Last week, some church members asked if I could help them understand some of the nativity scenes that don’t seem to align with Scripture. I told them I would.
Current nativity scenes can be traced back to Francis of Assisi, a Catholic monk.
His story is interesting. He was born into a wealthy Italian family in 1181 AD. He later fought in battle and was put in prison by enemy forces. In prison, he had a spiritual awakening. He devoted the rest of his life to Christ-like poverty and preaching.
Indeed, poverty was the inspiration for his nativity scene. He took a trip to the Holy Land around 1223 AD. Upon returning, he wrote to a friend: “For I would make memorial of that Child Who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.”
He created his nativity scene with real people and live animals. By 1291 AD, Pope Nicolas IV commissioned statues and created the first permanent nativity scene.
What does Scripture say?
Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel give different perspectives. The general sequence of events runs like this: (1) Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7); (2) shepherds visit (Luke 2:15-17); (3) 40 days of purification pass (Luke 2:22); (4) the wise men follow the star to Jesus (Matt 2:9-11); Jesus’ family flees to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15); and, Jesus’ family settles in Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23; Luke 2:39).
The first nativity
We often get the picture that a travel-wearied Joseph and Mary limped into Bethlehem just as Mary went into labor. Luke 2:6 indicates they had been in Bethlehem. “And while they were there ...” Also, she could have birthed the Lord in a barn or stable, but the only other times the word “inn” is used in Scripture, it refers to an upper room in a house (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). Many houses in Bethlehem had a lower level where animals were boarded and upper rooms where people slept. Mary may have birthed Jesus in a lower room where animals slept.
Shepherds came that night, being alerted by a host of angels (Luke 2:8-17). The first nativity likely was limited to Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds, and perhaps some animals.
What about the wise men?
Jesus was circumcised eight days later (Luke 2:21). After 40 days of purification, they went to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices (Luke 2:22). Here, Luke’s Gospel has them traveling to Nazareth ... but Matthew offers more information.
Apparently, Mary and Joseph travelled back to Bethlehem because this is where the wise men find them (Matt 2:8). Now, they are living in a “house” (Matt 2:10), not in an “inn.” Scripture never says how many wise men there were. Many have speculated there were three because of the three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh). But there could have been many more. These men travelled from the east (Persia, Syria, Arabia or elsewhere). It would have taken several weeks to travel to Bethlehem once they saw the star (Matt. 2:2). If so, this would place them in Bethlehem around the time Mary and Joseph returned from Jerusalem. We can say safely they were not present at Jesus’ birth because Mary and Joseph were in a house by then.
When did they go to Nazareth?
After the wise men depart, Matthew’s Gospel has Joseph fleeing with his family to Egypt. He is warned that Jesus’ life is in danger (Matt 2:13-15). After King Herod died (we don’t know how much time elapsed), Matthew’s Gospel records Joseph taking his family back to Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). This is where Matthew and Luke agree again.
The effect of images on Scripture
Much of what we think regarding the nativity comes from images we grew up seeing: a nativity at home, in our church, in a book, or at a store. St. Francis of Assisi started that trend long ago. It started with great intentions. Over time, though, the images our mind created began to drift and conflate events in Scripture.
There is no harm or heresy in having three wise men in the nativity. However, it is always good to know where that idea originated. It is even better to let Scripture interpret the images rather than the images interpret Scripture.
Merry Christmas to all.
Chip Thornton is pastor at First Baptist Church-Springville.