Shepherds, Wise Men, Animals: Were They All There?

Professor William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, talks about who was present for the birth of Jesus.

By John Burnett

Every December, the First United Methodist Church of Johnson City, Texas, stages an extravagant living Nativity story. People drive from all over Central Texas to sit under the stars amid the live oaks and watch the Christmas story acted out.

"The production begins with 200 people in the stands," says Pastor Sid Spiller. "And in comes Joseph and Mary. Joseph is leading a miniature donkey. That was unique this year. They are pointed into the manger scene by an innkeeper. Then comes the angels giving word to the shepherds."

While costumed children and adults from the congregation act out the pageant, the narration is provided by a 1959 recording of Perry Como.

"Yes, the three men on the camels are the three wise men," Como narrates, as a celestial-sounding orchestra plays behind him. "The new star guides them straight to Bethlehem, to a little baby lying in a manger. There the three wise men present gifts to the Christ child."

Only a Grinch would accuse Como of flubbing the Christmas story, but many theologians acknowledge that the accepted Nativity scene is a result of 2,000 years of interpretation and elaboration.

"St. Francis of Assisi, when he created the notion of a creche or a manger scene with animals and so forth, was making a theological point," says the Rev. William Lawrence, who is dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

He points out that the creche, as we know it, is the invention of the animal-loving St. Francis in 1223 in the town of Greccio, Italy, to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Lawrence says it's challenging to re-create accurately what happened that night based on the biblical record.

"Well, if you look at the bare bones of the two narratives in Matthew and Luke, each one clearly tells the story of the child that was born," he says. "Bethlehem is identified as the place, but beyond that the details of the two narratives vary considerably."

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