|A representation of the Nativity Icon|
in minuscule 157
(housed at the Vatican Library).
It’s almost Christmas, so this might be a good opportunity to momentarily detour from the world of New Testament textual criticism, going slightly off-course into the field of New Testament iconography. Icons, like other non-textual features in manuscripts, can sometimes help trace a manuscript’s historical background and its relationship to other manuscripts. Let’s take some time to think about the Icon of the Nativity. The image shown here is based on the Nativity Icon found in the important minuscule 157, but the same basic icon is found in many other manuscripts, whether the accompanying text is Greek, Latin, Armenian, or something else.
The Nativity Icon depicts several scenes. The main scene, in the center, shows Mary resting on a bed, or mattress, after giving birth to Jesus. (Usually the mattress is red; the white mattress with red and blue stripes is a relatively rare feature in the icon in minuscule 157.) The location is a cave which served the purpose of a natural barn for animals; the cave is pictured somewhat abstractly by the opening on the hill behind Mary. The infant Jesus is in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger. A cave in
that is said to be the place of Jesus’ birth can be visited to this day. But the icon is not intended to only convey a
historical reality in its depiction of the cave. It also signifies that the Word of God took on flesh to bring God’s light into a dark world that was in rebellion against God. Jesus is the light; the world is the cave. And, setting a pattern of salvation, the cave did not come to Christ; Christ came to the
An ox and a donkey look curiously at Jesus over the edge of the manger. These animals are not mentioned in the Gospel-accounts, but the tradition about their presence at the manger goes back at least to the 300’s; they are included in sculptures depicting Christ in the manger that were sculpted in that century. They are also mentioned in the fourteenth chapter of a composition which has come to be known as the Gospel (or, Infancy Gospel) of Pseudo-Matthew; it was not written by Matthew but its author – hundreds of years after Matthew’s time – claimed that Matthew wrote it in an attempt to promote its acceptance. Prominent atheist Bart Ehrman has spread the claim that the tradition that Jesus was born in the cave at Bethlehem, and the tradition about the ox and donkey, both originated with this late source; however, Justin Martyr, in the first half of the 100’s, mentions the cave at Bethlehem in chapter 78 of his composition Dialogue With Trypho. So does the Proto-evangelium of James, which I will describe shortly. In addition, the presence of the ox and donkey was mentioned by Ambrose of Milan, in the late 300’s, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke.
|A simple depiction of the|
Adoration of the Animals,
from the 300's.
Possibly the tradition about the animals began as an explanation of Isaiah 1:3a – “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows its master’s crib.” Another passage, Habakkuk 3:2, probably also had something to do with the spread of the tradition about the animals: part of the Hebrew phrase which, in modern English Bibles, is translated as “in the midst of the years make known” was translated into Greek in intertestamental times as δύω ζώων, that is, “two living creatures,” or, “two animals,” with the result that in one form of the Greek Old Testament text, the sentence read, “You shall be known between the two living creatures.”
The word ζωή does not only refer to animals, but technically to any living creature, and so it is possible (if one were to treat the Septuagint’s rendering as correct) to apply this prophecy from Habakkuk not only to the scene at Christ’s birth, where He is made manifest with two animals at the manger (one clean ox, and one unclean donkey), but also to the scene at Christ’s death, where He is crucified between two thieves (one of whom repents).
In sync with the idea that the events of Christ’s birth fit the pattern of events surrounding His death, the manger pictured in this icon is made of stone, foreshadowing that as the infant Christ was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in the stone manger, likewise, the body of Christ, after being taken from the cross, was wrapped in a clean linen cloth by Joseph of Arimathea (as related in Matthew 27:59) and placed in a stone tomb.
|A Nativity Icon at|
Saint Catherine's Monastery.
Augmenting that theme, the Nativity Icon includes a scene that is found nowhere in the New Testament: a scene in which two women give the infant Jesus a bath while Mary rests. These two characters are derived from a second-century text called the Proto-evangelium (or Infancy Gospel) of James. This text was mentioned by the writer Origen, and so a simple deduction leads to the conclusion that it was written no later than the late 100’s – possible even as early as the mid-100’s. It was composed to “fill in the blanks,” so to speak, regarding the background of Jesus’ family – which it does sometimes via plausible narratives, and sometimes via outlandish tales. But although all that is an interesting subject, let’s keep the focus today on the Nativity Icon: the two women are sometimes named Salome and Zelemi. (These are different forms of the same name. I suspect that the scene in the icon was produced with Salome and an unnamed midwife in mind, and then somewhere along the line, someone gave the midwife a name.) Once again, the imagery lends itself readily to a thematic application; the washing of the infant Jesus foreshadows His future baptism, at the outset of His ministry.
