Mythology of the Mean Innkeeper

“The Christmas portions of the gospels are at once the most beloved and the most mythologized texts in the New Testament. Like works of art that have been lacquered with coat after coat of varnish, the details of the original stories are sometimes hard to see clearly. In the last few posts I suggested that a close reading of Matthew’s account (chapter two) reveals that the star may be something entirely different than a comet or supernova or planetary conjunction, as is so often taught.

Today we turn to Luke’s account, famous for spawning a zillion nativity scenes with kids clothed in bathrobes and towels around their heads. The most obvious misreading of this text lies in the portrayal of an unmentioned innkeeper who heartlessly turns away the poor couple and forces them to find a stable.

Where did they stay in Bethlehem? Luke tells us that after the birth, Mary put the baby in a “manger,” or feeding trough, because there was “no room for them in the καταλυμα – kataluma” (Luke 2:7). While this term was translated as “inn” by the KJV, Luke elsewhere uses it to mean a “guest room” (Luke 22:11, the site of the Last Supper). When Luke does wants to speak about an inn, he the Greek word πανδοχειον – pandocheion (Luke 10:34, in the parable of the Good Samaritan).

Thus, Luke says nothing about Joseph and Mary being denied access to an inn and Mary having to bear the child in a barn. Historically, it is far more likely that Mary and Joseph had their child in the humble back portion of the ancestral home where the most valued animals were fed and housed, because the guest room in the family home was already occupied. In any case, Bethlehem was such a small village that it is not even clear it would have had a wayside inn. Admittedly, Jesus’ beginnings were humble, but we don’t need to mythologize them into a story about a pregnant Mom being cast out by a heartless innkeeper.

You probably know that by conflating the two separate accounts of Matthew and Luke, Nativity sets for years have included the Magi with the shepherds in that stable scene. It is obvious that Matthew states that they came to a house, not to a stable (Matt. 2:11).

I am not trying to be α cynical ‘‘Grinch,” and yes, our own Nativity set does contain the Magi! I am just asking us all to base our beliefs on the actual text of Scripture and not on centuries of religious paintings and a translation that could be improved!”

-Dr. William Varner, Complements of:

Matthew and the Young Messiah

“The following sections are five slides from a power point presentation that I give at Christmas. I focus on the way that Matthew develops the four sections of his Nativity account. Maybe it will stimulate your thinking.

I. The Four Sections of Matthew’s Nativity

These four “pericopes” are each anchored by the fulfillment of an OT statement:

Matt. 1:18-25 (Joseph) Isaiah
Matt. 2:1-12 (Magi to Bethlehem) Micah
Matt. 2:13-18 (family to Egypt) Hosea & Jeremiah
Matt. 2:19-23 (to Nazareth) the prophets

II. The Repeated Pattern in Each Section

1. A Temporal Introduction “when” “after”
2. The word “behold” (ἰδού)
Matt 1:202:1,92:132:19
3. Appearance of an angel (φαίνω)
Matt 1:202:792:132:19
4. A Command
Matt 1:202:82:132:20
5. Instruction in a “dream” (κατ’ ὄναρ)
Matt 1:202:122:132:19
6. An OT Passage “Fulfilled” (ἵνα πληρωθῆ)
Matt 1:22-232:5-62:1517-182:23 (2:5 was a direct fulfillment)

III. Was the Star an Angel? Matt 2:1-12

Parallel with the other angelic “appearances” (Matt 2:7,9)

Stars are often symbolic of angels elsewhere in Scripture
(Job 38:7Isa. 14:12Rev. 1:209:1,212:4)

Many church fathers held this view: (Chrysostom, Theophylact, Thomas Aquinas).

Parallels better with Luke 2:8-14

IV. In and Out of Egypt Matthew 2:13-18 

Two “Fulfillments”

“Out of Egypt I called my son” Matt 2:15 / Hosea 11:1 (a typical fulfillment)
“Rachel weeping for her children” Matt 2:18 / Jeremiah 31:15 (an analogical fulfillment)

V. From Egypt to Nazareth Matthew 2:19-23 

One Fulfillment, Many Prophecies Matt 2:23 (a summary fulfillment)

“Nazareth” (Netzerat in Hebrew)
Netzer = “Branch” (Isaiah 11:153:2Jer 23:5)

Check out John 1:43-51 (“can anything good come from Nazareth?”)

