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.
Fact or Fiction
The likely response you would get 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. BUT DOES IT? 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.
The wise men
Wise men play a pivotal role in most depiction of the birth of Christ, 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. But is this what the Bible says?
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)
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.
Gift samples to a King
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). In regard to 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 right after his 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? Even if the 'star' that led them to Christ appeared sometime BEFORE his actual birth, several time-consuming events occurred before the Bible says they met Jesus in Matthew 2:11.
The high ranking Magi had to plan and arrange for a caravan that could take them safely (there were bands of thieves along the way!) to Israel and back - a round trip of easily more than 2,000 miles. Regarding how huge an undertaking such a trip would entail, Stephen Collins writes the following.
". . . it took time to prepare the costly gifts (frankincense, gold, myrrh) to present to the Messiah, set their affairs in order for a long absence (of many months), organize a caravan (and likely obtain an armed escort for protection) and make the lengthy journey to Judea (at the speed an animal could walk on sand and other difficult terrain)" (ibid, page 380).
Jesus' parents, 40 days after his birth, had to travel to Jerusalem and back in order to present Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-35).
The Magi sought a meeting with Herod the Great in Jerusalem to ask about the location of Christ's birth (see Matthew 2 verses 1 to 11). Since Herod was clueless about the event, he made the Magi WAIT until he gathered up the chief priests and scribes to ask THEM for an answer he could give (Matthew 2:3-8).
Please see our article that harmonizes Matthew's and Luke's accounts of Christ's birth to see a simple timeline of Jesus' first two years of life. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church even admits Christ was not a newborn when he received his special visitors as the Magi arrived ". . . probably a year, or a little more than a year, after the birth of Christ. " (1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Magi, section III).
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)
Matthew says a LITTLE CHILD, not a newborn or an infant, was with Mary when the Magi paid their visit. Jesus could have been up to TWO YEARS OLD when people from "the east" came to see him (see Matthew 2:16). Verse 11 of Matthew 2 also answers two other questions. It says the visit occurred in a HOUSE, not at a temporary structure like a stable. At close to two years old not only was Jesus too big to sleep in a manger but also he was living in a permanent dwelling that afforded the family better sleeping accommodations. Note also the verse does NOT mention Joseph being present when the wise men came to the house.
Were there visible angels near the Messiah when he was born? If there were they did not stay very long. It was an angel who announced to shepherds in Bethlehem's fields that Christ was born (Luke 2:9-12) and a host of angels who immediately afterwards praised God for what occurred (verses 13-14). In a short time, however, the Bible says the angels departed into heaven (verse 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 the Nativity, however, is a fabrication. 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 could not have come to pay their homage when Christ was a newborn in a manger but rather visited him in a home when he had grown beyond an infant.