The Wise Men at the manger

Every year around Christmas we see nativity scenes.  The details of the scenes differ but all of them show the baby Jesus in a manger with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Wise Men either standing or kneeling around him.  These scenes serve a useful purpose by reminding everyone that Christmas is about Jesus, not Santa Claus.  Unfortunately every nativity scene I have ever seen promotes an error.  They show the Wise Men being present at the birth of Jesus.  In fact they were nowhere near Bethlehem then and didn’t arrive until much later.

Here is Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus.

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:24-25)

He doesn’t give any details about the birth except to tell us that Mary was still a virgin.

Luke 2:1-20 gives a more detailed description of Jesus’s birth.  Joseph and Mary were forced to go to Bethlehem because of a decree by Caesar and Jesus was born there and placed in a manger.  An angel revealed to a group of shepherds that the Messiah had been born and they came to see him.

Matthew 2:1-12 describes the visit of the Wise Men.   They came after the birth of Jesus.  They might have come as late as two years later and they found Joseph and Mary living in a house.  Jesus was certainly not lying in a manger when they saw him.  Luke doesn’t mention the Wise Men.  (He probably knew about them but felt it was better not to say anything about them.  Luke and the Wise Men )

Yet in spite of the fact that the Wise Men couldn’t possible have been present they are included in every nativity scene I have ever seen.  Even Christians who know they weren’t there include them because they consider it a harmless custom.  They don’t realize that misrepresenting what the Bible says is never harmless.

If the Wise Men came to Jesus while he was in the manger there is a contradiction in the Bible’s accounts of what happened next.  Here is what Matthew says happened after the Wise Men left.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 

And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15)

Here is what Luke says happened after Jesus was born.

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) (Luke 2:21-23)

A male child had to be presented to the Lord 40 days after his birth.  The instructions on how to do this are found in Leviticus 12 .

I have read statements on the internet by unbelievers who cite these passages to prove that the Bible contradicts itself.  When we show the Wise Men being present at the birth of Jesus we are encouraging the false belief which leads them to see this as a contradiction.  I would like to see Christians presenting biblically accurate nativity scenes in which the Wise Men aren’t present.  (Biblical accuracy would also require that any angels shown would not have wings.  Do angels have wings? )

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Posted on June 28, 2017, in Bible study and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. When setting up the manger scene, I like to place the wise men some distance from the manger and the rest of the figures. Especially with the manger scene at church, I have the manger scene on one side of the chancel and the wise men facing it from the other side of the chancel.
    Of course every manger scene has three wise men–one for each gift–even though we don’t know how many made the trip. Also, most manger scenes have a wooden shelter for the manger, although the manger by Bethlehem was almost certainly in a cave. And, because creating manger scenes is a custom that began in Europe, the people almost always appear European rather than looking like West Asian Jews. I don’t tend to worry too much about the inaccuracies. J.

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    • The inaccuracies you mention aren’t important. Believing the Wise Men were present at the manger is. It can clearly be shown to be false by carefully reading what the Bible says and it can lead people to think there is a contradiction between what Luke tells of events after the birth and what Matthew tells us what happened after the visit of the Wise Men.

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  2. I do know plenty of unbelievers who attempt to claim there are contradictions in the Bible, but, as you pointed out, careful attention to the text often demonstrates that there are no contradictions. It’s also helpful to pay attention to the original text, the intent of the author, and examine other related passages.

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    • Unfortunately Christians sometimes give unbelievers ammunition they can use against us when we do things such as present nativity scenes that aren’t biblical.

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