Here’s what you usually see and hear around Christmas time in our western culture attempt to depict the birth of Jesus some 2000 years ago: Joseph and Mary showed up at night in Bethlehem in response to a decree to return to their family’s hometown for a census. Mary was just about to give birth. She is often riding on a donkey. They went to the local travelers’ inn, but found no vacant rooms. The innkeeper allowed them to make do in the stable with the animals. When Jesus was born they wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in the manger – a feeding trough for the animals. A little later, after hearing from angels about the birth, shepherds came to the stable to worship Jesus. Three kings from a land farther east showed up and brought him gifts. The shepherds left and went around telling everyone they could about what they had seen and heard. It is usually not in the nativity story, but might be in some, that these kings, called wise men, were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod in Jerusalem, but to go home by some other route, which they did.
Some of that does not line up with the biblical accounts found in Matthew 2 and Luke 2. Neither passage tells of an innkeeper nor is it clear that the inn mentioned in Luke 2 refers to an actual traveler’s lodge. There is no mention of a stable, only that the baby was laid in a feeding trough. The shepherds part is usually pretty accurate – watching sheep in a field at night, visited and informed by angels, going to find the baby, worshipping, and going to tell others about it.
The other visitors were identified by scripture as magi. They were likely then, not kings. We don’t know how many there were. The number three probably comes from the three gifts mentioned. According to the Matthew passage they saw a “star” in the sky one night that they believed signaled the birth of new king in the land of Israel. They eventually sought his whereabouts by asking King Herod in Jerusalem. He asked specifically when they had seen the star and later in an attempt to kill Jesus, had all the boys killed in the area who were two years old and younger – according to the time the magi reported having seen the star – apparently, around two years earlier! When they found Jesus, he was with his parents in a house, not a stable. The term for the child is not that used of an infant, but rather a young child. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod as he had instructed them, so they went home another way.
So what really happened? Well, we just don’t know all the details for sure. It is clear, regardless of tradition, that the so-called wise men were not kings, did not show up at the birth, stable or otherwise, and Jesus was no longer a baby when they did show. It is clear from scripture that the only ones we know for sure who did go to see the newborn king were shepherds after they heard from angels about the birth. We know that Joseph did not find lodging wherever he expected to find it and when Jesus was born, he was laid in a feeding trough. Was that in a stable made of wood or a cave that served as a stable or was it merely in the lower level of a house where animals were kept? We don’t know. So, questions arise.
Well, since you asked, here’s what I think: Joseph and Mary did go to the local inn in Bethlehem, which they found full – no lodging room, no room in the guest chambers, no room in the inn – there is absolutely nothing in the biblical account that does not fit this scenario. The “inn” can be interpreted this way. IF it was an inn of this sort, it very likely would have been full. After all, those who suggest the couple would have sought lodging among Joseph’s family, tell us they had no room in their guest chamber either! It is more likely that an innkeeper could not have made room for them than for family not to have rearranged their sleeping arrangements! It seems to me that the whole idea of no room where one would normally hope to find room after traveling, is better suited to the traditional account. And of course, where there’s an inn, there would be an innkeeper!
So, finding no vacancy at the inn, they were afforded makeshift lodging in the stable used by guests of the inn. When Jesus was born, there would have been a manger handy. When the angels told the shepherds they would find the baby lying in a manger, it would not take much to find him IF he was in the inn’s stable. In a manger? That would mean in a stable or the lower floor of one of many houses in town. Much more logical that travelers would go to the inn and if the baby is in a manger, it would be in the inn’s stable! Hopefully, that would be the case, since the angels did not tell the shepherds anything more specific to help them and if that is not where he was born, they would have to search every house in town!
But they found him. Worshipped him. Then left to tell everyone they could about all they had seen and heard! And that’s where the nativity story ends. The wise men story came later. As much as two years later. This we know by the Matthew 2 passage. They likely were not kings, since they were identified as magi – astronomers, perhaps astrologers, eastern magicians of sorts, possibly teachers of astronomy, but certainly men who had studied the heavens watching and waiting for a sign that a new king was born in Israel. We are not sure why they would know to do so or even care to do so. I think through testimony handed down since the days of Daniel (check it out yourself). Regardless, they traveled to Jerusalem to inquire of King Herod about the birth and where to find the baby. He learned by questioning them when they had seen the star they believed had signaled the birth and later had all the boys in that region killed according to that time frame – two years old and younger. So they arrived between one and two years after the birth.
The scripture says they found a young child in a house with his parents after being guided by that same light they had seen earlier. So, not a baby, not a stable. Yes, it could have been the same house Jesus was born in if he had indeed been born in a house owned by one of Josephs’ relatives. But it also could have been such a house even if he was born in the inn’s stable. Or maybe a house Joseph procured later. Who knows? Who cares? It was a house. The magi found them, worshipped him and presented him gifts. Three different kinds of gifts – not necessarily just one of each and not necessarily one gift per man. We don’t know. So, we also don’t know how many magi there were. I figure a whole caravan may have travelled to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem – remember it took a long time! I doubt, though, that more than three or four went into the house with the gifts. It doesn’t really matter just so you know that the Bible does not say “we three kings of Orient are…”
So, why do we include three kings with the shepherds at the stable? A little bit of tradition and probably a whole lot of convenience. It is hard to put two years into a short nativity play, even harder in just a scene! Is it wrong? Well, of course it’s incorrect. Is it misleading? Somewhat, but it gives you the opportunity to make sure your kids and others know the scriptures. If misleading, is it then sinful? Only if your intent is to mislead or obscure the truth. Is saying 2 + 2 = 5 wrong? Yes. Is it misleading? Yes. Is it sinful? I don’t see how unless you insist it is right and you intend to mislead others away from the truth. Personally, I would try to tell the two stories as two separate stories, since that is what the Bible does. In fact, that is what I did! I wrote two separate children’s books – “Twas the Night Jesus Was Born” and “The Visit of the Magi.” You can check them out and buy them at http://www.twasthenightjesuswasborn.com.