It seems that some scholars are trying to force popular Christianity to examine some of our myths and legends, although many Christians will insist that their faith has no myths and legends, in that everything that Christians believe is true and attested to in Scripture. However, that is not strictly true. There are many aspects of Christian belief that we may call traditions if we don't like the words myth or legend. I will discuss some of them in my next articles.
Did you attend a Christmas pageant over these past Holidays? If you did, at church or school, you may have seen a Nativity Scene complete with shepherds, angels and Wise Men. But how many Wise Men or Magi were there? Adult Christians ought to know by now that the exact number of them is never mentioned in Scripture, but the tradition of the three Wise Men is so venerable that there is even a church that claims to house the remains of the three.
The tradition of Jesus' birth in a stable seems to be on better footing, and indeed the typical Christmas pageant will have actors representing the Manger scene. But the actual Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem presents a different scenario: the scene of the Nativity is a cave and not a barn building with stalls, mangers and animals inside. That isn't to say that it would be impossible to use a cave for a stable, but it could still present uneducated believers with difficulties.
On a slightly higher scholastic level, there is a question of whether Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, or whether this tradition was introduced into his life story in order to present a fulfillment of the prophecy from the Old Testament. Since there is no historical confirmation that the census mentioned in the Gospels took place, there is no reason why Joseph and Mary would have gone to Bethlehem when she was in an advanced state of pregnancy. That would be a pretty disastrous reflection on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, though, and no one has made a big issue of it--yet. But Jesus of Nazareth is how the Lord was known; sometimes he was referred to as the Rabbi from Nazareth.
All three of these issues arise from a conflation of the Gospels into what is called the Meta-Gospel: the Christmas scene with both shepherds and wise men is the prime example. The Gospel that mentions shepherds doesn't mention wise men, and vice versa. It is later Christians who threw in everything except the kitchen sink in their pageants, which were very popular in an age of illiteracy because they taught the Christian story.
The Meta-Gospel also gives us the Seven Last Words of Jesus during the Crucifixion; all seven utterances are not mentioned in any one Gospel. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest to be written, Jesus is not recorded as having said anything. It is written that he gave a final cry just before he died, and that's it.
But although these discrepancies and legends may unsettle some low-information Christians on first hearing, ultimately the question must be asked: do they have any bearing on the Faith? Anyone who would lose their faith over three wise men, or a dozen wise men, or an unspecified number of wise men, has a faith that isn't worth saving. As Bishop John Shelby Spong says, any God who can be killed, should be killed to make way for a real God.
Bishop Spong is one of the chief historical research scholars whose career has been devoted to Scripture, along with Professor Bart Ehrman and others perhaps lesser known. If you would like to know more about what these people have learned, I can recommend an entire shelf-full of books for your library.
Aside from books of theology such as Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, you progress to historical Christianity and its roots when you move over to something like Spong's study called This Hebrew Lord, or Misquoting Jesus by Ehrman. And Ehrman is at his best in his historical storytelling of the lives of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene in his book of that title.
It is up to you whether to be an educated Christian or not. If not, you are doomed to remain a sitting duck for anyone who comes along with a good story, like the "missionaries" who will try to get you into their churches with threats of Old Testament punishments and New World revelations. If you don't know where your religion came from, you will surely run into those who do, and they can make short work of your fragile beliefs. That is why many denominations have fantastic growth rates on paper: people rush to join their ranks because they can tell a good story, but drop out later when the thrill wears off, or when they meet another "missionary" who has another really good story.
I have had several groups of these folks knocking on my door in Tucson, looking for converts. So far they have left in a hurry after I asked them my typical questions. I ask them if they treat LGBT Christians equally, and they always answer that they don't. I ask them if they treat women equally, especially in ministry, and they always answer that they don't. Then I ask them what it is, exactly, that they have to offer me. That's when they leave.
I can't help it if their religion is that badly flawed, but it is my responsibility to let them know that true Christians don't have holes in their Gospel where women and gays are concerned. If Jesus didn't die for everyone, then he didn't die for anyone because we won't ever agree whom he did die for. But I'm not overly harsh on them; the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't seem to understand that either, nor do the Mormons, nor the Catholics, and there you are.