Away in a Manger… Or Under a Palm Tree?

Source: The New York Times

It’s Christmas. At this time of the year, families get together and share presents. Santa Claus makes many — especially the kids — happy. Meanwhile, not all but hopefully many people will remember what this colorful celebration is really about: Jesus of Nazareth was born in the holy city (or if you’re more partial to the carol version, “the little town”) of Bethlehem.


We know this story from the two sources in the New Testament: the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although their accounts differ somewhat, both tell that Jesus was born from his virgin mother Mary in Bethlehem. Luke adds that Mary swaddled her newborn and “laid him in a manger.” This has become the popular narrative, inspiring countless works of Christian art depicting an infant Jesus in a barn, surrounded by docile animals.

However, the early Christian narratives about the birth of Jesus — also called the Nativity — were more diverse. And there was even another religion that offered a take on this story: Islam.

A key Christian document that diverges from the gospels of Matthew and Luke on the Nativity is the Protevangelium of James — a “Gospel” that didn’t make it into the New Testament and thus remained “apocryphal.” Its purported author is James, the brother of Jesus, but scholars think that it was written generations later, sometime in the latter half of the second century. It is called a “protevangelium,” or “pre-Gospel,” because it highlights the life of the infant Jesus, which is not discussed much in the New Testament.

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