Review: Tom Boomershine, The Messiah of Peace

Note: This book review was composed during an independent study on the Gospel of Mark during my doctoral studies, in 2016, and has not previously been published. I have touched it up in very minor ways for posting to my blog now, some six years later.



     Thomas E. Boomershine, The Messiah of Peace: A Performance-Criticism Commentary on Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative. Biblical Performance Criticism Series 12. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-62564-545-6. 464 pages. $55.00.

Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock), 2015

Thomas E. Boomershine’s The Messiah of Peace (2015) is the printed volume of an ambitious, first-of-its-kind project to apply principles of performance criticism and orality studies consistently to a biblical text in commentary format. The book is accompanied by a dedicated website ( with videos, broken conveniently into commentary-sized chunks, of Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative (Mark 14-16, hereafter “PRN”) performed by the author himself in both English and Greek. (As he insists in the written volume, the companion website is indispensable to this project and required viewing for the reader.) Boomershine assumes that the Gospel of Mark is the product of oral performance, and thus makes no overtures to argue this point against its detractors. Readers not convinced of the performative nature of Mark may stumble out of the gate, but Boomershine’s presentation, complete with a sound-mapped readout of the Greek text and thirteen criteria for the breakdown of cola, commas, and periods, will likely soon convince.

Slightly against the grain of scholarly consensus, Boomershine contends that the original audiences for which this gospel was formulated were comprised mostly of Greek-speaking Jews—or Judeans, to use his preferred term. Boomershine takes the occasional explanations of Jewish traditions not as a sign of original Gentile-majority audiences, but rather as intermittent concessions to the presence of Gentiles in Mark’s Judean audience. Boomershine evades any definitive declaration of the date of the gospel, though he assents to a chronology near the final throes of the Jewish-Roman War. One might imagine that a basic difficulty of dating the Gospel of Mark for a performance critic is its existence as an oral narrative well before it would be inscribed for more widespread public consumption, but Boomershine is curiously silent about the chronological or developmental relationship between performed narrative and written text.

Moving quickly beyond these conventional historical concerns, Boomershine covers the different types of rhetoric used by the storyteller, as well as how to distinguish between the narrative itself and asides intended to explain elements of the story to an uninitiated audience. The three chapters of Mark under consideration are broken down into eight sections linked either thematically or in story-time, each of which contain up to three pericopae. Each of the nineteen stories is introduced by a less detailed sound map than appears in the appendix, highlighting recurring words and word stems in addition to a translation and translational notes. Significantly, each pericope is accompanied by a concluding section on how the story might best be performed, but this reads most frequently as a menu of many options rather than a definitive guide.

In his analysis, Boomershine calls attention to the manifold ways in which the Markan composer builds suspense to successive climaxes and offers the hope that Jesus’s life might be spared. Parts of the commentary mirror conventional commentary series in order to touch on significant issues in the text, and the author shines by explaining how modern translations often fail to take account for the performative aspects of the text, translating distinct periods and points of impact out into minor details overshadowed by long English sentences. At times, however, Boomershine’s preference for performative repetition disregards sound principles of textual criticism to argue, for example, for poorly attested variants that sound better in performance.

YouTube Channel GoTellStory: Tom Boomershine performing Mark 14-16 in English

Boomershine peppers his commentary with unmistakable traces of an evangelical bent. As the very title of the volume demonstrates, the author regards the Markan Jesus as a nonviolent Messiah who both confounded the expectations of his disciples and, perhaps most significantly, presented a different way to respond to Roman aggression than was followed by the Judean leadership. At several junctures, Boomershine takes advantage of the dual meaning of lēstēs (insurrectionist or bandit, etc.) and its cognates and synonyms to describe the Temple as a fortress of warmaking during the war of 66-73 CE. This is in line with Josephus’s portrayal of the Temple during the war, and is perhaps most clear during Jesus’s arrest at Gethsemane when his question—“Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were an insurrectionist to capture me?” (Mk 14:48)—implicitly thrusts the charge of being a lēstēs onto his captors (133; 144). Beyond this construction of Jesus’s Messiahship, Boomershine emphasizes additional points, arguing, for example, against the “myth of redemptive violence” (242) and advocating for national investments in peacemaking and conflict resolution (362). Even if one agrees wholeheartedly on these matters, such statements reasonably cause the reader to wonder where the author’s personal commitments end and whether the cross-pollination of advocacy and scholarship constitutes the best foray into performance criticism. In spite of these worries, Boomershine’s analyses are highly academic, and the reader can appreciate the up-front admittance of the subjectivity of interpretation.

