Isn’t this time of year sort of different? Sort of, well, special? A time when people are a little kinder, a little friendlier, a little more likely to nod and smile at all kinds of silly conventional wisdom about the holidays and their traditions? In the interest of decorating the season with a little bit of reason, we’ve asked miserly old Ken Jennings to give a rousing “Bah, humbug!” to four coal nuggets of misinformation that seem to show up under the tree every single December. So gather with us under the myth-letoe and find out which four cherished bits of Christmas lore turn out to be completely fa-la-la-la-llacious. We think Yule be surprised.
Holiday Myth #3: In the Bible, three kings visit the newborn baby Jesus.
Whether our biblical knowledge comes to us from Nativity scenes, Christmas carols, or George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg/Ice Cube films, surely we can all agree on one very important element of the original Christmas story: three kings showing up at the stable on camels, bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus. Right? Right?
Well, no, that’s wrong in nearly every respect. The Gospel of Matthew never calls Jesus’ eastern visitors “kings”—they’re always “wise men” (“Magi,” in Greek). The king thing probably comes from Psalms 72:11, which asserts in a more general way that “all kings shall fall down before” the Messiah. There’s never any mention of camels, or any other form of transport. The biblical account even makes a greeting card-style Magi visit to the stable alongside the shepherds very unlikely, since the wise men don’t even show up in Jerusalem until after Jesus has been born, and we later read that they find “the child” in a house, not a stable. When the Magi bail on King Herod, he orders the death not of newborns, but of all children under two, meaning Jesus was probably already a toddler when his shipment of gold, frankincense, and myrrh showed up.
Speaking of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: this trio of gifts is probably the only reason we imagine that there were three wise men. Matthew is silent on their number, and some early Christian art in Roman catacombs depicts as many as six. But the literary device of each wise man bringing one gift apiece must have been too tempting to resist, and by 500 A.D., the idea of a trio was firmly planted in Christian tradition. These three wise men were even given names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Even back then, I guess, the nerd stereotype was beginning to make its way into pop culture: smart guys had to have goofy-sounding names.
Quick Quiz: What Christian feast was held every January 6, to celebrate the visit of the Magi? (Think about it long enough and—aha!—it may suddenly occur to you.)
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead, out now. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.