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Last updated: Sat. Dec. 22, 2012 - 08:43 am EDT


Were there three wise men? Did Mary ride on a donkey?

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Three wise men stood by the manger in the stable where the newborn baby Jesus lay just after being born to Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, while angels hovered above.

That's a pretty Nativity scene, but probably not an accurate historical account.

The Christmas story comes from biblical accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. And based on what is actually documented in the Bible, the unnumbered wise men were not at the manger scene in Bethlehem, the baby may or may not have been born at night and the Bible doesn't say whether angels were present at the site.

Those are just a few of the enhancements to the Christian story of the birth of the savior of the world. At a church service I visited last Sunday, the pastor and one of his parishioners presented an interesting, informative and often humorous question-and-answer session, addressing queries submitted by members of the congregation.

Among the questions was whether Mary road a donkey to Bethlehem from her home in Nazareth while being “great with child.” That's a popular picture in all the storybooks, but the Bible only says Mary and Joseph “went” to Bethlehem.

It was also explained that the scenario was not likely one in which Joseph was frantically seeking a vacancy in the local inns. The “inn” in biblical accounts translates as a guest room in a home. And it was explained that since Joseph was originally from Bethlehem and was a direct descendent of King David, it was likely he had family in town where he could stay and that he was well-known there and would not have been left to seek shelter in a stable. Actually, it has been shown that homes at that time had a place for animals on a lower level and provided mangers where occupants could feed their animals.

In all likelihood, although it is not spelled out in the Bible, the house's guest room (inn) was occupied, and Mary and Joseph had to stay in the living area near the manger where the baby could be laid. The town was filled with people, after all, since all the country was being taxed and citizens had to go to their places of birth to pay.

Also, knowing that Mary was pregnant, Joseph wasn't likely to have timed his trip to Bethlehem risking a delivery along the way, so the couple may have actually been in town for hours or days before the actual delivery occurred. Luke 2 says “while they were there.”

Yes, the angels announced the birth to shepherds in the fields, who themselves went to see the newborn. However, the Bible doesn't say whether angels were present at the manger scene. And the wise men sought out the babe probably a year or more after his birth and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (three gifts, thus the idea of three wise men).

Whether Mary rode on a donkey really doesn't dispel the beauty or truth of the story.

Kerry Hubartt is editor of The News-Sentinel.

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