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.

“No Lives Matter” at the Missouri State Penitentiary

Ah, summer time, when on-break academic types travel to see family and the decrepit relics of a once-flourishing Midwest. After seeing billboards for the Missouri State Penitentiary Tour one too many times along our travels to and from St. Louis, we broke down and paid our twelve dollars to visit, for whatever reason, this site of tremendous human misery.

An active prison from its completion in the 1830s until, astoundingly, 2004, the labyrinthine Missouri State Penitentiary once housed a maximum of 5,300 prisoners at once, according to our nice, sweet tour guide, himself a former long-serving guard at the prison. In his telling, thousands of prisoners died at the Missouri State Penitentiary over its 168-year lifetime, 40 of whom were executed in its gas chambers.

(Incidentally, the MSP gift shop proudly sells a set of 40 postcards commemorating its history of gruesome capital executions. Eight bucks.)

Quite a bit bothered me about this all-white (1), no-need-to-acknowledge-contributions-to-and-complicity-with-historical-injustices tour (2), perhaps more than I’m able to put into words. In light of this, this blog post iis not intended to be a thorough review or critique of the prison tour, but rather more of a stream-of-consciousness commentary approximating my feelings and thoughts from my two-hour stay in its terrifying walls.

  1. To be perfectly honest, a black woman and her daughter showed up at some point after the tour had officially begun, but left just after it was half over. I can’t be certain why this was the case, but the tour guide did acknowledge that we were sitting in the MSP’s all-black barracks shortly before they left. If this was not the reason, perhaps it was a realization that the tour was essentially a whitewash—in the sense of skin color, an event meant to be interesting/palatable for us and not for anyone else, as well as in the sense of a non-acknowledgement of wrongs, essentially a two-hour stream of quasi-governmental braggadocio about  its accomplishments.
  2. The tour guide approached, but stopped short of outright criticism, several times. One example that comes to mind was when he recounted a man’s 17-year stay in the “dungeon” of the prison after the warden believed he started a major fire, ostensibly as a distraction that would allow for a mass prison revolt and escape. “That used to make a man crazy,” he said; emphasis on the “used to” portion of the quote mine. There was no acknowledgement that people are still held in solitary confinement for cruel and unusual lengths of time these days, with one example being a man by the name of Shaka Senghor. (Shaka spent seven years in solitary confinment as part of a 19-year sentence for murder.) I came across Shaka’s story in a recent Democracy Now! program on the efforts toward prison reform that have created strange bedfellows, from himself and liberal activist/writer Van Jones to the Koch Brothers. Of course, I highly recommend the program, which can be downloaded as a podcast as well.
Our tour guide showed us photos on posterboard from as far back as the 1870s inside the prison, with prisoners standing in line waiting to go from station to station inside their caged existence: barracks to yard, yard to mess hall, mess hall to showers, showers to barracks—wash, rinse, repeat. In a moment that either showed his hand or was meant to be a critique of poor record-keeping habits, he told us that no one knew the names of this man or that man in line; it was as if they didn’t even matter.

In the Missouri State Penitentiary, no lives matter. On top of this, were they even human? He repeated his mantra over and over again that outside the walls of the prison, we have our world. “We call it society,” he said. Inside the prison, they have their own world. They’re not like you and me. He recalled being the go-to mentor for new prison guards, and he would tell them, “You can’t trust them. They’re not like you.” They’re not human, essentially.

