The Christmas Story

Tradition and Scripture



Tradition is as natural as vines growing on a building - vines which begin as small tendrils climbing walls until they completely cover what is underneath.  So it is with tradition.  With time it can completely cover the "building" of truth with the result that all you begin to see is only tradition, and you slowly lose sight of the original truth.  Let's see how this principal has occurred with the Christmas story.  We will discover at least three kinds of tradition - ecclesiastical, legendary, and rationalistic.


The Time of Christ's Birth:

Tradition says Jesus was born on December 25, 0001.  Scripture makes no reference as to the actual date or year.  There are some facts, however, which we know from Scripture and from history that can give us some clues.


  • Due to weather conditions, it would not be common for shepherds to be with their flocks in the fields at night during December (Luke 2:8), Flocks were generally moved to shelter beginning in October or November due to winter conditions.
  • The census referred to in Luke 2:1 would most likely have occurred in September or October after the harvest while travel was still good - before winter precipitation and cooler weather.  This would make sense in a largely agrarian society.
  • Matthew 2:1 indicates Herod the Great was still alive at the time of Jesus birth.  We know from history that Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 B.C.  So the time of Christ's birth had to be before that date.
  • Celebration of Jesus' birth is not mentioned in ecclesiastical records until 336 A.D.  This is largely because it was not the custom in those days to remember the birth of personages - only their death.  Although December 25 was made popular by Pope Liberius it did not become the rule until 435 A.D. when Pope Sixtus officiated the first "Christ Mass."  This coincided with the pagan Roman solstice festival celebrating the birthday of the sun-god, Sol, which festival was christianized.  (How ironic that just as the Church christianized a pagan solstice festival, now the world is paganizing the Christian festival of Christmas!)


As we can see, the choice of December 25 had nothing to so with Scripture but with a decision of the Western Church.  This is a good example of ecclesiastical tradition.  It could be reasonably guessed, however, that Jesus was born in the month of September or October in the year 5 or 6 B.C.


The Virginity of Mary:

According to Matthew 1:18-24, especially verse 18, Mary conceived not because of any human intervention but because of the Holy Spirit.  Ecclesiastical tradition begins to come into play at this point.  The RCC claims that Mary never had marital relations with Joseph, but Matthew 1:18 makes clear that she did just that after Jesus was born.  Scripture refers several times to Jesus' brothers and sisters.  The most natural understanding would be that these were children born to Mary and Joseph - although the RCC goes to great lengths to deny this due to their tradition regarding Mary's perpetual virginity.


Then there is what we could call rationalistic tradition.  Rationalists discount all supernatural events, so they perpetuate the tradition that Mary had to have relations with someone in order to give birth.  Consequently, they have invented all kinds of speculation as to who that might have been.


The Magi: 

Matthew 2:1-12 gives us the account of an unnumbered group of magi/astrologers from the East who came looking for the King of the Jews.  Legend has created the number of these magi as three because they came bearing three kinds of gifts, gold, incense and myrrh - a faulty assumption.  In fact, some six-hundred years later legend had grown to the point that the magi were given names!  This is a perfect example how tradition tends to obscure the facts with inventive embellishments.  We still sing "We Three Kings of Orient Are" when they were neither three nor kings!  This is how stubborn tradition is. It is repeated even though we know better!


There is much speculation as to the magi's answer to Herod's question about the time the Star appeared to them - two years prior to their coming to Jerusalem, Matthew 2:7, 16. Herod assumed the child King of Jews would be two years or less, so he killed all of Bethlehem's boy babies two years and under.  Was Jesus two years of age when the magi came?  It must be remembered that we do not know how long it was before the magi began their journey after they saw the Star, nor do we know how long it took them to make their journey.  Therefore, we cannot be certain what age Jesus was at the time the magi visited the house where he was living.


The Star:

Regarding the Star these magi saw, rationalists have created an elaborate tradition you will hear every Christmas if you visit the Adler Planetarium - or other similar venues. Because rationalists cannot accept anything supernatural - such as a star going ahead of the magi leading them to Bethlehem - they say the Star of Bethlehem must have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn happening about the time Jesus would have been born - 7-6 B.C.  Some speculate that the Star may have been a supernova.  Of course, none of these naturalistic speculations can explain the Star's specific movement which led the magi to the house where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were living.


The Manger Scene:

At Christmastime all over the world you will see the manger scene with shepherds, wise men (magi), and various animals positioned around a stable with Joseph and Mary adoringly contemplating the baby Jesus.  The only problem with this legend is that Matthew 2:11 will not let us get by with that scenario since the text plainly says the magi were led by the Star to a house to which the little family had moved.  So, the shepherds and magi could not have been there at the same time.


The Stable:

In Israel at that time wood was rare and costly.  It would have been highly unlikely for wood to have been used to build a stable for animals; however, most manger scenes depict a wooden stable.  Around Bethlehem there are several natural caves which would have made suitable stables.  Most likely it was one of these where Jesus was born.  Also, archeologists have found stone mangers as they have excavated ancient sites.  Very possibly Jesus' manger was made of stone since limestone in Israel is superabundant.


The Angels' Song:

As much as we would like to think that the angels sang the message found in Luke 2:13,14, the text simply states they praised God and said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."  As we can see, much of the tradition we have come to believe as fact is based on assumptions and not on the text.



Hopefully the above examples will be enough to convince us that we are prone to accept tradition as fact - even though the text does not support that tradition.  But such is the nature of tradition: it seems to be part of our nature to want to embellish a story.  Much of the tradition surrounding the Christmas story is innocent and does not appreciably change the content.  Unfortunately, however, some tradition actually changes what the text states and does harm to the facts regarding what happened when Christ was born.


Even time we read the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke, we need to thank God for the way He has preserved the text written by these dear brothers of the faith.  When I read about the traditions that have grown up around the Christmas story, I am constantly amazed at the simplicity and forthrightness expressed by Matthew and Luke.  Having been contemporaries of the events, we can have the utmost confidence in the accuracy of their reporting.  Those who invent tradition do so hundreds of years after the fact.


I especially appreciate Luke's own record of the care by which he gathered the facts of Jesus life: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.", Luke 1:1-4. 


We are blessed to have certainty of that which we believe because we have in our hands the eyewitness accounts of exactly what happened from the beginning of Jesus life to the end.  Regarding the birth of Jesus, it is my conviction that one of those giving an eyewitness account of Jesus' birth was none other than Mary herself.  I believe this because of the phrase Luke records in Luke 2:19, 51: "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."  How did Luke know Mary treasured all of these wonderful memories of Jesus' birth in her heart?  I believe she told him since Luke states himself he received the account of things which transpired by means of eyewitnesses.