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Nativity Scene Misconceptions

By Gary F. Zeolla

A decree goes out that all the people need to return to their forefather's hometown to be registered for a census. A man by the name of Joseph puts his pregnant wife Mary on a donkey, and with him walking beside, they travel to Bethlehem.

They are slow in arriving, so by the time they get there, the inn is full. So they have no place to stay. But the innkeeper has compassion on Mary, with her being pregnant and all. So he kindly tells them they can stay in the wooden stable he keeps his donkey and ox in. But this stable seems to be in the middle of nowhere as no buildings are ever pictured near it.

Then amidst the animals, Mary gives birth. And they lay the Baby in a manger in the stable, which just happens to be just the right size to fit a baby in.

Meanwhile, out in the fields, angels appear to several shepherds and announce the birth of this Baby. So, with several of their sheep straggling behind, they come to the stable to see the newborn Baby.

Also at the same time, three wise men or kings from the east arrive in town, all dressed in fancy clothes, riding on camels, and maybe even wearing crowns. They follow a star in the sky to the stable. Once there, they give gifts to the newborn Baby.

You then have Mary kneeling on one side of the manger and Joseph on the other. The shepherds are standing on one side of the stable, with their sheep around them, and the wise men and their camels are standing on the other side. And in the back of the stable are the innkeeper's donkey and ox.

A very idealistic scene of the birth of Jesus that we all know from nativity scenes. But what's wrong with this picture?

The Trip to Bethlehem

Now it happened in those days [that] a decree went out from Caesar Augustus [for] all the inhabited earth to be registered. 2This registration [or, census] was [the] first while Cyrenius was governing Syria. 3And all began traveling to be registered, each to his own city.

4So Joseph also went up from Galilee, from [the] city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is being called Bethlehem, because of his being from [the] house and family of David, 5to register himself with Mary, the woman having been promised to him in marriage, being pregnant (Luke 2:1-5).

The traditional story starts out okay. Caesar Augustus does issue a decree for some kind of registration of the people. Though the purpose was somewhat different than today. Today, in the USA anyways, the purpose of a census is to determine each state's number of representatives in congress. But in those days, it more likely had to do with being sure the government knew how many people they could tax. As A.T. Robertson writes, "It was a census, not a taxing, though taxing generally followed and was based on the census. This word is very old and common. It means to write or copy off for the public records, to register."

And it is true that Joseph and Mary had to travel from Galilee to Joseph's forefathers' hometown of Bethlehem. But how they traveled there is not known. It's doubtful they rode on horseback given their financial state. Horses at the time were expensive, and it appears that Joseph and Mary were not of high financial status. This can be seen from the sacrifice they offered eight days after Jesus is born.

The Law stipulated that a lamb and a young pigeon or turtledove needed to be offered. But, "if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons (NKJV; Lev 12:8). Later in Luke, we are told:

22And when the days of their purification were completed, according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present [Him] to the Lord, 23just as it has been written in [the] Law of [the] Lord, "Every male opening a womb will be called holy to the Lord," [Exod 13:2, 12,15] 24and to give a sacrifice, according to the [word] having been spoken in [the] Law of [the] Lord, "A pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons." [Lev 12:8] (Luke 2:22-24).

So Joseph and Mary offered the less expensive alternative for the sacrifice. But still, it is nice to think that Joseph was at least able to find a donkey for the very pregnant Mary to ride on. But maybe she had to walk the whole way. Or maybe she rode in the back of some kind of cart. We just don't know.

The Inn

6Then it happened, in their being there [fig., while they were there], the days were completed [for] her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him in long strips of cloth and laid Him in the feeding trough [or, manger], because there was no place for them in the guest room [or, inn] (Luke 2:6-7).

The first thing to look at is the inn they supposedly first went to. This is the traditional translation of the Greek word, but is it truly accurate? Every lexicon I checked does give "inn" as one of the possible meanings for this word. But they all also give "guest room" or more generally, just a "room."

