Discover what Bible experts have to say about the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, the history of Christmas, the three wise men, the adoration of the magi, the star of Bethlehem, the date of Jesus’ birth, shepherds and angels at the nativity, the location of Jesus’ birth, the magi in art and literature and early Christian Christmas traditions.
The time-honored traditions of Christmas are dear to the hearts of Christians today. The story of the first Christmas recaptures the imagination as it is retold year after year in Bible readings, carols, Christmas pageants, live manger scenes and crèche displays, to name a few. Perhaps in the midst of all this, we might wonder what the story of Jesus’ birth meant to the earliest Christians. How did their story differ from the one we tell today, and what significance did they give to each member of the cast of characters?
Early and modern-day Christians alike have been captivated in particular by the three magi in the Christmas story. Author Robin Jensen tells us that early Christian art contains more representations of the adoration of the magi than of the infant Jesus in the manger. What key theological message did the early Christians see in the story of the magi? Jensen uncovers the answer by tracing the magi’s numerous appearances in art and literature from the period in “Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature.”
Perhaps the most mystifying part of the magi’s journey is the star that guides them. Scholars and astronomers have tried for some time to identify a celestial event that corresponds with the magi’s guiding star, in part because it would also pinpoint the date of Jesus’ birth. Where modern science fails to explain the mysterious star, Babylonian astronomy gives better clues in “The Magi and the Star: Babylonian Astronomy Dates Jesus’ Birth” by Simo Parpola.
Author Dale C. Allison, Jr. does not look to astronomy for an explanation of the magi’s star, though he does look heavenward. In “What Was the Star that Guided the Magi,” he suggests that another sort of celestial entity was the bright light that guided the magi’s journey to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
The star, tradition tells us, led the magi to the tiny Judean town of Bethlehem. However, many scholars of the New Testament have come to the conclusion that Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. Steve Mason’s “O Little Town of … Nazareth?” explores the the passages in the Biblical text that suggest Nazareth was Jesus’ birthplace.
Despite the belief held by some researchers that Jesus was born in Nazareth, other prominent New Testament scholars remain convinced that the first Christmas took place in Bethlehem. Jerome Murphy O’Connor supports the Bethlehem tradition using archaeology, the gospels and other ancient texts in “Bethlehem … Of Course.”
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