Were the Wise Men Really at the Stable?

Q. In the Christmas crèche, is it historically accurate to have the shepherds and the Wise Men appear in the stable at the same time?

A. Probably not, though we don’t know for sure. Few details of timing in the events surrounding Our Lord’s nativity are recorded in the Gospels, and Matthew and Luke (only two Evangelists provide an account) approach the story with different concerns and emphases. Luke clearly recounts the events from Mary’s point of view, offering details about the inhospitable conditions surrounding her delivery. Matthew seems to tell the story from St. Joseph’s point of view, including the Magi (Wise Men) because one of his dreams warns him to flee from Herod’s wrath, which resulted from their visit.

Luke reports that the shepherds came on the night Jesus was born. The angel told them that the Savior had been born “this day,” and as soon as the angel disappeared, they went “with haste” to find the Child (Luke 2:11, 16). So placing the shepherds around the manger in the crèche doesn’t raise any historical issues.

On the other hand, Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit offers two details suggesting that they would not have arrived the same evening as the shepherds, immediately after Jesus was born. First, Matthew tells us that the Magi visiting the Holy Family entered the “house,” not the stable (Matthew 2:11).

More importantly, Matthew reports that Herod “killed all the male children in Bethlehem … two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men” (Matthew 2:16). This seems to imply that the Magi had told him the Baby had been born as long as two years before. We can see, then, why some commentators might conclude that the Magi came long after the shepherds.

Even so, Herod may have been overly cautious, and the stable may have been attached to a house. Yet either way, why not include both Magi and shepherds in the crèche? Each bears an essential witness to the Savior’s coming.