Last year Andreas J. Köstenberger and I wrote an article for Christianity Today suggesting “5 Errors to Drop from Your Easter Sermon“:
- Don’t say Jesus died when he was 33 years old.
- Don’t explain the apparent absence of a lamb at the Last Supper by only saying Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb.
- Don’t say the same crowds worshiped Jesus on Palm Sunday and then cried out for his crucifixion on Good Friday.
- Don’t bypass the role of the women as witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
- Don’t focus on the suffering of Jesus to the extent that you neglect the glory of the Cross in and through the Resurrection.
Now Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, who co-authored the prequel/sequel The First Days of Jesus (see my foreword), have a new article in CT on “5 Errors to Drop from Your Christmas Sermon.” Here they are in outline form:
- Don’t add details that aren’t in the text.
- Don’t supply spiritual explanations for cultural practices to make them sound biblical.
- Don’t be embarrassed by the Jewishness of passages related to Jesus’ coming.
- Don’t be swayed by dubious challenges to the biblical witness to Jesus’ birth.
- Don’t get bogged down in trivia and miss the true significance of Jesus’ birth.
I’ll reprint their explanation of #1 below:
This might seem obvious but bears repeating because it happens so often. The massive annual proliferation of Christmas cards, nativity scenes, and TV specials perpetuates these added details and gives the impression that they are facts.
The infancy narratives in the Gospels lack many of the details that have been fabricated in subsequent centuries. For example, they don’t tell us about the nature of the stable (cave, open-air, wood, etc.); whether there even was a stable; whether or not there were animals nearby; or the number of wise men. These magoi (not kings and not necessarily three in number) almost certainly didn’t arrive on the night of the birth as most manger scenes depict. And a star wouldn’t have been suspended right above the roofline. With no mention of a stable, the manger could have been in the open air, in an animal pen near the house, in a small cave, or in the area of a house used for animals.
The texts don’t mention Mary and/or Joseph riding on a donkey. It is equally plausible—if not more so—that they walked the entire way from Nazareth to Bethlehem (70-80 miles; at least 3 days of steady walking). The idea of Mary riding a donkey stems from a second-century apocryphal work (Protoevangelium of James, chap. 17). Actually, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for a pregnant teenager in antiquity with an active lifestyle to walk such a journey.
Despite what we see in some Christmas pageants, there is no mention of an innkeeper (whether mean and coldhearted or regretful for the lack of space available); Luke simply mentions that there was no room in the kataluma (Luke 2:7). The kataluma was not a formal professional inn with an innkeeper but could point to either a public covered shelter (as in the Greek translation of Ex. 4:24) or to the guest room in a personal home (as in Luke 22:11).
It is important for us to stick with established facts when preaching and teaching. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the use of historical imagination. But it is important to maintain a clear distinction between what we actually know happened and imaginative reconstructions of how events might have taken place. Christianity is rooted in historical fact. This is as true for Jesus’ birth as it is true for the crucifixion and resurrection.
You can read the whole piece here.