Re-envisioning the Manger: 7 Common Misconceptions about the Nativity of Jesus

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A few fun facts about the ancient world and the birth of Jesus.

1.  Mary wasn’t necessarily about to give birth any moment on her way to Bethlehem. The classic image of Mary riding on a donkey about 11 months pregnant probably wasn’t the case.

Luke 2:4-6 – “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born

“While they were there, the time came…” not while they were in Nazareth the time came and she barely made it to Nazareth. I expect Mary was not quite as far along as we often envision her to have been.

2. Magi did not come to see newborn Jesus, nor were they at the manger (edit: should say at a stable) but in a house in Bethlehem.

Instead, the Magi saw the star some two years earlier and Herod understood that to mark the birth of Jesus. We don’t need to envision the gold, frankincense and myrrh ensconcing baby Jesus as much as being gotten into by terrible two Jesus.

Matt 2:7-11,16″ – Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh...16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

3. Mangers are not stables in separate buildings

In the ancient world the animals lives in an area connected to the house. These areas were either at the back of the house or situated under a portion of the house. Baby Jesus wasn’t put in a barn. The manger is the food trough the animals ate out of and the examples we have today from this period are made of stone. So Jesus wasn’t born out in a barn somewhere distant from the house but in part of a house itself.

4. The shepherds and the Magi never met.

The shepherds came for the birth of Jesus and the Magi seemed to have arrived two years later.

5. Herod didn’t kill thousands of kids.

The town of Bethlehem was so small that the number of children killed was in the dozens, not thousands.

6. There probably wasn’t an inn in Bethlehem.

Mary and Joseph went there because it was their family town…which means they probably had family in town. Archaeology doesn’t show any record of an inn in Bethlehem. What is more Luke uses two words in his Gospel, one for guest room (Luke 2:7 and 22:11 – upper room wasn’t an inn) and one for inn (10:34 – where the Good Samaritan took the injured man). In the nativity of Jesus he uses the word he uses elsewhere for guestroom, not the word that means inn. So in all likelihood, they were checking with relatives for a place to stay without any luck finding a vacant guest room but probably still found room in the back of a relative’s house in their manger.

Bonus: Shepherds weren’t very welcome people to the birth of your child in Jesus’ day. They were often considered to be unclean as they dealt with the animals all the time…this was not a very prestigious job but was more a job at the bottom of the food chain. God had angels invite the least of these and the marginalized as guests and witnesses of the Messiah!

Adjust your manger scenes accordingly:

Newborn Jesus: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus up to two year old Jesus, shepherds and animals. Remove all angels. The star is on its way…not there yet.

2 year old Jesus: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, Magi and change the manger into a house. Remove all angels. The star has arrived.

4 Responses

  1. Interesting facts, but I don’t think I’ll be adjusting my nativity scene because the point is to be a reminder of Jesus birth, not necessarily a completely accurate representation of the manger scene. If that were the case, I’d need to find another time to display it, too, after I figured out when exactly Jesus was born, as we all know it wasn’t December 25th.

    1. That was a bit tongue in cheek to further the point. The nativity scene is as much art and reminder of the central elements of the story that builds our faith than anything else. You don’t have to paint the right color swaddling cloths for the scene to have it’s intended affect!

  2. In #3 I think you are confusing mangers and stables. A manger is a feeding trough. Your point is that stables were on the first floor of the house (so the animals’ body heat would rise and warm the human types) or attached to the house.
    Another misconception you could have added is that Jesus was born at night. Luke says that the shepherds watched their flocks at night, not that Jesus was born at nigh.

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