Not Your Usual Grounds for Protesting Manger Scenes


So, it’s Christmas, which means, as night follows day, that I’m feeling crankier than usual. The holiday season brings out the carmudgeon in me. If I have to read one more explication of how “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is rapey, I think I’ll blow a gasket. I’ve had it with Christmas trees, too. Our tree deposits more mess on the floor than our hair-shedding felines. Note to DNA scientists: Stop cloning sheep. Do something useful and bio-engineer a Christmas tree that doesn’t shed its bloody needles everywhere!

But nothing irritates me during Christmas season like the historical inaccuracy of manger scenes.

Look, if Christians want to re-create the nativity in the public square, I don’t have a problem with that. If there’s anything more annoying than people erecting historically inaccurate renditions of shepherds, wise men, and the baby Jesus, it’s the insufferable secularist killjoys who would expunge the manger scene from public property. If I had to choose between living in a society run by the perpetually aggrieved and offended or a society run by people spreading a message of hope and cheer, I’ll cast my lot with the hope-and-cheer people.

Be that as it may, you’d think the hope-and-cheer people would get their story straight. It’s time to subject the manger scene to some serious scrutiny.

What are the core components of the manger scene? You’ve got yer baby Jesus, mother Mary, and step-father Joseph. No manger scene would be complete without a manger, of course, along with a couple of sheep who have been displaced by the baby Jesus. You ever notice how the sheep are always depicted as sitting peacefully nearby instead of trying to nose the baby Jesus aside to get at the feed in the manger? Probably not. But I notice details like that. Yeah, I’m thinking the sheep were not too happy with the situation.

Every nativity setting also has yer three shepherds and yer three wise men, and maybe a couple of angels. That’s what really gets my goat. (Speaking of goats, why don’t manger scenes have have goats? Who’s to say there were sheep, not goats?)

The shepherds come from the Gospel of Luke, which describes how the family of  Jesus came to Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn. Then:

There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them [and] said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. … And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

Notice the line, “as the angels were gone away from them into heaven,” The angels didn’t follow the shepherds to Bethlehem, they went back to heaven. Got that? There were no stinkin’ angels at the inn! (Don’t even get me started about the depictions of winged messengers of God flitting around like hummingbirds and blowing their trumpets. Biblical angels didn’t have wings. Their ability to jump back and forth between earth and heaven was more akin to a superpower that disrupted the space-time continuum.)

But the historical errancy gets worse. Luke says nothing about wise men or the bright shining star that guided them. Nothing. Nada. That story comes from the Gospel of Matthew.  You’d think that if there had been an astronomical portent like a blazing star that Luke might have taken note of it. But he didn’t. Of course, Luke placed the time of Jesus’ birth as during the period of direct Roman rule, while Matthew placed it during the reign of Herod the Great, so we have other credibility issues to deal with here. But setting aside such trifling matters as which era Jesus was born in, the two nativity narratives are totally different. You’ve got to pick Luke or Matthew. You can’t go with both.

According to Matthew, “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” to ask evil King Herod about “He who is born the King of the Jews.” Herod’s counselors told him that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, so he ordered his minions to search for the child. But the wise men beat Herod’s minions to Bethlehem.

Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.

See where I’m going with this? No shepherds. No angels. No bloody manger! According to Matthew, the family of Jesus was “in the house.” In the house!

The problems don’t stop there. The wise men then proceeded to gift the child with gold and valuable spices: frankincense and myrrh. After hanging around and worshiping the baby Jesus, they took off. But get this: They didn’t even warn the family about King Herod! Nice. Really nice. They got what they wanted, then they bugged out before Herod’s minions caught up with them. Joseph didn’t get wind that the King had it in for the baby Jesus until he was warned in a dream. So, the family packed up and decamped for Egypt. What happened to all that gold and spices? Matthew never tells us. Maybe they used it up paying bribes.

