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SBL e-journal

Meira Z. Kensky





The Story behind the Nativity Scene





APA e-journal

Meira Z. Kensky





The Story behind the Nativity Scene








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The Story behind the Nativity Scene

Nativity scenes are peaceful and idyllic. However, Matthew’s story of the magi bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus, set in the time of King Herod, foreshadows the gospel’s themes of political rivalry, violence, and the death of Jesus.


The Story behind the Nativity Scene

Adoration of the Magi, Fritz Freund (1859–1936)

One of the hallmarks of the Christmas season is the traditional nativity scenes (crèches), presented in settings from giant wooden structures to tiny hollowed out acorns, that depict Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus visited by guests bearing gifts, shepherds, and a star lighting the way (and sometimes camels). The nativity scene is a harmonization of elements from two different gospels: The shepherds and their flock come from the Gospel of Luke (2:8–20)[1]; the rest of the imagery—including the star, the barn-like location, and the gift-bearing visitors—derives from Gospel of Matthew (ch. 2).

The story of the nativity is far from peaceful, however; it foreshadows and reflects Matthew’s account of the Jewish rejection of the long-awaited Davidic Messiah, and even in this early story we can already hear the sounds and see the symbols of the crucifixion.

Herod and Jesus, King(s) of the Jews

The story in Matthew is set in the time of King Herod the Great (72–4 B.C.E.), who was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate at the urging of Mark Antony in 37 B.C.E., several decades after the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., ending the Hasmonean dynasty in the region (Josephus, Jewish War 1.14.4).[2]

Herod’s family was not Judean, but Idumean (the Greek name for Edomites). Josephus, our primary source of information about Herod, downplays his heritage, and instead emphasizes his connections to Judea and Judean customs and traditions.[3] Eric Vanden Eykel (Ferrum College) suggests: “[T]he fact that Josephus feels the need to comment on Antipater and Herod’s acceptance by Judeans may suggest that such an acceptance was neither easy nor universally shared.”[4]

Written at least seventy years after Herod’s death, the gospel of Matthew uses questions about Herod’s legitimacy to establish Jesus as the future leader of the Jews. The story, which is often called “the adoration of the magi,” begins when the magi, gentile “wise men” from a foreign land, come to Herod:[5]

Matt 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, 2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.”[6]

Rather than the magi coming to honor Herod, as he might have expected, the magi’s focus is not in Jerusalem at all but instead in Bethlehem, as they seek to pay homage to the child.[7] Moreover, their question about the child is not benign; “king of the Jews” is Herod’s title. These foreigners are declaring that someone other than Herod—a child—is truly the king of the Jews. Indeed, the child has been born king, unlike Herod, who was appointed by foreign imperial powers.

The magi tell Herod that they have come to Jerusalem because they observed Jesus’ star in the east. Many scholars think that Matthew, who emphasizes that Jesus fulfills biblical prophecy, is alluding to a prophecy of Balaam:

במדבר כד:יז אֶרְאֶנּוּ וְלֹא עַתָּה אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ וְלֹא קָרוֹב דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל....
Num 24:17 I see him but not now; I behold him but not near— a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel….[8]

Indeed, Balaam and the star often appear in early Christian iconographic depictions of the magi or Mary with the infant Jesus.[9]

Stars are also associated with the rising and falling of political leaders, both in the Bible and in the Roman world. For example, Isaiah refers to the decline of a Mesopotamian king:[10]

ישׁעיה יד:יב אֵיךְ נָפַלְתָּ מִשָּׁמַיִם הֵילֵל בֶּן שָׁחַר נִגְדַּעְתָּ לָאָרֶץ חוֹלֵשׁ עַל גּוֹיִם.
Isa 14:12 How you are fallen from heaven, O Morning Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low![11]

Thus the political implications of what the magi are saying to Herod become clear: another’s star is rising, so yours must be falling.

Silver denarius of Caesar Augustus (27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.); minted 19–18 B.C.E. Reverse shows a comet with eight rays and tail.

