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.There are currently no comments highlighted.