And speaking of Joseph: he has his own scene in the Nativity Icon: he is situated apart from Mary and the baby Jesus, looking somewhat perplexed by everything that has happened. There is no early tradition that explains exactly what Joseph is supposed to be thinking, but in some versions of the icon, he is accompanied by an old man who represents the devil in disguise, attempting to raise doubts in Joseph’s mind about Mary’s purity. Faced with a choice between believing what would normally be a reasonable position (that is, that no baby is conceived without the involvement of a man), or a declaration from God, Joseph resolves to believe God – but not without a struggle. He thus typifies everyone who fights an internal battle against doubts, and who is willing to shoulder the responsibilities that faith requires.
The wise men, or Magi, whose journey to honor the newborn King of the Jews is described in the Gospel of Matthew, are also in the icon. They are three in number (although Matthew does not provide their exact number), and they have different ages – one is young; one is middle-aged, and one is elderly. Their names and corresponding gifts are as follows:
|The Magi, pictured in a mosaic made |
in the mid-500's in Ravenna, Italy.
● Gaspar (or
the elderly wise man gave gold;
● Melchior the middle-aged wise man gave frankincense from
● Balthazar the young wise man, who is often pictured as black-skinned, gave myrrh from
Yemen. Their names can be traced at least as far back
as the 500’s; they are in a mosaic in Ravenna, Italy which was made in
565, and they are also recorded in a Latin text known as the Excerpta Latina Barbari, which was probably put together around the
year 500. The wise men are typically
distinguished in icons not only by their gifts but also by their unusual Persian
In earlier icons, the wise men are pictured on their way to the Christ-child; by the time they arrived, Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus were residing in a house, according to Matthew 2:11. In later icons, however, they are sometimes pictured at the manger with the shepherds, as in some modern-day Nativity scenes. The old arrangement, in which Christ’s birth is celebrated on December 25 and the Feast of Epiphany (when the wise men arrive and encounter the Christ-child) is celebrated on January 6, is the basis for the custom of treating Christmastime as a 12-day-long celebration. And, like the wise men who departed to their own country “by another way” after their visit, likewise we should all be changed by consideration of what God has done, and what He continues to do, through Christ.
The Gospels provide no direct evidence that the wise men were kings; however it is possible that they served as de facto ambassadors, and thus their actions may be regarded indirectly as actions done in the name of a king, or kings, depending on how many political entities sent the wise men. It is in this sense that some interpreters have understood Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60:3 to be fulfilled by the wise men – “The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores shall bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts,” and “Nations shall come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your dawn.”
The wise men’s presence in the story of Christmas raised a question for thoughtful Christians in the early church: how did the wise men know to look for a special star that would signal the arrival of the King of the Jews? As a guide to the answer to this question, the Nativity-icon in minuscule 157 includes another Biblical scene, drawn from the book of Numbers: the prophet Balaam points out the Star of Bethlehem to the pagan king Balak, in accord with his prophecy in Numbers 24:17: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” A recollection of Balaam’s ancient prophecy – combined perhaps with the influence of Daniel among the astrologers of
|An ivory panel-carving of |
the Nativity Icon,
at the Walters Art Museum
In most Nativity-icons, Balaam and Balak are replaced by shepherds. This might have been done by an artist who was unfamiliar with the significance of these characters, and who was copying a small icon in which the names of the characters were not given and the details were not clearly defined. Feeling that the shepherds should be included, and seeing an angel facing these two characters, the artist identified them as shepherds, and thus Balaam and Balak disappeared from the scene. (Balak’s crown, accordingly, was apparently redrawn as an unusual hat on one of the shepherds.) There is something thematically appealing to this development – emphasizing the teaching that we are no longer under Law, but under grace – for as Balaam and Balak are replaced by shepherds, the angel of the Lord who appeared to Balaam with a rebuke and a sword now stands as the angel who proclaimed “Good tidings of great joy which shall be for all peoples.”
Finally, in the background, the angelic armies stand ready to be discharged to visit the shepherds, and the Old Testament prophets stand by as a cloud of witnesses, looking on as God’s plan unfolds. May we stand with them in wonder this Christmas, as heaven and earth praise God together for the salvation He has brought us through His Son. Merry Christmas!