Our prison system is currently overtaxed and overrun, full of both violent criminals who should be locked up for life (or suitable terms to fit their crimes) and people who sold or turned to drugs and were hit with mandatory minimums and other drug war-era overreaches of an insidious and often racist nature. Obviously, there is not a binary that fits all persons presently in prison, but I mean to emphasize the problems of our prison system encapsulated by one statistic: the United States comprises five percent of the world’s human population, but somehow can claim twenty-five percent of the world’s overall prison population. We have a serious over-incarceration problem—one that the Missouri State Penitentiary certainly contributed to, having previously housed abolitionists who freed slaves and anti-war activists who ran afoul of the Espionage Act—but on this tour, nothing of this over-incarceration problem existed.
Through a recent tour live-tweeted by activist Deray McKesson, I became aware of the Whitney Plantation in rural Louisiana. Formerly known as “Habitation Haydel,” the Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a living museum of the history of enslavement. To the best of its founders’ abilities, they have tried to recover the names of all slaves who worked on the plantation during its history, and to transmit, in whatever terms possible, the manner of life lived by them. I’ve not been on this tour, obviously, but hope to someday.


Given the example of the Whitney Plantation, and the historical (and ongoing!) injustices in our prison system, the Missouri State Penitentiary tour could’ve been so much better. One wonders how long it might take for universal acknowledgement of penitential wrongs, however. It’s much harder to see and name injustice when we’re living through it and perpetuating it, whether through outright complicity or passive cognitive support.


Post Script. I might not have written any of this had the tour guide not ticked the last box of fanatical hasbara (a.k.a. “explanation,” a.k.a. pro-Israel propaganda). In the midst of emphasizing, in English, not to close any prison cell doors behind us after entering several times, the tour guide believed that there might have been someone among us fifty or so white people who didn’t understand him. (By this point, the black mother and daughter had left the tour.) “Is anyone here Al Qaeda? Taliban? Hamas?” he asked. “I’ll give it to you in Arabic!” He proceeded to speak in a Semitic-sounding language, but as I don’t speak Arabic, I of course can’t confirm if it was authentic or jibberish. I wasn’t aware Hamas had aided or abetted attacks on the United States. They haven’t, of course: lately, anyway, they’re usually busy responding to Israeli aggression against Gaza, as Max Blumenthal laid out so brilliantly in his recent “The 51-Day War.”

Benjamin Netanyahu predicted the sentiment espoused by our tour guide just after the twin towers came down, calling the acts of terror “very good” for Israel, which would henceforth be able to sell its struggle against militant Palestinian factions opposing its apartheid occupation as an analogous struggle to that which the United States would eventually embark upon.

It’s a special relationship. Very good for Israel, indeed.


Finally, I don’t know where exactly to put this, but here’s a cross on the way to the Missouri State Penitentiary’s gas chamber.

Random Bible Fact: Early Christian Manuscripts and the Shepherd of Hermas

Based on manuscript recoveries alone, the most popular books in second, third and early fourth-century Christianity[1] were as follows: the Book of Psalms, the Gospel according to John, the Gospel according to Matthew, and the non-canonical Shepherd of Hermas.

According to Larry Hurtado’s 2006 book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, manuscript recoveries for biblical books in this period are as follows:

  • Psalms: 16-18 copies[2]
  • John: 11-15 copies
  • Matthew: 12 copies
  • The Shepherd of Hermas: 11 copies
  • Genesis and Exodus: 8 copies each
  • Luke and Acts: 7 copies each
  • Isaiah: 6 copies
  • Revelation: 5 copies[3]

A number of factors complicate matters here: very few books from the second century in particular survive complete and intact, whether from natural use and deterioration or deliberate destruction by the ruling Roman authorities during periods of local persecutions. Many of the manuscripts that survive are just a handful of pages or no more than a couple of verses or chapters. For the book of John in particular, scholars are unsure whether some of the pieces belonged to the same manuscript or represent distinct manuscripts. And finally, all of our conclusions related to this earliest period must be considered “temporary” or “in progress”: as Hurtado admits, “only about 1% of the estimated 500,000 manuscripts from this period” have been properly identified![4]

The popularity of John and Matthew in this early period is pretty understandable, given that the books were thought to have been written by the disciples of Jesus of those names. The book of Psalms might not have been your first guess at the most popular book in early Christianity, but its popularity is also sensible.

