Nativity scenes 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 such scenes 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 a common Nativity setting in order to determine if what it depicts stands the scrutiny of the Bible or not. The only places that discuss any 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.
Matthew 2:11 is the only place in the New Testament that lists the gifts given to Christ and does not state how many Magi came to worship him. 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 of them!
Gifts worthy a King!
Have you ever noticed, in a typical Nativity, the size of the gifts offered to baby Jesus? The Magi are usually shown holding tiny containers that, many times, can be held in just one hand. The assumption portrayed is that it was acceptable to honor the King of 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, giving Solomon 120 talents of gold (2Chronicles 9:2)!
The wise men or Magi were high-level dignitaries within the mighty Parthian Empire. Their status required they give gifts worthy of the person they are honoring, which in this case was the future King of Kings they came to worship (Matthew 2:11). The amount of riches brought by them is far more than what is commonly depicted.
The book "The Lost Ten Tribes of Israel . . . Found!" by Stephen M. Collins states, "(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" (pages 381 - 382).
When did the Magi visit?
Did the Parthian wise men visit Christ just after he was born as is depicted in Nativity scenes? Did their visit take place at a stable with the virgin Mary and Joseph in attendance and Jesus resting in a manger?
Based on the Bible, it was impossible for the Magi to arrive in Bethlehem in time to view the true Nativity. Our timeline of Jesus' birth shows that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem more than forty days after he came into the world. Matthew 2:11 tells us that when they arrived in Bethlehem they found Mary and Jesus staying in a house! 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 angels?
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 (see 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 wrong. There were not just three wise but several. Jesus was given a vast amount of wealth and not a few trinkets. The wise men did not visit Christ moments after he was born but rather paid homage to him later when angels were not present.