Though Boomershine privileges performance criticism as the unique contribution of his work, it yet suffers from a lack of clarity in its primary intention(s). Does the author, accounting for the performative nature of the text, intend to produce a definitive translation of the Passion-Resurrection Narrative? If so, one might question why at certain points he seems to advocate different translations for performance and for interpretation. Does he seek to aid would-be performers of the Gospel of Mark with instructions on how to best achieve the task? If so, he allows for a great deal of guesswork and leeway in the delivery of nearly every pericope, from tone and volume to gestures and on-stage movements. Does the author endeavor to establish a more authentic division of the Greek text into cola and periods than is supplied in the leading critical editions? If so, despite an appendix that contains some of the methodology underlying his sound map of the Markan text, a full accounting of the scholarship supporting this will not be found here. Or, finally, does he intend to advance the interpretation of Jesus as a nonviolent Messiah, distinguishing him, in the construction of the Markan author, from the ill-fated ideology of the Judean leadership which is blamed for the disastrous outcome of the Jewish-Roman War? Boomershine readily concedes the “profoundly political” nature of his work, and this is a central theme of the commentary, but that said, it remains to be seen why the burgeoning approach of performance criticism would be the most appropriate venue to accomplish this.

Invariably, new exegetical methods purveyed for the first time simultaneously bear fruit and expose kinks. As with any commentary, one will find aspects that aid interpretation and others that distract from the course. But Boomershine best succeeds by calling a discipline infatuated by textuality to reckon with issues surrounding the performative nature of a story that, before becoming text, persisted by word of mouth in an overwhelmingly oral culture. Exegetes of Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative will be forced to interact with this new analysis, adding performativity to the litany of criticisms through which to guide interpretation. Upon reading Boomershine’s impressive work, one yearns for an application of performance criticism to the preceding thirteen chapters of Mark, and might additionally be encouraged to take up the performance of the Passion-Resurrection Narrative to its worthwhile interpretive ends for himself or herself.

Although engagement with Boomershine’s commentary may not be enough to convince the guild broadly that Mark was composed in performance before its broader distribution in written format, with the additional groundwork of Antoinette Clark Wire’s volume in the same Biblical Performance Criticism Series, one can imagine the seeds of a pan-Synoptic theory whereby Mark fulfills the needs of the gospel’s performance while remaining unsuitable for the comparatively elite, literary purposes of subsequent evangelists. When searches for Mark’s sources are often found grasping at ghosts, composition in performance and other methods that highlight the orality/aurality of the initial gospel may be our best route forward for fresh insights into the invention of the genre and the designs underlying the “greatest story ever told.”

Review: Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism

Note: This review was originally published in April 2019 as a Book Note for Ancient Jew Review. However, a revamp of their website has apparently swallowed up the Book Note, which has been saved only via the Wayback Machine. For preservation purposes, I am reposting it here.

     Drew W. Billings. Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism. Cambridge Press, 2017.

Cambridge University Press, 2017

Trajan’s Column (completed in Rome around 113 CE) memorializes the Roman victory in the Dacian Wars of the prior decade, with a spiraling frieze that depicts over 150 scenes, ranging from battle and subjugation to mercy and infrastructure development, pictorially. In Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism, Drew Billings places Emperor Trajan and the triumphal Column erected to honor his reign into conversation with the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles. Billings’ central assertion is that the Column constitutes a text against which the output of Acts’ author can be read, even to the extent that historiographically, methodologically, and stylistically, it “provides the closest nonverbal analogy to the book of Acts existing from antiquity” (p. 27).

