Three wise men didn’t visit baby Jesus in a stable.
In the first place, the story never says Jesus was born in a stable. It only mentions a manger. He was probably actually born in a cave. The wise men wouldn’t have arrived right when he was born, either. They would have gotten there a year or two later. By that time, he wouldn’t have been in the stable or cave any more anyway. Also, the story never says there were three of them; it only mentions three gifts. There were most likely a whole band of them. The Bible makes no mention of them riding camels. They weren’t kings or even wise men; the correct term is magi. I could keep going: the heavenly host isn’t a choir of angels because it never says they sing, just that they praise God, so it just refers to a group of angels. And so on.
Religious pedantry never comes out more than at Christmas. It is, of course, one more consequence of the Reformation, and a classic case of overcompensation. When people began reading the Bible in the vernacular, they discovered that stories like Veronica weren’t actually in there. The revelation that many traditional stories are extra-Biblical leads some people to treat the Bible as a sort of reverse treasure hunt, trying to disprove as many traditional details as possible, such as those above. A sample trove of this kind of trivia is found here.
It only seems fair to let Catholics have a word about their policy on Bible reading while we’re on the subject.
Some Catholics (and other Christians) may ask whether the Catholic Church has ever prohibited its members from reading the Bible. Because the meaning of the Bible was being disputed and misinterpreted by some at the time of the Protestant Reformation, in 1564 Pope Pius IV declared that lay Catholics had to obtain permission from the bishop to read the Bible in their native language–the vernacular. Reading the official Catholic Bible of the time, the Latin Vulgate, was never prohibited.
Later, Catholics had to obtain permission from the Sacred Congregation of the Index in Rome, or from the pope himself, in order to read the Bible in the vernacular. This was done to protect Catholics from inaccurate translations and from misinterpreting the Bible. Catholics still heard the Scriptures proclaimed and explained at Mass and in other contexts by the clergy, as they always had.
In the nineteenth century, the Catholic hierarchy lifted all restrictions on reading the Bible in the vernacular, as long as a Catholic edition was used.*
Anyway, pedants who are so concerned with pointing out everything about the Christmas story that isn’t actually in the Bible are missing the entire point. It’s hard to realize this, because once someone starts throwing out Bible trivia, it’s hard to respond any way other than by either trying to out-trivia them or by defending some of the points they’re trying to deny (I think Revelations 3:8-11 and other verses are ample evidence that angels “praising God” are almost certainly singing). The proper response is simply: Who cares? Does it make any difference to our understanding of Jesus, the Bible, Christianity, or anything else whether the night was silent or the midnight clear?
I’m not arguing that it doesn’t matter whether the events recorded in the Bible are true. Quite the opposite. It is critically important, for instance, that Jesus rose from the dead. It is because I appreciate the importance of the central events that I don’t want to get bogged down in the superfluous details, as if they were equally important. Someone who feels the need to endlessly dispute whether or not Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem is undermining the importance of whether Jesus was the Son of God, a question actually worth discussing.
The basic test of whether a topic is worth arguing about is: How would this change my understanding of the topic? Whether or not it was lambing season couldn’t possibly influence how we think of the Christmas story. Another potential red flag is the phrase “it never actually says…”. After the third or fourth time someone says this, I get the idea that he or she is deliberately ignoring probable context, such as that the manger was presumably in some kind of an animal-housing structure. After all, the fact that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention something doesn’t mean that isn’t extremely probable nonetheless.
“What can we learn from this?” is an essential question to keep central. The truth of the events in the Bible is important, but the truth of the lessons in the Bible is even more important. If we let focus on the truth of the details prevent us from learning what the words were set down to teach us, we might as well not read the Bible at all.
Incidentally, the question “What can we learn from this?” redeems even stories we know to be apocryphal. Even though Veronica almost certainly never existed, we can learn from her act of kindness. Don’t discount the lessons of traditional stories because their truth is called into question.
So, however many magi there were, and whatever they rode, and whenever they arrived, we can still learn from them. The song says it best: “Glorious now, behold him arise/King and God and sacrifice.”
This is the lesson of Epiphany.
*Alan Schreck, The Essential Catholic Catechism, pp. 39-40