The Nativity Scene


We've all seen them, the lighted plastic figurines of peculiar looking people, animals and winged angels placed carefully on somebody's front lawn or displayed upon the roof of some business.  They call it the Nativity Scene, as it is suppose to depict the birth of our Lord.  One wonders how much of this is from the Bible and how much is simply from tradition. Let's examine the facts to see the true picture.

The Cast is usually assembled in and around what we are to assume is a manger. Luke in his Gospel does write that Yeshua (Jesus) was laid in a manger after He was born, but because this scene has been etched in all of our minds countless times by Church Tradition, most of us read that He was born there, in the manger, but that is not what Luke writes. Mary laid Him there, sometime after He was born. So where was He born? The best we can do is speculate, as the Bible only tells us that after He was born, His mother laid Him in the manger, and Luke adds that her reason for doing so was that there was no room for them in the Inn.

Let us take a few moments and see if we can define more accurately these terms inn and manger. The Greek word from which inn is translated here in LUKE 2:7 is kataluma. A better translation may be "guest room" (MARK 14:14) or "guest chamber" (LUKE 22:11). If Luke had meant to say that Mary and Joseph had been turned away from an actual Inn where travelers might stop for the night, he would have used the word pandocheion, as he did in identifying the place in Yeshua's parable where the good Samaritan left the injured man to be cared for (LUKE 10:34). As such, pandocheion is what we today might call an Inn, "a public house for the reception of strangers", (New Thayer's Lexicon). But kataluma on the other hand was a room attached to somebody's residence for the purpose of housing guests. This is why Mary laid Yeshua in the manger, because there was no room for them in the kataluma, not an Inn but a guest room.

Now, about the manger, what was it? The word translated manger here is from the Greek word phatne and is used in the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) only by Luke; in this passage and then in LUKE 13:15 where the King James Version translates it as stall. It is also used occasionally in the Greek version of the Jewish Bible (commonly referred to as the Old Testament) such as in ISAIAH 1:3.

LUKE 13:15 The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall (phatne), and lead him away to watering?

ISAIAH 1:3 The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib (phatne): but Israel does not know me, and the people has not regarded me.

Evidently, the phatne was a private place to keep animals, not a public place as we have come to picture the manger. The people of this culture usually kept there meager collection of farm animals indoors with them at night. Within the house they set aside a special place, off to the side or over in a corner. This kept the animals safe from the predators of the night and their added body heat kept the residents warm. It was in this manger where Mary placed Yeshua after He was born, within the phatne, the stall or crib of some private residence.

Gathered somewhere above the manger in these modern day Nativity Scenes, we usually find a few singing angels. Never in Scripture can we find even one reference to angels singing on this occasion. Howbeit, in Church Tradition they are plentiful.

Then we have the three wise men kneeling outside the manger with their gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh." However, the Bible gives us quite a different account. First, there is never a reference to how many wise men there were, only that there were three gifts. These wise men were actually "magi", eastern Astronomers (probably from the land of Persia) who had traveled many months after having seen "His star", so as to worship the new King. Travelers of that distance would always travel in large caravans, especially if they were carrying treasures. Matthew gives the following account.

MATTHEW 2:1-2  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east [in the rising], and are come to worship him.

They didn't fly, they walked, and that took many months.

MATTHEW 2:3-5 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet.

Of course Herod was troubled. There was never enough room for two kings and Herod knew he had to find and slay the child. Unfortunately for him, no one in Judaea knew how to accurately read the stars, as did these magi from the east. Calling together the chief priest and the scribes, Herod discovered from Scripture that Bethlehem was to be the Messiah's birthplace, but he still needed to know the age of the child.

MATTHEW 2:7-10  Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Herod sent them to Bethlehem, but the magi instead followed "the star, which they saw in the east." No mention is made here of exactly where they found the "young child," thus tradition has assumed it to be Bethlehem, on the night of His birth. But they didn't find a babe, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They found a young child, simply in the house.

MATTHEW 2:11-12  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

The term young child is always used by Matthew to denote children, not infants. By the time of the magi's arrival, Yeshua was around two years old, not the newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes we see in the modern day representations.

MATTHEW 2:16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.

Notice that Herod "slew all the children…from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men". If Yeshua had just been born, Herod would not have needed to kill two year olds. The fact that he did indicates he believed Yeshua to have been up to two years of age, as the magi had indicated.

Lastly, I doubt that any of the participants had halos about their heads as we see depicted in the modern Nativity Scenes. Not Joseph, Mary, nor even Yeshua, as the halo was the sign of the Babylonian sun god.