Underpinning the study’s central arguments, however, are larger debates about Acts’ date of composition and disposition toward the Roman Empire. Billings dismisses one common dating of 80–90 CE as “nothing other than a scholarly compromise” between those who regard its author as an eyewitness to events of the 50s and 60s CE and those who would place the book later (p. 12). Without engaging at length with scholars preferring an even later post-Marcionic date, Billings locates Acts as a product of Trajan’s reign (98–117 CE) and its attendant multimedia culture. Turning to the author of Acts’ attitude toward Rome, he suggests that attempts to portray the text as univocally for or against Empire are inadequate. Billings instead characterizes the author—whom he regards as the “Luke” also responsible for the Third Gospel (p. 1)—as largely ambivalent. He actively participates in the Trajanic discourse about idealized imperial citizenship, leadership, and benefaction while imitating or hybridizing imperial methods of representation to write Christians and particularly its Apostle to the Gentiles into a position of acceptance and status (pp. 162-3). Successful argumentation on these questions would add fresh affirmation to the early second-century dating for Acts advanced on other compelling grounds by, for example, the late Richard Pervo and the Acts Seminar.

Trajan’s Column, Rome
Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

The first chapter lays the foundation for the comparison of Acts and Trajan’s Column. For Billings, both “texts” venerate their male heroes in a continuous narrative style, with windows toward reality shaped by significant verisimilitude and the use of encomia to inspire praise, wonder, and imitation. While Acts and, to a lesser extent, the Column of Trajan have both been read historically as preserving an authentic record of events, Billings encourages readers to view Acts more in line with the propagandistic shaping of memory found in monumental historiography. A preliminary discussion of the Column of Trajan establishes its memorializing aims centered around the civilizing mission of the imperiumin general, and the benevolence of Trajan specifically. By comparison, Acts is interpreted as “a carefully crafted apostolic monument put in the service of early Christian self-fashioning” (p. 17).

Billings often analyzes specific depictions from the frieze, featuring Roman soldiers, captured Dacians, or Trajan himself. The relevance of these visual data to Acts’ representation of leadership, benefaction, women, and so on, may raise concerns. After all, standing at a height of 35 meters, the Column is hardly a readable “text.” Fortunately, Billings nowhere imagines the author of Acts directly transferring themes from the Column to his work. Instead, Acts is fashioned to participate in the expression of imperial rhetoric and ideals illustrated in an exemplary format on the Column, but not unique to its “text.” One could extend Billings’ argument by employing a greater diversity of such monumental “source texts,” but his prioritization of the Column is very clearly tied to his dating of Acts and developments observable during the reign of Trajan (p. 190).

The second chapter treats Trajan himself, focusing on how local benefactors throughout the provinces increasingly emulated the emperor’s virtues. In imperial rhetoric and self-representation, Trajan’s administration projected the values of generosity, liberality, and munificence. Billings notes that the emperor’s carefully crafted image as euergetes trickled down to shape practices of self-styling “as local versions of the emperor” (p. 70). Meanwhile, official imperial projects in the provinces focused on extending infrastructural expertise outward from Rome, but Trajan’s success in the region of Dacia also conferred benefits for the capital, inspiring a period of urban renovation and building projects that testified to the greatness of the Empire.

Shifting from Trajan to Paul, Billings’ third chapter engages Paul’s activity in the provinces according to Acts—in Lystra, Ephesus, and Malta—and demonstrates how his dispensation of miracles shares the benefaction of God to new locales. The Paul of Acts thus conforms to the second-century emperor’s imitable example, and furthermore, comfortably associates in circles with Roman officials, governors, and soldiers, who consistently find no fault with him. Billings asserts that Paul’s provincial deeds qualify him as a model citizen, all the while bracketing the veracity of Paul’s Roman citizenship. Absent some remarkable epigraphic discovery, he notes that there is little new to offer on the matter other than reiterating that Paul’s supposed Roman citizenship is crucial to Luke’s narrative, shaping both its account of Paul’s later travel to Rome and its portrait of Paul as an idealized herald of divine benefits made available to far-off lands. Connected to Trajan’s example and the significance of euergetism during his reign, Paul’s healings and miracles indicate narrative investment in a consciously developed “trans-regional patronage network” precisely at a time when an expansionist empire increasingly promoted such benefactions (pp. 119, 127). Christianity, and Paul in particular, are thus construed as exemplary participants in the ideals of Roman society.

