Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes

Biblical Sources for the Nativity

There are four Gospels in the New Testament. All of them portray the life and mission of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but only two chapters in two of these Gospels deal with the stories of His birth and infancy. The birth of Jesus is not mentioned in the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of John, but Matthew (chaps. 1-2) and Luke (chaps 1-2) each relate the circumstances surrounding His genealogy, miraculous conception, birth, and infancy.

The accounts of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke differ considerably from one another in both content and length. If we set aside the 17 verses of genealogy in Matthew, the birth and infancy story in Luke (132 verses) is more than four times longer than Matthew’s version (31 verses). Yet each of these Gospels provides important information that is missing from the other; typically portions of both texts are harmonized to create a Nativity scene. Of course, some parts of the Christmas story lend themselves to artistic representation more easily than others, and understandably most Nativity scenes leave out certain parts of the narrative (such as the Massacre of the Innocents, Matthew’s account of Herod’s attempt to eliminate Jesus by killing all male children in the region who were under two years in age).

The chart below lists the portions of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke most commonly depicted in Nativity scenes. (Click on the verse references to read the passages.)

Matthew Chapters 1–2Luke Chapters 1–2
Angel (no name) appears to Joseph to announce birth of Jesus (1:20) Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce birth of Jesus (1:26-38)
Jesus born in Bethlehem (2:1) Jesus born in Bethlehem (2:4-7)
No room in the “inn” (Greek = kataluma) (2:7)
Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger (2:7)
Angels appear to shepherds in the field (2:8-14)
Shepherds visit Jesus at the manger (2:15-20)
Star appears in the East (2:2)
Wise men come from the East to Jerusalem, Bethlehem (2:1-12)
Wise men go into the “house” (Greek = oikos) and worship Jesus (2:11)
Wise men present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh (2:11)
Family of Jesus flees from Herod to Egypt (2:13)