Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display: What Gospel Does That Come From?

Nativity scene

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.”

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The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate

Almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, has heard of Pontius Pilate and is generally aware of his role in the death of Jesus. He was certainly an historical figure as archaeology, non-biblical historical sources, and the gospels can attest. Pilate was a prefectus, sometimes translated into English as governor, appointed by Rome to administer the relatively new imperial province of Judea and Samaria in 26 CE. Such men were chosen from the equestrian class, the Latin knights of Roman society. Thus Pilate was a military man with sufficient experience and accolades to suggest his appointment to the emperor. He, like the four prefecti before him, made his headquarters in the Mediterranean coastal city of Caesarea, only recently given an extensive Greco-Roman renovation by the late Herod the Great. Periodically, when the religious city of Jerusalem swelled with visiting pilgrims, Pilate would make his way with his cadre of non-Italian infantry and a few cavalry to take up residence not far from the Jewish Temple. There, he would reside in Herod’s Jerusalem palace. His accompanying troops augmented their stationary comrades located in the fortress named for Mark Antony astride the Temple itself. It was on just such an occasion, the Passover of 30 CE, that Pilate was presented by the Temple’s religious leadership with a Jewish offender who required Roman justice, one Jesus of Nazareth. It was he, the leading priests said, who had been making himself out to be a king. Pilate should therefore vanquish him forthwith.

Why the Jewish leadership thought Pilate might willingly acquiesce to such a request is not hard to fathom. The late first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus gives us a number of examples of Pilate’s brutality in reaction to real and imagined rebellion during his tenure. Pilate, hardly a friend of the Jews, arrived at his post in a contemptuous manner sending his troops into Jerusalem carrying the iconic image of the emperor attached to their military standards, an obvious violation of Jewish laws against graven images. Only after threats by the populace did he have them replaced. Later he made plans to modernize Jerusalem’s water delivery system by using, with the chief priests’ acquiescence or not, temple funds to do so. This, too, created an uprising which resulted in casualties. During an event that took place after Jesus’s execution, Pilate was quick to violently strike down a group of Samaritans who had assembled near the ruins of their own temple. There they had joyfully followed a self-appointed leader who promised to dig up the temple’s buried holy furnishings from the past. The subsequent over-reaction by Pilate resulted in his recall to Rome.

Although Josephus only gives us his side of the story of the altercations mentioned above, we may add the characterization of Pilate by the first-century Alexandrian Jewish theologian Philo (“inflexible,” “vindictive,” “furious temper”) and a New Testament reference to an incident involving “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1) to confirm that crucifying Jesus would not have unduly worried the Roman governor. Yet this is not quite the picture we get of Pilate by reading the accounts of the hearing that Pilate gave to Jesus. In fact, Pilate is made to seem quite reluctant to sentence Jesus to death.

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