Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Close your eyes and imagine a Nativity scene. Now, make sure everything is there: a donkey, three wise men, shepherds and lambs, cattle and farm animals. Don’t just imagine the Nativity scene itself — consider also the Nativity story. Joseph not believing Mary’s stunning announcement, Mary riding a donkey, Jesus being born in a barn (or something like a stable), the innkeeper saying “no” and the glorious sight of angels. We do this every year, so it’s easy to come up with imagery even for those unfrequented with a Christian lifestyle.
Now, turn to your Bible and check out the first couple chapters of each Gospel narrative. Did someone replace your Bible? Did you get the Nativity Omitting Standard Version? Those darn NOSV translations are everywhere — because your friend’s Bible omits these Christmas-centric details, too!
All right, all right, I’ll break it to you. Many of the details that have become familiar with the Nativity are in fact not in the Bible. Just about everything I mentioned in the introduction so far aren’t in the Bible.
1. Mary rode a donkey
This is the biggest offender — and I use that term playfully. Other than Jesus in a manger, I doubtless that this is details most associated with the narrative of Christ’s birth. But, it’s not located in any of the Gospels. The mention of a donkey is not even in Scripture. Actually, the earliest mention of the donkey comes from the apocryphal books, the Gospel Infancy of Matthew. Wherever these details derived from, they stuck with Christian narrators for centuries — such as in the Golden Legend — and eventually made their way to art, and plays. It’s perfectly reasonable to imagine Mary on the back of an ass, or even in a small cart driven by the creature, but it’s not in the Bible.
2. Joseph was much older than Mary
There are several traditions that tell us that St. Joseph was in advanced years when he became betrothed to Mary. Eastern Orthodox traditions even tell that he was once married before becoming a widower. It’s not an indisputable fact that Mary was much younger than Joseph, but it doesn’t emerge from the Bible. This imagery comes largely from the narrative in the Protoevangelium of James, which I highly recommend for reading.
3. Doubting Joseph
Did Joseph outright not believe Mary’s story about the announcement of a coming birth and her miraculous pregnancy? A bit passionate for the Holy Family, I am a little offended when I read scholarship and rhetoric of Joseph’s lack of faith. If we want to argue over various speculations and the Law, we can, but that fact is that there is no part of the Bible that gives us a reason to doubt St. Joseph. His decision to quietly had more to do with protecting Mary since Joseph was “a just man and unwilling to put her to shame.” For more on the betrothal v. married argument, check out Tim Staple’s excellent arguments.
4. The cattle were lowing
A sweet verse from Award in a Manger, the popularity of the hymn doesn’t make the content biblical. Once again, this comes from the popular idea that Mary and Joseph were relegated to have the birth in an animal shelter like a cave or a stable. But we see no such detail in the Bible; its roots are similar to that of the donkey. Whatever the case, that there is a manger indicates a reasonable expectation for animals to be present and there very well might have been. We don’t know for sure.
5. Several innkeepers turned away Mary and Joseph
The Gospel of Luke only tells us that there was no room at the inn. “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (2:7). This short verse tells us volumes. There might have been one inn, or several, but the Bible doesn’t say. In fact, the old city of Bethlehem is so small that it isn’t imaginable that the town would indeed be supportive of a single inn. Even then, the translation is “guest room” — there are several places to go with that. What’s clear is that they didn’t get desirable accommodations for their imminent birth. This is less about being turned away, and more about the voluntary poverty to which God was born into.
6. Jesus was born in a barn
A barn, a cave, and a stable are all the famous scenes we’re familiar with. One thing to note here, and that is the cultural tradition of the Nativity. In America, our Nativities are generally the same. But I’ve seen in Japan where the setting of the manger is in a house in the tatami room, and even one imagined to be in a desert. But in Italy (where I currently live), where the Nativity scene is called a presepe, the manger scene comes in several different forms. Presepi are ridiculously intricate to the smallest details. Many aim at showing a diorama of the perfect Bethlehem, and guess what? Few of them have Jesus in a stable In fact, the world’s largest gathering of nativity scenes is in Verona and it’s called the Presepe dal Mondo (“Nativity from the World”) and from Turkey to Poland to Fiji to Alaska, the scenes are different. We have no idea if Jesus was born in a barn, only that it was with a feeding trough, the manger. More important to where he was born is the what he was born into: poverty.
7. The shepherds and their lambs
That shepherds and lambs are deeply tied to Christ is undeniable, and for particularly good reasons. But in all likelihood, if the shepherds at Bethlehem were good shepherds, they wouldn’t leave a young lamb to fend by itself — but it isn’t clear from Scripture. Then why do we see shepherds with their lambs at the birth of Christ? It’s possible the shepherds brought their entire flocks or that they left everything to go and see the newborn Messiah. Another details we’re just unsure about.
8. There were three wise men — kings even
Matthew Chapter 2 is the location of this famous story. A riveting one, actually, filled with cunning plans and deception. But the Bible only mentions “wise men from the East.” And you know why, in general, we say “three wise men,” right? For the three gifts. The tradition of tall Melchior, shorter Caspar, and dark Balthazar developed later. It has become such a fixed part of the customs around Epiphany that the three are even named as saints. Better yet, their bones are located in Cologne, Germany. So, their story goes way back; it’s fairly trustworthy.
9. It was a silent night
This is a tough argument. It’s clear that the Bible is just silent on the topic of Jesus sleeping. “The Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” again softly sings the famous tune, but it’s the Bible that’s silent. For me, this is a theological item. Yes, Jesus was fully human, but so was Mary, yet there are solid arguments that she had no labor pain. But those are arguments to be had in another forum. Still, I’m consoled by the thought that a silent night was the reward for such a challenging series of events, especially with what happens next: the flight to Egypt.
Now, it’s right about this time that people start thinking, “My faith isn’t biblical!” Well... that’s one way to think of it. If you’re on this mode of thinking, I want to offer you a fresh perspective because this was not a “gotcha” post but was intended to point out a very special truth. Our Catholic Faith is developed from Scripture and Tradition. The iota details of who was standing where, when this character appeared, the number of these characters, how many people there were, and precisely what it looked like, do not alter the importance of the scene of a Nativity. The Nativity is our opportunity to witness the birth of God incarnate. But it also serves a function no less important, and that is one of the context of poverty. Out Lord, the God of the universe, deserving of a pillow and sheets softer than the clouds, was born into a clunky and humble manger. The Son of God would have it no less perfect to exclaim: I was born poor, lived as a poor man, and died with nothing.