2 year old Jesus and the Wise Men – does it matter how accurately we portray the nativity scene of the Christmas story?

December 17, 2011 — 28 Comments

NativityI might be overly sensitive to this topic, as I remember being surprised reading the Bible for the first time as a college student and realizing the nativity scene I had learned all my life up to then wasn't accurate to the biblical account with some parts of it. But here's some thoughts that have been stirred from this morning listening to my daughters talk.

This morning I was quite happy hearing our daughters talking to each other as they were drafting up a play portraying the wise men and Jesus they are going to be doing with their friends. The reason I was happy was that they were talking through the real story vs. what Christmas cards have created as the story and basing it from the Bible and discussing the differences. I hadn't talked to them directly about it for their play. They were writing it on their own and began talking about making sure they wrote the play the way the Bible taught it on their own which was why I was happy listening in to their discussion.

We had recently talked as a family about a friend of ours who sets up a nativity scene in their home, but they place the wise men in another part of the room not at the manger. They do that indicating that in the Bible story, you don't see the Magi there on Christmas Day but they would likely have been back in Persia somewhere at the time of the birth of Jesus. So that is likely what Katie and Claire were remembering we talked about when they were drafting up their Christmas story play. But I was glad hearing them discuss the importance of looking into Scripture for what the actual story is vs. Christmas cards and medieval artwork. 

As we know, the Christmas story often shown in most church musicals as well as Christmas cards and nativity scenes is not quite accurate when looking in the BIble itself. Such as: 

1) Jesus was likely born in the Spring or Fall not December:The December 25 date was based on the winter equinox and celebration of that which was happening in the days of the early church. December 25th is the date pagan religions of that time period celebrated the alleged birth of various gods like Mithras etc. So after Christianity began the legal religion of Rome several hundred years after the birth of Jesus, the early church then desginated the 25th to say Jesus was also born on that day to counteract the wide spread celebration of the birthday of other alleged gods that were celebrated that day. See here for more info on the December 25th date and here if you want to know more.

2) There is no indication the star was there on Christmas Eve -  When you read the biblical account, there is no mention of the star appearing in Christmas Eve or shining above the manger. That was added in artwork, not based on the Bible. The star comes later when the Magi (Wise Men) visited Jesus in a "home" when he was anywhere in age up to two years old. In fact, there is some interesting thinking about the whole "no room in the Inn" understanding of the story, may not have been an "Inn" at all, but a home that they went to. And underneath homes at that time, was the place they kept animals. But the typical sort of Christmas Eve barn-like structure we see the Nativity scene in, it wouldn't have been that. See here for more info on that. There are various theories on this, but there is no star mentioned in what happened on Christmas Day on the day of the birth. That came next when the Magi (the Wise Men) visited Jesus at a later time than the day of His birth. 

3) The Wise Men weren't at the manger scene and Jesus was likely up to 2 years old when they visited Him - The wise men went to a "house" the Bible says (Matthew 2:11) when they visited Jesus, not a stable or barn or cave. This could be explained by the time the Wise Men arrived, Joseph and Mary had settled for time in a home somewhere in Bethelehem. Some speculate it was the same home that Jesus wasa born in, but now it was in the main quarters and not in the cellar where the animals were. We don't know for sure. But it was a house that is what we know.

Jesus was likely not a baby at the time of the Magi visit, but could have been up to two years old. It explicitely uses the word "child" in this verse which is translated from the Greek word “paidion”. There is a different Greek word for a “newborn” (brephos) that was used in Luke when describing the infant Jesus. The word paidion can mean infant also, but it does mean “young child” (paidion) which fits the scene of some time having gone by after Jesus' birth. Some scholar believe Jesus could even been up to two years old as we see that as the age Herod went and ordered the killing of children in Bethlehem of those 2 years and younger. From everything I have read in commentaries, most scholars suggest 6 months to 18 months is the age Jesus was when He was visited by the Magi. But again… we don't know for sure. But in all likelihood, he was older and the Magi did not appear like we see in Nativity scenes. 