Two further chapters extend Billings’ analysis, detailing Luke’s adoption of Roman anti-Jewish rhetoric and his presentation of masculinity in Acts. In a period when Roman authors portrayed Christians and Jews alike as deviants and undesirables, Luke willingly tapped into this rhetoric of misanthropy and in-group behavior for “the Jews” while seeking to exonerate Christians. Jews, for example, appear in the narrative as Paul’s primary opponents, and wield mob power even in places, like Thessalonica (Acts 17), where they were certainly a minority. Billings furthermore contends that Roman anti-Judaism reached a pinnacle during Trajan’s reign (pp. 147-9), and claims that Luke’s expansions on this theme represent an indisputable example of early Christian acquiescence to imperial rhetoric. Finally, though Luke-Acts stands apart from other Christian literature for the frequent appearance of women, he argues that their subtle disqualification from positions of leadership or speech reinforces male power—like images from Trajan’s Column, where expressionless women represent the pacification of the provinces. Men are instead the appropriate, divinely appointed leaders and virtuous guarantors of women’s peace and security. Luke actively suppresses observable examples of women connected to Paul serving in prominent roles in the early decades of the Jesus movement, and instead subjugates women through his exclusionary narrative (pp. 186-8).

Though recent decades of scholarship have questioned the historicity of Acts, scholars working on this text often express a near-universal appreciation for Luke’s literary achievements. In this same vein, Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism focuses on “representational choices” made in the active shaping of memory (p. 52), calling to attention its author’s awareness and employment of imperial rhetoric in fashioning his narrative. It also propounds a new “source text” through which we can filter and comprehend the appearance of Luke’s second volume. Perhaps most importantly, by contextualizing Luke’s work and especially the portrait of Paul vis-à-vis the reign of Trajan, Billings contributes to a growing scholarly case for the Book of Acts as a composition of the second decade of the second century. As a result, the case for Acts as a first-century production, whether near the life of Paul or some decades later, rests on increasingly untenable ground. Billings’ convincing argumentation carries important implications not only for the dating of Acts and the historical caliber of its narrative, but also for the elusive nature of Christianity’s disorderly first century and—if the two books emanate from the same “Lukan” hand—for the Third Gospel as well.

Are Churches Essential Businesses/Services?

This week’s blog entry comes from the news that Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch received $4.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Contrast that news with the bitter fight by Bernie Sanders and others to secure, among other protectionary measures, a second round of direct payments to the American people to assist families struggling to pay rent, mortgages, and other expenses.

Photo by Harry Smith on

The federal government’s response to the ongoing social and economic stagnation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, while passing with bipartisan approval, has been straight out of the Republican playbook: a form of inequality-expanding trickle-down economics propping up institutions that would otherwise have failed under free market conditions, under the guise of allowing businesses to keep their workers employed. 

What seems odious to many is that churches, while increasingly involving themselves in right-wing politics and not being forced to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, have lined up in droves to receive PPP loans to the tune of $7.3 billion as of July 2020. Yes, churches may have janitors, organists, and ministers on their payrolls, and these individuals and their families would certainly experience hardships if their wages were disrupted, but there is no clear justification for such federal aid to be disbursed via their employers when direct payments to the American people has so clearly been an option from the start. The Small Business Administration even bent its rules that would typically have disallowed non-profits from receiving this special funding, according to ABC13 in Houston

Federal documents reveal the PPP program ‘declined to enforce’ provisions of federal law for PPP typically barring religious groups from accepting federal loans.

Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique, ABC13

It is clear that the government’s approach to the Covid pandemic has taken a page out of the 2008 bank bailouts, deeming institutions and corporations of all sizes “too big to fail” and therefore essential services to society. Whether churches are so essential to our social fabric, in an era of ever-increasing religious “nones” and others identifying merely as spiritual apart from religious institutions, does not seem to have been considered. And yet, somehow, most of the population has survived 2020 without regularly stepping foot inside their local churches.

While news about Osteen’s megachurch receiving PPP funding has certainly caused a stir in recent days and prompted a PR response from the church’s spokesman, it remains to be seen whether the fact that churches in general have queued up for their bailout will scandalize either the faithful or Americans broadly who have treasured the separation of church and state, the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and a long tradition of standoffishness about government intervention in ecclesiastical affairs. As congregants and tithers continue to decrease, these PPP loans for churches may simply be delaying the inevitable collapse of America’s religious bubble.