What might throw you off is the early popularity of the Shepherd of Hermas, a book that is now only really known among the scholarly community. Written in Rome in the mid-second century, the Shepherd of Hermas consists mostly of moral instructions delivered in the form of revelations from a shepherd-like character to the author, named Hermas. The book is exceptionally long—if it had made its way into the canon, it would be easily the longest book of the New Testament, and only exceeded in length in by the Old Testament books of Genesis and Jeremiah.[5] In the book, Hermas portrays himself as somewhat of a ditz—he must be given explanations about all of his visions by the shepherd—although he is genuinely interested in moral improvement and proper behavior.

So, why would a book like this eventually be regarded as non-canonical, in spite of its early popularity? In other words, why is the Shepherd not in the Bible? That discussion may feature as a “Random Bible Fact” in the future.

[1] Why this period, from roughly 100-320 CE? This is before Christianity became the entrenched state religion of the Roman Empire, before a rigid orthodoxy developed from the unifying vision of Emperor Constantine.

[2] Two copies of the Pslams retain the Tetragrammaton, or “Yahweh” in Hebrew characters, as the name of God, and therefore these may be Jewish manuscripts rather than Christian. Either way, the book of Psalms wins out as the most popular pre-Constantinian Christian book.

[3] These data come from Hurtado (2006), 19-28 (see especially, 19-21 and 23). His book includes an excellent appendix cataloging and detailing the precise contents of biblical and apocryphal books from this period.

[4] Hurtado (2006), 25.

[5] This is according to the stichometric list inserted into the sixth-century Codex Claromontanus, which lists the Shepherd at 4,000 lines, Genesis at 4,500, and Jeremiah at 4,050.

Random Bible Fact: Acts 24:7

Because survey after survey finds that religious Americans are ignorant in various degrees about the contents of their Bibles, I’ve decided to start doing something about it now, before I accept that awesome tenured teaching position. Based off the success of a great Twitter feed I follow called @RandomSpaceFact, today I started @RandomBibleFact on a complete and total whim. Though I’m sure the feed will evolve over its lifetime, I’m presently thinking that it’ll cover facts both at the most basic level and more advanced topics, from textual criticism to translational details or possibly even interpretation. We’ll see!

What does that mean for my blog? Well, I want to keep the tweets manageable within the 140 character limit. Initially I had posted my first Random Bible Fact over the span of four tweets, and that’s just confusing. So when longer explanations are warranted, I’ll just craft a small blog post about it. This is probably a good habit for me to practice: I’ve always had a problem with concision. So without further ado, here’s Random Bible Fact #1…


Acts 24:7 does not exist in most modern translations of the Bible (NRSV, RSV, NIV, etc.). Don’t believe me? Though this is not a complete accounting of all biblical translations, a good representative example would be the omissions of the verse at BibleHub. Most recent translations skip directly from verse 6 to verse 8.

This isn’t a 13th floor in a skyscraper thing, though—the verse has not been omitted out of superstition or anything like that. Versifications and chapter divisions as we know them were only added to the Bible in the Medieval period, and at that time, Acts 24:7 did exist. In fact, 24:7 survived long enough to make it into the King James Version, just as earlier it had been included in John Wycliffe’s Bible and other versions. 

The reason for inclusion or omission of 24:7 comes down to differences in the base Greek text of the New Testament from which English versions are translated. The King James Version was translated from what scholars today call the “Textus Receptus” (or Received Text), which it turns out is a fairly faulty version of the text as a whole, based largely off a single family of Greek manuscripts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Textus Receptus contains a number of omissions and expansions, and this is one of them.

In chapter 24 of Acts, Paul appears before Felix for the first time in Caesarea, and one Tertullus is said to be the attorney prosecuting Paul’s case. The first substantive charges are brought against Paul in this passage: he is a fomenter of rebellion (verse 5) and a defiler of the Jerusalem temple (verse 6). Someone must have thought this prosecutorial opening statement was far too short and bereft of detail, for they expand the charges from rebellion against Jews to rebellion throughout the entire Roman Empire, and also supply Felix with additional narrative explanation saying why this case ostensibly fit for the Sanhedrin has been deemed fit for his jurisdiction.

