|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 300s; 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 100s, 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 300s, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke.
|A simple depiction of the
Adoration of the Animals,
from the 300s.
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.”
|A Nativity Icon at
Saint Catherine's Monastery.
|The Magi, pictured in a mosaic made
in the mid-500s 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 500s; 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
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.”
|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.”