Nativity scenes today show up before Christmas in countless ways and places. They appear in homes, on and under Christmas trees, on the lawns of churches, homes and businesses, in school plays and shopping malls, in ad campaigns, stores, and so on. They have become a fixture of the Christmas holiday season. Are what they display, however, the TRUTH according to the Bible?
The likely response you would receive from most people asked if the Nativity depicts an actual historical event would be one of puzzlement. People have seen the scene so many times that they just assume it represents what is written in Scripture. Let us take a closer look at it in order to determine if what it depicts stands the scrutiny of the Bible or not. The ONLY places in God's word that discusses any of the details surrounding the birth of Christ are in Matthew 2 and Luke 2.
Wise men play a pivotal role in most depictions of the Nativity, where they are shown coming from a distant land to honor a newborn King with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Three Magi are shown in almost all scenes, with each one bearing a gift.
11. And when they (the wise men) had come into the house (in Bethlehem), they found the little child (Jesus) with Mary His mother . . . then they opened their treasures and presented their gifts to Him - gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11, HBFV throughout)
Matthew 2:11 is the ONLY place in the New Testament that lists the gifts given to Christ. Notice that the above verse does NOT state how many Magi came to worship Jesus. Men have ASSUMED that there were only three wise men based on a "one gift per person" formula. This assumption, however, depicted in many scenes of the Nativity, is almost certainly not correct. The Roman Catholic Church confirms that the gospels OMIT the number of Magi and that they have no consistent tradition regarding how many of them there were. They do state, however, that Orient tradition would favor at least TWELVE Magi.
Small tokens of worship
Have you ever noticed in a Nativity the size of the gifts offered to baby Jesus? The Magi are shown holding tiny boxes or small containers that many times are held in just one hand. The assumption portrayed is that it was acceptable to honor the KING of Kings (let alone human kings) with what amounts to hand-held "samples" of precious goods. Yet we find in scripture people like the Queen of Sheba who also traveled a great distance to honor a king. When she appeared before Solomon, who was already wealthy, she honored him by offering 120 talents of gold (2Chronicles 9:2).
The wise men were not just any group of officials from some eastern country. They were high-level dignitaries within the mighty Parthian Empire who wielded considerable power and influence (see our materials on the Parthian Empire and how the Magi fulfilled prophecy for more information). Their status required they give gifts worthy of the person they are honoring - which in this case was the future King of all men whom they WORSHIPPED (see verse 11 of Matthew 2 above). Concerning what the Magi brought to pay homage to Jesus, author Stephen Collins wrote the following.
"(The Magi) were not bringing just a few samples of gold . . . This Parthian delegation was offering tribute money to a 'king,' and therefore would more likely have brought a whole train of pack animals LOADED with gold, frankincense and myrrh." (The Lost Ten Tribes of Israel . . . Found!, pages 381 - 382)
The overall scene
Did the Parthian wise men visit Christ just after he was born as is depicting in Nativity scenes? Did their visit take place at a stable with Mary and Joseph in attendance and Jesus resting in a manger? Were there angels near the Messiah at his birth?
Based on the Bible, it was IMPOSSIBLE that the Magi could have arrived in Bethlehem in time to view the true Nativity. How could this be true? Our accurate timeline regarding when the Messiah came into the world shows that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem more than FORTY days after his birth! Also, note something in the eleventh verse of Matthew 2 that is often missed.
11. And when they (the wise men) had come into the HOUSE, they found the little child with Mary His mother, and they bowed down and worshiped Him . . . (Matthew 2:11)
Verse 11 above states the Magi visited Christ when he was in a HOME. While Jesus was originally born in a stable, he did not stay there long. The family, shortly after his birth (after people visiting Bethlehem to pay their taxes left the city), was able to secure a home to dwell in.
Were there visible angels near the Messiah when he was born? The answer is yes, but they did not stay very long. In a short time, the angels departed into heaven and the shepherds went into the city to find the Christ child. Angels were not visibly fluttering over or near Jesus' birthplace when the shepherds finally found him nor when the Magi arrived weeks later, as is shown in many Nativity scenes.
8. Now there were shepherds in the same country, who were dwelling in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night; 9. And suddenly an angel of the Lord stood by them . . . "Do not be afraid; for behold, I am announcing to you glad tidings of great joy . . . " 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 . . ."
15. And it came to pass, as the angels were departing from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now as far as Bethlehem, and let us see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:8, 9, 13, 15)
The humans shown in a typical Nativity were real historical figures. Jesus did come into the world as a baby just like any other human and Magi did come to worship him. The overall event portrayed in such depictions, however, is not the truth. There were not just three wise but several, perhaps twelve or more, who came to worship the new King. They did not travel alone but came in a large caravan for safety. They did not offer a few small tokens of respect but brought Jesus gifts worthy of a great KING who rightfully deserved to be worshipped. The wise men did not visit Christ moments after he was born but rather paid homage to him weeks later.