Seven simple questions:
1. How did Mary get from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
2. What time of year was Jesus born?
3. What was the nature of the stable in which Christ was born?
4. How many wise men came to the stable where Jesus was born?
5. Were the wise men kings?
6. Whence came the wise men?
7. Did the wise men really follow a star from their homeland to Bethlehem?
1. Though Mary is typically depicted riding a donkey to the place where she gave birth to Jesus, the Bible is silent on her mode of transport. She and Joseph were extremely poor (offering the poorest of sacrifices at her purification ceremony; see Luke 2:22-24 and cf. Leviticus 12:10-8), so they may not have owned a donkey. Though pregnant, Mary may have walked the roughly 100 miles separating Nazareth from Bethlehem.
2. Though 25 December has long been held to be the Savior’s birthday, as reflected in various Christmas hymns (“on a cold winter’s night that was so deep”), this is impossible. The shepherds were watching over their sheep outdoors at night (Luke 2:8), which only happens in the spring, when the lambs are being born. This enables them to assist any ewes who were having difficulty delivering and also to protect the newborns from predators. Though snow occasionally falls in the Bethlehem area during winter, it is rare. During my 8+ years residence in Israel, we took the BYU students to a hill overlooking Bethlehem from the north in both early April and mid-December, but only saw sheep and shepherds during springtime.
3. The Bible does not mention a stable, only the manger (feeding-trough) in which the newborn baby was laid (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). Mary and Joseph evidently stayed in an area where animals, most likely sheep, were (and still are) kept. That would usually make it a cave with a low stone wall around the outside to protect the flock during the night-time, when predators would be hunting. Such caves are still used by shepherds in the Bethlehem area and records going back as early as the second century AD indicate that the Savior was born in a cave. Portions of that cave still exist and can be seen beneath two adjacent churches in Bethlehem.
4. The Bible never specifies the number of wise men. It was the three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) that suggested they may have been three. Some early traditions suggested eight or twelve. But they did not come to a stable. By the time the wise men came to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were living in a house (Matthew 2:11). It is likely that they arrived as much as two years after the birth of Jesus. They came first to the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem, where they inquired of the king whose star they had seen. The king asked when the star appeared and, based on that information, he ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:1-2, 7, 16). This suggests that the child was about two years old or less. Two years earlier, the shepherds came to see a “babe” (Luke 2:12, 16; the Greek term means “newborn”), while the wise men came when Jesus was a “young child” (the Greek word denotes a toddler; Matthew 2:8-9, 11, 13-14).
5. The Greek text of Matthew calls them magoi, which derives from the term denoting priests in the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia. The idea that they were kings derives from later messianic readings of Isaiah 49:7 and 60:3-7. For this reason, John Wycliffe, when preparing the first English translation of the New Testament in 1382, rendered the Greek magoi (King James “wise men”) of Matthew 2:1 as kyngis, “kings.” One tradition holds that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem on 6 January, which is hence called “the festival of the kings.” In some European nations, this is the day when people receive Christmas presents, in honor of the gifts of the magi.
6. Matthew 2:1 merely says they came “from the east,” which would make sense if they were from Persia. The fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, as well as later Roman Catholic liturgy, cited verses 10, 11, and 15 of Psalm 72 as evidence that the alleged three kings were from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba, identified in medieval times with Spain, Ethiopia, and Arabia (Proof of the Gospel 5.4). The inclusion of Ethiopia explains why one of the wise men is usually depicted as black. Another passage cited as a prophecy of kings coming to Christ is Psalm 68:29, “Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee.” Verse 31 reads “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” which was used as evidence that one of the wise men was from Africa.
Christian writers of the sixth century AD suggested that the “three” wise men represented the three major “races” of the Mediterranean basin, descending from Noah’s sons, Shem (the Semites), Japheth (the Europeans), and Ham (the Hamites or Africans), thus representing all mankind. There are, of course, obvious problems with this view, both in the fact that the wise men came to Bethlehem together and that none of the three countries is east of Judea, Christ’s birthplace. Moreover, Matthew 2:12 informs us that “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” Had they come from different lands Matthew would have used the plural “countries.” Some early depictions of the wise men show them wearing Persian-style caps.
7. The Bible does not say they followed the star from their homeland, only that they saw it in the east (Matthew 2:1-2). Indeed, they initially came to Jerusalem, to the palace of King Herod, where one would expect a “king of the Jews” to be born (Matthew 2:2). It was only after they left Herod’s palace, intending to go to Bethlehem as the king had advised them (Matthew 2:4-8) that they again saw the star, which “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9). Some early Christian traditions held that this was an angel in the guise of a star. Angels or “sons of God” are compared to stars in a number of biblical passages (Job 38:7; 14:12; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 1:20; 12:4, 7; Jude 1:13) and in early various pseudepigraphic texts, and even the fallen angels are so designated.