Bas Krins
Being a Biblically faithful Christian today.

The nativity scene - Fact and fiction around Christmas

1.      Introduction

When we read the history of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is striking that this description is quite short. And as we usually see in history, there is then a tendency in tradition to fill in the missing data. In this way many additions to Christmas history have been created. Some additions have become so established that we hardly realize that they are not part of Biblical history but were added later. This article provides a selection of those later additions. We do this by examining what can now be seen in an average nativity scene.


2.      Birth in a cave

In the Bible we read that there was no room in the inn, but where Jesus was born is not mentioned. Because Jesus was laid in a manger, the suggestion arises that the birth must have taken place in a stable. The inn probably refers to a kind of caravanserai, in which all guests stayed in one large room. An unsuitable place for a birth. Lukas' comment that there was no room in the inn is probably not so much an indication that all available places were in use, but that there were a number of guests and the available space was therefore unsuitable for a birth. That is why Joseph and Mary move to the area for the guests' animals at this caravanserai. That could have been a stable, but a cave is also possible since a cave was also often used as a stable.
The word usually translated as inn (Greek: kataluma, literally 'relaxation') is also found in Mark. 14:14 and Luke. 22:11 where it refers to the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover. Luke also knew the correct word for inn (Greek: pandocheion). He uses this word in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34).
In Christmas stories, the picture is often painted that Joseph and Mary visit all the inns and find no place anywhere. However, Luke speaks emphatically about the inn. Or rather, the caravanserai. There was only one. Given the size of the village of Bethlehem, it is also difficult to imagine that there were more than one.
There are also interpreters who indicate that Luke means the guest house of a private house, probably the house of relatives in Bethlehem. That's not impossible, but less likely. It is obvious to assume that Luke would have made a comment about this in that case.
The tradition that the birth took place in a cave is an old one. We read this, among others, in the Protevangelie of James (second half of the second century), in Justin Martyr († 165 AD; Dialogue with Trypho 78) and in Origen (185 – 254 AD; in a sermon about the Gospel of Luke).


3.      The three wise men

The wise men from the east brought three gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh. This gave rise to the tradition that there must have been three wise men. However, this is not explicitly stated in the Gospel of Matthew; there may also have been more or less. Later these three wise men were also given names. In Greek they were Apellius, Amerius and Damascus, in Hebrew Galgalat, Malgalat and Sarathin. The names by which they eventually became known are their Latinized Persian names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. We first encounter these names in a sixth-century Latin translation of a Greek scripture, the original version of which has been lost.
The Protevangelium of James (second half of the second century) mentions that the wise men enter Mary's cave immediately after the birth (Protevangelium of James 21). It is also stated that the special star they saw was an extremely bright star. This last element is also missing in Matthew. The star must have been special, but this could also mean that the position of the stars was special, in other words that there was a special horoscope. (See the article on this website about Jesus' age at His crucifixion and resurrection).
From the sixth century onwards we see representations of both the shepherds and the wise men worshiping Jesus. The shepherds accompanied by sheep, and the wise men with their dromedaries. Those dromedaries are of course just made up, but it is a very obvious addition. The combination of the shepherds with the wise men also had a theological background. The shepherds were a picture of the Jews who worshiped Jesus and the wise men of the Gentiles.
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew indicates that the visit of the Magi took place two years after the birth in Jerusalem. Although this writing originated in the eighth or ninth century, it contains many ancient traditions. That does not alter the fact that it is striking that this document takes a different position on this point.


4.      Ox and donkey

The Protevangelie of James (second half of the second century) differs from Matthew and Luke on several points. It describes that Joseph took a donkey with him on his journey to Bethlehem. According to this version, Joseph already had several sons before Mary - who already knows that she will give birth to God's Son - is assigned to him by fate. When Emperor Augustus orders everyone to register, Joseph sets out with his sons and Mary. Mary rides on a donkey (Protgospel of James 17).
Nor do we find the ox and the donkey as a duo in the Christmas Gospel. They come from Isaiah's prophecy:

Jes. 1:3 An ox knows its master, a donkey knows its manger, but Israel lacks insight, my people live in ignorance.