Verse 24:7 (and the additional simultaneous additions) is attested in the so-called D-Text of Acts, but not in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts, such as Sinaiticus (4th century), Vaticanus (4th century), and Alexandrinus (5th century). It is therefore not included in modern scholarly versions of the Greek New Testament, and does not appear translated in the NRSV, NIV, RSV and many others. In some cases, verse 24:7 and its fellow D-Text variants receive a footnote to explain why the text has skipped from verse 6 to verse 8.

On the Acts of the Apostles and History

For those of us in the New Testament discipline of “Christian Origins” or “Early Christianities,” the Acts of the Apostles has all the appearances of being a vital, defining book. It sets out, ostensibly, to tell the story of how a Jewish reform movement spread beyond its humble beginnings in Galilee to the cities of Syria, Asia, and Greece. For reasons that delimit permissible inquiry, we should be most interested in what “Luke,”[1] the supposed author of Acts, has to say about this black hole of the Jesus Movement.[2]

The problem with the book of Acts is that the author’s apologetic goals are apparent on any close reading of the book. Luke tells of a new appellation acquired by “Christians” in Antioch, and takes virtually every opportunity to antagonize against “the Jews,” who pose major problems for all of the book’s most important characters: Peter (4:1-3, 12:3-5), Stephen (6:11-15), and Paul (17:5, 20:3, 21:27-28, etc.) chief among them. Paul in particular is opposed by “the Jews” immediately after his “conversion” (9:23-25). In stark contrast, Roman officials, whenever called upon to adjudicate, can hardly find anything wrong the “movement” (17:35-39, 25:25-27).

The author of Acts goes to great lengths to show that Peter and Paul are delivering the same essential message about the faith (10:34, 11:18). Both are delivered miraculously from prison, and both are called upon to “finish the job” and shower the Holy Spirit upon nascent believers (8:14-17, 19:1-7). Peter’s shadow alone is an instrument of healing (5:15), whereas the handkerchiefs and clothes used by Paul can cure one of evil spirits (19:12). Peter faces opposition by circumcised believers (11:1-3), just as Paul does in Galatians. Who better to authorize the Pauline mission to Gentiles than the prototypical arch-apostle, Peter? The narrative of Acts demonstrates, essentially, that the only difference between Peter and Paul is the theater of their evangelistic mission.

Paul, furthermore, follows a “passion” sequence evocative of Jesus’s, each with three predictions of doom, four “trials,” three declarations of innocence and a mob seeking their demise.[3] It is particularly telling that Luke’s two volumes end with the triumph of Jesus (the gospel) and Paul (Acts), who is claimed to be “unhindered” in his ability to preach and teach the gospel in Rome (28:31). Finally, the subordination of other Christian centers, such as Antioch, to Jerusalem seems contrived. On the personal level, Paul is said to take orders from James after the Jerusalem Conference, when Paul’s attitude toward James in Galatians seems to rule out that potentiality.

During this spring quarter, which is very soon to come to a close, I have been taking an independent study on the book of Acts, where I have been reading Richard Pervo’s 2009 Hermeneia commentary on the book alongside the 2013 report of the Westar Institute’s Acts Seminar called Acts and Christian Beginnings.[4] This has been a particularly enlightening experience for me, given especially that Acts, more so than any other book of the New Testament (aside, perhaps, from the smaller of the general epistles), tends to fall through the cracks of a typical university’s course design. In my seminary experience, anyway, one semester can barely cover the gospels adequately, and the next semester is generally devoted to the Pauline letters, Revelation, and the general epistles (time permitting). These two halves of a typical academic year may appeal to the book of Acts when it becomes convenient, such as to support an argument,[5] but never does one get to read Acts in its own right and receive credit for doing so.