I won’t bore you by recounting all the conflicts between Lukes’ and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’s birth or reciting the internal conflicts and implausibilities contained in Matthew’s versions. I’ll confine what remains of my critique to points that bear upon the composition of manger scenes.

Jesus had brothers and sisters. The Gospel of Mark (the most historically reliable of the gospels) mentions James, Joses, Jude, and Simon as his brothers as well as two unnamed sisters. Early Christian tradition is divided on whether these siblings were born of Mary, were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, or were some mixture of the two. Proof positive remains elusive. But the odds are pretty good that the elderly Joseph had been married before he hitched up with Mary, and that he had other children. So…. where are the older brothers and sisters in the manger scenes? Did Joseph leave them back in Nazareth? C’mon, people, the brothers and sisters were important people. After the crucifixion, James assumed leadership of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem. After James was executed, brother Jude assumed a leadership role in the Christian community. So, I ask you, where are the brothers and sisters? Sheep make the cut for the manger scene but Jesus’ siblings don’t?

Bacon’s bottom line: If you want to recreate Jesus’ birth and stay true to a Gospel account, you can do one of two things. You can show the baby Jesus in a manger with Mary, Joseph, at least a couple of young siblings (though we’re not exactly sure which ones), three shepherds, and some sheep, goats and donkeys. No wise men, no angels, no gleaming star. Or you can display him in a house with family members and three wise men. No shepherds, no angels, no menagerie. But you can’t have it both ways.

Who knows. If you came up with a manger scene based on the literary sources, the killjoys might have no grounds for banning your manger scene off the courthouse lawn. You could say it isn’t religious — it’s historical.

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24 responses to “Not Your Usual Grounds for Protesting Manger Scenes

  1. Um could have been another manger. Its actually assumed that other barnyard animals were present. They just weren’t named. Could have been different set of angels sent at different times. The Bible only describes 2 types of angels with wings: cherubim (Exodus 25:20; Ezekiel 10) and seraphim (Isaiah 6). Marks’ writing was before Matthew and Luke. They arranged the material more to topics and logical grounds rathern than chronological. Papias said that Mark wrote accurately but not in chrono order the traditions he got from Peter. Literary style is different for different writers. Matthew abbreviated a story that Luke didn’t (centurion in around 7th/8th chapters). Try Wimer’s explanation of the birth time line: http://robertwimer.com/birth-jesus-christ-matthew-luke-timeline/. No need to warn the family as Joseph was told in a dream. The reason they might not have said anything is God caused them to forget so He could tell Joseph or they were so excited it slipped their minds. The money wouldn’t have been central to the story: hence left out. The issue on the brothers and sisters has to do with the Greek interpretation of the words. The Catholic church said it meant “cousins” and it means brother/sisters. They were born of Joseph and Mary. They would have been younger: Jesus was the “first born”.

  2. I’ve always enjoyed the Christmas carol, “In The Bleak Midwinter” — written by Christina Rossetti and set to music by Gustav Holst; a favorite in the Episcopal Hymnal. “Snow, on snow, on snow.” The carol makes a wonderful point about what it is we are all called to give at Christmastime.

    There is no snow in Bethlehem. Never was. Historical accuracy is not the point of the carol. It isn’t the point of the Gospels, either. To the extent we have independent verification of the different Gospel accounts in the meager contemporaneous Roman and Hebrew records that survive, we can affirm only the broadest outlines of Jesus’ historical life and death. But proof is not the point of having faith, is it?

  3. Agreed, Acbar, to argue which of the gospel accounts is more or less historical is to argue over the unprovable; to seek to reconcile the birth accounts (or lack of an account) is to miss the point. Each of the four that now survive in the canon was written with a different audience and thus had different emphasis. Matching the birth of Jesus with earlier Jewish messianic prophecy was paramount for Jewish readers. Signs, miracles and portents of future majesty and divine favor were considered essential elements for an audience of non-Jews. The audience for Luke-Acts was gentile. Mark (the first author) and John (the final one) have no birth account. Art history is not exegesis.