According to Origen (185 – 254 AD), the manger that Isaiah speaks of is the manger from the Gospel of Luke, and the master is Jesus.
From the third century onwards, the ox and donkey appear in images of the Christmas story. The same donkey was used in paintings as a means of transport for Mary on the flight to Egypt. There are also stories that Joseph also took his ox with him on a journey.
In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew we read:

Ev.Ps.Matt. 14 ‘On the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Blessed Mary went out of the cave, went into a stable, and laid her Son in a manger, and the ox and the ass worshiped it. Then was fulfilled what was proclaimed by Isaiah the prophet, who said: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's manger.” So even the beasts, ox and donkey, worshiped Him continually, having Him between them. Then was fulfilled what was proclaimed by the prophet Habakkuk, who said: “Between two animals you will be recognized.” Joseph stayed in the same place with Mary three days’.

The quote from Isaiah was connected to the text from Habakkuk in this way:

Hab. 3:2 (LXX)  in the midst of two beasts you will be known

BTW: This verse is in the Greek translation of the Old Testament; it is missing in the Hebrew text. It is based on a translation error. It says 'in the middle of the years', but this is read as 'in the middle of two animals'.
According to this explanation, those two animals were the ox and the donkey. In this explanation, the ox was a symbol of the Jewish people, who live under the yoke of the law, just as an ox bears a yoke. The donkey was either also a symbol of the Jewish people, or of the Gentiles since it was an unclean animal. We encounter this last interpretation in Origen in the aforementioned sermon on the Gospel of Luke. This means that the ox and donkey are a symbol for the Jewish people and the pagans who both worship Jesus.
The animal Isaiah speaks of may actually be a cow, bull, or ox. Because of the association with wearing a yoke, the translation with ox was chosen, as a bull or cow was not suitable for wearing a yoke.

5.      The star of the shepherds

If we read the Gospel of Matthew carefully, the wise men speak of a star that they saw and on the basis of which they decided to go on a journey, and also of a star that takes them some time later to the right place where Jesus was at that time. moment is. That must have been a house (Matt. 2:11). So in fact the wise men saw a special star twice. The Gospel of Luke states that the shepherds went looking for Jesus and found Him, but there is no mention of a star. That is an element that we only find later in images. We are used to seeing a star at the nativity scene, but that is not right. The wise men come from the east and say that they have seen the star that heralds the birth of a king in the east. That star could not possibly have been above Bethlehem, because then the wise men would have seen the star in the west. And when the wise men later come to worship Jesus, Joseph, Mary and Jesus are no longer at the place where Jesus was born. In short, the star did not stand above the birthplace of Jesus.


6.      Palm tree

Another element that can be found at the nativity scene is the palm tree. This is from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew about the journey to Egypt:

Ev.Ps.Matt. 20 On the third day of her journey, as they journeyed, Blessed Mary became weary because of the excessive heat of the sun in the desert, and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: I would like to rest a little in the shade of this tree.” Then Joseph led the donkey to the palm tree and made her dismount from the beast of burden. When Blessed Mary had sat down, she looked up at the crown of the palm and saw that it was full of fruit. Then she said to Joseph, “I wish that one could take some of these fruits from the palm tree.” However, Joseph said to her, “I am surprised that you ask this; because you see how high the palm is, and (I'm surprised) that you (even now) think about eating the palm fruits. For my part, I think more of a lack of water, because the bags are already empty, and we have nothing with which to refresh ourselves and the pack animals.” Then the child Jesus, who sat in His mother's womb in a joyful mood, spoke to the palm, "Bow your duties, and refresh My mother with your fruits." And immediately at his call the palm bowed its top to the feet of Blessed Mary, and she gathered of its fruits, whereof all were fed. After they had gathered all the fruits, it remained in a bowed position and waited to rise again at the command of the one who had commanded the bowing. Then Jesus said to him, “Rise up, O palm, and be strong, and keep company with My trees which are in My Father's paradise. And open a vein of water under your feet, which is hidden in the ground, and let the waters flow, that we may quench our thirst from you.” And immediately he straightened up, and a very pure, fresh, and completely clear spring of water began to bubble up from its roots. When they thus saw the spring of water, they rejoiced greatly, and quenched their thirst, they, and all the beasts of burden, and all the cattle. They thanked God for that.

