Donkeys and Cattle at Jesus’ Birth? Only in a ‘Lost Gospel,’ Not the New Testament, Baylor Historian of Religion Says
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WACO, Texas (Dec. 14, 2015) — The old Christmas carol “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” makes the scenario clear in its telling of Jesus’ birth: “Ox and ass before Him bow; and He is in the manger now.”
Nativity depictions ranging from paintings in the Middle Ages to stained glass imagery to contemporary art often feature the donkey and the ox prominently. But that likely wouldn’t be the case if not for the so-called “Lost Gospels” — in particular one known as “Pseudo-Matthew,” says Philip Jenkins, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of History in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
While the Gospel of Luke mentions shepherds and a manger, nowhere in the New Testament accounts of the nativity do cattle or donkeys appear, says Jenkins, author of the new book “The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels.”
The conventional account of early Christianity is that numerous alternative Scriptures were suppressed by the Church, with only four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — selected as official accounts, with the rest lost, hidden or obliterated.
But Jenkins’ research suggests that many of these gospels never were really lost by the early Church but instead were widely influential until the Reformation — and even today play a major role in shaping the beliefs of some Christians, although they may not realize it.
“There’s this kind of myth that all these gospels went underground around the year 400 and were destroyed or lost,” Jenkins said. But a number of texts have been found since the late 1770s — perhaps most notably in 1945, when farmers found a sealed jar near caves not far from the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi. Inside were a dozen leather-bound papyrus books containing more than 50 texts — some of them including quotations attributed to Jesus.
Although church leaders centuries before did not ultimately accept as genuine sacred accounts such writings as “the Gospel of Nicodemus,” “Gospel of James” and various gospels of Mary, the accounts nevertheless were well known during the spread of the church, Jenkins says.
In Ireland, which began converting to Christianity in the fifth century, “people were freely using gospels that nobody knew hadn’t been approved,” Jenkins said. While today word travels fast via the Internet, “it’s as if centuries ago, they didn’t get the memo.”
During the Middle Ages, people even used some of the texts as the basis for poems and “mystery plays,” Jenkins said.
“These are probably plays that Shakespeare saw, and they probably disappeared around the time he was in his teens,” he said.
Some of the writings continue to have a strong impact today — particularly in Eastern Orthodox churches, Jenkins says.
“Some are considered canonical in the Ethiopian churches, one of the world’s oldest churches,” Jenkins said.
The New Testament tells little about Jesus’ childhood, other than that as a boy of 12, he questioned the teachers at the Temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly, the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” portrays him as an obnoxious little boy, Jenkins said.
“However completely a text seems to have disappeared, its words and images often survived and were accepted, provided they met a powerful popular need,” Jenkins writes in the book. “Demand trumped censorship.”
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Launched in August 2004, the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) exists to initiate, support and conduct research on religion, involving scholars and projects spanning the intellectual spectrum: history, psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, epidemiology, theology and religious studies. The institute’s mandate extends to all religions, everywhere, and throughout history, and embraces the study of religious effects on prosocial behavior, family life, population health, economic development and social conflict. While always striving for appropriate scientific objectivity, ISR scholars treat religion with the respect that sacred matters require and deserve.