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.

Prezi for Luke Chapter 1 and Forward; Two Miracle Babies, Jesus & John the Baptist

This is a first draft prezi done for a sermon of mine at my home church yesterday. It attempts to visually map the relative roles of Jesus and John the Baptist at the gestation stage of their respective careers, and thus of their parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary and stand-in Joseph. Just a first draft, but see what you think.

Dawn of New Day Luke 1 Scr'shot


I told people they could google for it, but for some reason, it’s very difficult for your online prezi material to be found by others in this way, unfortunately.

Comments are welcome.

A Last Christmas Question?

I hope to resist temptation after this and return to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

But my last nativity story question is, do we know that they had ‘inns’ as such in Jesus’ time in Bethlehem?  The Greek word traditionally translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 is ‘katalyma‘, and only occurs otherwise in reference to the room Jesus expected to be prepared for the last supper (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11).  I can find 11 uses in the Septuagint (LXX), where the term can be used of places of residence that are impermanent, and might refer to God’s dwelling, i.e. the tabernacle as a non-permanent residence (2 Sam 7:6), a human lodging (Exod 4:24; Jer 40:12) or an animal lair (Jer 25:28 (Eng.)/32:38 (LXX)).  This doesn’t really help decide between ‘inn’ and ‘guest/spare room’ in Luke 2:7, but I am still wondering whether it is the guest accommodation in someone’s house in Bethlehem that was full, forcing Joseph and Mary into the final overflow accommodation, i.e. the animals’ area at the lower end of the house (see previous post on this).

Theological dictionaries have very limited information: Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich 4th ed. (1952) has a few lines, listing ‘inn’ for this reference alone.  Kittel’s Theological Dictionary 4:338 seems to settle rather meekly for this meaning too.  Brown, Dictionary of N.T. Theology, 3:189, says the word…

means generally lodging, but more particularly a guest room or dining room (Mk. 15:14; Lk. 2:7; 22:11).

Is this another case of the ‘traditional translation’, like ‘hallowed’ in the Lord’s Prayer, that has become too enshrined to touch or update?

Your comments are welcome.

Christmas Foray #3 – The Guiding Star

Lastly and most provocatively on this nativity theme – what about the guiding star?  Christmas plays always present the star as sitting over the stable (that wasn’t)… I have never understood this.  A star is a giant thermonuclear explosion going off in space.  You can’t let them get that close to your stable, they ignite the hay.  What are we talking about?  One in the sky?  Over a specific house in a specific town??  I challenge you to pick a star in the sky and walk to the exact house that is directly under that star, knock on the door and say howdy.  Good luck with that.

A shooting star?  I.e. a meteorite?  Effectiveness at picking out a single house is inversely proportional with safety.  I’m not sure it’s that, either.  If you saw the Russian meteorite strike not so long ago, you’ll know what I mean.

No, these were astrologers.  They saw stars as portents, and read their positions against the constellations they appeared in to find their significance.  We’re not talking ordinary stars here, because they are ‘fixed’ with reference to Earth and keep their constellation arrangements on the scale of human lifetimes.  The only ‘stars’ that move are the other planets of our solar system, which the ancients regarded as ‘movable stars’, and occasionally comets.  Some have suggested a nova. Here’s some help from a Bible Dictionary:

“To relate a newly rising star to a king in Israel, the star would have to appear in the constellation governing the “land of Israel” (Matt 2:20-21), that is, the Roman province of Syro-Palestine. This constellation was Aries, the springtime constellation, the first-created, celestial Lamb of God.”  (Bruce J. Malina, ‘Star of Bethlehem’, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 5.371-2)  I don’t know how certain that is, or whether we can choose between a planet or planetary alignment, a comet or a (super)nova, or whether God miraculously put something on display for the magi.  But I do know how they discovered signs.  It wasn’t that they followed the star through the desert.  It’s that the ‘star’ appeared in the right quadrant of the sky, the right constellation, that when it appeared above the horizon for the first time, they interpreted it to refer to the rise of a new king.  And evidently that’s exactly the message God wanted these otherwise (if I can be so bold) fairly deluded guys with a great knowledge of the stars to get.

What about the stopping of the star over the place where the child was (Matt. 2:9)?  This may not go down so easily, but the Greek word for ‘stopped’ is quite a common word, ‘histemi‘ (long ‘e’) that can mean ‘stand’.  I quote from John Walton now, from his article ‘Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds’, in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. K. Vanhoozer, p. 44:

“The Mesopotamian celestial omens use words like “wait,” “stand,” and “stop” to record the relative movements and positions of the celestial bodies.”  He is actually talking in that context about the ‘standing’ of the sun and moon in Joshua’s day in Joshua 10.  He understands it to refer to the rare event where the moon is still above the horizon in the west when the sun is just coming up in the east, called ‘opposition’, and probably understood as a portentous omen in that time.  He finds that “Josh. 10 operates in the world of omens, not physics.  We cannot ask what these terms mean to us; we must ask what they meant to an Israelite in their cultural context.”  Well, you may or may not like that, although I found it a breakthrough, and when you look at a map, it makes tremendous sense of the reference to the sun standing over Gibeon and the moon over the Valley of Aijalon – very plausibly the eastern and western horizons for the Israelite army in its position at the time!

The magi were in fact in the same part of the country in the time mentioned in Matthew 2.  Herod’s palace of the time, I understand, was Herodium, virtually an artificial palace in a hill that Herod had built, and you can still google it up for a look here.  From there Bethlehem is just a few kilometres to the NW and about 50m higher in elevation – a modest walk up the hill.  So I’m not positive how the ‘star’ could guide them to a particular spot, and there must be other clues out there for discovering.  But we probably are dealing once again with “the world of omens, not physics.”  We may not be comfortable with that yet.  But Matthew flagged it for us in nearly unmissable terms, when he told us these guys were magi, astrologers.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said William Cowper!  All to lead some superstitious Gentiles to the Anointed.  ‘Kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) also to us.

Christmas Foray #2

Now the wise men.  We all know it doesn’t say anywhere that there were three.  I discovered in reading earlier today that the tradition that there were three wise men to match their three gifts (Matt. 2:11) goes back to one of our church fathers (was it Tertullian?), but can’t find that source again now.  More importantly, Matthew’s term for them is ‘μάγοι’, magoi, (Matt. 2:1, 7, 16), which is where we get our term ‘magician’, although that’s a potentially misleading connection.  But they weren’t just old guys with a lot of life experience, they were readers of the stars.  We call them ‘astrologers’.  The only other mention of such a role by name is when Elymas the Sorcerer whom Paul and Barnabas met on Cyprus is called a ‘magos‘ in Acts 13:6, 8.  I believe that tradition holds the Simon mentioned in Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 to have been a ‘magos‘; Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and other sources talk at length about the troublesome teaching of Simon Magus and his followers.  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ‘magus‘ is used to describe the court conjurors that prove so ineffective in the Daniel stories.  In the Septuagint version of Daniel, the Greek term appears in 2:2, 10; then it is used more extensively in the Greek version that soon replaced the Septuagint version, attributed to Theodotion, who used it also in 1:20; 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11, 15, replacing the Septuagint’s ‘φαρμακος’ in some of these references (where we get the term ‘pharmacy’!).  The term isn’t exactly complementary in either Acts or Daniel, and Christian thinkers fought hard to exclude astrology from the church right down through church history.

So it isn’t talked about much, but some of the first people to acknowledge the infant Jesus were professionals at reading current events and their significance from the stars.  How do we reason this through theologically?  It seems inconsistent with a Bible that offers no encouragement elsewhere to seek truth about human life and destiny from the stars, birth signs, etc.  We may be looking at an example of God’s ‘accommodation’, an important term theologically, one that signifies that God (am I getting this from Calvin) knows how to use baby talk when he’s addressing infants in understanding.  Calvin certainly is famous for speaking about this principle, and other reputable Christian minds have articulated the same principle.  It’s fitting somehow, if Jesus is not just to benefit Israel, that right at the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry God should permit his significance to leach out into the Gentile media in a way these Gentiles at least innately understood.

Although one act of divine condescension does not a reliable medium make.

A Foray into the New Testament – for Christmas

Forgive me for weakening, but inspired by talk of Christmas, I have to get something off my chest.

And this is just as I understand it…

They didn’t have barns in Israel in Jesus’ time.  So I’m not sure why we picture Jesus as born in one.  Something derived from a European Christmas past, I think.

Luke says in 2:7 that Jesus was laid in a manger, or feed trough.  No complaints there.  When the wise men (more on this soon) visit Jesus in the account in Matthew, the family is in a house (Matt. 2:11).  And there is nothing stopping it from having been a house all along, because that’s where people kept their animals, not in a separate building.  But it was a lower part of the house, a kind of split-level arrangement where the animals got the lower part, and stayed inside at night in winter.  That’s my understanding.  For Jesus and family, it was second-rate digs, the smelly overflow room.  But not a barn.

If you don’t believe me, and you probably mostly shouldn’t, I’ll tell you my most recent source, though it may not help you.  I read it in an article in a German Christian popular-level magazine called Bibel Faszination, in a really good article on this issue: “Jesus kam zur Welt: – aber nicht im Stall,” by Ulrich Wendel, who I think is the editor.  I think you get the sense of the title even without a translation.


I’m sorry that it’s not in English.  I’m sure someone has written the same thing in English, but I can’t chase it up just now.  But I’d encourage you to look into this further.  It frustrates me that we wheel out the same Christmas story year after year, but never take the time to ask whether we even understand it properly.  It’s so much richer when we do.

Tune in soon for part II on the wise men!