The word is used twice elsewhere in Scripture. The first is in Mark 14:14. Here Jesus' disciples ask Him where they should prepare the Passover. The second reference is the parallel passage in Luke 22:11.

13Then He sends out two of His disciples and says to them, "Be going into the city, and a man will meet you* carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him. 14And wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, "Where is the guest room, where I shall eat the Passover with My disciples?'" (Mark 14:13-14).

"11And you* will say to the master [or, owner] of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room, where I shall eat the Passover with My disciples?'" 12And that one will show to you* a large, upstairs room, having been furnished. There prepare [it]." (Luke 22:11-12).

So in these verses, it is clear that it is not an "inn" that is being discussed. It is simply a large, upstairs room in someone's home. Moreover, there is a separate Greek word that more specifically means "inn." It is only used once in the New Testament, in the story of the Good Samaritan.

33"But a certain Samaritan, being on a journey, came by him, and having seen him, he was moved with compassion. 34And having approached, he bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then having placed him on his own beast [of burden], he brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35And on the next day, when he departed, having taken out two denarii [i.e., two days' wages], he gave [them] to the innkeeper and said to him, ‘Take care of him, and whatever you spend besides, in my coming again, I will pay back to you.' (Luke 10:33-35).

From the context, it is clear that the "inn" here is some kind of motel where payment is made for one to spend the night. Moreover, it is only here in Scripture that an "innkeeper" is mentioned.

In the first edition of the Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT), I used "inn" in Luke 2:7 but "guest room" in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:12. But I also I used "inn" in Luke 10:34. But someone pointed out the inconsistency here to me. I had rendered the same Greek word by two different English terms, while using the same English word for two different Greek words.

This was opposite of my goal for the ALT. Namely, I had tried as much as possible throughout to translate the same Greek word with the same English word and different Greek words by different English words. Moreover, it seemed likely, that if Luke had meant "inn" in 2:7 he would have used the word that specifically meant "inn" that he had used elsewhere. So for the forthcoming second edition of the ALT, I changed Luke 2:7 to "guest room." But I kept "inn" as an alternative translation since this is possible, though less probable.

What this means for the Christmas story is that most likely Joseph and Mary did not initially go to an "inn." Remember, this was Joseph's forefathers' hometown, so he probably had relatives living there. So Joseph and Mary probably first went to the home of these relatives. But since probably many other relatives had also traveled to Bethlehem, there simply was no room in the relative's guest room for any more guests. But it was this relative, not an innkeeper, that suggested they stay where the animals were being kept. And this leads to the next three points.

The Stable, the Animals, and the Manger

6Then it happened, in their being there [fig., while they were there], the days were completed [for] her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him in long strips of cloth and laid Him in the feeding trough [or, manger], because there was no place for them in the guest room [or, inn] (Luke 2:6-7).

Where Joseph and Mary went was probably a place near the relative's home where farm animals were kept. Maybe this was some kind of wooden structure like a stable. But maybe it was made of stone or brick. Or maybe, it was a cave. The Scriptures simply do not say.

As for the animals, the idea of an ox and a donkey comes from Isaiah 1:3, "The ox knows its owner, And the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know, My people do not consider." (NKJV). For some reason, this verse was picked up on as the basis for the animals. But what it has to do with the birth of Jesus is beyond me. I guess the words "master's crib" reminded someone somewhere along the way of the birth of Jesus.

But most likely, the animals were farm animals of some sort. But exactly what they were cannot be determined, but they were probably whatever kind of animals that were generally kept by the common folk of the time.

As for the manger, this word has been used for so long in relation to the birth of Jesus that many people don't think about it being a feeding trough animals ate out of. To make this clear, I used "feeding trough" for the ALT, but so people don't get too disoriented, I retained the traditional "manger" as an alternative translation.

In any case, rather than being a short object, just long enough for a baby, a "trough" is, "a long, narrow, open receptacle, usu. boxlike in shape, used chiefly to hold water or food for animals" (Webster's). Most likely, Jesus was placed at one end of this long trough.

