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Animals are commonly found in creche sets, but surprisingly not in the Bible.

An Ox, an Ass … a Dragon? Sorry, there were no Animals in the Bible’s Nativity Scene

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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. ( 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.

Unreliable Narrative for the Nativity Story

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

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).

Did Mary give birth in a cave? Giorgione Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery of Art.

Did Mary give birth in a cave? Giorgione Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery of Art. ( Public Domain )

Joseph leaves Mary in the unoccupied cave and goes off to find a midwife. A later Latin text from the seventh to eighth century AD, called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew , takes James’ version of the nativity story and elaborates on it – in this version, Mary leaves the cave after Jesus is born and takes him to a stable. Finally, the famous ox and ass enter into the scene, bowing down to worship Jesus. This well-known scene is still immortalized on Christmas cards thousands of years later – but it was never included in the Bible text.

Enter the Dragon?

Some of these apocryphal stories go even further. If ordinary animals worshipping the Christ Child seems impressive, how much more extraordinary is it that Pseudo-Matthew includes wild animals, including lions, leopards – and even dragons – coming to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Pseudo-Matthew writes:

And behold, suddenly many dragons came out of the cave … Then the Lord, even though he was not yet two years old, roused himself, got to his feet, and stood in front of them. And the dragons worshipped him. When they finished worshipping him, they went away … So too both lions and leopards were worshipping him and accompanying him in the desert … showing them the way and being subject to them; and bowing their heads with great reverence they showed their servitude by wagging their tails.

Wild beasts bowed down and worshipped him. (Image: Flickr user Frankieleo)

Wild beasts bowed down and worshipped him. ( Frankieleo)

Images of animals behaving peacefully is a frequent image in the Bible. They are meant to symbolize a time of peace, so it’s no wonder our idea of the birth of the Prince of Peace includes animals. Surprisingly, we don’t get too many dragons, leopards, or lions included in Christmas nativity sets. But seeing as the ox and the donkey are just as unbiblical, why not?

Top Image: Animals are commonly found in creche sets and nativity plays, but surprisingly not in the Bible. Source: Marco Verch/ CC BY SA 4.0

The article ‘ An ox, an ass … a dragon? Sorry, there were no animals in the Bible’s nativity scene by M J C Warren  was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Updated on December 23, 2020.

Comments

Hi All,

I hadn't known that the common stable image, I sometimes saw as a child was in fact a cave till I believe was sixteen years old.

I assumed with the Magi's arrival announcing the Saviors Birth to Jerusalem right in the midst of Herod the Greats court that they rode on Camel's.

It's interesting to note that the whole Bible from Old Testament too New Testament deals with the ownership of Animal's.

The common animals that were kept by The Children of Israel
(in Exodus, second identity The Hebrews, 3rd identity
The Israelites), Camel's, Cattle, Oxen, Donkey's, Goat's, and Sheep. Because they're so prevalent in previous Scriptures that people not realizing it just assumed those animal's would be there when Christ is laid in the manager. The Dragon is a surprise.

Because The Gospel of Luke testifies that there was No Room in The Inn for Joseph & Mary due to people arriving to register in Bethlehem for Augustus Census', when it became apparent that Mary had gone into Labor that's when The Innkeeper gave the pair of them The Cave to use.

I'm sure the Innkeepers' wives are daughters' may have assisted Mary with The Birth (boy if only they'd known whose birth they were partaking of) and depending on how deep that Cave Stable was who knows what animals were there are weren't present.

I was excited to read about a Gospel of James, I only found out two years ago there's a Gospel of Peter.

Going back to the confusing Time table in the twin Gospels Luke& Matthew.

I have somewhat noted in a small window of an Timeline emerging and yes I'm aware I maybe wrong but here's what I have for now...

Upon Christ birth in the Cave Gabriel the archangel; I'm aware that the Angels' name is not given goes to the Shepherds proclaiming the Birth of The Saviour of The World; was born in the City of David.

Gabriel is then joined by other Angel's singing praises unto God when they disappear the Star of Bethlehem then Shines in place of the Angel's.

So the Timeline is with Gabriel. From the Time of Jesus birth to The Shepherds following Gabriel's instructions to see the New born Savior; where Joseph and Mary were still in The Cave and Christ was in fact laying in the manager.

When reading Matthew Joseph an Mary are now living in a house at the Time of The Magi's arrival in Jerusalem and their subsequent meeting with King Herod the Great.

The smallest detail is shared in Matthew (I believe this is Levi Matthew the Tax Collector) Herod quizzes the Magi on the exact time The Magi saw The Star in The Sky then sent for the Teachers of The Law who share through the Prophet Malachi he's in Bethlehem.

That's why Herod gave the order to his soldiers (I'm saying Herod's soldiers because The Bible doesn't say if it were The Romans that did this heinous act I just noticed the Scriptures say "His Soldiers" to The Mother's of Bethlehem
Kill every Baby Boy two years old or younger.