The Wise Men weren't "Kings" either. That idea of them being actual Kings came from a Christmas carol written in 1863 ("We Three Kings Of Orient Are"). That was written without biblical backing as well as the idea that there were 3 of them. We don't know for sure how many there were, but early tradition even says there were 12 of them. And they likely were not from the Orient but somewhere in Persia, which is what is modern day Iraq. And they were likely astrologers not kings. 

In the play Katie and Claire are writing, the scene of the Wise Men coming has Jesus as a 2 year old in it. So they have selected a friend who is around that age to portray Jesus when the Wise Men visit as they tell the story. 

I have always found it fascinating that even in the church, we keep portraying some of the story based more on Christmas cards, medieval art and Christmas carols written in the 1800's  vs. the biblical account. Now, I know it is just artistic license and the point is celebrating the birth of Jesus and the incarnation which is what we truly celebrate as the focus. So whether the Wise Men were there or not Christmas Day, or if there was no star that was shining above the baby Jesus etc. isn't important as we focus on the incarnation with joy. So I am not overly bothered when I see the wise men at the manger and a star on Christmas Eve as we show in most Christmas graphics and portrayals of the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus is something to be amazed at, in wonder at and celebrate whether we know the date or the Wise Men and the star were at the manger as we show in nativity scenes. So in many ways this is a very petty thing to even raise up. 

BUT…. my nagging question is if we aren't noticing (or at least having some discussion to be correcting things as we portray and tell tell the story as we teach it) which has some some significant fact errors in of who was there, the star etc. …. then is there any concern that we set an example for not being good teachers of Scripture? Do we set an example of being poor Bible teachers inaccuratly telling the story? Let me play this out with some examples.

 

If we are having a play or art piece about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and in the artwork or actors in the play we have Peter, James and Thomas standing there with Jesus – we would be thinking "What are they doing there? They weren't in that scene and there when Jesus was in the wilderness?'. Or if we had an art piece or play portraying the Last Supper and in the art piece or play we also put in Pontious Pilate being at the Last Supper with them. We would be like "What is Pontious Pilate doing there? He doesn't come into the story until a little later after Jesus was arrested?".  

It feels like as we put the Wise Men and the star in our Christmas portrayals is basically the same. We don't have Pontious Pilate or Barrabus or Caiphus at the Last Supper even though they are part of that story. If we did, it would raise eyebrows and questions (hopefully!). With the nativity scene we are taking the timeline (In this case 2 years difference with the Wise Men and star) and plopping it into a different time period of the story. I guess I wonder why more Christians don't raise this up more to at least ask about it or question it more. 

When I did a quick scan of this on the internet, interestingly I found more non-Christian web sites teaching about the errors in the general portayal of the nativity scene and raising it up than Christian ones. Even Snopes.com covered it here and here.  

Thnking about this doesn't at all take away the incredible beauty and joy of the incarnation of Jesus. The incarnation is to be celebrated and in wonder and worship of. Whether it was December or July when Jesus was born doesn't matter. We have the truth of the reality and joy a Savior was born which is our focus this season we selected to focus on His birth. In our home we have a nativity scence I am looking at as I type this and there is the wise men by the manger. And an Advent Calendar we use has the artwork of the Wise Men and star and all right as the main depiction of it.

But I suppose I am writig this, as it does make me a little uncomfortable that we need to take seriously and at least be acknowledging as we display inaccurate portayals of scenes in the Bible.Not just the Christmas story, but all stories in the Bible. I think I am heightened to this, as I was scanning the internet you sure see non-Christian web sites raising up the discrepencies. I think there is a movement to show that Christians don't know their Bibles out there and point out alleged errors and things in the Bible that are difficult to understand. So this blog post, was just an expression that I was glad to hear two 9 year olds discussing this desire to portray the story as accurately as they can according to the Bible as they wrote their Christmas play. 

