NOTE: This Bible History Daily [Biblical Archaeology Society] article was originally published on December 10, 2014. It has been updated.
One of the most familiar images of the Christmas season is the nativity scene—the well-known depiction of Jesus’ birth—displayed in an array of public and private settings, including churches, parks, store windows and on fireplace mantles. The scene, first assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, is iconographic, meaning its various elements are intended primarily to depict theological—not historical, nor even literary—truths. It harmonizes two very distinct stories: Luke’s birth of Jesus in a stable, visited by shepherds, and attended by an angelic host and Matthew’s Magi, who are led by a star to the home of Jesus’ family sometime before Jesus’ second birthday.
To most people viewing the nativity scene, it depicts the birth of Jesus as it happened, with farm animals, shepherds, angels and Magi crowding the Bethlehem stable. But the combination is apocryphal, in the wide sense that the complete scene is not an accurate reflection of what the Biblical texts say about Jesus’ birth and in the narrow sense that such harmonization of Matthew and Luke is a common feature of noncanonical Christian infancy gospels. Actually, these gospels not only combine the Biblical stories, they enhance them, with additional traditions about the birth of Jesus that circulated in antiquity. Of course most Christians throughout history were unaware of this distinction; before widespread literacy, Christians told the story of Jesus’ birth without awareness of which elements were based on Scripture and which were not.
The Christian Apocrypha are rich with tales of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and most well-known of these are the stories found in the Protevangelium (or “Proto-Gospel”) of James. Composed in the late second century, this text combines the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke with other traditions, including stories of the Virgin Mary’s own birth and upbringing. The Protevangelium was exceptionally popular—hundreds of manuscripts of the text exist today in a variety of languages, and it has profoundly influenced Christian liturgy and teachings about Mary. The Protevangelium was transmitted in the West as part of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which added to it tales of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt and, in some manuscripts, stories of Jesus’ childhood taken from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Other Pseudo-Matthew manuscripts incorporate a different telling of Jesus’ birth from an otherwise lost gospel that scholars call the Book about the Birth of the Savior. In the East, the Protevangelium was translated into Syriac and expanded with a different set of stories set in Egypt to form the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was later translated into Arabic as the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Another Syriac reworking of theProtevangelium lies behind the Armenian Infancy Gospel. Christians in the East also expanded on Matthew’s Magi traditions creating the Revelation of the Magi, the Legend of Aphroditianus, and On the Star (erroneously attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea), each of which in their own way narrates how the Magi became aware that the star heralded the birth of a king.
If readers of these apocryphal texts could see the modern nativity scenes, they would be surprised to find the baby Jesus in a stable: In the infancy gospels, the birth takes place in a cave outside of Bethlehem, the same location given also by Justin Martyr (in his Dialogue with Trypho 78), who died around 165 C.E. They might have expected also to see a midwife in the scene; indeed, she does appear regularly in Eastern Orthodox depictions of the nativity, helping Mary bathe the newborn. As theProtevangelium tells it, Joseph left Mary in the cave and went into Bethlehem to find a midwife. But as Joseph and the midwife approached the cave, they saw a bright cloud overshadowing it. The cloud then disappeared into the cave and a great light appeared, which withdrew and revealed the baby Jesus. Each of the later expansions of the Protevangelium narrate this scene in their own unique way, but they all endeavor to show that Jesus was not born in a natural manner, thus allowing Mary to remain physically a virgin after the birth. So superhuman is Jesus that some texts report that he could be perceived in multiple forms. The Armenian Infancy Gospel, for example, reports that the Magi each saw him in a different way: as the Son of God on a throne, as the Son of Man surrounded by armies, and as a man tortured, dead and resurrected.
The apocryphal accounts agree with Luke that the shepherds visited the Holy Family shortly after Jesus’ birth. In the Western texts, the family then moves from the cave to a stable and places the baby in a manger. There an ox and an ass bend their knees and worship him, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows it owner, and the donkey its master’s crib” (see Pseudo-Matthew 14 and Birth of the Savior 86). Though an apocryphal embellishment, the animals became a common ingredient in subsequent depictions of the nativity and may be observable in nativity scenes today.
Most often, the cave remains the scene of subsequent events, including the circumcision (from Luke 2:21) and the visit of the Magi. The Magi are typically depicted in art and iconography as three richly-adorned Persian kings. However, Matthew calls them only “magi from the East” (Matthew 2:1) and does not say how many there were. The writers of the apocryphal texts did their best to clarify these matters. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are at least twelve Magi—the same number is given in other Syriac traditions—and they came to Bethlehem in April (not December) from a land in the Far East called “Shir,” perhaps meant to be understood as China. The Armenian Infancy Gospel says there were three kings, and they were accompanied by 12 commanders, each with an army of 1,000 men, which would make for a very crowded stable indeed. Many of the texts continue the story of the Magi and tell what happened when they returned to their home country: In theLife of the Blessed Virgin (=Arabic Infancy Gospel) they bring back one of Jesus’ swaddling bands, which they worship because it has miraculous properties; in the Revelation of the Magi they share the vision-inducing food (some kind of magic mushrooms?) given to them by the star; and in the Legend of Aphroditianus they return with a painting of Jesus and his mother. None of these apocryphal Magi traditions are featured in nativity scenes today, but some of them influenced medieval art and literature.
Christians of all times and places have delighted in the story of Jesus’ birth, so much that they have yearned to learn more about the first Christmas than is found in the Biblical accounts. The Christmas nativity scene is the outcome of efforts by creative and pious writers to fill in blanks left by Matthew and Luke and to combine multiple traditions, Biblical and non-Biblical, into one enduring image. The nativity scene is a timeless representation of when God became man; it is also a testament to human imagination and the art of storytelling.
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/free-ebooks/the-first-christmas-the-story-of-jesus-birth-in-history-and-tradition/