  4. My understanding that despite passages in Red in the Bible that purport to be the “word of God” – are not – that not a word in the Bible is actual quoted words of God.

    it’s all “recollection … decades, centuries after…..

    it’s the meaning/intent of the parables – like helping others in need – that appeal to some, perhaps less than before?

  5. The “insufferable secularist killjoys who would expunge the manger scene from public property” are in fact not doing that. They merely insist on inclusion. Put up a Christian exhibit then include other points of view. Prohibit other points of view then no Christian exhibit. It’s all or nothing and Christians are upset that their privilege is being successfully challenged.

    • What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If Christians want to display nativity scenes, they must be tolerant of other religions that want to express their religious devotion on public grounds.

      • I agree with your point Jim. The problem is that the” killjoys” on the whole, have no interest in expressing their own religious beliefs, but instead want to mock and shut down public expression of Christian belief. And relegate it to private homes. I say private home because public churches will surely be next up on the chopping block.

        • “Mock and shutdown public expression of religious belief”
          No, they want the rule of law to be followed. What does that mean? Either all viewpoints are allowed in a public free expression zone, or none.
          Christians are greedy and want to shut out all other views on public property.
          Your assertion that “public churches will surely be next up on the chopping block.” is unfounded.

      • Anytime you draw a line between OK and Not OK, someone comes along who will push at that line. Whether they do so out of sincere disagreement over where the line is drawn or merely to seek attention, that’s human nature, and also, that’s what keeps lawyers employed. I agree with FOF, “Put up a Christian exhibit then include other points of view. Prohibit other points of view then no Christian exhibit.” There is the “In God We Trust” exception, a statement respecting the importance of Faith to our Nation, on our coins etc., so generic that it’s harmless — or is it? — but I don’t know how else we could draw the line than it has been by our courts when someone wants to make an issue of it.

        Would I mind seeing the 10 Commandments displayed in my courthouse? No, and I grew up used seeing a Confederate memorial outside of nearly every Virginia courthouse and didn’t used to mind that, either, but sensitivities evolve. Would I mind seeing a creche set up each December next to that bronze soldier? If a caganer were included in that nativity scene, as it surely would be in Catalonia, would I be offended? How about a wrought-iron fence around this nativity scene worked into beautiful calligraphy saying over and over, in Arabic, “There is but one God and his name is Allah”? Would I object to a public holiday with festival parade to carry the statue of a Roman Catholic Saint across town? How about that WWI memorial in a highway median in the shape of a 40-foot tall cross? I don’t see any basis for placing “public churches on the chopping block”; indeed we give various tax break to religious property — but what about those churches that rent their tax exempt education buildings to for-profit day-care schools while declining to pay the WSSC’s rainwater-runoff levy on their parking lots and cemeteries ?

        I do agree with RF, there are killjoys out there who merely seek notoriety by taking stands against “harmless” expressions of the majority culture; but who am I to judge what is harmless, or when past norms have become offensive to a substantial-enough minority as opposed to a few pesky Grinches? Overall, I really don’t think the courts have done such a bad job of muddling through all this.

        • My view (and I acknowledge others as differing) is that it is interesting to compare the presence of Civil War figures and Religious articles in “public squares” as both are essentially motivated by the same thing and that is to portray those concepts/ideas as supported, sanctioned and favored by the government over and above values of others who are “lesser” and not “equal”.

          It’s also important to recognize that this is not unique to the USA and exists worldwide and has been that way since mankind developed social structures and governance.

          I would posit that more people have been harmed and have died from these human/culture/religious-inspired hate activities towards others than anything else except perhaps disease of which one could consider this a form of also.

          Those of us who abhor the display of these favored (by some) symbols in Govt public places are NOT opposed to religion or God or Robert E. Lee – we’re opposed use of these Government favored/sanctioned symbols that basically say that there are favored classes of people and others who are not. We have a LONG HISTORY of this in the USA – denying that we do is just blindly ignoring reality or worse just ignorance.

