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The Nativity of Jesus

What is the Nativity?

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Nativity of Jesus

A traditional Christmas nativity scene portrays the birth of Jesus in a stable with displays of figurines.

Photo: Thomas Northcut / Getty Images
Definition: Nativity means the birth of a person and also refers to the facts of their birth, such as the time, place, and situation. The term "nativity scene" is commonly used for depictions of Jesus Christ's birth, in paintings, sculpture, and movies.

The word 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.

The Nativity of Jesus

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. In that city is 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, 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, the word nativity often comes up in the news in lawsuits over the display of nativity scenes 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.

Pronunciation: nuh TIV uh tee

Example: Many Christians display a nativity scene featuring figurines depicting Jesus' birth, when they put up their Christmas decorations.

(Sources: The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, by Merrill F. Unger; Easton's Bible Dictionary, by Matthew George Easton; and www.angels.about.com.)

More Christmas Words

Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for About.com, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack's Bio Page.

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