Though designed as a loan system and expected to be repaid to the federal government, the Payroll Protection Program loans can be forgiven if the funds were used for eligible payroll and mortgage expenses. Osteen and other megachurch purveyors of the prosperity gospel tend to portray their donations received as “seeds” that, when planted, can grow into a mighty tree. We will perhaps have to wait and see if Osteen and other churches taking PPP loans symbolically bury their talents (Mt 25:24-28) or manage to sow their seeds into a hundredfold (Mt 13:8) for the benefit of American society. But given the kind of rhetoric coming out of churches lately, I’m not holding my breath.

Chart: Greek Manuscripts of the Shepherd of Hermas (Pre-7th Century)

For a recent term paper I needed to catalogue the contents of the 24 extant Greek manuscripts (pre-7th century) of the Shepherd of Hermas. I’ve written here about the Shepherd’s significance from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE before, but for this paper I was interested in all of the Greek manuscripts we have before Latin became the primary language of both the Church at large and the Shepherd’s use/preservation.

The Shepherd of Hermas in Codex Sinaiticus (Herm. 92.2 [Mand. 9.15.2]).
I was surprised to find that no one had really put together the relevant information in a list or chart. Appendix 1 in Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (pgs. 224-225) only extends to the early fourth century, as he’s primarily interested in the pre-Constantinian period. But he doesn’t list contents of the manuscripts.

I built off the graph Hurtado started, adding all other manuscripts through the 6th century CE with a number of additional fields. For one thing, the Shepherd uniquely uses two systems of numbering/citation—one continuous, with chapters numbering 1 to 114, and another that breaks the chapters up into sections of 5 Visions, 12 Commandments/Mandates, and 10 Similitudes.[1] I list the contents of each manuscript using both notational forms, given that both still carry currency and are recommended by SBL in citation of the Shepherd. I’ve also linked to each manuscript fragment’s entry in the exceedingly useful Leuven Database of Ancient Books, or LDAB, and to each manuscript’s free and open online access, where available. Without further ado (click image for full chart):

Click the image for full chart (PDF).

I hope that this chart is useful to other scholars and interested persons. In the future I may add where the critical editions of each manuscript can be found, but LDAB has much of this information even if it is sometimes difficult to decipher. Let me know if you see any errors that require fixing.

Offline Citations

[1] Because this is so wonky, we who study the Shepherd even get our very own Appendix in the SBL Handbook of Style! See Appendix D of the 2nd ed., pgs. 331-332.

On the History of the Nativity Scene

It’s not everyday that the course of my research drives me into immediately popular territory—that is, interesting and relevant to normal people who don’t spend all of their time thinking about religion or biblical studies. But recently I was looking into court cases and other newsworthy incidents surrounding the public display (meaning, on public property) of nativity scenes. The end result was a fun term paper on a 37-year-old case that took place right in my backyard of Denver, for which professors from my two institutions (Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver) served as expert witnesses. It was called Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church and State v. City and County of Denver, and most of the relevant details can be read in the Saint Louis University Law Journal,[1] if you’re interested.

In his deposition for that case, the Mayor of Denver, William McNichols, testified of the nativity scene:

“It is not offensive to anyone nor should it be.”[2]

The mayor might have needed a lesson on facts versus opinions. Whether the crèche was offensive or not was not the concern or the trial; rather, the groups that bring these sorts of suits allege that the display of religious symbols on public grounds violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Contrary to Mayor McNichols, Judge Richard Matsch heard at trial from a number of people—professors of religion, psychologists, a Jewish woman, Christians of various denominations, and an atheist—very compelling reasons why the crèche was offensive.[3]

Somehow, the judicial system has held that the display of the nativity scene on public grounds is permissible, thus ignoring the Constitution “in order to placate popular opposition to its clear demands.”[4] Thus we continue to see episodes of competing displays between Christian nativities, a Satanist “snaketivity,” Gay Pride Festivus Poles, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and placards wishing passersby a “Happy Solstice.” What insanity!

Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson, as lampooned in Dec. 2013 by Jon Stewart (we miss ye dearly).

