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.