1. It Didn't Happen in December
Jesus probably wasn't born on December 25th. In fact, he most likely wasn't born in December at all. The bible mentions shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. It's cold in Israel in December; the fields would have been unproductive and the sheep were probably corralled. Shepherds usually only kept their flocks in the fields during the spring lambing season.
So how come Christmas is now associated with December 25th? The earliest known estimates dating Christ's birth come from Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 200). He mentioned different groups who identified the date of Christ's birth as March 21st, April 15th, April 21st, or May 20th. The first mention of Christ's birthday being in December wasn't made until the mid-fourth century, when a Roman almanac listed December 25th as natus Chistus in Betleem Judae - "Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea."
A popular theory about the origin of Christmas is that early Christians stole the date from a Roman Sun Festival, which was held during late December. It's thought that this was a deliberate ploy to spread Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. However, this theory has numerous problems, as early Christian writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian make no mention of this. It has been proposed that December 25th, a time of pagan feasts, wasn't deliberately chosen until the 12th century. While this is a popular theory, scholars still have serious issues with it.
The question that remains is: Why December 25th? Tertullian recorded a calculation that the date of Jesus' birth was March 25th. This was later celebrated as a feast commemorating Christ's conception, not his birth. Furthermore, it was suggested that Jesus died on March 25th, which led to the belief that he was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. December 25th is nine months after March 25th, so it was taken to be Jesus' birthday. However, many scholars believe that Christ wasn't even born in December.
2. There Wasn't an Inn
We've all heard the story about there being no room at the inn. This is what the English bible says, but in the original Greek (the language the New Testament was written in), the word "kataluma", translated as "inn," doesn't necessarily mean a motel. It's only used a few times in the bible, and elsewhere it means "guest room" or "upper room." The famous Last Supper took place in a kataluma. In fact, in Greek, there's a different word for "inn" that does mean a motel or paid lodging, but it isn't used.
First-century homes often had a main room on the ground floor, where the family lived, and a "guest room" where people who needed lodging could stay. In the Middle East, it was considered extremely rude to refuse hospitality to someone in need. There is a very good chance that if there was no room in the guest room, it's because it was already occupied.
This changes the whole story we have come to celebrate. Rather than arriving in Bethlehem only to find the local motel was full, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and sought to lodge at a family member's house. However, because people were returning to their ancestral homes for the census, other family members had arrived already and were occupying the guest room.
3. There Wasn't a Stable
There's no mention of a stable in the bible's stories of the first Christmas. It's assumed that there was a stable as we're told that they "laid him in a manger." If there was a manger (an animal feeding trough), it must have been in a stable where the animals stayed, right? Probably not.
As mentioned above, there's a very good chance that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph's hometown, only to find the family guestroom taken. It would have been a great shame to turn away someone in need, especially a relative with a pregnant wife. Many families had mangers inside their homes, where young animals would be safe and warm. Some of them were built into the floor or occupied a small room on the main floor.
Since the guest room was occupied, Mary and Joseph were likely offered the manger, and it was there where the mother of Christ gave birth. Rather than being turned away by an old innkeeper and given lodgings in a dirty barn, Mary and Joseph were most likely in a relative's home, surrounded by loved ones, when Jesus was born and placed in a manger.
4. Mary Didn't Give Birth the Night She Arrived
In the Western version of the Christmas story, we get the impression that Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem just in time, and that she gave birth that very night. The reality is probably a lot less dramatic.
The actual account of the first Christmas is as follows, "And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son," The phrase "that her days were accomplished" is linked to "when they were there." This implies that they had been there for some time before she gave birth.
5. The Wise Men Didn't Arrive the Night Jesus Was Born
The Three Wise Men are a staple in every Nativity scene, each carrying a gift for the newborn king. Standing beside the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, they complete the story of the first Christmas. Or do they?
The bible says, "And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother." There are two things to notice about this statement: First, the wise men found the family in a house, not a stable. Second, the found a "child." The Greek word used is Paidon, which means "toddler," not brephos, or "baby," as in Luke 2:16.
6. The Wise Men Weren't Kings
"We three kings of orient" is sung every Christmas to celebrate the journey of the wise men, but were they really kings?
The Greek word used in Matthew 2:1 is magos. The word is primarily used to denote a member of a group of priests or wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. They were educated men, whose study included astrology, astronomy, and enchantment. It's sometimes translated as "wise man," or "magician." The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same word in the book of Daniel, where it describes that Daniel was made the "chief of the magicians."
This fits nicely with the Christmas story, where we're told that the wise men "saw his star in the east" and came to worship the baby. Magoi studied the stars and saw meaning in the celestial object that dominated the night sky at that time. Rather than being kings, it seems much more likely that the wise men were educated astronomers from the East.
7. The Shepherds Didn't Follow the Star
Many think of the shepherds as old men cradling lambs and standing in a stable with the star shining above, having just heard the angels sing. Many people believe that the shepherds followed the star to find the baby in a manger. However, this is just another traditional myth that has come to be associated with the first Christmas.
This misconception developed by the blending of two separate stories (the shepherds and the wise men) which occurred at different times. There probably wasn't a star floating above Bethlehem the night Jesus was born, as it didn't lead the wise men there for two years. The shepherds were said to have been directed by the angel to find the child by following two signs: "You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger." Using these clues, the shepherds went to look for the newborn king.
How would the shepherds find a baby in a town the size of Bethlehem? The answer is simple. Much like today, births in the first century were a big deal. If Mary gave birth in the home of one of Joseph's relatives, surrounded by family, the house would have been filled with much rejoicing. The shepherds were no doubt guided by the infant's cries and happy sounds of celebration.
8. Mary and Joseph Were Married When Jesus Was Born
Part of the scandal surrounding the birth of Christ was undoubtedly the claim of Mary's immaculate conception. It was this that even led to Joseph initially deciding to divorce her, rather than have her stoned to death for adultery as the law said. Here was an unwed mother, pregnant in a first-century religious community.
However, it isn't as clear-cut as this. Joseph and Mary were "betrothed," or engaged when they found out that Mary was pregnant. It's likely that they had signed a Jewish engagement contract known as a ketubbah. This was much more legally binding than our modern engagements and could only be broken by divorce.
Furthermore, after seeing a vision of an angel in a dream, Joseph got up "and took unto him his wife." So, in view of the average Jewish person in the first century, they were technically married, although they hadn't consummated it.