An Ox, an Ass, and Three Kings: A History of Apocryphal Christmas Traditions

Armenian Gospels, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, Walters MS W.543, fol. 5v (Courtesy the Walters Art Museum).
Armenian Gospels, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, Walters MS W.543, fol. 5v (Courtesy the Walters Art Museum).

This time of year, holiday symbols surround us on all sides. Some of these are fairly recent phenomena, like Santa Claus (a twentieth-century creation in his popular culture incarnation), electric lights, and decorated fir trees in many homes; some are much older, like Hanukkah menorahs and Nativity scenes. Among those associated with Christmas are a few that particularly capture my attention: the stereotypical ox and ass in the manger and the Three Wise Men. These images are so common in culture as to be fairly recognizable even to those who don’t identify as Christians. The imagery also lives in the music around us (particularly in department stores), as we hear singers relate that “ox and ass are feeding,” “Ox and ass before him bow,” and “three kings of Orient are / bearing gifts” as they “traverse afar” (in the Christmas carols “What Child Is This?,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “We Three Kings”).

But where do these stereotypical symbols come from? For those who go searching, contrary to expectations or assumptions, the Bible is not the answer. These symbols show the fascinating force that apocryphal, non-canonical narratives have on Christian traditions and popular culture, from early Christianity up to the present.

Ox and Ass

Turning to the canonical gospels reveals no sign of the animals present at Jesus’ Nativity. In the most detailed narrative in the gospels, Luke relates the actual birth of Jesus sparsely: “While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7, NRSV). He then moves on to tell us about the shepherds. Yet there is never mention of the ox and ass.

There is, however, a biblical passage in the Hebrew Bible that helps us to understand the two animals in Christian tradition. Isaiah 1:3 relates:

The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (NRSV)

While this prophecy had a very different meaning for the ancient Hebrew people at the time of Isaiah (eighth century BCE), it was later interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus. The imagery of the ox and ass, then, is a Christian appropriation of Isaiah’s prophecy in the Hebrew Bible to solidify the claims of gospel writers that Jesus was the Christ. In the first few centuries of Christianity, this connection took a strong hold, eventually becoming deeply entrenched in imaginings of the Christmas story.

Artistic depictions are especially strong in the late antique period. One of the earliest images is on the Sarcofago di Stilicone, a Roman sarcophagus (stone coffin) crafted around 385 that resides in the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Italy:

Nativity on the Sarcofago di Stilicone, Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan, Italy.

As can be seen, the infant Jesus is at the center, but, strikingly, there is no Mary and Joseph; the baby is accompanied only by ox and ass, flanked on either side by birds.

Some of the texts that helped in the development and popularization of the imagery of the ox and ass (and other popular ideas about Jesus’ childhood not mentioned in the canonical gospels) were stories like the Proto-Gospel of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which we now consider apocryphal, or outside of the accepted Christian scriptures. Particularly representative of the ox and ass making taking more significant roles in the Christmas story is the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a Latin adaptation of the Proto-Gospel of James.

Freiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r. (Courtesy e-codices)
Freiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r (Courtesy e-codices).

After Jesus’ birth in a cave (not a manger), the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew relates the following episode:

On the third day after the Lord’s birth, Mary left the cave and came into a stable, and she placed the child in a manger. And an ox and an ass bent their knees and worshiped him. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, who said, “The ox has recognized its owner and the ass the manger of its lord.” (14:1; in Ehrman and Pleše, 103)

While the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew was probably compiled in the late seventh or eighth century, it brought together earlier materials, and popularized many ideas about the Nativity that we still hold onto today. In fact, this story was a sort of bestseller in the medieval period. Many people had access to this narrative, its contents were included in chronicles of world history, and even preachers used it in sermons.

