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.