 

Dan Kimball

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author of "Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus In The Mess of Organized Religion" and "They Like Jesus But Not The Church" . On staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA.
  • http://profile.typepad.com/fishxpressions Fishxpressions

    Here’s a Bible Quiz Video I made for this very reason. Thanks! http://www.worshiphousemedia.com/countdowns/21941/Christmas-Bible-Quiz

  • Hemie Ramirez

    I really enjoyed this “read” Dan. I actually was unaware of the account you presented and glad for your accurate portrayal. I guess we need people like you whose passion is placed in the accuracy of Scripture to educate us and I too share in this passion. I still have so much to learn regarding Scripture and the more I know the more I want to know. Scripture is so rich and the Wisdom that comes straight form Him even more so. You can count on me to be one to dedicate my life in search for knowledge of Truth. Hooray for the brilliant baby Jesus:)

  • Hemie Ramirez

    Ha! This is insane…
    So, why was December 25 chosen to remember Jesus Christ’s birth with a mass (or Communion supper)? Since no one knows the day of his birth, the Roman Catholic Church felt free to chose this date. The Church wished to replace the pagan festival with a Christian holy day (holiday). The psychology was that is easier to take away an unholy (but traditional) festival from the population, when you can replace it with a good one. Otherwise, the Church would have left a void where there was a long-standing tradition, and risked producing a discontented population and a rapid return to the old ways.
    Ha! So on Dec 25th were actually trying to cover up one of the least Holy of all days?! Ha…so much for “Holy Night”:) Dan do you have any material supporting the Spring Jesus’ birth suspicions?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/dankimball DanKimball

    Hemie — Much of what we do Christmas-wise with trees, wreaths etc. are all from the pagan holiday. We just give it new meaning which is fine by me and doesn’t bother me that we have trees and all that. Read here http://goo.gl/4nMXU for more info on the origin of why we use trees.
    With the time of the year was Jesus actual born read this http://theresurgence.com/2009/12/14/when-was-jesus-born
    Thanks for the comments Hemie! See you Sunday!

  • lisa craddock

    Dan, when I was teaching at UC Denver, I had a class on narrative genres (called “Telling Tales”) and we always started with Myths, specifically Myths of Creation and Myths of the Fall. Since our course textbook included the Biblical stories from Genesis, I always chose those to study. And I always had to tell students to forgot what they thought they knew from childhood Sunday School classes about these narratives, and go straight to the text. It is amazing how different the Creation and Fall accounts are in the public mind vs the literal text. So that was one of my favorite weeks of study in that course–getting people to open their eyes and really read the text of Scripture for what it says.
    And it was perfect for starting the class off with the realization that you might think you know a story, but you always have to ge back to it if you want to engage intellectually with it.

  • Cameron

    Another bug bear I have is the ‘company of the heavenly host’ being portrayed as a choir. That’s military language, not choral. The shepherd’s saw a battalion, not a singing group.
    In fact, the only place I’ve been able to find singing angels in Luke 2 is in the Good News Bible and the Message. Every other translation has speaking angels.

  • Dan

    Cameron — I was reading that about the angels and the military term used for them in the Christmas narrative. With singing, the NIV simply says they were “praising God”. So we can read into things and imagine ideas that somehow turn into fact. It is wonderful too that the shepherds were the ones the angels announced the birth too as shepherds were seen as very lowly people. So God chose the marginalized shepherds to be the ones to announce the birth of Jesus to. That is an often overlooked wonderful truth in this. I think I am going to speak on that at Christmas Eve. Thanks for your comment!

  • Dan

    Lisa – yes… when are you going to teach a class at VFC?!

  • http://pastorzach.com Zach

    When you say that the Magi were definitively not at the manger and Jesus was 2 years old when they arrived, you assume that the star appeared when he was born. The only indication we have of that is the slaughter of children two and under. In other words, you’re making the very same assumption that Herod made about the birth of the messiah–not a strong move.