Conclusion. The word “fulfill” means more than it does in a prediction/fulfillment paradigm. It bears the idea of “bring to its full meaning.” See this use in James 2:23….

[see also:] “A Discourse Analysis of Matthew’s Nativity Narrative,” Tyndale Bulletin, 58.2, 2007)”

-Dr. William Varner, Complements of:

The Mythology of the Magi (3) That “Star”

“With the OT background for the Magi that we examined yesterday, what help can also be found in the OT for the correct interpretation of the star? The supernatural character of this brightness is implied by being described as “his star” (Mt. 2:2). I suggest that this unique shining was the glory of God described so often in the OT as the visible manifestation of God’s presence (e.g., Ex.16:1024:16-1733:2240:34). Or it may have been a glorious angel!

The incarnation of the Son was a manifestation of God’s glory (“the glory of the Lord shone around them” Lk. 2:9; “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” Jn. 1:14). When we recognize this, it is easy to see how the choice of the word “star” was so appropriate to describe just such a supernatural and visible token seen only by a select number (the shepherds and the Magi). No wonder that “when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt. 2:10).

A variation of this view is that the star was an angel, a view advocated in the patristic comments on this passage, and a view I develop in an academic article on this passage in the Tyndale Bulletin. Stars are often symbolic of angels elsewhere in Scripture (Job 38:7Isa. 14:12Rev. 1:209:1,212:4). That an angel also served to guide in the OT can be seen in the following passages that use language quite similar to Matthew’s (Exo. 14:1923:202332:34). There was, therefore, a wonderful point of contact with the Lukan Nativity because glorious angelic guidance was for both shepherds and the Magi (Luke 2:9-14).

This glory was the glory which the aged Simeon recognized as he held that baby in his arms (Lk. 2:32). This was that glory that shone through the earthly tabernacle of Jesus’ body on the mountain of transfiguration (2 Pet. 1:17John 1:14), and it is that glory with which He shall come in great power (Mt. 25:31). Jewish people refer to the glory of God as the Shekinah – a later Hebrew word whose root idea is the concept of “dwelling.” The supernatural Shekinah inspired the Magi and directed their steps to the young Messiah.

As we have seen from a close reading of Matthew 2, there is indeed a “mythology of the Magi” that embodies questionable ideas about these men. There is also, however, some marvelous theology for us to see in their visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem so long ago. We just need to look at the passage through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures to see their real significance.

Download the free ebook, “The First Christmas,” from the Biblical Archaeological Society website. Read the chapter on the star by Dale Allison.

(The previous posts were freely adapted from my book, The Messiah: Revealed, Rejected, Received, which is available from AuthorHouse or on”

-Dr. William Varner, Complements of:

Mythology of the Magi (2)

“Yesterday we looked at a few myths surrounding the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem. We questioned the ideas about the sources of their knowledge of the star and the “King of the Jews” as lying in astronomical phenomena or in astrological “signs.” What is an alternative explanation for their knowledge?

It is possible that the oracles of Balaam served as the source for their expectation of a Jewish king. Of the four oracles delivered by that fascinating man from beyond the Euphrates River (Num. 22:5), the last is most expressive: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Num. 24:17). It is possible that the Magi from Persia had preserved the words of their “ancestor” Balaam and remembered his ancient prophecy when a “Star” did appear out of Jacob.

An even stronger source for the Magi’s scriptural knowledge comes from the Book of Daniel. In its Greek translation, one of the words translated “wise men” is the same as the Greek word used in Matthew 2 – magoi – ( 2:2,10,). These Magi in ancient Babylon served as a religious caste in the state religion. One of their functions was to interpret dreams — a role in which they failed miserably in Dan. 2:1-13. Note Dan. 2:13, “So the decree went out, and the wise men (Magi) were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them.” Therefore, Daniel and his three friends were associated with the Magi due to their God-given ability (Dan. 1:20-21). When Daniel accurately interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:17-45), he was rewarded with an even higher position among them: “Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men (Magi) of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48).

Consider also the amazing prophecy of the “seventy weeks” in Dan. 9:24-27. Verse 26 states that “Messiah (shall) be cut off” after a total period of 69 “sevens” (483 years). Therefore, Daniel’s book provides a timetable for the coming of the Messiah. This timetable from their leader must have been kept through the years by the Magi even after Babylon was conquered by the Persians.

