We love Christmas. The lights, the decorations, and the Christmas plays. We see the wise men and shepherds greeting each other as they enter a barn-like structure and a single star lights the scene. A donkey and three camels sit beside each other, all gazing at the manger. We think of these as part of the display for practical reasons and as a synopsis of the story, but sometimes we don’t stop to think about the accuracy of the scene. As we looked at our manger scenes in our houses, we began to think about the different depictions we see during the Christmas season that can blur the lines between myth and reality. Here are a few of the ones we discovered and what we found when we looked closely at the Gospel accounts.
Wise men visited Jesus the day of His birth and were there with the shepherds
Undoubtedly your nativity, like mine, includes three wise men hanging out at the manger.
One thing to note is that Scripture teaches us very little about the actual birth narrative of Jesus. Both the Books of Matthew and Luke give us clues about what happened around Jesus’ birth but nothing super specific. Luke’s gospel focuses on the actual event on the night of Jesus’ birth, and Matthew focuses his account more on the worldwide ramifications of the birth as this special event began to shape history.
The wise men, who were likely astronomers or magicians from what today would be southern Iraq, saw a star and immediately recognized it as a sign that a special birth had happened. The Bible doesn’t indicate when this star appeared in the sky for their viewing, but the men gathered gifts and left to find the baby they knew had been born.
Matthew gives clues that suggest Jesus may have been a toddler by the time the wise men visited. He records that Jesus and His family were living in a home in Bethlehem and not in the lodging place where Jesus was born.
There were three wise men
Like the details of the wise men’s trip, the Bible again doesn’t identify the number of wise men that came to visit Jesus and His family. In our displays, we need three wise men to hold the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It could be that three wise men visited Jesus, but it’s unlikely. These men traveled a good distance, and travel at that time would have been dangerous in certain parts. Traveling in a small group would have been unwise, and these men would have been careful about their journey.
An innkeeper turned them away
Most of us picture Joseph pleading for a room at the Bethlehem Inn and Suites as the guy at the front desk scans through the registry looking for any cancellations.
Archaeology steps in here to help paint the picture. “Inns” were not like hotels of today, in which travelers could rent separate rooms. Instead, “inns” were usually open areas surrounded by a wall with some type of well in the middle. Inside the wall, travelers and their animals would spend the night. As we might imagine, inns in those days had earned a bad reputation since anyone who wanted a place to sleep could do so in that space. Nothing prevented people from fighting each other, stealing from each other, or even killing each other. The inn was more like a corral; in Bethlehem it was full of other travelers (per Luke 2:7), so Joseph and Mary went elsewhere to find lodging. The hospitality of the people who lived in Bethlehem, especially Joseph’s relatives, would have prompted someone to give them a place to stay.
Mary gave birth in a barn
Most nativity scenes include a barn-like structure as the setting of the display. The image that comes to mind is a self-standing structure that sits in a pasture or field. Only Luke mentions that Jesus was placed in a manger at His birth (Luke 2:7,12,16). Because we think of a manger as belonging in a barn, that’s what we picture when we read this scene.
Mangers were usually stone structures about three feet long, a foot and a half wide, and 2 feet deep. They were used to feed cattle, sheep, horses, and donkeys. Unfortunately, Luke didn’t tell us where the manger was. Again, archaeology gives us some clues that may help. One possible location is a cave that was used by shepherds. Shepherds used caves as stables and also as temporary shelter for themselves and their families. One theory is that the owner of the cave invited Joseph to stay there, and it was there that Mary delivered Jesus. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem sits over a cave that some consider to be the place of Jesus’ birth.
A second possibility is that Jesus was placed in a manger located in a home. Many of the homes in that day were two rooms. One of the rooms was elevated and served as the living area. The lower room served as a place for the animals at night. Holes in the wall gave access to a feeding trough in the upper area so the animals could eat. If this is the scenario, then a family opened their home to Joseph and Mary for the evening, and the manger situated on the wall between the two rooms was converted to a cradle.
Jesus was born in year 0
First of all, there isn’t a year “0” on the calendar. There is 1 BC and 1 AD but no 0. That explains in part why some debated when the new millennium began (2000 or 2001).
