The Imagery of the Nativity: Where Does it Come From?

At Christmas time, believers naturally focus on imagery recalling the birth of Jesus. Visual depictions of a crèche filled with figures representing the holy family, wise men, shepherds, angels, and various livestock are meant to recall the events depicted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But few may realize that the elements of a typical nativity scene is a conflation of story details taken from these (entirely different) birth narratives as well as from other, later, texts not part of the New Testament.

In the Gospel of Matthew we read of a star which is followed by an unspecified number of wise men (ancient sages perhaps meant to symbolize the magi of Persia). Later tradition limits them to three and the sixth-century Excerpta Latina Barbari gives their names as Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa, that is, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. According to Matthew, Jesus is born in the Bethlehem home of Joseph and Mary. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, tells of a (historically unverifiable) census that causes Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem in order to be counted. There, Jesus is born in a manger due to overcrowding. But shepherds are duly notified by angels of Jesus’s birth and go to see him.  In less than a century, however, early Christians found these sparse details unsatisfactory and began adding details to the nativity story found in later writings; many of these details remain with us in holiday imagery and song.

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Women in the Earliest Church, Part 4

According to the Book of Acts, when the apostle Paul arrived in the city of Corinth in Greece he met up with a husband and wife Christian missionary team of Prisca and Aquila. The text states that the two were among a number of Jews who had been expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius. Roman historian Suetonius reported a commotion among the Jewish residents of Rome at about this time instigated, he says, by or on behalf of someone named “Chrestus.” (Fifth-century historian Orosius fixes the date of this event at 49 CE.) Many scholars agree that these three reports are referring to the same event and that Chrestus, a common Roman name, is an accidental misspelling of Christus or Christ. Putting these bits of information together we can suggest that the Jewish couple should be numbered among those Roman Jewish-Christians who created trouble within the city’s synagogues by preaching Christ. The resulting disputes between Christian and non-Christian Jews reached such a pitch that riots forced Claudius to expel the perpetrators following which Prisca and Aquila moved to Greece.

Continue reading “Women in the Earliest Church, Part 4”

Women in the Earliest Church, Part 3

The next woman of the early church that we will now meet doesn’t appear in the New Testament at all. She was said to have been made a disciple in Iconium after hearing Paul preach. Acts (though not Paul’s letters) says that Paul was in Iconium (IK-oh-NEE-um, modern Konya, Turkey) with Barnabas during their joint missionary activity (Acts 14:1-6a), possibly also with Silas and Timothy on the next missionary trip (Iconium was in the ethnic region of the “Phrygians” – Acts 6:1), and again perhaps at the beginning of his third and last mission (within the “interior regions” – Acts 19:1). It remains uncertain at which stop, if any, Paul converted the woman known to us as Thecla (THEK-la). Thecla is not mentioned in Acts or in Paul’s letters but it seems likely that she was a real Christian disciple even if actually converted after the Pauline period.

Thecla’s devotion to the point of martyrdom led to a strong and persistent following especially among Christian women. Eventually awarded sainthood, Thecla is only known to us through an ancient account, now part of the five earliest apocryphal acts, called the Acts of Paul. A portion of this second-century elaboration of Paul’s missionary adventures has been called the Acts of Paul and Thecla in recognition of the story’s leading apostle and its main woman protagonist. Continue reading “Women in the Earliest Church, Part 3”