The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have stories of the infancy of Jesus which function as different overtures to way each of them present the stories they will go on to paint. In our Christmas cards, crib scenes, children’s books, and nativity plays we tend to conflate these two overtures, thereby losing some of the very points that Matthew and Luke were making. And then we add further components that we can go on to assume are there – reading them back into the texts when we pick them up.
1) There’s no mention of a donkey. We assume that Mary rode a donkey to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem (we are in Luke’s story for that journey). Luke may have wanted us to assume such an image (just as we assume an aeroplane if someone today writes about going from Christchurch to Singapore) but let’s be clear: there’s no mention of a donkey.
2) There’s no mention of an innkeeper. In fact there’s no mention of an inn:
διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι. (ΚΑΤΑ ΛΟΥΚΑΝ 2:7, SBLGNT* ) (Luke 2:7, WYC**)καταλύματι (katalumati) only occurs here in the Bible. There are two other occurrences of κατάλυμά (kataluma) in the Bible: Mark 14:14 (WYC**) and Luke 22:11 (WYC**) where it is usually translated as “guest room”. So Wycliffe might have the best translation:
And she bare her firstborn son, and wrapped him in `clothes, and laid him in a feed-trough [and put him in a cratch], for there was no place to him in no chamber.3) There’s no mention of a stable. There’s no mention of animals at the birth. Sure, there’s
καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ (ΚΑΤΑ ΛΟΥΚΑΝ 2:7, SBLGNT *) (Luke 2:7, WYC **)where φάτνῃ (phatnē – usually rendered as “manger”) is a ledge in the end of the room on which food could be placed for animals.
4) There’s no mention that Mary gave birth to Jesus on the night they arrived in Bethlehem.
5) There’s no mention of three wise men – just three objects: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There’s no mention that they were kings. Placing three kings [and a star] in with shepherds, animals, and angel(s), not only mixes the two overtures, but also telescopes chronology. Matthew’s story of the wise men is set when Jesus is a toddler. Herod, remember, “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16, WYC**).
6) There’s no mention of December 25. Sure, there’s one chance in 365 (366 if it was a leap year) that Jesus was born on December 25.
I’ve timed this post so that people are not too upset that I’m spoiling their (church) crib scene which has angels, animals, shepherds, and three kings all combined in one set of statues; or the children’s play depicts all these; or carols combine and add further details. I encourage you to reflect on how Matthew and Luke use their overtures to the story they are about to tell – for that reflection, you need to keep them separate. What is Luke’s message (with shepherds)? What is Matthew’s message (with magi)? As you, your church, your crib scene, your carol, your pastor’s sermon combine details and add (unprovided) details – that may be perfectly fine, but what is the message that is conveyed?
* Scripture quotations marked SBLGNT are from the The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition.
** Scripture quotations marked WYC are from the Wycliffe Bible hand-printed under the direction of John Wycliffe over a period from approximately 1382 to 1395.