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.

There can be no question that the animals most represented in the New Testament, whether singly or in groups, are sheep and lambs. This is to be expected since the lamb is the designated Passover sacrifice; it is slaughtered, roasted, and eaten in commemoration of the most important event in Jewish history. Jesus’s association with the Passover comes from the timing of his crucifixion which took place around the time of the festival. For that reason, Jesus is frequently called the Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), the lamb without blemish (1 Peter 1:19), or simply, the Lamb (Revelation 5:6, 8, 12-13, etc.). Reversing the symbolism, Jesus’s followers are sometimes described as sheep and he as their shepherd (e.g., Matthew 9:36, 10:16, 26:31; John 10:2-27, 21:15-17; Acts 20:28-29; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Sheep were highly valued in ancient Palestine especially for their wool and were only rarely eaten. The fat-tailed Awassi sheep was the most popular – its tail could weigh up to 20 pounds and could be sacrificed all by itself. Sheep were often used by Jesus as symbols in his teachings. He compares, for example, the lost tribes of Israel to “lost sheep” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). Jesus’s followers are “sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16) while those who reject him and his teachings are described as goats (Matthew 25:32-33). Goats were the second most popular domesticated animal in ancient Palestine valued for their milk.

The frequent appearance of domesticated animals is typical of agricultural economies and is exactly what we would expect from stories that originated in first-century Palestine. Oxen, for example, are mentioned numerous times. Jesus laments that farmers would not hesitate to help an ox that had fallen into a well on the Sabbath though his opponents denied Jesus the right to help a human being (Luke 14:5). “Oxen and fat cattle” are featured on the menu of the king who gave a wedding feast for his son in Jesus’s parable of rejection and replacement (Matthew 22:4). Ironically, in Luke’s version of the story, one of the invited guests cites his recent purchase of “five yoke of oxen” as an excuse not to attend the festivities (Luke 14:19). Oxen were used for sacrifices in both Jewish and pagan ceremonies. Jesus drove out the sellers of oxen, generally bulls, from the Jerusalem Temple in John’s version of the story (2:14-15). A pagan high priest of Zeus serving at Lystra in Asia Minor offered to sacrifice oxen on behalf of Paul and Barnabas who were identified as gods (Acts 14:13). Paul and the author of 1 Timothy both quote the Torah proviso that “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18; cf. Deuteronomy 25:4) in support of the right of Christian missionaries to be fed for their efforts.

A variety of other domesticated animals are mentioned in the New Testament. The “fatted calf” is part of the meal designated for the prodigal son who has returned home in Luke’s famous parable (Luke 15:23, 27, 30). Goats obviously ranked as a less desirable delicacy since in the same parable the older son complains that, despite his loyal service, he was never even been offered this mealtime entrée (Luke 15:29). The Letter to the Hebrews mentions the slaughter of bulls, goats, and calves in the Jerusalem Temple though the author claims that is no longer necessary now that Christ has come (9:12-13, 19; 10:4).

The dog is usually employed as a negative symbol in the New Testament though dogs were domesticated as early as 10,000 BCE. In antiquity there was a notable difference between the house pet, the guard dog, and the feral pack animal. It was the latter that earned the scorn of ancient writers. For example, Jesus advised his followers not to “give to [wild pack] dogs what is holy” (Matthew 7:6). On the other hand, table scraps were commonly thrown to the domesticated house dogs, a term used metaphorically to describe the Syro-Phoenician woman who begs a miracle from Jesus (Mark 7:27-28). According to the Babylonians, dogs were believed to be able to lick away diseases. Dogs populated temples built in honor of the healing god Asclepius. Dogs lick the wounds of poor Lazarus in Jesus’s parable found at Luke 16:21. Proverbs 26:11 is quoted by the author of 2 Peter to describe backsliding Christians who are like the dog that “returns to its own vomit” (2 Peter 2:22). Paul warns in Philippians 3:2 to “look out for the dogs…who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2) possibly referring to Cynics [Greek = “doglike”] or idolaters in general who sometimes castrated themselves.

Given that many of Jesus’s disciples were fishermen, one might expect references in the gospels to fish. And one would be right. Jesus spoke of fish in his teachings (Matthew 7:10, 12:40) and they are featured in stories about him. Fish was a staple food in the ancient world. There were over 25 native species in the Sea of Galilee alone. Even the names of villages on the shore remind one of the lakeside’s primary industry: Beth-saida means “house of fishing” while Taricheae (Magdala) means “place (or tower) where fish are salted.” Fish figure prominently in the stories of Jesus multiplying a few of them, along with some bread, to feed thousands (Matthew 14:17-19; 15:34-36). Jesus instructed his frustrated disciples to throw their nets in the water one last time (Luke 5:6-7; John 21:5-13); fish were caught with nets, hooks, and traps. Jesus instructed Peter to pull a coin from a fish’s mouth to pay their Temple taxes (Matthew 17:27). Finally, the risen Jesus is said to have eaten a piece of broiled fish probably to demonstrate that his body, not just his soul, rose from the dead (Luke 24:42).