I think that Jesus may have been a year old, is this Timeline definitive No, I'm just reading my Bible over and over again.

In my case I've always believed in The Bible and I always will but, I do know that much of what is known of The Bible is pure Speculation those who believe in The Second Coming of The Son of Man can ask Him how old were you when the Magi came? Or How many Magi were there really?

One more animal topic what I understood from The article The Gospel of James speaks of lions and Dragons worshipping the Newly Born Saviour again, I stress until now, I hadn't known there even was a Gospel of James.

Since I've never read James I can't really comment on James what I can discuss is the King James Bible during 1611-1884, The Bible did speak of Dragon's but, in 1885 the brilliant Christian scholars changed translations with the word Dragon to Serpents.

Now those translations I've read the prequel of Dragon to the Serpent version I was left with the need to condemn them to Hell okay so maybe it's a little zealous I just got so mad.

See when the translations of King James was changed from Dragon to Serpents they also changed the Bible Verse itself; for example, in Psalms there's this verse spoken by God "I AM a Brother to Dragon's and friend's or something too Owls", that's the original verse.

In 1885, translation in Psalms I Am a Brother to Serpents and something that doesn't make a lick of sense Ostriches, that's when I got Mad.

It turns out other Bible verses that had the word Dragons and owls; in it all got changed too Serpents an Ostriches, ostriches instead of Owls? Owls fly ostriches don't.

See there was a divine message behind the verse an important lesson to learn. The Owls in the verse were flying around in the rafters.

The other Dragon Verse was in Micah chapter 3: 9-10 I hope I didn't flip the numbers here's the verse "Like a Dragon who swallowed up a man; the Owl flies in the darkness oddly accompanying those Dragon's in The Verse.

It could be argued your learning that lesson despite the word changing in my eyes God is telling Us for one thing Dragons exist admittedly.

The Bible doesn't describe what Dragons looked like the way, it does with Behemoth and Leviathan, however Isaiah makes a distinction between Crocodiles and Dragon's and all of that is in The Old King James Bible and that's what matters to me.

I was able to ascertain that The Word Dragon is mentioned in The Scriptures 21 Time's then I learned of five creatures in Old King James 1611-1884....

Behemoth is mentioned twice Book of Enoch & Job
Cockitrice I found out in Hebrew this means Spiked Horned Viper they are found 5 Times in The Old Testament
Fiery Serpents Five Time's
Flying Serpents Two Time's
Leviathan is mentioned 6 Time's Oldest Bible Book of Enoch.

I guess this is all I have to share on this Topic of the Animals present at Christ Birth and the Dragon's made known in Old James Bible.

One more question I often ask is when did Joseph and Mary move from the Cave to a house in the City of David?

If things weren't so hectic and troubling we could always visit Palestine an ask The Palestinians where are all the Caves that might have been used by Joseph and Mary upon arriving in Bethlehem?

Until next time Everyone, Goodbye!

So what if there are Christmas traditions that are not in the Bible? There's no Santa Claus in the Bible either. When you attend church on Christmas, there are no animals.

Let the kids have their fun.

What's next? No Easter bunny in the Bible? This constant anti Christianity is overbearing. I notice there is never any criticism of crazy Jewish or Moslem fables.

The Gospel of Luke, the Doctor who was interested in physical details shows she gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn. A manger is where animals eat. It's probable that the animals were banished to another part of the stable, but they would hardly have been driven out to be at the mercy of wild animals.

The story is about the difficulty of Jesus' birth not about whether there were animals there at all. likewise, Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the taxation census, and presumably take his wife. If he could have left her at home in the care of the village women, he would surely have done so. and she could not have walked all the way if she was 9 months pregnant. I've been pregnant, and could probably have managed 5 miles. It doesn't say actually how far it was, but Joseph couldn't book ahead, If it was less than say 25 miles he could have sent ahead but he didn't, so it was probably further than that. Because these details aren't mentioned, it is because people who knew conditions, would be able to understand. It was so obvious that it doesn't need saying.

This is a poor article by seemingly unknown writers. I'm not into nativity stuff but asses were common forms of transport. But if a few people have decided that some animals were actually in a stable on an Autumn night that is not a revelation, it's a correct assumption and yet it has nothing to do with the point of the story. Either does three wise men. You didn't travel in groups of three in those days. There were likely a caravan of 40 or so individuals. Does it change the point of the story? Only if you're weird enough to try and make it so.

For sure the Bible we have today is a crafted document of some value.Recognising its journey to its present form at the hands of its curators is a first essential step. Comprehending the reasons for the curation is a second. Analysis of the excluded elements and the why? is a third. As my co commenter above points out anthropomorphic representation of stellar zodiacal symbolism is too frequently discounted. When donkeys are exchanged for Monocores Unicorn - The nativity takes on a far greater meaning, and a timeline of unfolding of stories can be more clearly understood. Priests first and foremost were astronomers.

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