Pervo and the Acts Seminar reached a number of similar conclusions that break ground for a new generation of scholarship on the book of Acts and for the field of “Christian Origins” in general. A small sample of these is as follows:

  • Date of Composition: Whereas previous scholarship assumed a date for the book of Acts in the latter decades of the first century—usually on the grounds that the gospel according to Luke itself was composed around 80 CE, and Luke wrote Acts shortly thereafter—Pervo and the Acts Seminar now believe that Acts should more properly be dated a whole generation later, in the first decades of the second century (115-120 CE). This later dating is supported by evidence that Acts used the works of Josephus, completed just before the end of the first century, as a source for some episodes and small details. More importantly, Pervo and the Acts Seminar concur that Luke knew of and used the Pauline letters in the composition of Acts in a non-transparent way,[6] using the details therein to develop missionary itineraries, narrative events, and particularly the reconstruction of the so-called Jerusalem Council. I have generally found these arguments persuasive. Aside from these source-related reasons to date the book of Acts later, Pervo frequently notes that the historical period conjured by the machinations of Luke better accord with the early second century. One major example of this comes in Paul’s final speech to the leaders of the Ephesian church (20:18-38), where Pervo identifies a unique construction of Paul and distinct similarities with the concerns also found in the Pastorals.[7]
  • The Author as Skilled Storyteller: The deception underlying the “we” passages in Acts becomes unavoidable on this later dating of the book, since it becomes infinitely more unlikely that an adult companion of Paul survived to 115 or 120 CE to narrate events that transpired between 60 and 70 years earlier. To be sure, the authorship of Acts by the historical Luke had been doubted prior to Pervo and the Acts Seminar, but their work may very well be the idea’s death knell.  Given their conclusions, one would anticipate some reprobation for the author on the account of Pervo. Bart Ehrman regards Luke, for example, as a “non-pseudepigraphic forgery.”[8] What one finds from Pervo, however, is only complimentary: frequently, he credits the author (whoever he was) with creating “thrilling,” “entertaining,” “lively” and “artistic” scenes from the slightest of content, and at one point he even notes the “genius” of the author.[9] Along the way, the author successfully intertwines elements from Josephus, the Septuagint, Homer, Ovid, and others from popular literature in ways that add cleverness, humor and verisimilitude to the book.[10] Unfortunately, the recognition of these sources in the last century, combined with artificial parallelism between Peter and Paul and Jesus and Paul, has an adverse affect on claims to historical accuracy.[11]
  • Historicity of the Book: In reading Pervo and the Acts Seminar Report, it becomes clear that the edifice of historicity has been turned on its head. Pervo notes relatively close to the outset of his commentary that the book of Acts is unlikely to persuade those for whom reports of miracles and numerical growth are not relevant proofs of legitimacy.[12] But even the assumption of “historical kernels” behind the various stories and trials of Paul have come under intense scrutiny. The ostensible sources for the book, regarding the environs of Jerusalem and Antioch, which were the furthest from the author’s Ephesian milieu, in these early centuries have been bent out of shape in the author’s thorough reworking of material. The author’s purposes for writing a work such as this and his strategies for accomplishing these goals have compromised reality. The deduction of the Acts Seminar Report is therefore apt: “No longer can Acts be assumed to be historical unless proven otherwise. Rather, the burden of proof has shifted. Acts must be considered nonhistorical unless proven otherwise.”[13]

These conclusions and more proffered by Pervo and the Acts Seminar are likely to influence research on the book of Acts for decades to come. The serious student of “Christian Origins” or the book of Acts cannot well avoid them. Though the entirety of a book such as Acts can hardly be summarized on essentialist terms, my reading this quarter has made it clear that Acts is more of a (hagio)biography of Paul—with a long introduction to demonstrate continuity of the Christian story since the last terrestrial days of the resurrected Jesus—than a genuine history of the “acts” of the “apostles.” For Luke, the substantiation of his own Christian existence hinges on the successful acceptance of Paul’s story. As Pervo writes in the context of Paul’s self-defense before Agrippa and Festus, “the legitimacy of the church Luke knows stands or falls with the legitimacy of the Pauline mission.”[14]

