Here’s a holiday tradition we should abandon: Well, actually-ing Nativity scenes in Christmas art and song.

It’s true that baby Jesus wasn’t surrounded by a petting zoo, that Mary didn’t give birth in a cave, that the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, and that those wise men were not literally kings. But this kind of “Nativity knocking” often stems from a basic misunderstanding of artistic depictions of the Christmas story.

The intent is good: to refocus our attention on the biblical text. Yet in practice, nitpicking the way Christian artists have long interpreted the Nativity misses deliberate artistic references to profound scriptural and theological themes. If we can stop sneering at their supposed lack of historical sophistication, these renderings can help us recover the wonder of Jesus’ birth.

Let’s start with the animals. Paintings and songs about the Nativity often show farm animals crowded around the manger. “Why lies he in such mean estate,” we sing, “Where ox and ass are feeding?”

It’s possible he didn’t. When Luke tells us there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the “inn,” he doesn’t mean Jesus was born in a separate building specifically for animals, as we think of a stable. The Greek word sometimes translated “inn” is kataluma (Luke 2:7, ESV), which meant the lodging space in ancient houses, typically an upper room or loft space. Because this was full, Mary and Joseph were compelled to stay downstairs, where animals sometimes lived.

The mention of the manger suggests animals were present, but Luke doesn’t specify cattle and donkeys. However, the ox and ass are rich symbols: They represent all creation coming to receive peace from the new king.

Adam and Eve dwelt with the animals in the garden (Gen. 2:19); God commanded all the animals to come to Noah in pairs (Gen. 6:19–20); and the prophet Isaiah says that in the new creation, all creatures will dwell in peace:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. (11:6–7)

Additionally, in the Old Testament, this pairing represented the joining of extremes. The ox is a clean animal (representing Israel), while the ass is an unclean animal (representing the Gentiles; Ex. 13:13). Together, then, these two animals signify the whole body of Christ.

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“Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together,” the Israelites are commanded in Deuteronomy 22:10, one instruction in a long list of purity rules. But Christ yokes together Jews and Gentiles in his body (Eph. 2:13–14), so the ox and ass side by side at his birth symbolize how this child will bring unity to Jews and Gentiles. The artistic choice to depict these two together gestures toward the eventual harmony of all creatures.

Many images of Christ’s birth—perhaps including your Nativity set—also depict Mary and Joseph in or emerging from a cave. Admittedly, Scripture never mentions a cave as the birthplace of Christ. In fact, his birth happens in a house. So why has a cave become a traditional setting?

The idea comes from early church fathers in the second through fourth centuries, including Justin Martyr, Origen, and Jerome, though it could also be influenced by the convert Emperor Constantine, who designated a cave—now the site of the Church of the Nativity—as the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in 335.

Beyond that history, however, caves appear in Nativity scenes for several theological reasons.

First, in Scripture, caves are often hidden places of protection and shelter. Lot and his daughters live in a cave when they are afraid to live in Zoar (Gen. 19:30). Obadiah hid a hundred prophets in a cave to protect them from king Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4). David hid in a cave when king Saul was hunting him (1 Sam. 22:1; Ps. 57).

Throughout the Old Testament, caves protect people from death, so depicting a cave at Jesus’ birth teaches us that God will protect this child from all unwanted harm. He will bring his plan of redemption to completion.

Second, the cave is also a place of death. Caves were often used for tombs in the ancient world and thus came to represent access to the underworld. This is why artists often place the child Christ not only in a cave but in a sarcophagus. Jesus’ birth thus signals his death and descent to the dead. His life begins in a cave to remind us it ends in a cave.

Artistic depictions of the “three kings” are forward-looking too. These images draw on Matthew’s mention of the “wise men” who come from the east, bringing three gifts (Matt. 2:1, 11), and they’re seared into Western Christian memory with the song “We Three Kings.”

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Of course, as scholars note, Matthew doesn’t tell us how many wise men there were, and he calls them “Magi,” specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena. But the “three kings” tradition in Christmas art isn’t arbitrary.

The Greeks and Babylonians divided the world into three parts: Asia, Africa, and Europe. This division predates Christianity, but it was received by Jews, and later, Christians, who thought (with ethically and biblically unjustified embellishment) that each continent was populated by the descendants of Noah: They believed Asians came from Shem, Africans from Ham, and Europeans from Japheth.

The three Magi, then, are symbolic representations of the three parts of the world. Like the ox and ass, they sketch the redemption of the whole earth.

The association with royalty also has scriptural roots. The prophet Isaiah predicted that the Lord’s glory would be seen in the midst of global darkness: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … to you the riches of the nations will come … bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (60:3, 5–6, emphasis mine).

Magi were not themselves royal, but they were often associated with royal courts. We can see this in the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Daniel, in which kings ask magicians for interpretations of dreams (Gen. 41:8; Ex. 7:11, 22; 8:18, 19; 9:11; Dan. 2:2, 10). Matthew’s account (2:11) may also deliberately echo Psalm 72:8–11, which says “kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute” to God’s king, falling down before him. Artistic integration of these themes communicates that all the nations will ultimately bow to Jesus.

Accuracy in historical reconstruction is valuable. But strict historical accuracy is not every artist’s primary goal, and we’ll miss deeper truths if we forget how to “read” art symbolically.

Nativity images in painting, sculpture, and song aren’t always trying to tell us precisely how Jesus’ birth occurred. Often, their purpose is to help us press into the meaning of the Incarnation. They remind us to ponder the significance of the Son of God taking on flesh to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, accomplish his plan of redemption, and return in glory as the King of Kings.

Patrick Schreiner teaches New Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of numerous books, including The Visual Word and Political Gospel.

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