In the midst of my research, I became interested in the history of the nativity scene: when it was first displayed, how it developed, and why it’s now such a cultural cause célèbre. I didn’t answer all of these questions scientifically. For the last of them, it seems to me that a subset of Christians latch onto the nativity scene out of a concern that Christ not be erased from Christmas, given that it’s the most overtly religious symbol for what broader culture has so egregiously refashioned as the “Holiday Season.”

The other questions are more empirically answerable. And the result is a story not often told.

Biblical Origins

Though they contain some common elements, such as Mary’s virginal conception and the birth in Bethlehem, the two gospels featuring “pre-ministry” narratives are essentially irreconcilable.[5] Matthew tells a story of Joseph’s dreams, a hovering star, a birth in Mary and Joseph’s “hometown” of Bethlehem, the visit of the magi, and the family’s exile in Egypt during the final stages of Herod the Great’s life (d. 4 BCE). Luke replaces these elements with Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, the worldwide census under the governorship of Quirinius (c. 6 CE), an improbable trek to Bethlehem from the family’s hometown of Nazareth, no vacancy at the inn, a choir of angels, and curious shepherds.

Told as they were by different human authors for different human audiences on opposite ends of the Roman Empire—some 75 to 100 years removed from the events they describe—these disparate stories cannot be plausibly combined into a master narrative, as careful observers in the early church recognized. Scholars have generally decided that the narratives were constructed not as a reflection of history, but to conform to various so-called prophecies from the Hebrew Bible other typological and mythological elements. Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem, but in his well-acknowledged hometown of Nazareth, and his conception and birth were most likely completely conventional.[6]

Two-Dimensional Art

But the Christians of late antiquity certainly weren’t privy to the conclusions of modern scholarship. Instead, their art reflected the stories told in scripture. When Christianity achieved the status of approved religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, artwork celebrating Jesus’s birth began to appear—ironically enough—on the large, ornate stone coffins known as sarcophagi (singular: sarcophagus, from Greek, literally meaning “flesh-eater.”). A few examples are below in Figs. A and B:

Fig. A: Sarcophagus lid, marble, late 4th century. Origin unknown, but housed today at the Vatican. Notice Mary alone (Matthew 2:11), the star overhead, and the ox-ass pairing.

(Possibly also) Fig. A: Though detached from the previous image, this sarcophagus fragment seems to depict the magi presenting gifts. Yes, though, those do look quite like sheep!

Fig. B: Sarcophagus body, marble, date unknown but presumed contemporaneous with Fig. A (4th century). France. The magi occupy the lower panel, whereas the ox-ass combo closely inspect baby Jesus.

In comparison to the common modern nativity scene, with their hosts of characters, these depictions are rather reserved. Fig. B shows Mary and Joseph, while Fig. A only includes Mary, and both feature the magi paying their respects to Jesus. A star hangs nearby Mary in both examples. But the most interesting element of these sarcophagi is the pair of animals overlooking the infant Jesus, which appears in neither of the gospel accounts telling the story of his birth.

As becomes clearer in the artwork below, these animals are an ox and an ass. Though traditionally mentioned together in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the well-known opening verses of Isaiah (“The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib…” [Is 1:3]), the iconography of the ox and the ass does not point to any particular scriptural referent. Instead, Jonathan Pageau counts their primary intention at the nativity as the proclamation of the church made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice[7]; thus, the animals at Jesus’s birth foretell the joining together of the clean (the ox, representing Jews/Israel) and the unclean (the ass, representing Gentiles, sinners, etc.) under the plan of God (cf. Acts 10; Galatians 3:28-29).

Eventually, nativity artwork appeared on other mediums, from gospel manuscripts and book covers to the ceilings and altars of holy spaces. In each case, the ox-ass pairing is retained, and Joseph also becomes a mainstay of the depictions. A representative example of such artwork from the 5th to the 13th centuries is below:

Fig. C: Gospel book cover, ivory, mid-to-late fifth century. Origin from Western Christianity, perhaps near Milan.

Fig. D: Lid of Byzantine reliquary casket, 6th century. Origin from Eastern Christianity. Note the despondent Joseph—from around this time, it becomes common to depict Joseph as troubled, with his hand to his face. This is also the first indication of the nativity scene taking place not in a gazebo-like structure, but rather a cave.

