Everyone knows the story of the birth of Jesus: Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, they checked all the hotels but all rooms were sold out, they then came across kindly strangers who offered to allow them to stay in their barn, and there Mary gave birth to Jesus. Shepherds and wise men both converged on the scene to celebrate. It is a nice story, but almost everything about it is false.
The birth account of Jesus is found in only two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke). Those two accounts are very divergent in themselves. They almost replicate no information between each other. They do fit together, however, if they are understood as they are written.
According to the book of Luke, Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth when they decide to travel to Bethlehem for a Roman census. While in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus. The text of Luke says that Mary wrapped Jesus in cloth and placed him in an animal feeding trough because there was no room for them in the inn:
Luk 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Modern readers are quick to think that the word “inn” means a hotel, like Holiday Inn or the Marriot Inn. But this is not the word being used. That meaning does not make sense in context either. Joseph is traveling to a city from which he has relatives. He stays in this city for some time, waiting for the census to be accomplished. It is supposed he checks for motel rooms, and after not finding any he decides to sleep in a barn for weeks until Mary gives birth. That is not how the story goes.
Instead “inn” is the word for guestroom. In Luke 22:11, this “guestroom” is used for the place of the house where Jesus has his last supper. Guestroom was a part of any house reserved for guests. When Luke 2:7 says that there was no room in the guestroom, Joseph is at a relative’s house. Every Christmas all of America experiences the same thing: too many relatives are staying in one location and not everyone gets the nice bed. Joseph and Mary never checked for a hotel, instead their extended family called dibs on the nice places to sleep at a relative’s house. It is that or because they were expecting the birth they wanted more floor space for convenience. In this case, the relocation would be voluntary.
Furthermore, Joseph and Mary were not forced outside to have Jesus in a barn. In the modern world we think of great red barns when we think of farmers. The animals live in nice pens, and the farmer sleeps in some sort of white farmhouse. But in ancient times, farmers lived with their animals. Animals provided warmth at night. And rural peasants could not necessarily afford a second structure dedicated just to animals. The farmer lived where they worked and worked where they lived.
Part of the Joseph’s relative’s house was reserved for animals. It is this part of the house in which Mary gave birth. The text points to this. It says “Mary laid Jesus in a manger [animal feeding trough] because there was no room in the guestroom”. Mary had to relocate to a different part of the house to have Jesus. The nearest place to lay a newborn baby was a small structure filled with hay: the manger.
After Mary gives birth, Luke describes how shepherds come and worship him. There is no mention of the wise men so common to modern depictions. And there is a good reason for this: the wise men did not visit for another year or so. Matthew’s account does not detail the birth of Christ, but instead events soon after.
When the wise men first come to Judea, this is to find the already born “King of the Jews”. The star apparently appeared as Jesus was being born and it takes the wise men quite some time to travel to Jesus’ location. The text refers to Jesus as a “young child” several times. This is the same word for when the young children approached Jesus in his later ministry. Young child meant anything from toddler to teenager.
This is the age of Jesus when he met the wise men. The text does not talk about the shepherds or the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. All of these things are assumed to be in the past. Jesus was born long before, and seems to have continued living in Bethlehem for several years before he moved to Egypt (fleeing those who wish to harm him).
Because Jesus was born at the appearance of the star, this is why Herod kills all children less than 2 years of age. Herod wanted to kill his rival “King of the Jews” who had already been born sometime before. They were seeking a child aged between a newborn and a toddler.
The last misunderstanding is commonly known. Although various renditions of Jesus’ encounter with the wise men show only three wise men, the precise number of wise men is unknown. It is just assumed that there are three wise men because they present three types of gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, three wise men are shown offering the gifts. The mother of Brian shows hesitance at the myrrh but accepts the frankincense and gold. In ancient times, all three of these gifts were valuable commodities. Each wise man might have presented a little from one or more categories (along with unnamed presents) or multiple wise men might have presented duplicate gifts (no one has ever complained about getting two or more gifts of cash for Christmas). The number of gifts does not limit the number of wise men.
Compounding the problem, in later accounts the three wise men are named and given backstories (Melchior, Jaspar, and Balthazar). This helped cement the image of three wise men in Christmas stories. But the names and number of wise men can most definitely be described as later embellishments of the account in Matthew.
The Real Story
If the accounts in both Matthew and Luke are correct, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for a census. They stay with a relative for a time, but because too many people were staying over (or Mary needed more birthing space) they sleep with the animals in the main part of the house. When Mary finally gives birth to Jesus they place Jesus in a feeding trough as shepherds come to worship. Joseph decides to stay with his relatives for some time in Bethlehem, and within a couple of years a group of wise men appear to worship and give gifts. Joseph is then warned that Herod wishes to harm Jesus, and Joseph moves to Egypt (financed by the wise men). It doesn’t make for a good Hollywood depiction of Jesus’ birth, but that is how the text reads.