In fulfillment of the prophecy given by Zechariah (9:9), Jesus came to Jerusalem during the last week of his life riding on a donkey, also called a colt and a foal (Matthew 21:5). Luke may be referring to such an animal when, in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the hero places the wounded stranger on “his animal” (10:34). The donkey was the premier beast of burden in the ancient world – nearly every family had one. Domesticated in the late fourth millennium BCE, the donkey (or ass) could haul 220 pounds for up to 20 miles per day. Donkeys were sometimes used to turn millstones as reflected in Matthew 18:6. The raising of mules, the result of crossbreeding a mare horse with a stallion donkey, was forbidden in Israel. Nevertheless, Jews prized these imported animals. They could haul twice as much as a donkey.

Insects have not forgotten among the numerous references to animals in the New Testament. Jesus compared the tiny gnat with the great size of the camel (Matthew 23:24). This may have been a pun on the Aramaic words for gnat (qalmāᵓ) and camel (gamlāᵓ). The moth, known for laying is voracious eggs in textile fabrics, is the chosen symbol of destruction in Jesus’s teaching about the effects of the kingdom (Matthew 6:19-20). Locusts feature among the meal choices of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4). Living near the Qumran community of Essenes, he may have borrowed their recipe for preparing them as recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Serpents, vipers, and asps reoccur throughout the New Testament. Who can forget Jesus’s venomous attack on some local Pharisees whom he characterized as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33) of which there were at least eight kinds in Palestine? Jesus challenged his listeners by asking which of them would give their children a serpent if they asked for food (Matthew 7:10). He claimed to have given his disciples the “authority to tread on serpents” (Luke 10:19). Paul, who quotes Psalm 140:3 to castigate those who do not honestly follow God (“the venom of asps is on their lips”), is said to have survived the bite of a viper on the island of Malta according to the story in Acts (28:3).

Other animals are mentioned a few times. The camel, the largest native beast in Palestine, is famously portrayed by Jesus as being unable to go “through the eye of a needle” (Matthew 19:24). The most popular camel in the Near East was the one-humped dromedary. John the Baptist wore “camel’s hair” (Matthew 3:4) which was acceptable so long as he didn’t eat the camel it came from. Foxes seem to be able to find a home though Jesus has trouble doing so (Matthew 8:20). Jesus compared Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, to a “fox” (Luke 13:32), then, as now, an epithet for a crafty or sly person. Worms are mentioned as symbolizing decay in Jesus’s teachings about the kingdom (Mark 9:48).  Likewise, Herod Agrippa died “eaten by worms” (Acts 12:23). Many people had intestinal round worms in the ancient world from the contaminated water and food supply. There were established (and unflattering) procedures for pulling them out. The dangerous (and demonic) scorpion is recalled by Jesus who asserted that no parent would give one to his child in lieu of an egg (which resembled a rolled-up scorpion – Luke 11:12); Jesus even empowered his disciples to be able to tread on them unharmed (Luke 10:19). The wolf, as natural predator of sheep, becomes symbolic for Jesus on several occasions. (Matthew 7:15, 10:16; John 10:12; cf. Acts 20:29).

Pigs, the famous animal placed forever on the “do not eat” list for kosher dieters, make their appearance in the New Testament as well. In Jesus’s parable, the prodigal son is reduced to eating with them (Luke 15:15). Jesus warned not to cast one’s pearls before them (Matthew 7:6) and even commands a group of demons to flee their human host and take up residence within a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:30-32). And, just as we saw with the adage about dogs returning to their vomit, the author of 2 Peter reminds us that the “sow…returns to wallow in the mire” (2:22).

Throughout the New Testament animals are mentioned by individual species but also grouped together. After his baptism, for example, Jesus, in prophet-like mode, turned to the wilderness where he “was with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13). Negative portrayals of animals as a group are used to characterize apostate Christians for 2 Peter 2:12 and Jude 1:10 (“irrational” and “unreasoning animals”). Collections of mixed animal types can be found in the story of Peter and his vision of “all kinds of animals” being given to him to eat (Acts 10:12), animals he later describes as “beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds” (Acts 11:6). Paul cites various animals serving as models for pagan idols such as “birds, animals, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). The apostle to the Gentiles applies his zoological observations to explain that nature has given different flesh to “animals, another for birds, and another for fish” (1 Corinthians 15:39).

By far the most diverse array of beasts comes in the Revelation of John. There, we can find references to birds (19:17, 21), oxen (4:7), serpents (9:19), the lamb (6:1, 16; 7:9-10, 14, 17, etc.), locusts (9:3, 7), dogs (22:15), cattle (18:13), sheep (18:13), lions (4:7, 10:3, 13:2), the bear (13:2), the eagle (4:7, 8:13, 12:14), dragons (12:3-4, 7, 9, 13, 16-17, etc.), frogs (16:13), horses (6:2-3, 19:11, 19, 21, etc.), the leopard (13:2), and the scorpion (9:3, 5, 10). Quite the menagerie!

These citations do not exhaust the number of times animals are mentioned in the New Testament. But they should serve amply to demonstrate that the animal kingdom is well-represented in the life and teachings of Jesus and the first followers of Christ in the early decades of the movement.

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