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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

The scene of Christ's birth in Bethlehem is the most powerful religious image associated with Christmas. It's symbolized the world over by the creche, a manger surrounded by shepherds, wise men and farm animals.

But did it really happen that way? NPR's John Burnett truth-squads the Nativity story.

JOHN BURNETT: The First United Methodist Church of Johnson City, Texas, stages an extravagant living Nativity story every December. People drive from all over Central Texas to sit under the stars amid the live oaks and watch the Christmas story acted out, as explained by Pastor Sid Spiller.

Pastor SID SPILLER (First United Methodist Church of Johnson City, Texas): The production begins with 200 people in the stands, 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.

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

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PERRY COMO (Musician): (Singing) Yes, the three men on the camels are the three wise men. 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.

BURNETT: 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.

Reverend WILLIAM LAWRENCE (Dean, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University): 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.

BURNETT: Reverend William Lawrence 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.

Rev. LAWRENCE: 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. Bethlehem is identified as the place, but beyond that, the details in the two narratives vary considerably.

BURNETT: In fact, there's almost no overlap in the two Gospel accounts.

Only Matthew tells of the Magi, or wise men, following a star, but it doesn't say there are three of them, and they likely arrived quite some time after the birth. Only Luke mentions shepherds, a chorus of angels and a feeding trough or manger. There's no mention in either version that Mary rode into Bethlehem on a donkey. And no one says anything about any animals in the stable, though one can assume some were present.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COMO: (Singing) And as they leave, the sky is filled with other angels singing, glory to God, and on Earth, peace, goodwill to men.

(Soundbite of chorus singing)

BURNETT: The problem is: Who witnessed the birth of Jesus compared to the crowds who watched his crucifixion.

Reverend PHILIP TURNER (Former Associated Dean, Yale Divinity School): The detail about the death of Jesus is great. The detail about the birth of Jesus is minuscule.

BURNETT: Reverend Philip Turner is an Episcopal theologian and retired associate dean of the Yale Divinity School.

Rev. TURNER: But insofar as the birth narratives are concerned, the story as it's told is told by both Matthew and Luke to make certain points about Jesus.

BURNETT: For instance, Turner says, Matthew wants to convince early Christians that Jesus' birth is not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles, too. So he tells of the wise men who come from the east, far from Israel. And Turner says Luke plays up the shepherds to emphasize lowly people who follow Jesus.

Rev. TURNER: The shepherds play a very important part. And it's the simple people who recognize who Jesus is. The powerful ones put him to death.

BURNETT: So the image of the creche with its little figurines arrayed around the straw-filled manger may or may not be historically accurate, but that doesn't diminish its usefulness, or its emotional power, says Reverend Philip Turner.

The Rev. TURNER: I actually love creches because they put together in one place a history of piety that to me is true. He is the son of God.

BURNETT: A postscript from Johnson City: Last year, the pageant producers decided to be more historically precise. So they took the wings off the angels and put turbans instead of crowns on the wise men. Nobody liked it, and this year, they changed it back. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(Soundbite of song, "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

Mr. COMO: (Singing) O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see the light above thy deep and dreamless sleep...

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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