Matthew tells us that Herod the Great was in power when the wise men visited Jerusalem (Matt. 2). Various sources indicate Herod’s death happened in 4 BC, but 1 BC is also possible. These two dates relate to sources noting that Herod died the same year as a lunar eclipse, with a partial eclipse taking place in 4 BC and a total eclipse taking place in 1 BC. Many scholars also point to Herod serving as king for 37 years, but debate exists over how to count the beginning of his reign. Since Herod called for the death of every boy two years old and younger in Matthew 2:16, we can deduce that Jesus was born a year and a half to two years prior to Herod’s death. This means Jesus was born as early as 6 BC or as late as 2 BC.
Jesus was born December 25
The early church didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth but focused on His death, burial, and resurrection. By the second century that began to change, and Christians began to mark Jesus’ birth. Various dates were proposed by different scholars. Some believed that the date of a prophet’s death was tied to the date of that prophet’s conception. This idea was proposed by Tertulian around 200 AD. In his writings, he identified March 24 on the Roman calendar as the day of Jesus’ death. If Jesus’ conception also took place on that day, then his birth would have been nine months later on December 25. This idea was proposed 50 to 100 years prior to the beginning of the pagan winter celebrations, which some believe to be the reason the December 25 date was selected. Other scholars in the same time period as Tertulian pointed to what we would identify as May 20, April 15, 20, and 21 as potential dates. By the fourth century, two dates became the most common: December 25 in the western church and January 6 in Egypt and Asia Minor. The truth is no one knows for certain the day of Jesus’ birth.
A star hovered over the manger the night of His birth
Our manger scenes may include a light to put above the scene to create a lighted star. A star might have appeared over Bethlehem the night of Jesus’ birth, but from where the wise men were located, they would have had only a general idea about where to go. Either way, the star seems to have disappeared by the time the wise men arrived in Jerusalem since they asked Herod where the newborn king was located. They were told that an Old Testament prophecy pointed to Bethlehem, so they knew which city to go to, but which house was a different story.
To their delight, the star appeared again as they made their way toward Bethlehem and directed them to the right house (Matt. 2:10). Most scholars believe Jesus was nearing his second birthday since Herod called for the execution of every male child that was two years old or younger.
It was a silent night
We sing “Silent Night” so often at Christmas that many of us think of Jesus’ birth in the manger as described in this hymn. It describes that on the night of Jesus’ birth, “all is calm” and “all is bright.” It’s a soothing hymn that paints a vivid picture of the unique nature of Jesus’ birth. While there is much to love about this hymn, it’s important to remember that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. He had a human mother, which means she experienced the pains that every other human mother has faced when giving birth. No one experiences such pains in silent, peaceful calm. When Jesus was born, He most likely cried like any other baby. Giving birth is always difficult and scary. If we aren’t careful, “Silent Night” can paint a picture of Jesus’ birth that neglects Jesus’ humanity. Toward the end of the song, the hymn envisions radiant beams of light emanating from Jesus’ holy face. This is a lovely image, but there is no mention of light shining forth from Jesus’ face in either Luke or Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth.
So what should we do when this hymn is sung in our Christmas celebrations? We can sing “Silent Night” with full confidence if we simply remember that hymns are often poetic. The radiant beams don’t have to be literal. The next line in the hymn, after all, speaks of the “dawn of redeeming grace”. In other words, “Silent Night” celebrates the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption! And while it likely was not a silent or peaceful night, it is true that babies sleep a great deal.
We sometimes blur the lines of what is myth and what is reality as we try to portray all that took place that first Christmas. We need not be combative about the displays we see. We can use them as opportunities to point people to the reason both the shepherds and the wise men sought out Jesus. We can also use them as opportunities to focus on the promise of salvation found in the arrival of Immanuel. The important thing is that we are reminded that Jesus is indeed the One who brings true peace (Isa. 9:6-7; Eph. 2:14). The funny thing is that in the end, all who believe in Jesus will join the shepherds and wise men in worship of the King. That means we too have a place in the manger scene.
Compiled by Drew Dixon, Dwayne McCrary, and Tim Pollard