CTT | Considering the Nativity Scene

We decorated our front yard this weekend, complete with 2 displays, some ninja-bread men fighting and a nativity scene that only has Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus in Mary’s arms. We visited an Evangelical church on Sunday morning that was working through a video series in their adult Sunday school class. As I wrestled to fall asleep last night, several questions were tumbling around in my mind… one of which was, “Why do we tell/portray the story of Christ’s birth the way we do?” We will be talking about the setting of the nativity, but we won’t be covering the time/season of year in this post.

Relevant Texts

The birth of Jesus is specifically addressed in only two of the four Gospels. Let’s look at what Matthew recorded in his account.

Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV) | The Birth of Jesus Christ

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Matthew 2:1-15 (ESV) | The Visit of the Wise Men

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

The Flight to Egypt

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Okay, so we have the Matthew text, and I included some extra narrative cover the time spent in Bethlehem. If you’ll remember from our Gospel Wednesday series working through the Gospel According to Matthew, this account was written for a primarily Jewish audience. Matthew focused primarily on the fulfillment of prophecy in his record of Christ’s birth. The visitation of the magi is a reflection of this, particularly in what took place between them and Herod. If we were trying to condense the Matthew account into a nativity scene, we’d have Joseph, Mary, an infant (but not necessarily newborn) Jesus in a house, with a star overhead and the magi visiting.

Luke sought to maintain a detailed record of events that took place. Let’s go to his account of Christ’s Birth.

Luke 2:1-7 (ESV) | The Birth of Jesus Christ

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Okay, so most of what we see in our modern-day nativity scenes and reenactments come from the Gospel According to Luke. There are a few things to address in this first portion. Firstly, why is it that we always see Joseph leading a donkey with Mary riding fully pregnant and ready to give birth at any minute? Why do we see Joseph knocking on the door of an inn (ala Holiday Inn Express) hoping to get a room? Why is it whenever we refer to the nativity scene as “the manger” we include some rickety, airy, shack in the definition? Well, these and many other images are read into the text… and what gets imported isn’t necessarily 21st century, but a lot of it is what we think might have been based on what we imagine “the dark ages” would have been like… because that’s as far back as many of us tend to imagine. That’s sloppy. In fact the eisegesis ends up overlooking details found in the text.

  • Joseph wasn’t taking Mary on a honeymoon to some exotic location to hide the questionable pregnancy. Joseph was going to his own town to register himself and Mary. Why Bethlehem? As far as Joseph was concerned, because that’s the home of his extended family, the house of David. God chose Mary and Joseph at this time for this place because He decreed it would be so. Bethlehem is some 70 miles away from Nazareth. It is unlikely they made that trip alone, especially given the reason for the trip… a census. There is no reason to think that Joseph and Mary (each of the house of David) independently moved to Nazareth, found each other, then had to return on their own to Bethlehem. That’s a modern (Western individualism) paradigm. Sure, they may have been somewhat detached from their group, but they would not have been all alone. It is unreasonable to assume they would have been checking into some inn as strangers for an undetermined length of time of the census, especially since they were poor (we’ll see below). People tend to make it a one-night thing by suggesting that Mary had the baby as they entered into Bethlehem, found no vacancy at the Holiday Inn Express, and took shelter in a barn… because, that’s how farming and livestock was done in the first century, right? The Holiday Inn Express needed a place to park all of the livestock people traveled with, right? No, and no.
  • The registry for a census wasn’t the quick and simple thing we think of it today. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for a while. Notice Luke’s wording, “while they were there”… so we really… really need to dispense with the image of Mary going into labor the moment Joseph gets turned away from the Holiday Inn Express.
  • Let’s look at the word being translated “inn” in verse 7.  κατάλυμα (kä-tä’-lü-mä) is translated inn, here… which is a correct translation for its day, but we modern-folk have professionalized the concept of an Inn (hence my constant reference to Holiday Inn Express). The inn in this time period is the guest room. The word is used by Luke later in his gospel account, and by Mark in the parallel account. Let’s look at those cases:
    • Luke 22:7-13 (ESV) | The Passover with the Disciples
      Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” 10 He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” 13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

    • Mark 14:12-16 (ESV) | The Passover with the Disciples
      12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him,14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

