Nativity, the event of Christ’s birth, has become a symbol and word that goes hand-in-hand with Christmas. But can we find the word anywhere in the Bible?
Similar to words such as Trinity or incarnation, this specific word does not appear in the Bible. But this does not mean that it doesn’t happen. In fact, the Gospels recount the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1.
In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of the word nativity, what happened during the nativity, and why it has become such an integral part of Christian Christmas celebrations.
The Origin of the Word Nativity
Since we don’t have a Greek word for nativity in the Bible, where and when does this word come about?
The word actually hails over a millennia after Jesus’ birth, around the 1100s. The original word, nativite, means “feast day, celebrating the birth of Christ,” explains the online etymology dictionary.
However, we do know that Christmas celebrations happened long before the 1100s. According to this Christianity.com article, Christmas celebrations began in the fourth century AD.
Theologians have debated the origin of the word nativity, but we can securely say that it pops up in the middle ages and has shaped our celebrations of this holiday ever since.
Similarities and Differences between Our Nativity and the Real One
Now, when we think about nativities that we have at our churches or figurines we may have on our family room mantels, we may wonder how many of the details we have gotten accurately.
The good news is, most.
Let’s dive into the similarities of both nativities by analyzing Scripture.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
The “she” this verse refers to is Mary (and Joseph was also present). Jesus’ earthly parents gave birth to him in a barn because of the overcrowding of inns in Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had issued a decree in which everyone had to return to their hometown for a census, which meant that Bethlehem had a surge of people who had lived in other places (such as Nazareth).
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Our churches seem to get this correct by having sets similar to barns or stables.
Luke 2:8-12 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”
Either we, or some child in our congregation, has played the part of the shepherds and the angels. Both made an appearance during the night of Jesus’ birth. After the angelic declaration, the shepherds hurried to the stable in which Jesus had been born.
Now, we must approach the one difference in the text and most of the media’s depiction of the nativity.
Matthew 2:1-2 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’”
In most versions of the nativity, we’ll see the wise men arrive on the very same night of Jesus’ birth, bearing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.
Most likely, however, they arrived years later, due to the length of their travels. This would explain why Herod tried to destroy any Hebraic child born within the last two years. Sometime between Jesus’ birth and before he reached his second birthday, the wise men arrived.
Nevertheless, churches and figurine sets do tend to get most of the details of the story as accurate as possible.
Why Does This Matter?
We should care about the nativity and how it appears in the Bible for a number of reasons. First of all, many pagan traditions have crept into various Christian holidays, so when we analyze something like the nativity, we should ensure that it holds up against the measure and truth of Scripture.
After all, let’s say that Scripture made no mention of wise men or the shepherds, then should we include them in a church service? Probably not. But thankfully, those figures do appear in the biblical text.
Secondly, we should note that not all Christian words that are a part of Christian doctrine make their way into the original biblical text.
The Bible has received many translations over time. And the Greek (or Hebrew or the various languages of the Old Testament) didn’t necessarily have words for incarnation, nativity, transubstantiation, or other Christian words. This doesn’t negate the properties of any of these doctrines (or much debated doctrines in the case of transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation). Simply, we’ve found a word to describe them.
Finally, we can rejoice at the accuracy of Scripture and how much of a letdown the nativity must have seemed for the Israelites in regards to the Savior of the world they’d anticipated for centuries.
After all, the stable reeked, the shepherds weren’t exactly high and mighty folk, and the wise men didn’t appear with any baby shower gifts for quite some time. But we can know that God purposely chose to humble himself. He could have lived a life of royalty, but he chose to enter the world as the lowest of the lowly.