  • Dan

    Hi Zach!
    I disagree it isn’t a strong move, as most of the scholars and commentaries that discuss this raise this up as a strong possibility. In the newly released “Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament” by Professor Grant Osborne (from Trinity Evangelical Seminary) he writes: “This event could mean that Jesus was older; since Herod killed all the children at the age of two and under (Matt. 2:16), that could mean Jesus was one year old or more.”
    Same thing found in the “NIV Application Commentary” by Dr. Michael Wilkins from the Talbot School Of Theology who wrote: “The term for Jesus in 2:8, 9, 11 (also 2:13, 14, 20, 21) is “child” (paidion), which normally designates an infant or toddler. Since Herod will later attempt to have all boys under two years old killed, the child is now perhaps nearly two.”
    And in the “Book of Matthew Life Application Commentary” by B.B. Barton, it states: “At this point, all Herod knew was that a future king, still a child, lived in Bethlehem. After the wise men explained when the star had first appeared (2:7), Herod deduced that the child would not be more than two years old. So according to the time that he had learned from the wise men, he dispatched his soldiers, and they killed all the (male) children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”
    So I would disagree it isn’t a strong move to suggest that the Magi did not visit Jesus on the day of his birth and to suggest that Jesus could have been up to 2 years old at that time. Now we don’t know for sure, but New Testament scholars will suggest what I wrote in the post as a strong possibility.
    There are even some other thoughts by scholars who speculate that by the time Jesus was visited by the Magi they were actually in Nazareth because it doesn’t say the Magi went to Bethlehem after they visited Herod, but that they saw the star again and followed it. The thought of that is that Bethlehem was very close to Herod and they could easily find Bethlehem at that point and perhaps since Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, they had returned there by then. But no one know for sure, we only have a few verses to grasp the whole story.
    But, there is plenty of evidence to consider the likelihood of what the scholars I quoted above concluded about the age of Jesus and that it was a different location than the place Jesus was born that they visited. But again…. we don’t know for sure. But what we do know, is that He was born. He is the Savior. And we can celebrate and know that the prophecies came true – no matter what the details surrounding the event actually were.
    Thanks for commenting!

  • lew

    our nativity includes, at times, the likes of darth vader, buzz lightyear, dinosaurs, etc. our toddlers don’t seem to mind the theological contradictions.

  • Freda

    I teach first, second, and third graders in a Catholic School and am always trying to drive this point home (literally). I tell them to place the Magi far from the manger scene at home, like in our classroom, and to wait to place any people at all in the scene until Christmas Eve. This year, after going over this, we walked into our church and right past the huge manger scene on December 15 and I some explaining to do……Every figure was already placed in the manger!!!

  • Cindy

    Interesting reading:
    Jesus born in September during the Feast
    of Tabernacles
    http://www.herealittletherealittle.net/index.cfm?page_name=Jesus-Birthday
    Passage: …..Since John (the baptist) was born on Passover, the 15th day of Nisan (the 1st Jewish month), Jesus would have been born six months later on the 15th day of Tishri (the 7th Jewish month). The 15th day of the 7th month begins the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:34-35), also known as Sukkot. Jesus was born on the 1st day of the Feast of Tabernacles! In the year 5 BCE, this fell in the month of September.
    This explains why there was no room at the inn for Joseph and Mary. A multitude of Jewish pilgrims from all over the Middle East had come to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Tabernacles, as God required (Deu. 16:16). Bethlehem, which was only a few miles outside of Jerusalem, was also overflowing with visitors at this time because of the Feast.

  • Sarah Watson

    Dan. This is great. I was just given a wonderful book about Biblical holidays, and it shows how the holidays in the bible point to God’s plan of salvation and second coming. It has all kinds of great activities for children as well. They state in the book that Jesus was born in the fall at the Feast of Tabernacles. I want my children to know what is real and what is not, but I still haven’t decided how that will look in our Christmas traditions.
    The best way to deal with this cultural and historical dilemma, I believe, is to go to the One with the truth. Only then, with Him leading our hearts will we know what the desire of His heart for our lives is. Thank you for being brave and bucking culture. I love that you are still passionate about that.

  • http://thecormierfamily.org/Jason/ Jason

    Best post I have read to date on the topic.

  • http://thecormierfamily.org/Jason/ Jason

    Best post I have read on the topic. Good stuff.

  • Rob Pace

    Why is Jesus not from Bethlehem then as they say he was Jesus of Nazarus?

