Nativity Redux

A typical nativity creche that you can get through your Christian bookstore.... replete with Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, a shepherd and the "Three Kings of Orient are,"  much like the one I grew up with.  Historically accurate?  Maybe not.

A typical nativity creche available through your local Christian bookstore…. replete with Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, a shepherd and the “Three Kings of Orient are,” much like the one I grew up with. Historically accurate? Maybe not.

When I was a kid, I liked setting up our wooden nativity creche during Advent season. The creche had Joseph and Mary in the stable, with barnyard animals all around. There were the shepherds, and of course, the three wise men. I lost the little infant baby Jesus under the couch one year, but found him a few weeks later. I loved this nativity scene. And I was really excited about it…. until I started to actually read the Bible.

Unfortunately, many of our most cherished Christmas customs need to undergo some rethinking in the light of Scripture. One of my favorite Christmas carols has always been “We Three Kings”. Written by John Henry Hopkins in 1857, it is a jolly old waltz, including these lines:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.

While there is still some good theology here, I have since learned that there are a number of problems with this admired carol of mine. First, they were not three kings. They were  wise men. Astrologers, most probably. Dr. Hugh Ross, with Reasons to Believe, argues these wise men were motivated in their journey by studying the messianic prophecy of Daniel.

Secondly, they were not three.  The text in Matthew 2 tells us nothing about how many there were. They did have three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11), which is probably where we got the number three in our wise men count. Most scholars today instead think this group of astrologers was actually a large caravan of travelers.

Now, they follow the star: (see John Paine’s somewhat related posting about astronomical data regarding Easter, and more on the star at the end of this blog post). The wise men follow this star and get to the manger scene with the shepherds, as in my nativity creche, yes? I need to make more room for the Magi astrologer caravan next to the manger, right? Not really.

Matthew and Luke: Different Witnesses

In fact, if you read the first few chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, you only get a passing reference to the actual birth event in Matthew 1:35 and Matthew 2:1. You have to step on over to Luke 2:1-21 to get the actual Christmas birth story itself. Matthew mentions the wise men, for sure, but he tells you nothing about the shepherds. Luke, on the other hand, tells you about the shepherds, but nothing about the wise men. Scholars note that Matthew and Luke are writing with different purposes in mind, and possibly using different sources unknown to each other, so both evangelists emphasize certain details but leave others out, in accordance with their alternative purposes and perspectives.

When comparing the events in Matthew and Luke, trying to harmonize the texts by putting Matthew’s wise men together with Luke’s shepherds does not work well. For one thing, Luke has Jesus’ parents bringing Him to be dedicated in Jerusalem just a few miles away shortly after the birth. This would have been risky business if the wise men in Matthew’s text had recently visited a newborn Jesus in Bethlehem after seeing Herod in Jerusalem, and then receiving a warning in a dream not to pass back through Jerusalem. It seems more likely that some time had passed before the Magi came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem after Luke’s temple purification, in accordance with Matthew’s version. Furthermore, in Matthew’s account, the word used to describe Jesus is paidion, which in Greek can mean anything from an infant to a toddler.

10th century image of the "Massacre of Innocents" from Matthew 2:16-18. Liberal critics suggest that the incident is fictional, used for theological purposes only, considering no source outside of Matthew mentions it. However, many evangelical scholars argue that popular depictions of hundreds of infants being murdered are way overblown. Bethlehem was a small town, not big enough to have a Walmart. Though still tragic, estimates are that no more than a dozen or two infants were killed, a minor event in a  violent age that may not have received secular notice.

10th century image of the “Massacre of Innocents” from Matthew 2:16-18. Liberal critics argue that the incident is fictional, used for theological purposes only, considering no source outside of Matthew mentions it. However, many evangelical scholars argue that popular depictions of hundreds of infants being murdered are way overblown. Bethlehem was a small town, not big enough to have a Walmart. Though still tragic, estimates are that no more than a dozen or two infants were killed, a minor event in a violent age that may not have received secular notice.

One thing that has really puzzled me about the two accounts is when Jesus and family went back to Nazareth. A number of Gospel harmonizations have Jesus’ family going to Nazareth, just after His visit to be purified in the Jerusalem temple, according to Luke 2:39. Some scholars speculate Mary and Joseph did this in order to grab some personal belongings to go back to Bethlehem, where they then have the visit with the wise men. Then they go down to Egypt to escape Matthew’s “massacre of the innocents” by Herod, and finally according to Matthew 2:23 they go back to Nazareth a second time…. the Holy Family on the move!

While it is possible, it seems really unlikely. There is no explanation given within the biblical text for why the family would travel back to Bethlehem for the wise men episode after going back to Nazareth. If we understand that Luke had no interest or sources in reporting the wise men incident or the “massacre of the innocents” found in Matthew, it would make better sense if the whole story was:

  • (a) Joseph and Mary go down to Bethlehem originally from Nazareth.
  • (b) Jesus is born with the shepherds nearby.
  • (c) Jesus gets purified in the temple in Jerusalem.
  • (d) The family goes back to Bethlehem, only a few miles away, and after some time received the the visit from the Magi.
  • (e) Then the family flees to Egypt, and…
  • (f) Finally when Herod dies they go back to Nazareth.

In Luke 2:39, the Evangelist is simply skipping over the details mentioned exclusively by Matthew. But please read the accounts yourself and consider the evidence on your own: Matthew 2 and Luke 2.

Detoxify Your Nativity

Oh, and another small thing about that manger scene. “No room at the inn” in Luke 2:7? Well, more likely the Greek word for “inn” could be translated as “guest room”. This was probably a home of a relative, not a Motel6, and Mary and Joseph used something like a lower level, or basement room. Considering that Mary and Joseph were traveling with others back to Bethlehem for a census, their relative’s home was probably just pretty crowded so they had to pull out the old “cot” and sleep in the manger area where domesticated animals were perhaps kept.

Critics of the Bible will often highlight conflict between Luke and Matthew regarding the birth narratives. However, if we consider that while Luke is the historian/theologian of Christmas, and that Matthew is instead the historian/theologian of the Epiphany (visit of the Magi), which are distinctly different events, then those supposed difficulties with these passages are more easily resolved.   Luke tells us mostly about the lowly beginnings of Jesus’ earthly life in association with the socially despised shepherds.  Matthew, on the other hand, wants the reader to know about the worship and recognition of Jesus’ Kingship among a group of pagan astrologers contrasted with the threat of Jesus to “quasi” Jews like Herod.

So my nativity creche looks a little different from what that first Christmas really was. But you know… I am still going to sing “We Three Kings” this year. I just love that carol! “O-o–o–o-h-h-h! Star of wonder!…..”

Additional Resources:

More detail about common Christmas myths can be found from some of the folks associated with Reasons to Believe.

The origin of the nativity creche dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, after a visit he had made to the Holy Land.

A popular video by Rick Larson regarding the Star of Bethlehem gives a possible explanation for what guided the wise men. However, scholars at Reasons to Believe caution that there are other possible theories for explaining the biblical and astronomical data.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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