Other scholars connect this star with Greco-Roman beliefs about people being born with their own star, or with the appearance of stars and other “celestial phenomena” alongside major human events.[12] Vanden Eykel points us to a celestial event—the appearance of a comet—that occurred after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E., and the way this was interpreted by Romans. Roman writers like Virgil and Horace called this the “Iulium sidus” (Julian Star), and Pliny and Suetonius tell us that people interpreted this “as a sign that the soul of the great Julius Caesar had ascended into the heavens and taken a seat among the pantheon of Roman deities.”[13]

Ultimately other rulers used the imagery of this star to bolster their legitimacy. Indeed, it appears on coins of emperors throughout the first century C.E.[14] The imagery of the star thus had wide cultural currency in first century Judaea and beyond; it was a recognizable symbol of political power.

The magi’s politically charged question highlights one of Matthew’s central themes—that Jesus is the legitimate heir to David, and Jesus will sit on David’s throne forever (fulfilling the promise of 2 Sam 7).[15] Matthew even traces Jesus’s genealogy, using schema of three sets of fourteen generations—from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Jesus—to demonstrate God’s providential ordering of human history so that it culminates in “the Christ/Messiah” (1:1–17).

For Matthew, the story of Jesus is the story of the true Davidic king, and his identity is recognized upon his birth, not only by outsiders but even by those in power.

Jerusalem vs. Bethlehem

Matthew continues:

Matt 2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.[16]

Jerusalem is presented here as the city of fear and opposition, and it continues to play this role throughout the gospel.[17] “All of Jerusalem” here could refer to the ruling class—all those with a stake in the power of the status quo. Additionally, the narrative soon sets up an opposition between Jerusalem, the seat of Roman and Judean power, and Bethlehem, the city of David’s birth and now the birth of his heir:

Matt 2:4 And calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet.”

They then paraphrase Micah 5:1:[18]

Matt 2:6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Matthew’s genealogy presents Jesus as heir to the Davidic kingdom, a kingdom which was intimately connected to the city of Jerusalem. The current Jerusalem, however, is the site of another king, appointed by a foreign power. The magi’s question and the response given by his advisors indicate a threat to this status.

Though Bethlehem does not play a major role in the gospel as a whole, the conflict between the leader born outside the channels of power (Jesus) and the established Jewish and Roman leaders is a dominant theme in Matthew.[19] This conflict grows throughout the gospel, ultimately culminating in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the extensive confrontation Matthew details between him and the established authorities.[20]

This theme is indicated here by the phrase, “the chief priests and scribes,” a pointer for Jerusalem-based Jewish leadership; it is not neutral but usually indicates a united opposing force.[21] Though these are separate groups, in Matthew they are portrayed as forming a united opposition to Jesus, working with the Roman authorities to get him out of the picture.

The Gifts of the Magi

When the magi leave Jerusalem, the star acts as a celestial “GPS,” guiding them directly to where Jesus is located in Bethlehem:

Matt 2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

After they find Jesus, the magi present gifts to him:

Matt 2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense,[22] and myrrh.

The significance of these gifts has been explained in several ways. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century C.E.) read the first two gifts as representing aspects of the magi’s idolatrous past, and the third their present homage to Jesus:

The first two gifts of the Magi are likewise framed as relics of their former lives that they offer to Jesus as an act of worship. The gold was what their “dead” images and idols were made of and the incense was what they used in their worship of demons. The myrrh, by contrast, has no negative association here; it worships Jesus “on its own behalf.”[23]

Another tendency has been to read these gifts allegorically. Vanden Eykel points to one such interpretation associating the gifts with Jesus’ identity:

The gifts are not an indication of who or what Jesus might become but an expression of who and what Jesus actually and already is. The gold signifies royalty, while incense is meant to signify divinity. And because of its connection with embalming practices, myrrh is meant to signify death and mortality.[24]

Jesus’ Death

A third possibility is that the gifts point forward to the events at the end of Jesus’ life. While the magi present gifts of gold, for example, Jesus is betrayed by one of his own disciples to the Roman authorities for the infamous thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14).[25] The incense points to Jesus’ many hostile encounters in the temple as well as the curtain of the temple being torn in two at the crucifixion (Matt 27:21).

