matthew and Luke a lot this time of year. Those accounts are so familiar that sometimes we assume there is nothing new to be gleaned from them. But here are 10 things you may not have known about the Bible’s Christmas stories.
- Around the year AD 200, a Christian historian named Julius Africanus asked Jesus’ living relatives why the genealogies of Christ in Matthew and Luke are slightly different. According to the historian Eusebius, the relatives explained that Joseph’s lineage included a Levirate marriage—the Old Testament practice by which the brother of a man who died childless would marry the widow and father a child that was legally considered the descendant of the deceased man. One of the Gospels apparently follows the biological line and the other the legal line, according to Josephus.
- The genealogy in Matthew includes some outcasts and notorious sinners—reminding us that at times God accepts and uses unlikely people to accomplish His purposes. Bathsheba and David committed adultery. Then David murdered Bathsheba’s husband in an attempt to cover up his sin. Rahab was a prostitute. Judah fathered Perez and Zerah through an act of sexual immorality. And Ruth was part of a people (the Moabites) who originated from an act of incest. Who would have thought God could use such people to establish the earthly family of His Son?
- Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem to participate in a census ordered by the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. The King James Version’s explanation that they travelled to Bethlehem to be “taxed” might lead to confusion among some modern readers, though the census was for tax purposes.
- The words “all” and “entire” are used 23 times in Luke 1-2, highlighting the universal scope of God’s offer of salvation through Christ and the massive number of mighty acts God performed surrounding His birth.
- Jesus was born prior to 4 BC. We know this because Herod the Great, the Roman-supported king in Judea who tried to kill baby Jesus, died in 4 BC. Our calendar begins classifying years as AD (Latin for “in the year of the Lord”) too late because of a calculation error in the Middle Ages.
- Luke’s account stresses God’s record of keeping promises, highlighting this theme in the life of almost every character who appears in the birth narrative. For instance, Mary is promised that she will bear the Messiah, the shepherds are promised that the Savior has been born, and Simeon is promised that he will see the Messiah before he dies.
- The Bible does not record a single word spoken by Joseph. Some have quipped that he is always asleep when pictured in the Bible, since Matthew twice records an angel appearing to him in a dream.
- “Star gazers” or “magicians” are better descriptions of the magi than “wise men.” And a star was not the only guide they had in finding the baby Jesus. Matthew says the star guided then as far as Jerusalem, where they learned that Scripture foretold the Jewish Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. Having received this guidance from God’s Word, the star again guided them until they reached the house in Bethlehem where Jesus and His family were lodging (Matthew 2:11). The magi did not visit Jesus at the manger, as is often depicted in nativity scenes.
- Some scholars believe the wise men were from the Parthian Empire, an ancient kingdom stretching from modern-day Turkey to Iran that warred with Herod the Great before he claimed the throne in an attempt to install its own King of the Jews. Perhaps Herod, along with “all Jerusalem,” was “troubled” at the wise men’s arrival (Matthew 2:3) because Parthians had again come speaking of a competing king.
- Luke never says the angels heralding Jesus’ birth sang. Rather, they were “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest’” (Luke 2:13-14). For that matter, we don’t know that Mary sang her famous Magnificat either. Luke 1:40 tells us that she “said.”
If we think we have mastered the Bible’s Christmas narratives, odds are we need to think again. Scripture is so rich and extra-biblical traditions are so plentiful that it can be difficult for even longtime followers of Jesus to sort out all the facts surrounding His birth.