The point is, sometimes words like "manger" get used so often out of their original context that their true meaning is lost. This was not some kind of "crib." It was a rather nasty place for a baby to be lying in.

The Shepherds

8And shepherds were in the same region staying in the fields and watching over their flock [during the] watches of the night. 9And look! An angel of [the] Lord stood over them, and [the] glory of [the] Lord shone around them, and they feared [with] a great fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Stop being afraid! For listen! I bring to you* the Gospel [or, Good News] of great joy, which will be to all people. 11Because a Savior was born to you* today in the city of David, who is Christ [the] Lord! 12And this [will be] the sign to you*: You* will find a Baby having been wrapped in long strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough."

13And suddenly [there] was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army [or, host], praising God, and saying, 14"Glory to God in [the] highest, and peace on earth, good will among people!"

15And it happened, when the angels departed from them into heaven, that the men, the shepherds, said to one another, "Let us go then as far as Bethlehem and see this [thing], the one having happened, which the Lord revealed to us." 16And having hurried, they came and found both Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in the feeding trough (Luke 2:8-16).

Here the traditional story is not too far off. My only issue is that I doubt the shepherds brought any of their sheep into town with them when they came to visit the Baby Jesus. But maybe this is why the stable is often pictured as being out in the middle of nowhere. But more likely, the birthplace of Jesus was in town, behind the home of Joseph's relatives. But having the sheep there does make for a nice picture.

The Three Wise Men

Now Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in [the] days of Herod the king, look!, learned astrologers [or, Magi] from [the] east arrived in Jerusalem, 2saying, "Where is the One having been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star at the rising [of the sun] [fig., in the east], and we came to prostrate ourselves in reverence before Him."

3But Herod the king having heard, was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And having gathered together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began inquiring from them where the Christ [or, the Messiah] would be born.

5So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet, 6‘And you, Bethlehem, [in the] land of Judah, you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, for out of you will come forth a Ruling [One], who will shepherd [or, rule] My people Israel.'" [Micah 5:2] 7Then Herod, having called the learned astrologers privately, found out from them the exact time of the appearing [of the] star. 8And having sent them to Bethlehem, he said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, but whenever you* find [Him], report back to me, in order that I also, having come, shall prostrate myself in reverence before Him." 9So having heard the king, they departed. And look! The star which they saw at the rising [of the sun] [fig., in the east] was going before them, until, having come, it stood over where the young Child was. 10And having seen the star, they rejoiced exceedingly [with] great joy. 11Then having come to the house, they found the young Child with Mary His mother, and having fallen down, they prostrated themselves in reverence before Him, and having opened their treasure boxes, they presented to Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh [i.e., an expensive incense and ointment, respectively]. 12And having been divinely warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own region by another way (Luke 2:1-12).

As for the wise men, here the traditional story really starts to invent ideas with no Biblical basis. The Greek word is magus, so some translations simply transliterate this into "Magi," and I used this for an alternative translation. But most versions translate it as "wise men." For the ALT, I used "learned astrologers." My reason for doing so is explained in the "ALT: Glossary" contained in the newly updated eBook, Companion Volume to the ALT.

Learned Astrologers: Gr. magus. In Matthew chapter two, this word (in the plural) is generally rendered as "wise men." But in Acts 13:6-8, the same word is generally rendered as "sorcerer" or "magician." The word actually refers to those who were thought to be exceptionally wise in both secular and religious matters through the study of the stars and of the magic arts. The word may be derived from mageuo, which means to practice magic or sorcery through supernatural means.

So "wise men" does not sufficiently bring out the "religious" aspects of the word. The rendering of "magician" or "sorcerer" does not adequately indicate the perceived "learning" of the men. But the term "learned astrologer" combines both aspects of the word.

One thing is certain; they were not "kings." So the picturing of them with royal robes and especially with crowns is way off base. Crowns as we know them today were not even used at the time.

As for the number three, the Scriptures do not tell use how many there were. The idea of three comes from there being three gifts. But this just tells us how many different gifts were brought, not the number of men.