There must have been a growing expectancy among the Magi as the years passed by. These Magi must have been watchful since the prophecy was originally given through one of “their own” many years before. Remember that a large Jewish community continued to exist in Babylon and Persia down through the centuries. They would have cherished Daniel’s prophecies and kept alive their hope.

Some have also suggested that one of the functions of the Magi was in the role ofking-makers. It was they who went through the ritual of crowning new kings in Babylon and Persia. This would also shed light on their desire to encounter the “King of the Jews” and to “worship him” (Mt. 2:2).

Now, what exactly was that “star” that led them? Come back tomorrow!”

-Dr. William Varner, Complements of:

The Mythology of the Magi

“The visit of the magi to the Child-Messiah, recorded in Matthew 2:1-12, is one of the most familiar biblical scenes to most Christians. The perception of this event has been unfortunately marred by a large number of popular misconceptions. Some of these derive from the popular song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Consider the following list of erroneous assumptions about the wise men:

1. They were three in number.

2. They were kings.

3. They were from the Orient (i.e, the Far East).

4. They were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

5. One of them was a black man.

6. They visited the baby Jesus in a stable.

7. They followed an astrological or astronomical phenomenon to Bethlehem.

All of these ideas compose what might be called the mythology of the magi. Some of the misconceptions can be corrected by simply reading Matthew 2:1-12. Others can be dispelled by a logical reading of the text giving attention to its Jewish background.

The idea that there were three kings named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar dates from medieval times, as well as the idea that one of them was black. No number of magi is mentioned by Matthew, but the fact that they presented three different types of gifts (“gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” in 2:11) probably gave rise to the traditional number.

Also, they are not called kings, but magi — a special caste of religious men in Persia which we will examine later. Matthew 2:1-2 says that they were from “the east.” In modern times we might think of lands like the Far East, but that is not the way the term was used in biblical language. The “east” was a region beyond the Euphrates River. This would be the area of ancient Persia — today, the countries of Iran and eastern Iraq. This would also argue against the idea that one of them was black, although this is remotely possible if one of them came from as far as India. Their names, of course, are purely traditional.

Far more prevalent is the idea, perpetuated by millions of nativity scenes, that the magi were present with their camels along with the shepherds at the manger of the baby Jesus. This idea conflates Matthew with Luke’s account, particularly Luke 2:15-20, and is refuted by statements in Matthew 2:1-16. First, we read in Matthew 2:1, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Furthermore, Matthew 2:11 states, “And going into the house (not a stable or cave), they saw the child … (paidion in Greek, not brephos, the word for ‘infant’ in Lk. 2:1216).” Jesus could have been as much as two years old, since Herod ordered all the boys from two and under to be killed (Mt. 2:716). Whatever age Jesus was at this time, He was definitely not a baby in a manger. He was a young child living with his parents in Bethlehem before their flight into Egypt (Mt. 2:13-15).

Most think that the magi were astrologers who had discerned through their stargazing that the sign of a Jewish king had appeared and that he had been born somewhere in Israel. While the magi may have engaged in some form of astrology, it is difficult to comprehend how God would communicate His will through a means He had so strongly condemned (Deut. 18:9-14Isa. 47:12-14). If we allow for such a method of divine communication, how can we condemn the utilization of astrology for fortune telling today? Others suggest that the magi had observed some unique astronomical phenomenon — a comet, a supernova, or a planetary conjunction. The astronomer Kepler observed in 1603 A.D. an unusual conjunction of planets and found that in 6 B.C. there had been an unusual conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Therefore, Kepler placed the nativity of Jesus at that time. Although this explanation has satisfied many, it does not explain the fact that the magi referred to “his star” (Mat. 2:2). Furthermore, it is difficult to comprehend how such an astronomical phenomenon could have moved to Bethlehem and how it “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mat. 2:9). If a comet had performed that feat, there would have been no house or town remaining from the heat!

Having evaluated some myths surrounding these interesting visitors, what can be concluded about their identity and their knowledge about the promised Jewish king? Furthermore, what was the nature of that wondrous “star” which prompted their long journey? There is no necessity to look beyond the sacred Hebrew Scriptures for a correct understanding of Matthew 2:1-11.

The next few days we will look at those Scriptures for some answers to these questions. Stay tuned!”

-Dr. William Varner, complements of: