Animals in the New Testament

Specialists and general readers alike spend so much time focusing on the various human characters in the New Testament that it is easy to overlook the role that members of the animal kingdom play in its stories and teachings. Animals feature throughout the entire Bible playing memorable parts usually in the service of moral lessons (most people have heard about the serpent in the Garden of Eden). The New Testament is not without its animal references either. But even more surprisingly, many people imagine animals in stories where they never appear at all!

For example, nearly everyone reading this is familiar with the Christmas story – it’s the story of Jesus’s birth. Recreations are on display in thousands of homes and churches during the Christmas season, featured on TV and in movies, and sermonized in church. Animals play a prominent role in these depictions. Joseph, for example, brings a very pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem riding on a donkey. The couple are forced to lodge in a stable with oxen and asses. Baby Jesus must be placed in an animal food trough for lack of a proper crib. Wise men from the east arrive on camels while shepherds bring their flock to Bethlehem to see the newborn king. Joseph is later warned to take his family to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath and dutifully places Mary back upon a donkey, perhaps the same one she rode from Nazareth. Animals everywhere!

Unfortunately, none of these animals appear in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth. Mary is not said to ride a donkey (ever); no animals are described as cohabiting the stable with the family; no camels accompany the wise men; and, while the shepherds were earlier watching their flock (Luke 2:8), no sheep are said to arrive with them at the stable. These animal appearances are all the result of later Christian imagination perhaps partly inspired by Jesus’s accusation in Luke 13:15 (“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?”) The role of these animals in the nativity story began in the second century in such extra-canonical texts as the Proto-gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of pseudo-Matthew.

Nevertheless, the first animals we encounter in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are, indeed, mentioned in the birth stories. Following her delivery, Mary must be purified as commanded in the Torah (Leviticus 12). The rite involves the sacrifice of a lamb and/or two pigeons or turtledoves at the Temple in Jerusalem. Being poor, the family offered the latter. A dove features again in Jesus’s very first adult act, his baptism by John. The dove is meant to symbolize God’s spirit alighting on Jesus as he rises from the water. In fact, birds were frequently associated with the divine in antiquity due to their ability to soar upward toward the heavens. Birds were known to act as messengers of the gods.

Along with the pigeons and turtledoves mentioned above, birds are featured in a number of Jesus’s teachings. He points out how birds “do not spin” (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24 calls them “ravens”) and yet are clothed by God. Birds play meaningful roles in Jesus’s parable of the small mustard seed which grows so large it provides nests for birds (Matthew 13:32). Jesus laments that, while the lowly birds have nests, Jesus, as the Son of Man, has nowhere to call home (Matthew 8:20). Birds devour seed carelessly scattered by the sower in another of Jesus’s parables (Matthew 13:4). Pigeons again appear in the story of Jesus’s stormy visit to the Temple in Jerusalem where he overturns the tables of those who sold the commercially-raised birds for sacrificial purposes (Matthew 21:12). Pigeons and doves were considered ritually clean by Jews and thus appropriate for sacrificing. For Jesus, doves were symbols of innocence and cited as role models for his followers (Matthew 10:16). In Jewish thought, the dove was the ultimate symbol of Israel and of the soul.

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Fatherhood in the Gospels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Fatherhood is well-represented in the New Testament. One of the very few authentic words spoken by Jesus and recorded in the gospels may be the Aramaic form of father: abba. Jesus, like other rabbis of ancient Judaism, characterized God as the male parent, benevolent but just, forgiving but demanding. The first-century world was a patriarchal one in which the father was head of the family and men generally ruled the political and social world. Just as the kings of Israel were men (with a rare queen here and there), so the God of Israel was conceptualized in masculine terms. In the pagan world, the gods could be of either gender though the primary god of the Greco-Romans, Zeus/Jupiter, was envisioned as a male.

There are a number of references to fathers other than God in the gospels. I thought it might be interesting to look at three of them, each distinctly different and spanning the spectrum of what we might judge to be good examples of fatherhood, bad examples, and just plain dysfunctional examples. Let’s begin with the first human father mentioned, Joseph of Nazareth.

Despite doctrinal belief in Jesus’s origins as the product of a union between the Spirit of God and a human woman, the role of human father in Jesus’s life was apparently played by Joseph, probably a lifelong resident of Nazareth. Despite the opening story of Jesus’s supernatural conception in the Gospel of Luke, that author twice refers to Joseph unabashedly as Jesus’s father (2:33, 48). The Gospel of John, which takes great pains to characterize Jesus as God’s preexistent Word made flesh, has the residents of Capernaum call Jesus “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). Both Jesus and Joseph are described by the Greek word tekton, a builder or craftsman (frequently translated in English as “carpenter”). The Gospel of Matthew refers to Jesus as “the tekton’s son” (13:55) despite its opening story of Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Gospel of Mark avoids calling Joseph the father of Jesus and instead calls Jesus “the son of Mary” but adds that he has brothers and sisters (6:3). This gives us a basic understanding of Jesus’s family situation.

But what of the story of Jesus’s miraculous conception? Was Jesus Joseph’s genetic son or an adopted one? Much depends on how one reads and accounts for the story of the supernatural pregnancy of Mary. It is common knowledge that the two birth stories of Jesus featured in Matthew and Luke are quite different in detail. Yet, they agree on several points. One is that, whoever fathered Jesus, it was not Joseph. Later attacks on Jesus’s origins claimed that Mary had become pregnant by another man while betrothed to Joseph. Adultery would have been the accusation in real time if Joseph was known not to be the father of Mary’s baby. Matthew even makes the point that Joseph knew that Mary had become pregnant by someone else and he seriously considered abandoning her (Matthew 1:19). Nevertheless, whether Mary told him the story of her conception as we have it in the gospel accounts, or whether he believed it, he took mother and child under his wing and raised Jesus as his own.

Continue reading “Fatherhood in the Gospels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”