Fig. E: Painting within a gospel manuscript, 11th century. Germany. Notice that our cast of characters has increased to include a number of angels.

Fig. F: Ceiling mosaic, 12th century, Daphni Monastery, Greece. The angels overlook the beams of the Matthean star, which somehow reach down at the entrance of the cave, while the ox and ass play peekaboo.

Fig. G: Painting from the Altar of the Holy Virgin Mary, 13th century, Avia, Catalonia.

Interestingly, before about 1000 CE, surviving examples of nativity art are rare. Though an imperfect representation of nativity scene popularity in the historical imagination, the search results bar reproduced below, revealing hits (including some false hits) for the term “nativity,” yet approximates the development of the crèche in surviving art. It suggests growth and increased interest in the nativity beginning significantly only in the second millennium of the common era.


It is, of course, possible that the set-in-stone sarcophagus inscriptions are merely our earliest surviving examples of nativity artwork, and that drawings and paintings of the nativity were popular from the earliest Christian centuries, but have not survived the stresses of time. This would be an argument from silence, however, and I am aware of no nativity artwork from—to take a thematic example from other spaces of preserving the remains of the deceased—early Christian catacombs, where other scriptural referents reign: Jonah and the whale, Jesus’s baptism, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and others.[8] Absent historical evidence, I proceed under the impression that nativity artwork only became a topos in the 4th century, though situated within and juxtaposed against the space of human death, it may well have emerged as a rather literal hetero-topos (following Michel Foucault and Eric C. Smith) before emigrating into other artistic venues.

The Third Dimension: Stand-Up Nativities

Still, even through the completion of the 13th century Fig. G above, the crèche abided only in two-dimensional artwork. It wasn’t until 1223 CE when St. Francis of Assisi organized the first “live” nativity that the scene would pop out of popular art into the third dimension. Notably, however, his visual depiction mirrored the simplest of the art displayed above. A recent article in Slate explains:

St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”)

It is unclear whether this first stand-up nativity scene included living human beings and an infant, but L.V. Anderson adds that either way, it had primarily educational value in a day when few understood the Latin spoken at mass. St. Francis delivered his message in the local tongue rather than the high church language, and his public display of the nativity performed the same familiarizing effect. He presumably expounded on the significance of the ox and the ass while telling the story of Jesus’s birth, now relocated to a cave (as in Figs. D and F above) given the influence of the account in the Protoevangelium of James [ch. 19] and the well-known fact that the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was situated atop a grotto ripe for the pilgrimage. One can only long to have heard the story as St. Francis told it, if for no other reason to understand how he managed to narrate the events completely without mentioning Jesus.

This gesture, equal parts reverential and educational in genesis, would spread rapidly across the European continent. It was further fertilized by the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther, whose Protestant Reformation opposed rampant iconography and instead preferred the evergreen tree as a Christmastime symbol. In response, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) boosted the staying power of the nativity scene, blessing it as an officially sanctioned display, but also detaching it from the canonical birth accounts. Previously, most artwork featured only one scene or the other: the magi bearing gifts (so Matthew) or the shepherds and the angels (so Luke). Now, as in the present day, all characters were invited to the scene.

Shortly after the Council of Trent, the Jesuit Order set mechanizing the crèche into workable, automatic three-dimensional displays.[9] These mechanical exhibits were soon in full demand among the wealthy, aristocratic classes and in churches and royal palaces as well. One example, constructed toward the end of the 16th century for the Court of Saxony, “includes shepherds and kings proceeding past the manger while angels fly down from Heaven, Joseph rocks the cradle, and an ox and an ass rise up to stand before the Holy Infant.”[10] Within just a few centuries, the St. Francis’s simple educational and reverential endeavor had given way to the sort of ostentation we moderns might enjoy during an 8 p.m. drive around Suburbia.