Three Kings

The Christmas carol known as “We Three Kings” was composed by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857–relatively recently as far as Christmas carols go. An oddity of such carols, the lyrics are not based on a traditional folk song, nor is the music based on a folk melody (as is typical); the whole song was composed fresh for a Christmas pageant. The song continues to pervade popular Christmas music in versions by artists like the Barenaked Ladies (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings,” featuring Sarah McLachlan, on Barenaked For the Holidays, 2004) and Sufjan Stevens (on Ding! Dong! Songs for Christmas Vol.III, 2003, and an instrumental version on Silver & Gold, 2012). While the song is a rather modern creation, it is clear that Hopkins drew on a long tradition surrounding the “three kings” who visited Jesus in his infancy. In fact, in early Christianity, Epiphany, when the magi visited Jesus, was a more important celebration than Christmas. Still, questions arise: Why kings? Why three? None of these are answered by the biblical gospels, but looking to other developments helps us to find the answers.

For the biblical basis, the Gospel of Matthew is the key, since it is the only canonical gospel to narrate the visit of the magi. The story (slightly redacted for space here) goes like this:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” …. When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11, NRSV; I have omitted the passages about Herod and foreshadowing the Slaughter of the Innocents, which is a whole other topic.)

The passage reveals that the magi were not always imagined as three figures, and even ambiguity about what type of men they were–kings or otherwise. In Greek, the specific word used for these visitors is μάγοι. As a term, this is fairly ambiguous, since it could mean any number of things, including “wise men,” “enchanters,” and “wizards” (fun fact: this word is the root of modern English magician), or more specific notions like priests of Persia or Media.

As ideas about these visitors accumulated through late antiquity and the medieval period, the magi took on all sorts of attributes. They came to be known as wise, thought to be kings from the East, possibly priest-kings as were known from antiquity. Since they gave costly gifts, they must have been rich. Since they followed the star, they must have been well versed in astrology. Connotations for the word μάγοι (magi in the Latin Bible) helped to make them more mysterious, knowledgeable in magic and esoteric arts. All of these notions may be found across a range of Christian texts, apocryphal and otherwise.

Detail of the Adoration of the Magi from the mosaic “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels” in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

Eventually, the magi were even given names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, as first attested in a sixth-century Latin translation of a lost Greek chronicle, only the start of a robust tradition. These names came to accompany images of the wise men in a variety of media, including art, as in the mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, completed in 526 (above). In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the Venerable Bede, a monk and one of the chief medieval biblical interpreters, wrote about the magi’s clothing, attributes, and helped to popularize the interpretation that they represented the three principle parts of the known world at the time (Asia, Africa, and Europe). As their veneration grew, the three wise men reached the status of saints, as they are now revered with canonical status.

As for the numbers of visitors, the most plausible explanation is that three became accepted because three gifts are mentioned. Apocryphal stories offer a range of ideas. Some (like the Proto-Gospel of James) stick fairly closely to the narrative and even wording of Matthew. Others vary in details, some less and some more. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew stays close to the canonical story but offers a few additions. For instance, it tells us that the visit happens “two years later” in Jerusalem, not at the birth in Bethlehem. When the magi offer Jesus gifts, “One offered gold, another incense, and the third myrrh” (16:1; in Ehrman and Pleše, 105), a clear image of three figures. Here we see again that this story is representative of the shifts in details that took hold in Christian tradition.

Curiously, not every author agreed with the number three. The second- or third-century Syriac text known as the Revelation of the Magi (preserved in an eighth-century manuscript in the Vatican library) includes twelve astrologers from the east. In the tenth century, the Syriac Nestorian Abû-l-Hasan bar Bahlûl also enumerated twelve magi, including a list of their names in his Lexicon. Nonetheless, the number three won out in the West–perhaps because it is both finite and a small number for artistic depictions, to which we turn next.

As with the ox and ass, the earliest artistic depictions of the magi with Jesus appear around Rome in the fourth century. For example, the Adoration of the Magi (as the event is called) appears on a fourth-century Roman sarcophagus from the cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome:

Adoration of the Magi on a sarcophagus from the cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome, now in the Museo Pio Christiano.