It is striking that remarkable miracles are already attributed to the (very) young Jesus. There are many more examples of this, but it would go too far to mention them in this article.
We also encounter a similar story in the Quran:

Soera 19:23-26 And the pains of childbirth drove her (Mary) to the foot of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I would rather have died and been forgotten before this happened.” Then (Allah's Messenger) called to her from below, saying: “Do not grieve. Your Lord has created a stream at your feet; and shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will cause fresh, ripe dates to fall on you. Eat and drink and cool your eye. And if you see anyone, say to him: 'I have vowed to the Most Merciful to fast; therefore I will not speak to anyone today.'”

In the Quran we see that the anecdote with the palm tree is not placed during the flight to Egypt, but rather, immediately after childbirth. Since the Quran originated in the seventh century, it is not clear which of the two versions is older.


7.      Milk cave

There is a special Byzantine tradition regarding the so-called milk cave. On the way to Egypt, Mary is said to have stayed with Jesus in a cave near Bethlehem. When she spilled a drop of milk there while feeding her child, the entire cave turned white. This cave is a famous tourist attraction in Israel.
Other places associated with Mary, such as the supposed places of her birth, death and grave, are also venerated in Jerusalem.

8. Kathisma church

In the aforementioned Protgospel of James, there is mention of a place where Mary rested on her way to Bethlehem. A Byzanthine church, the Kathisma Church, was built on this site in the 5th century (the Greek word κάθισμα - kathisma means seat). In 1992, the remains of this church were found along the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.


9.      Later traditions

There are also other stories known about the period when Jesus was in Egypt with His parents. In addition, we see that numerous traditions have also arisen around Mary. We see this to a large extent in the Roman Catholic Church and other (Eastern) Orthodox movements.
As is known, the celebration of Christmas on December 25 is a tradition from a later period. The Christmas tree with the baubles is also clearly a later addition, with pagan origins. In that context, it is a pity that a large nativity scene and a large Christmas tree compete for attention on Peter's Square in Rome during the Christmas period.


10.      Finally: an empty nativity scene?

The custom of making a nativity scene is very old. Originally, a manger stood near the altar at Christmas. All kinds of figures were added later. Francis of Assissi visited Pope Honorius III in 1223. He suggested to him to make a nativity scene in his hometown of Greccio. The Pope agreed and Francis returned to his own hometown. He arrived on Christmas Eve. With the help of an artist friend he made a manger. He placed a live ox and donkey and players around it. The players represented Joseph and Mary, and there was a little child who was placed in a manger. So the first nativity scene was a living nativity scene. Since then, nativity scenes have spread throughout the Christian world.
If we consider what is actually written in Matthew and Luke about the birth of Jesus, the nativity scene is considerably more austere than we on average imagine it to be. No palm tree. No ox and donkey. No wise men, and therefore no dromedaries either, because they only came later. No star, because it was not above Bethlehem at that time. And it is not likely that the shepherds took their sheep with them. Only Joseph, Mary, Jesus, shepherds and angels. And if we think about that, I think that this simple representation brings us closer to the message of Christmas than the overly decorated nativity scenes that quickly distract from what really matters.
On the other hand, people will always have the tendency to fill in the gaps with their imagination. That's okay, as long as it doesn't cloud the message of Christmas.
It is remarkable that the theology of the first centuries wanted to emphasize that both Jews and Gentiles worshiped Jesus. The ox became the image of the Jews and the donkey the image of the Gentiles. And the shepherds became the image of the Jews, and the wise men became the image of the Gentiles. The nativity scene has thus acquired a special meaning.


Bas Krins