Time for a Quickie: The Ox and Ass of Christmas

Just have to wake my somnolent blog from its slumber to mention this, a firstfruits offering from John F. A. Sawyer’s Isaiah through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell, 2018). Have you ever noticed that the Gospel nativity stories mention no ox or ass/donkey in connection with the birth of Jesus? This is one of those Christmas traditions that’s so ingrained you can’t quite believe it isn’t actually there. So where does it come from?

Sawyer points out the presence of this benevolently beastly pair in Christmas carols, Renaissance art (Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, c. 1500) and medieval traditions, right back to “the eighth-century apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” (ah yes, I know it well!), but Sawyer finally traces them back to a Christian interpretation of the opening verses of the ‘fifth Gospel’, a name for Isaiah whose contemporary currency (with me, at least) is thanks in some degree to Sawyer’s own book of twenty years ago, The Fifth Gospel (for the detail, see Isaiah through the Centuries, 11–13)This is Isaiah 1:3 (NIV):

The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

‘Manger’ in this translation is apt; combine this verse with Jesus’ post-natal bedding arrangements, and you have stock animals outshining their human contemporaries in their recognition of their true master. As you might imagine, every possible anti- and pro-Semitic battle can be fought right over these words, but I thought I’d put this out there as a fascinating tidbit from reception history that demonstrates how we don’t simply formulate our sense of a text from our own direct reading alone, but read in community across space and time.

By the way, I still like it how many donkeys, like the one living at our old favourite holiday camping spot in Australia’s New England region, have a cross displayed across their shoulders, as if for pure symbolic value alone.