An Ox, an Ass … a Dragon? Sorry, there were no Animals in the Bible’s Nativity Scene
From nativity plays to crèche sets to Christmas cards, animals are ubiquitous in our vision of the birth of Christ – but according to the Bible, not a single animal was there. Where did all these animals come from, and why are they now so central to the story?
Only two parts of the Bible talk about Jesus’ birth: the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Mark and John skip over Jesus’ infancy and head straight to his adult life. So how similar are the narratives of Matthew and Luke to the version familiar to anyone who has attended a Christmas church service or children’s nativity play? Christmas carols such as ‘ Away In A Manger ’ sing about the cattle lowing – and in ‘ Little Drummer Boy ’ they keep time. There’s even a song called ‘ Little Donkey ’ about the beast that carries Mary to Bethlehem in our vision of the Christmas story. But do these images appear in the actual Gospels?
All of our stable and manger imagery actually comes from just one Gospel – Luke’s. In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph seem to already live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born in a house . The magi – the three wise kings – visit Jesus in this version. Luke, however, gives us an account of the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem – and the visit of the shepherds.
The first animal we might expect to meet in the Christmas story is the dutiful donkey, the faithful beast of burden carrying the pregnant Mary on its back. But you may want to sit down, dear reader, for this next part. Mary did not ride to Bethlehem on a donkey. Nowhere in any Gospel does it say that Mary did anything but walk. The whole journey is given in three lines: Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem and while they were there, she went into labor. No mention of transportation .
The earliest nativity scene in art, from a fourth century Roman-era sarcophagus. (Image: G.dallorto)
Now you will say, well, what about the sheep? “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” is the refrain we hear. But that’s from a carol – the biblical text doesn’t say that the shepherds took any sheep with them when they went to go and find Mary and Joseph and the baby.
The shepherds go to Bethlehem and find, as Luke says: “Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.” But the Bible makes no mention of animals adoring the Christ Child.
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Luke says Mary put the baby Jesus in a manger but the place where she gave birth was not necessarily a stable . Mixed-use space, where domestic animals such as sheep and cattle shared living and eating quarters with humans, was the norm in the area at the time. So it would have been normal for Joseph’s relatives to share space with their animals. But once again the text doesn’t say that a single animal was present at Jesus’ birth or afterwards.
But our vision of Luke’s account has embedded itself in the imaginations of artists and performers, as our current nativity plays attest. Every child gets to be an animal visiting the baby Jesus, even though there isn’t a single animal mentioned in the Gospel accounts.
Mary arriving on a donkey. Toppling of the Pagan Idols (Flight into Egypt). Bedford Master ( Public Domain )
So if the Bible is surprisingly silent about the animals’ role in the night’s events, where do they all come from? The answer is that Luke’s version won over the imaginations of lots of early Christian writers, although with some differences.
An early Gospel story that didn’t make it into the Bible, known as the Proto-Gospel of James , was written in the second century AD and describes in great detail Joseph and Mary’s journey and Jesus’ birth away from the comforts of home. It’s here that we finally get our loyal donkey: the text says that Joseph saddles up a donkey and puts Mary on it to ride the long journey to register in the census (James 17.2).
James sets the birth in a cave the couple pass on their way rather than a domestic space. Mary says to her betrothed: “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out” (James 17.3).