What Is the Nativity of Jesus?

An 800-year-old Christmas Tradition

Nativity Scene
Christmas Nativity in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.

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Nativity (pronounced nuh TIV uh tee) means the birth of a person. By definition nativity also includes the facts of someone's birth, such as the time, place, and situation. The term "nativity scene" is commonly used for depictions of Jesus Christ's birth, in paintings, sculptures, and movies.

The word "nativity" comes from the Latin term nativus, which means "born." The Bible mentions the nativity of several prominent characters, but today the term is used primarily in connection with the birth of Jesus Christ.

Behind the Scene of the Nativity

  • Nativity refers to the birth of a person, as well as the facts surrounding their birth.
  • Today, the word nativity is most often used in reference to the birth of Jesus Christ.
  • The first nativity scene, or crèche, was created by Francis of Assisi in 1223.

The Nativity of Jesus in the Bible

Jesus' birth is described in Matthew 1:18-2:12 and Luke 2:1-21.

For centuries, scholars have debated the time of Christ's birth. Some believe it was in April, others suggest December, but it is generally agreed that the year was 4 B.C., based on Bible verses, Roman records, and the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, Old Testament prophets foretold the circumstances of the Messiah's nativity. Those prophecies came true, as recorded in Matthew and Luke. The odds against all the Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled in one person, Jesus, are astronomical.

Among those prophecies was the prediction that the Messiah would be born in the city of Bethlehem, a small village about five miles southwest of Jerusalem. Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David, from whose line the Messiah, or Savior, was supposed to come.

Only through a series of supernatural circumstances did this prophecy come true. The Roman Empire ordered a census of all Jewish citizens, but it required that people return to their birthplace. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was born in Bethlehem, so he left his current home in Nazareth and took his pregnant wife Mary back to his hometown.

Shortly after Jesus' birth, he was visited by shepherds who had been told of the event by an angel. Perhaps as much as two years later, a group of wise men, or kings from the east, also came to pay homage. These visits meant Jesus would be a Savior for all people, both great and small.

God promised to be not just for us but also among us. In the book of Isaiah, the Messiah is called Immanuel, meaning "God with us." Jesus' name in Hebrew, Yeshua, means "Yahweh [the Lord] is Salvation." Translated from the ancient Greek of the New Testament to modern English, this name becomes "Jesus." After Christ's ascension into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to live inside every believer, making God truly "with us."

Bethlehem is home to the Church of the Nativity, built by Constantine the Great and his empress mother Helena (circa A.D. 330). Beneath the church is a grotto that is said to house the cave (stable) where Jesus was born.

The First Nativity Scene

The first nativity scene, or creche, was created by Francis of Assisi in 1223. He gathered local people in Italy to portray the biblical characters and used a figure made of wax to represent the infant Jesus. The portrayal quickly caught on, and live and sculpted nativity scenes spread all over Europe.

Nativity scenes were popular with painters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rembrandt. The event is depicted in stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals throughout the world.

Today, many Christians display a nativity scene featuring figurines depicting Jesus' birth when they put up their Christmas decorations. Nativities scenes of Jesus often come up in the news in lawsuits when they are displayed on public property. In the United States, courts have ruled that religious symbols cannot be displayed on taxpayer-supported property, due to the constitutional separation of church and state. In Europe, atheists and anti-religion groups have protested the display of nativity scenes.

Sources

  • The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, by Merrill F. Unger.
  • Easton's Bible Dictionary, by Matthew George Easton.