Later, in the eighth century, these figures appear on the Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket, made out of whale’s bone:

Adoration of the Magi on the Franks Casket, now in the British Library.

The runic inscription on this section of the casket identifies these three figures as “MÆGI.” Although not explicitly wearing kingly clothing, this depiction is interesting in that each figure represents a stage of life; one is young, the second middle aged, the third old. In addition to Bede’s classification of the magi from different lands around the world, they have taken on further significance as representatives for all humans regardless of age. Furthermore, it is clear that their place in tradition was solidified by this point.

White House Nativity scene in Franklin McPherson Square, 2008.

In our own culture, the symbols of the ox, ass, and three kings are included in so many Nativity scenes–including in the White House–that it is hard to imagine that representations of Christmas could be complete without these symbols. Yet, looking back, the story includes a history of complex developments and the rise of ideas out of humble beginnings in texts now often overlooked. Still, it is telling that these apocryphal figures continue to hold sway in our own pop-culture Christmas ideals.

For Further Reading

For an excellent introduction to the subject of apocrypha, see Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2013), especially 44-54 on gospels relating Jesus’ birth and infancy.

For a recent collection of some apocryphal gospels in original languages and translations, with helpful introductions and further bibliography, see Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011).

For an overview of apocrypha in art, see David R. Cartlidge and J. Keith Elliott, Art and the Christian Apocrypha (New York: Routledge, 2001), especially 74-133 on depictions of “The Life and Mission of Jesus.”

On the specific topic of the names and attributes of the magi, see Bruce M. Metzger, “Names for the Nameless in the New Testament: A Study in the Growth of Christian Tradition,” New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, New Testament Tools and Studies 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 23-45, esp. 23-29.


18 thoughts on “An Ox, an Ass, and Three Kings: A History of Apocryphal Christmas Traditions

  1. Ah–one other things on the kings… There are references to gift-bearing kings coming to the Messiah in Ps 72:10-11, 15. Furthermore, Isa 60 brings together several themes that link closely with the narrative: camels bearing gifts, the specific connection of gold and frankincense (v. 6) and as well as kings later on.

    So, yes, the three kings as we know them are apocryphal, but the kingly roots of the gift-givers are found in these OT texts that prompted the apocryphal imaginings.

  2. Thanks for those references, Derek! These passages add more to and underscore a point that I could have made more clearly: that apocrypha are great texts for taking the Hebrew Bible, early Christian views, and melding them together into exegetical narratives. In other words, apocrypha are excellent repositories of early Christian interpretations of Hebrew ideas through the new lens of the gospel.

  3. Very informative (and fun, and interesting)! You probably already know what the magi are called in Old English — “tungel-witegan”? I suppose the calque “star-knowers” further attests to the tradition that had accreted of their being astrologers. (“tungelwitega” also glosses “astrologus,” “magus,” “mathematicus,” and “doctor” — say, wouldn’t it be excellent if, when Anglo-Saxonists complete their degrees, they be conferred the title of “tungolwitega”?)

    Now, this may be a little off-topic, but since you bring in the Franks Casket: what’s *your* take on the theories about the magi-panel occurring next to the Weland-panel?

    1. Good question, Joseph, and I’m not sure I have a specific or definitive take that I would argue. But I do think it has a lot to do with the way that both scenes revolve around gift-giving: the revenge and greed of giving in the Weland image and the veneration and generosity of giving with the Magi. It also strikes me that this particular side of the casket does a nice job of highlighting the interaction (not necessarily contrast, although there is that too) between older pagan kingship and the new and better (for eighth-century Anglo-Saxons, newly Christianized) kingship–including both earthly rulers and the heavenly ruler, Christ (and maybe the magi, depending on whether or not they were considered kings in this depiction). So I think that there’s a lot going on here that comments on these themes. In some ways, I think it’s a nice parallel to some of the intermingling of similar themes in Beowulf, which I think also wrestles with questions about the older pagan past and the newer Christian present of the poet (and I used it this way in my class this semester when we discussed Beowulf).

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