          It’s not religion at the Courthouse or in the schools – it’s a overt message just like the Civil War memorials were intended – towards those who are not one of “us” nor our government and the message is that you need to know that you are not an equal.

          We say we got rid of some of this – not very long ago – there were some who touted the fact that we were “post-racial” (sic) but now we hear that folks of color are “inferior” in IQ and behavior and that’s why they deserve to be “disciplined” and imprisoned more than others … etc.. We say these things – very carefully worded but the message is loud and clear.

          For me, it’s very much akin to the concept of White Supremacy… and other Nation/Cultures variants of it so I see the advocacy for having religious (and other) symbols in government squares – as something not with good intentions at “defending religion” at all.

          Now for those who say I’m equating White Supremacy to the display of a creche – note that I’m NOT – I’m alluding to opposition to the underlying motivations for public displays of ANY symbol that is perceived by some to be a Govt-favored value in a society with many different ones.

          “OUR” Govt does not, should not, and can not favor religion, race, gender, culture, or any of the myriad values of society, of humanity.

          Those that want it anyhow – I’m sorry – that’s a problem that we
          still have and should think about. We’re supposed to be an enlightened country – ever since we became a nation and we are not achieving the lofty goals we said – made us an “exceptional” nation.

    • Yup. Same thing for schools and “prayer”… you have one – you gotta have them all..

  6. Laugh out loud.

  7. What’s so funny?

  8. Keep in all on private property. I froze my toes fifty years ago in a woolen robe standing there for hours on end, but on the steps of First Pres, not down at the courthouse square. I’m sure others before Jim had nothing better to do than flip through Luke and play drama critic.

    • Your experience recalls sitting in a duck blind 60+ years ago out on water in January on a blustery squally day back when we had real winters on the Chesapeake in the 50s. That’s why I gave it up and took up climbing. At least you were moving around, including your feet, most of the time.

      I believe all religions have an important and critical place in the public square. In that connection, our fellow non believers, and religious bigots, need to eat their spinach, Brussel Sprouts, and broccoli, and behave like civilized adults when other citizens express their faith out in the public square. You don’t want to go to Hell, do ya, Steve?

  9. Very funny, Jim! Kudos. As for the frankincense and myrrh, that was produced in Yemen back in those days. In 1AD Yemen was a rich country based on the export of these items that were so valued for their healing properties. Then, as I heard it (visit in the 1990s) in the seventh century, after Yemen had a run-in with the Prophet Muhammad, that trade was banned and Yemen fell into a 1,300 year depression from which it has not recovered.

    Bottom-line: if the three wise men had been stopped from crossing the border by Homeland Security, there never would have been this story to tell in the Bible! Trade is good!

    • I gotta say, Jon, I never thought about the free-trade implications of the three wise men. But you’re absolutely right. I think you could develop the idea into a full-blown theological treatise! Who needs Adam Smith on your side when you’ve got the Bible?

  10. Dear Jim,

    I am reading this for the first time on Friday, and you posted on Tuesday. You assume that the angels who spoke to the shepherds were all of the angels there. It is not contradictory to say that the angels who spoke to the shepherds left them to go into heaven while others remained by the Holy Family. I do not have the time, and probably not the patience either, sadly, to contend on each point. Your manner of presentation leaves much to be desired in any case.

    For those, if any, who have the interest, time, and patience to look at the different Gospel accounts with a sympathetic mind, there are Saint John Chrysostom’s (349- +407) homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110

    Also, here is a Church Fathers’ Scripture Index that allows readers to read interpretations of the same texts from different early Church Fathers. http://www.catholiccrossreference.com/fathers/?fbclid=IwAR0nxD1ITKc17MCRj4kL3pFMc7ICWAjGQzdkytgNR-ZHk_sq7g66_wiuotE

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

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