  • Sometimes we refer to the manger as the entire shack/barn, and sometimes we point to a crib-like structure made just for a newborn baby. The manger was a trough for dry feed for livestock. In some homes where a donkey or goats were vital for livelihood, the common area of the house would have a section where the animals were brought in at night for security and warmth. Such a setup would have included a manger for dry feed. Each morning the animals would be let out and the area cleaned. Remember, the inn is the upper room away from the area where the animals would have slept. If the family home where Mary and Joseph stayed was crowded, there’s no reason to insist the livestock would have been inside with everyone for the birth, especially since Jesus was laid in the manger, the place where the animals would have been looking for food. Let’s see where Luke used the word for manger (φάτνη) in a context besides the birth of Christ.
    • Luke 13:10-17 (ESV) | A Woman with a Disabling Spirit
      10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. 14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 17 As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.

  • Okay, so for a final thought on this is that not all of the house may have been under a roof. Some archaeological dig sites of first century homes suggest that the house may have had an uncovered courtyard area in the common area, still protected by the front door. Then one would go into the upper room (inn) for sleeping or make use of the common area below for work/chores. This is particularly relevant for what happens next in our Luke text.

Luke 2:8-21 (ESV) | The Shepherds and the Angels

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

I have no doubt that these shepherds were there that same night. Who were the “all who heard it” mentioned? My first answer would be to point at all of the people occupying the Inn. How many people depends entirely upon which house in which they were staying. There was an audience. Luke interviewed eye witnesses. Now, I highlighted the circumcision and the naming of Jesus here for two reasons, first because I’ve heard many teach the next portion as if Joseph and Mary would have taken Jesus into the Temple for the circumcision. There’s no reason to make that assumption, and there’s a very good reason why that couldn’t be the case. Secondly, I wanted to line up this text with the Matthew text. Matthew skipped over the details of the night of Christ’s birth and went straight to the naming (which happens on the day of circumcision). I believe this next portion to take place before the visit of the magi.

Luke 2:22-38 (ESV) | Jesus Presented at the Temple

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

After giving birth to Jesus, Mary was ceremonially unclean for 40 days. The circumcision and naming took place on the 8th day, and once the required time of purification of Mary was complete, the family went to the Temple to offer the sacrifice required for redeeming the first-born. Joseph and Mary are poor and the Law of Moses made provision for a less expensive sacrifice for those too poor to offer the lamb… that’s the significance of the 2 pigeons being offered. I believe the visit of the Magi to have happened sometime close to this trip to the Temple, for if the magi had come much later, Herod would have been alerted to the rumors before the Magi came, and if they had come too early, Herod’s search would have found them before the time of purification was complete. In this as in all other things, God is Sovereign and His timing is perfect.

Luke 2:39-40 (ESV) | The Return to Nazareth

39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

Looking back to our Matthew text, they left from Bethlehem to Egypt… and once Herod was dead, they returned to Nazareth of Galilee. Nazareth is north of Bethlehem, so they might have passed through, but I’m thinking they probably avoided the area. It makes sense that Luke would skip over this portion, as this flight into Egypt was secretive, inspired of the LORD, and Matthew had already covered it. So Luke picks up the narrative from here on out following Jesus out of Galilee.

Conclusion

We need to return to the text of the Scriptures when we seek to share the story of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. So many times I hear a preacher lament how “we’ve all heard this story many times before” and urge his listeners to “approach the birth of Jesus with awe and wonder and thanksgiving”… only to then summarize most of the details in keeping with our modern interpretations rather than pay close attention to the passages. It is very frustrating, doubly so when churches keep playing movies that further reinforce bad eisegesis of the events that took place. Please stop with the Holiday Inn Express narrative, that wasn’t what happened. No, Mary and Joseph were not refugees in Bethlehem the night of Christ’s birth, they were most likely with family. The refugee argument fits the flight into Egypt, but that was God’s intervention and fulfillment of prophecy. The magi visited a house, the shepherds probably also visited a house, though this house may have had a small, uncovered, courtyard for the shepherds to assemble on that first night. Is it a sin to simply continue with the commercialized depiction of the Nativity Scene? I can’t say for you, pray about it. I will say that whenever it comes to teaching about the events of that night, keep with the text. Teach what the Scripture says first.

Jude 24-25 (ESV) | Doxology

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

In Christ Jesus,
Jorge

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