Did you know that there is about a 99.9% chance that the Nativity scene you have lurking somewhere in your house is almost certainly not Biblically correct? Stick around and we’ll talk about it, here on Five Minutes of Truth.
If there is one part of the Bible that Believers and non-believers seem to know a lot about, it is the story of the Nativity…the first Christmas…the birth of Jesus. The cultural popularity of Christmas exploded across the US landscape decades ago. From a Biblical standpoint let’s just say that this has been a mixed blessing at best. We bemoan the commercialization of Christmas and its emphasis on material gifts, but we also must acknowledge that, at this point in time, people still seem to know what we are celebrating.
While secularization has robbed religious thought and prohibited it access to the grown-up table of the culture, for now, it seems pretty clear that most people know that Christmas signifies the birth of Christ even if they do not, personally, celebrate it as such. Well over 90% of Americans still believe in God while over 80% understand Jesus to be God and/or the Son of God.
As a result, one of the most popular and enduring accouterments of the Christmas season for both Believer and non-believer is the beloved Nativity scene. Whether the scene is embossed on a Christmas card, standing proudly on our mantle, or perched majestically and nearly life-sized in our front yard…the Christmas Nativity scene is a staple of seasonal holiday decorations. Even if we do not have a depiction anywhere around our home, chances are that we cannot drive through our neighborhood without seeing one.
We even recognize the characters and the setting, even if we do not have one. All of the familiar people and places are easily recognizable and identifiable. The roll call for a typical Nativity scene usually includes Mary, Joseph, Jesus as a baby, shepherds, an angel, animals, and, of course, the Three Wise Men. The physical surroundings also include something that looks like a barn or stable, the star, and some type of manger. These elements are as familiar to many of us as our own families. But what if these Nativity scenes were not right? What if it didn’t really happen like the scenes portray it? Would that surprise you? Would you care?
Let’s take a closer look at the elements of the traditional Nativity story and see how it lines up with the Biblical record. We’ll do that by asking and answering a few simple questions. First question: Was Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in one of the local hotels or inns in Bethlehem? This is not as true as we might think. True, most translations do state that there was no room in the inn.
However, the word translated as “inn” in the Luke version literally means “room”. It is a different from the word that Luke uses later in his Gospel in the story of the Good Samaritan where there is a real inn because there was an innkeeper. The reality is that Mary and Joseph probably sought accommodations at the home of an extended family member. However, the “room” where they let visitors stay was filled. Instead, they placed them in an outer room where they would keep some of their most prized livestock. That would explain the existence of a manger which was, in fact, a food trough for animals. But it is almost certain that Jesus was not born in an outside stable surrounded by animals.
Next question: Did the three wise men visit Jesus the night He was born? This is almost certainly false. First, the Bible does not state that there were three wise men. The term “magi” is simply plural…we have no idea how many there were. We get three of them based on the three gifts they brought. Second, believe it or not, the wise men did not reach Jesus until He was about 2 years old. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to mention the wise men.
They come to Jesus when He and his family were in a house (Matthew 11) and when Jesus was referred to as a child rather than a baby. We know from Herod’s heinous act which he initiated after talking to the wise men that Jesus’ birth would have had to have occurred about two years prior to the magi’s appearance.
Last question: Did the star initially lead the wise men to Bethlehem. The answer is, no. According to Matthew, the wise men were led to Jerusalem by the star. It would make sense. They were looking for the “King of the Jews” so it stands to reason they would go to the Jewish capital. In one of the most amazing examples of irony in all of Scripture, it was actually Herod who led the wise men to Bethlehem (). The man who wanted to kill the Christ, led the people to Him who would help finance His escape to Egypt by giving the family the precious gifts. The star did point them to Jesus’ exact location in Bethlehem, but it was Herod who got them there in the first place.
There are so many other examples of this that time does not allow us to go into right now. But what is the purpose for pointing this out? Is it so you can go through your Nativity scenes and throw them away for being heresy because they don’t perfectly align with Scripture? Of course not. This exercise is designed to remind us that we need to be careful of how much the culture influences our understanding of God’s Word. We do not have to wonder about Who God is. We don’t have to surmise how much He loves us. We don’t have to speculate how Jesus died for our sins. Because we have all of that in His Word. God has chosen these 66 books that make up His Bible…not so that we can know about Him. But so that we can know Him. How cool is that? So, keep your Nativity scenes…and know God’s Word. Food for thought this Christmas season.
On behalf of myself, Robert Houghton and all of us here at Growth Project…Merry Christmas and keep reading God’s Word.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.