But reading the above story, it seems likely the number was far greater than three. Note verse three, "But Herod the king having heard, was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." Three men riding into town probably would not have caused such a ruckus, but if there were 30 men, or even 300, then the whole town would have taken notice.

As for them riding on camels, this idea probably comes from them coming "from the east." But as with Joseph and Mary, how they traveled is not known.

But probably the worst part of the traditional picture is that of even picturing the "wise men" with the shepherds at the birth of Jesus. From the narrative above, it is clear that the shepherds came on the night that Jesus was born. But the learned astrologers never even made it to the "stable." Verse 11 specifically says, "having come to the house."

By the time the wise men came, the census was over and all of the visiting people had left town. But since Mary had just given birth, Joseph and Mary probably stayed in Bethlehem for a period of time. So they would have moved into the now empty "guest room" in their relative's home, or maybe they rented a place of their own.

Moreover, note the timetable. Verse two tells use that the learned astrologers saw Jesus' star and then they traveled to Judea. But the Scriptures do not say when this star appeared. Maybe it appeared some time before Jesus' birth. But more likely, it appeared when Jesus was born. If this were the case, then the astrologers would not have even started their journey until after Jesus was born.

How far they had to travel is again not known. But note verse seven, "Then Herod, having called the learned astrologers privately, found out from them the exact time of the appearing [of the] star." Herod then told them to report back to him when they found the Child (v. 8). But, "having been divinely warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own region by another way" (v.12).

This infuriated Herod. "Then Herod, having seen that he was deceived by the learned astrologers, became extremely enraged; and having sent out [soldiers], he executed all the male children, the [ones] in Bethlehem and in all its borders, from two years old and under, according to the exact time that he found out from the learned astrologers." (Luke 2:16).

If "the exact" time of the appearing of the star had just occurred, there would have been no reason for Herod to kill all of the male children two and under. Just the newborns would have sufficed even for this madman. But if the astrologers had told him the star appeared a year before, and if Herod and the astrologers assumed this was when the child had been born, then it makes sense that all of the male children up to two years of age were killed. Herod was wanted to be sure the prophesied Child was killed. But God had already warned Joseph in a dream of Herod's rage, and the Holy Family had already left town (Luke 2:13-15).

Conclusion

The specific details surrounding Jesus' birth are not really that important. But what is important is that Christians do not depend on "tradition" to tell them what the Bible teaches. And in the case of the Christmas story, thanks in large part to nativity scenes, a lot of misconceptions have become "common knowledge." But much of this common knowledge is nothing but speculation or is outright unbiblical.

But the most important point is that Jesus was born! And we do need to concern ourselves with the reason for His birth. As the angel said to Joseph:

20But while he was thinking about these [things], look!, an angel [or, messenger] of [the] Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, you should not be afraid to take Mary [as] your wife, for the [Baby] in her was conceived by [the] Holy Spirit. 21And she will give birth to a Son, and you will call His name Jesus ["Yahweh saves"], for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).

Bibliography:

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture references taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible: Second Edition. Copyright 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org). Previously copyrighted 1999, 2001 by Gary F. Zeolla. All bolding is added.

NKJV: New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982.

BibleWorks for Windowstm. Copyright 1992-1999 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan. The following Greek references are all found on BibleWorks.

Friberg, Timothy and Barbara. Analytical Greek New Testament. Copyright 1994 and Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Copyright 1994.

Liddell-Scott Greek English Lexicon (Abridged). Public Domain.

Louw, Johannes and Eugene Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon. Second Edition. Copyright 1998.

Newman, Barclay M. Jr. A Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Copyright 1971 by United Bible Societies and 1993 by Deutsche Biblelgesellschaft (German Bible Society), Sttugart.

Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament. 1934.

Webster's Talking Dictionary/ Thesaurus. Licensed property of Parson's Technology, Inc. v. 1.0b. Software Copyright 1996 by Exceller Software Corp. Based on Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Copyright 1995 by Random House, Inc.

Nativity Scene Misconceptions Copyright 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).

The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light Newsletter.
It was posted on this site December 5, 2004.

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