At this time of year throughout Christendom churches and homes (no longer, it appears, governmental institutions) recreate for display the scene of Jesus’s birth. Actually, they depict not the birth itself but a moment in time afterward. How long afterward? That is a question that cannot be satisfactorily answered. The reason is not because historians and biblical scholars can’t estimate the span of time between, say, the birth of Jesus and the arrival of shepherds from their fields, or the birth and the arrival of magi from the East. It is because those arrivals are depicted in different gospels and are therefore, incongruent.
The story of Jesus’s arrival featured in the Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds who arrive quite soon after Jesus is born. The magi of the Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, seem to make their appearance in Bethlehem about two years after Jesus’s birth. That is because, after meeting the magi and discovering their purpose for being in Judea, Herod the Great, King of the Jews, finds out where they are bound, and orders the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem less than two years of age. It’s not a pretty picture of course and one understandably left out of nativity scenes.
This difference in timing between the visitations recounted in the two gospels ought to alert the reader that story elements from multiple sources have been employed to artistically recreate the nativity. The images of the manger, a star, angels, animals, shepherds, magi, and so forth, derive from a number of ancient texts both canonical and apocryphal. Let’s explore the popular nativity display, also called a manger scene or crèche, and trace its various components.
Obviously the primary sources for information about the birth of Jesus come from the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each story both differs from, and agrees with, the other in multiple ways. One story element to which both agree is the presence of Jesus’s two parents, Joseph and Mary. Every nativity scene features the two parents of Jesus looking down approvingly upon the newborn child. But, as far as the gospel stories go, that is where the commonality ends in nativity displays.
The Gospel of Matthew reports that a moving star led magi from the East to Bethlehem then stopped directly over the exact location of Jesus’s birth. No modern nativity scene is complete without this star, be it a mere C7 light bulb or a handsomely luminous astronomical effect. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, features no star. It reports instead that shepherds in nearby fields were alerted to the birth of Jesus by an angel. The shepherds (and perhaps the angels as well, according to most nativity displays) then go to Bethlehem where they find Jesus in a phatnē, a Greek word that can simply be translated as crib but which most English Bibles prefer to call a manger or stall. As Luke explains, this was because there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma, Greek for “guest chamber.” The guest room(s) being otherwise occupied, the expectant couple was probably directed down below the primary dwelling to the cave-like cellar where produce, wine, and sometimes animals were kept. It was dark, cool, and private. Nevertheless, artists have almost unanimously chosen to depict the newborn Jesus in a barn lying in an animal food trough. And nearly every display follows Luke by showing Jesus wrapped in strips of cloth, or “swaddling clothes.”