Nativity Manger
“Nativity Manger” via GlacierGuyMT on Flickr

Despite Reformation-era divisions between the evergreen “Christmas tree” and the nativity scene, contemporary American Protestantism has found little problem incorporating both symbols of the holiday season. Few are aware that Martin Luther and early Protestants virulently opposed the iconography of the crèche, often counted as the more explicitly religious of the two symbols today, and virtually all would be surprised to learn that the nativity scene is a phenomenon limited largely to the second Christian millennium. This brief history of the nativity does not detract from its present popularity within Christianity, but adds an oft-untold backstory of the most popular display of religion to modern battles over its appropriateness in the public square.

Final Thoughts

At best, the nativity scene is a theologically rich, though historically dubious, symbol of the Christian proclamation of Jesus’s origins. Though revered by many, it attests to particular ideas not apparently shared in the period of Christian origins by the authors of Mark and John, and also not celebrated in the present day by certain Christian denominations and individuals. As a display and even in artwork, the crèche was developmentally delayed, and did not appear extensively until the 11th century. Treasuring the display of the nativity scene is thus largely a product of the second Christian millennium, though it eventually achieved near-ubiquity in the Christian world as a symbol of reverence. Even then, Protestant Reformers would reject the nativity on iconographic grounds for a while, preferring to erect evergreen trees as part of their Christmas celebrations. Most who faithfully place the nativity scene side-by-side with a Christmas tree are probably unaware of the previous Catholic-Protestant rift exemplified by these two symbols.

The early 20th century witnessed many municipalities—including Denver, beginning in 1913—opting to display the nativity scene on public grounds with public funds, and this lasted for decades without significant opposition given Christianity’s grip on American society. Today, however, the nativity scene can only be so publicly arrayed as a denial of pluralism and the erosion of Christianity as the common cultural soil. What St. Francis cobbled together out of deep reverence, and as an educational tool, is often foisted upon the public sphere antagonistically, wrapped in the clothes of tradition but imbued with spite, rather than the good news. The escalating recriminations in recent years from atheists, humanists, and wisecrackers are but a mirror, a long time coming, held up in the face of this protracted evangelism-by-force.

It’s no wonder that fewer and fewer are interested in this version of the Christian story.

Offline Citations

[1] Jonathon B. Chase, “Litigating A Nativity Scene Case,” Saint Louis University Law Journal 24.2 (Sept. 1980): 237-271. The plaintiffs, members of a Denver humanist organization, were represented by the ACLU of Colorado, which argued a rather excellent case and won a slam-dunk decision by Judge Richard Matsch, though the decision was immediately stayed and later vacated over “standing” concerns. (At retrial in 1981, the Tenth Circuit Court found resoundingly against the Citizens Concerned group.)

[2] Ibid., 239.

[3] For example, the Jewish woman explained powerfully that the crèche made her wary of persecution, while the two Christians expressed various misgivings, including that they were disappointed in how the city’s display elevated their beliefs while simultaneously demeaning or disregarding those of others. Most significantly, the clinical psychologist testified to feelings of fear and exclusion within out-group members when the dominant culture stages “public expressions of values” not shared by the entire society. The testimony had a significant cumulative effect on Judge Matsch, who ruled that “the evidence presented at this trial is so overwhelmingly supportive of the plaintiffs’ position.” Furthermore, he noted: “The convincing expressions by various witnesses of their feelings of “discomfort,” “anger,” “fear” and “being left out” upon viewing the scene, coupled with the expert testimony of the psychologist as to the effects upon minorities of symbolic governmental alignment with the majority, strongly suggest that the Nativity Scene may well have the effect also of inhibiting religious beliefs (non-beliefs) of viewers.” Ibid., 265, 267.

[4] Chase, 268. See also Jill Nutter Fuchs, “Publicly-Funded Display of Religious Symbols: The Nativity Scene Controversy,” Cincinnati Law Review 51 (1982): 353-372.

[5] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, updated ed. (New York: Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1993), 189.

[6] Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 164-166; 569.

[7] Pageau, interestingly, also regards the presence of the ass, as a beast of burden, as “a symbol of corporality itself,” and thus an indication of the Word made Flesh and the Johannine doctrine of the incarnation. I am open to this but not totally convinced; I would be interested in hearing whether the ox similarly carries some second-level symbolism.

[8] For greater detail, see Eric C. Smith, Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 52 and the entirety of ch. 5.

[9] Christian Roy, “Christmas,” Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia: Volume 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 64.

[10] Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 26.