Nativity niggles

Each year many cathedrals, churches and Christians throughout the world display a nativity scene, as does Rochester Cathedral. It’s a story we’re all familiar with, but what do we actually know – or think we know – about the birth of Jesus?
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is described in the Biblical gospels of Luke and Matthew. The two accounts agree Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, his mother Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph, and that his birth was caused by divine intervention. Because both accounts are recorded in Greek Aramaic,
The date or year of birth for Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any secular text, but the year has been estimated to have been between 6 and 4 BC based on the mention of contemporary historical events, or by working background from known dates in Jesus’ ministry. The birth became associated with the Winter Equinox in the earliest centuries, a date of feasting throughout the ancient world. The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church, notably in Rome and North Africa.

Nativity without maji 2020 by Rochester Cathedral on Sketchfab

Jesus in a manger
The Gospel of Luke states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and placed him in a manger, or a feeder used to hold food for animals, “because there was no place for them in the inn”. The Greek word kataluma may be translated as either “inn” or “guestroom”, and some scholars speculate Joseph and Mary may have sought to stay with relatives, only to find the house full.
Cave or stable?
In the C2nd, Justin Martyr stated that Jesus had been born in a cave outside the town. The Church of the Nativity inside the town, built by St. Helena, contains the cave-manger site traditionally venerated as the birthplace of Jesus, which may have originally been a site of the cult of the god Tammuz.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was betrothed to Joseph, but was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph intended to divorce her quietly, but an angel told him in a dream that he should take Mary as his wife and name the child Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins. Joseph awoke and did all that the angel commanded.
Convenience and convention
Although traditional nativity scenes depict the major events of Jesus birth condensed into a night-time scene, the single account in Matthew of the Maji is presented at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in a house, not a stable, with only Mary mentioned as present.
The stars
Luke 2 describes an event in which angels tell a group of shepherds about the birth of Jesus. The shepherds travel to Bethlehem, and find Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus lying in the manger.
Magi, kings or wise men?
Matthew’s use of the term ‘magi’, from which we derive the word magic, refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. Their religion paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology. Their identification as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings. By 500 AD readers had reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings.
We three kings?
Matthew mentions that magi, or ‘wise-men’ from the east came to worship the child and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Because three gifts are mentioned, it has been assumed that the magi numbered three, although Eastern Christianity often consider twelve. Race…

Previous years’ nativity scenes at the Cathedral have occasionally seen modification to highlight current crises, such as the tent-based Nativity of 2015 at the height of the Calais Migrant Crisis. After Jesus’ birth,

Migration crisis nativity crib 2016* by Heritage4D on Sketchfab

Wisdom Hospice Christmas trees 2020 by Rochester Cathedral on Sketchfab

Jacob Scott
Rochester Cathedral Research Guild