  • Dan

    Hi Rob! Jesus lineage came from David and the prophecies of Jesus’ birth were to take place in Bethlehem, which it was. But His parents were from Nazareth and that is where they raised Jesus. So he was known as Jesus of Nazareth since that is where he was raised and lived. – Dan

  • http://chickchaotic.wordpress.com/ Elizabeth Chapin

    Dan, good post and good to hear I am not the only one who does funny things with my nativity scene. We even hide baby Jesus until Christmas morning! We’ve told the girls that Christmas day may not be the actual day Jesus was born, but it’s the day we celebrate it. At the beginning of Advent we set out the characters all around the house and then move them week by week closer to the scene, and then on Epiphany Sunday we move the Magi in and then put the scene away. We lost baby Jesus one year, and I searched for a long time to find a nativity scene that had a baby Jesus that could be removed from the manger!

  • donsands

    “Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament” by Professor Grant Osborne (from Trinity Evangelical Seminary) he writes: “This event could mean that Jesus was older; since Herod killed all the children at the age of two and under (Matt. 2:16), that could mean Jesus was one year old or more.” -Dan
    Amen.

  • http://sheridanvoysey.com Sheridan Voysey

    Thanks for typing this up Dan. Truth matters and so these details do too!
    I’ve found Kenneth E Bailey’s work hepful on all of this. Sounds like you might have already read him.
    Thanks again.

  • http://www.zknitz.blogspot.com z

    I like this post.
    I hope that I would be a good scripture example. A light, so to speak in this dark world. Not just a lot of talk and no substance.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say, I think it’s great to see your daughters wanting to portray something from the bible exactly, and not making things up. The fact that the girls read the bible is commendable in itself, but that they are adamant in portraying what they read accurately, is like the icing on a cake.
    you don’t hear much, or at least, i don’t hear much about young people reading the bible these days.

  • http://spirit-cry.com Cameron

    It also sets up a contrast—a military force came from heaven to announce peace on earth. God wasn’t just calling a ceasefire, he was ending the war!
    John Lennon, anyone?

  • John Lazarus

    Seems to me that in some interpretations the “Orient” is not the far east — for example, Oriental Orthodoxy includes the Syriac, Armenian, Malankara (India) Churches, along with the Egyptian Coptic annd Ethiopian Tewahedo, which are a tad further west than Judaea. I think “orient” that the carol’s Kings were from was a relative orient, that envisioned by the English (where I understand the civilized world was limited to wherever you could go without needing a boat).
    So: Kings? No. Three? Doubtful. Orient? Sure!
    Now, the rubber cigar, on the other hand…

  • John Lazarus

    My bad. Ethiopia is east of Israel…or most of it is.

  • David Jones

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post.
    Isn’t Persia what is now modern day Iran (rather than Iraq as noted above)? Or was Persia inclusive of both?

  • judymckinney@gmail.com

    The whole “nativity scene” and it’s elements was put together as a teaching tool actually for folks who could not read and were pretty uneducated. The presentation was meant to stick in the minds of the observers. I think it more than served it’s purpose don’t you? Even unbelievers know the characters and the story. So even though I am a firm believer in sharing the true story, I think we can give a tip of the hat to Francis of Assisi for putting the little play together! I don’t think he meant that we’d all settle for the vignette for all time, especially since we now have our own personal copies of scripture!

  • Hal

    Another aspect of this has to do with the common teaching that Joseph and Mary were turned away from an inn, such as today we would think of as a Ramada Inn or a Holiday Inn or a hotel of some sort. However, the word translated “inn” in this portion of scripture in Luke is more indicative of a house. It is not the same word used in the story of the Good Samaratin where he took the man who had fallen among thieves to an “inn” such as would have an inn-keeper, housekeeping staff, etc. as we think of “hotel” today. Chuck Swindol suggests that Mary and Joseph came to the house of one of Joseph’s relatives and was relegated to the stable. Many of our Christmas depictions talk about the plight of the innkeeper who was so busy rushing around with all of his paying guests. Probably not the case.