Given its association with embalming and mortuary practices, the myrrh (σμύρνα) points forward to Jesus’s death; it has been read this way since the second century (e.g., Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.9.2).[26] Though Matthew only says that Joseph of Arimathea, upon receiving Jesus’s body from Pilate, wrapped him in a linen shroud (27:57–60), in John’s version of this story, Joseph is accompanied by Nicodemus, who brings myrrh and aloe with him (John 19:39).

Moreover, the very act of bringing gifts to Jesus points forward to the gifts surrounding his death: first to a woman who brings the gift of expensive perfume (μύρον) to anoint Jesus in Bethany (an act condemned by his disciples; Matt 26:6–13); and second, to “gifts” bestowed upon Jesus by the Roman soldiers to mock him after his arrest (Matt 27:28–29), gifts not of homage but of degradation and scorn.

Herod’s Attempted Deception

Before the magi depart for Bethlehem, Herod says that he, too, wants to go pay homage to the child:

Matt 2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”[27]

The magi, however, evade Herod:

Matt 2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.[28]

Herod then orders the massacre of the young children around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus:

Matt 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and 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 magi.

2:17 Then what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”[29]

This story, not found in any other Gospel, recalls the instructions of Pharaoh at the beginning of Exodus (1:16).[30] Both narratives begin with political violence and death and remind us of the ways rulers are capable of behaving in the face of those who might threaten their leadership and authority.

Herod’s attempt to eliminate Jesus makes him but the first of many Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Matthew who do not act in good faith, as becomes eminently clear as the gospel progresses to its climax.[31]

Looking Ahead

Several aspects of the story of the magi invite readers to look ahead to what awaits Jesus when he finally comes to Jerusalem. First, the title “king of the Jews” does not only look backward to the genealogy of Jesus (ch. 1); it also looks forward to the only other time(s) this epithet appears in the gospel, at Jesus’s “trial” and crucifixion.[32]

When Jesus is bound and brought before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, Pilate asks him “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11). The reader has been prepared by the question of the magi to answer in the affirmative: yes. “You say so,” says Jesus to Pilate (27:11). Later, the Roman soldiers, at Pilate’s order, dress Jesus in a grotesque parody of the symbols of royalty and mockingly pay him homage, saying “hail, King of the Jews” (27:29).[33]

The fear and opposition represented by Herod and “all of Jerusalem” (Matt 2:3) points forward to Jesus’s statements about his destiny to be crucified in Jerusalem (16:21; 20:17–19), Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem as “the city who kills the prophets” (23:37), and the extensive hostile encounters in the city that culminate in Jesus’ death.

Likewise, the brightness and light of the star, which many early Christian interpreters highlight, is paralleled by the darkness that falls over the earth at Jesus’s crucifixion (Mark 15:2//Matt 27:45). One of the notable ways that Matthew revises the Gospel of Mark’s story of the trial and crucifixion is his addition of details that point to and enhance the cosmic significance of Jesus’s death. This includes additional supernatural phenomena.[34] The star of Matthew 2 points forward to these supernatural elements.

The Nativity Story and the Gospel as a Whole

Though this story is associated with the birth of Jesus, and therefore with the Christmas holiday, it also sounds the ominous chords of Jesus’ death on Good Friday. The narrative participates in Matthew’s larger themes of the Jewish rejection of the Davidic Messiah and the alliance of Jewish and Roman leaders against a perceived threat. “All of Jerusalem” will certainly gather again, this time to push a different Roman-appointed leader, Pilate, to take ultimate action (Matt 27:25).

Thus, in contrast to the peaceful, idyllic nativity scene of a family celebrating the birth of a hoped-for child, the story of the magi serves the larger themes of political rivalry, rejection, exile, violence, and death in the Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life.


December 20, 2023


Last Updated

April 11, 2024


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Prof. Meira Z. Kensky is currently the Joseph E. McCabe Professor of Religion at Coe College. Kensky received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Biblical Studies (New Testament) from the University of Chicago. Her first book was Trying Man, Trying God: The Divine Courtroom in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Mohr Siebeck 2010). Currently, she is working on her second book, an examination of the figure of Timothy in Early Christian literature, and a book on the Apocalypse of Peter and Early Christian tours of Hell. She currently serves on the Society of Biblical Literature's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, and on editorial boards for SBL Press and E. J. Brill.