I have been on a mission over the course of several Christmas seasons to find a Biblically correct Nativity scene.
Like others who celebrate the religious elements of Christmas I am fond of the Nativity story and want it to share space with my Christmas tree, my Christmas lights and other decorations of the season.
But I cannot find a Nativity scene that is accurate.
These are details lost on most people.
In fact, some would find these truths “shocking”.
Most of the myths associated with the Nativity story have come from songs or paintings created to tell the story. In the name of making it more interesting or compelling artistic license has robbed us of full truth. These are how legends are made.
Let’s set the record straight then on what really did happen at the Nativity:
1. The Wise Men were not there.
If there is anything of a mystery when it comes to the story of the birth of Christ it comes in the form of the Magi. The Bible tells of “wise men” from the east who came to worship the Christ. It doesn’t say anything about how many “wise men” there were or even what the term “wise men” actually means.
In many areas of the world they are known as “The Three Kings”. This is likely due to Old Testament reference such as Isaiah 49:7 which says, “Kings shall see and arise”, in referencing a visit to the Lord.
The term “wise men” is translated from the original Greek word magoi, usually rendered as magi in English. Scholars of more than a century ago claimed the word was Persian in origin and referred to priests of ancient Persian religion. But modern scholars have found other evidence suggesting the magi were actually part of an ancient order tied to Seth, the son of the first man, Adam, and this order was called to witness the coming of the Messiah into the world.
No matter who they were it is clear they were never at the scene of the manager when Jesus was a baby. Their journey was long and they followed a star. This star was the sign that the Messiah had already arrived. By the time they find the baby he is a child – nearly two years old – and living “in a house”.
We may never know the full and true story of the Magi. Perhaps that is why so many have created the legend that surrounds them. They are a part of the story – just not witnesses to the scene of the Nativity.
2. There was no innkeeper
In many telling of the Nativity story Joseph and Mary are famously turned away from the inn. For them to be turned away there had to be someone refusing them a place. It is a good assumption – just not a fact.
There are two versions of the story – one in the book of Matthew, the other in the book of Luke in the New Testament. Neither one mentions an innkeeper.
The key phrasing only comes from Luke’s version. He said, “…and she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The most important part of that phrase are the words “for them”.
What was wrong with “them”? Why couldn’t they be accepted? Was it really just a matter of the inn being full? That’s the supposition of many – but there is nothing to support that. “For them” seems to be a clue of other difficulties associated with Joseph and Mary.
3. There were no animals present
The presence of a manager – which was clearly used to accommodate the baby – seems to indicate the presence of animals or, at least specifically cattle, at the scene of the Nativity.
Many popular depictions of the Nativity show Jesus in a barn, a stable or even a cave – and these were all places where farm animals would be located.
Scholars now say that Jesus was likely born in the lower portion of a common home. If Joseph and Mary were not accepted for whatever reason at a home they likely only were given shelter in such a place. Homes commonly were constructed with ground level animal pens as the first floor with people living quarters built just above. The animals thus were kept close but separate at night when people were asleep.
Bethlehem was not a big town but it would have been the ancestral home for many people. It was for both Joseph and Mary who were, after all, cousins. Remember that they came to Bethlehem “to be taxed”. A lot of people could have descended upon the town at the same time. Hence – no room for them at the inn or, apparently, in the upper levels of the home.
Under those circumstances the overflow areas would fill with people first – and animals would be kept elsewhere. Remember, these were Jews, who lived with strict religious guidelines for cleanliness. The Bible doesn’t say if animals were there but we shouldn’t assume it.
4. There was no star
On the night that Jesus was born there was no star. It came later – to the wise men, who used it as a sign to find and worship the child. The shepherds, who were watching their fields by night, did not see a star. They saw the angel – and a “heavenly host”.
The shepherds are a very interesting group to consider. Almost certainly they were all men. But they were of the lowest social order, too. Because they worked with animals they were considered “unclean”.
It was to these lowly individuals – not some priest, not some Rabbi, not some king – that the angels visited and proclaimed “glad tidings of great joy…Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.
These men were uneducated. Chances are they didn’t even know about the promised Messiah and had never had any kind of scriptural training.
Their reactions are priceless. They “came with haste” and found Mary and Joseph and the Baby. They couldn’t wait to tell everyone they met what they witnessed. They returned to their fields completely transformed by the experience, “glorifying and praising God”.
They must have learned something they never knew before. And they could not wait to tell the world.
5. None of this happened in December
If there is one thing scholars almost universally agree upon it is that none of this happened on December 25th. Shepherds would not be watching their fields by night in December. A tax collection would not be held at the toughest time of year for people to travel.
December 25th has long been associated with other societal celebrations competing with Christianity for dominance after the ministry of Christ. That the most popular time of the year for rabble rousing was made religious speaks to the power plays of the times, not to when Christ was actually born.
What gets lost on most people when it comes to the Nativity is just what it is we actually celebrate at Christmas.
It is what drove the shepherds to rush to tell people about what they had seen. It was actually the Baby – and nothing else typically associated with the scene – that was most important.
Christ was the God of the Old Testament. In the New Testament here he was in the flesh, teaching kindness, forgiveness and love with the gentle command to “Come, follow me”.
He was the Creator of all things. He subjected himself to the same creative process that all people are subjected to in coming to this life. He came to change the world and he did just that.
Bonus: Joseph was not an old man.
The story of the Nativity is a compelling human story. Nothing touches the heart more than to consider the feelings of both Mary and Joseph. Mary was most certainly quite young — as young as 15 or 16 years old. And even though most ancient paintings show Joseph as an older man this likely was not the case. Joseph could not have been much older than Mary.
As he cleared and cleaned a space for them that night, knowing that the Baby would be born likely in those lowly circumstances, you have to consider what Joseph was feeling. As a young, inexperienced man who at his tender age had himself been visited by an angel you have to wonder about the weight he felt upon his shoulders.