Other stories and tales that Luke has come across find cause for expression in Acts, but they are but handmaidens to his primary purpose of (self-)legitimization. Peter, the first among the apostles, supplies the justification for the Gentile mission that Paul leads, and is never heard from again after the Jerusalem Conference. Conveniently, and ahistorically, the opposition that Paul faces in the book comes exclusively from “the Jews” and nonbelievers (16:19, 19:23-27, etc.), making Paul the epitome of movement and the book’s main protagonist. Accompanying this is an implicit, but immutable claim that the Pauline mission represents the authentic church, against which there is only heresy (which Paul has conveniently warned against, 20:28-31). Christianity is portrayed as hospitable, even friendly to Rome, in comparison to rabble-rousing “Jews.”[15] Luke has constructed a rich, compelling, and skillful narrative, but one that is at best historically dubious and at worst, malignantly deceptive, throwing those interested in actual history well off the scent of the complex realities of the earliest decades of “the Way.” The book of Acts tells us more about the apologetic needs of developing Christianity in the early second century than it does about the historical black hole of the fledgling Jesus movement.


As part of my independent study, I was to develop areas for future research and burning questions related to the book of Acts that I could pursue going forward. Among those questions and research topics in which I have become interested are the following:

  • Source Criticism. With the later dating of Acts, the sources available to and used by Luke become all the more important to recovering any remains of historical accuracy. Whereas Pervo frequently notes certain narrative elements that are “Lukan inventions” or “free authorial compositions,”[16] and often highlights elements that betray the use of a source,[17] the format of his commentary precludes him from being more thorough about source criticism. One of the major advantages of the Jesus Seminar was its production of the red, pink, gray and black letter edition of the gospels; it seems to me that the Acts Seminar Report could have been produced with a similar color-coded goal of suggesting Luke’s use of sources, whether they be the Septuagint, Josephus, the “Gentile mission source,” the “collection source,” popular authors, or the like. From this independent study, I am therefore interested in source criticism for the book of Acts on a more comprehensive scale, to try to understand what sorts of “data” were available to the author when he set out to accomplish this monumental task, and what sorts of “data” he invented unencumbered by historicity or available sources.
  • What about the “Twelve”? This has been a question I’ve pondered for some time, finding no real outlet to express or explore it. To be sure, Luke had solid precedents for referring to the “Twelve,” the gospels and letters of Paul chief among them. However, after being listed at 1:13, when the eleven are gathered to select Judas Iscariot’s replacement, nine of the twelve quickly bow out of the narrative, including the recently selected Matthias.[18] James, brother of John, is mentioned again only at his death (12:2), and John is but a (sometimes) companion of Peter’s, rather than an independent agent. Indeed, Pervo recognizes the “artificiality” of the “Twelve,” who, though suggested to be present at the Jerusalem Conference (15:6), are merely the audience of Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James.[19] Even Peter, who plays a major role in the first 12 chapters and then makes an encore appearance at the Jerusalem Conference, disappears as James rises to prominence without fanfare or explanation. My questions, therefore, are as follows: Historically speaking, what function did the “Twelve” have? Were the “Twelve” meaningfully distinct from other disciples/apostles of Jesus, either during or after his ministry? (Similarly, why are only two of the “Seven” featured by Luke?) Can this book really be called the “Acts of the Apostles” if three-quarters of them play no role whatsoever?
  • Dating Luke. If Acts is dated at 115 CE, surely the date of the gospel of Luke must be pushed back considerably as well, at least into the second century if not to around 110. Neither Pervo nor the Acts Seminar Report address this necessity, given that it’s not in their purview, but the question must be considered. Similarly, and perhaps unexpectedly, the later date of Acts would seem to add legitimacy to those, like Mark Goodacre, who question the existence of Q and instead suggest that Luke excavated Q statements from Matthew, appropriating them freely. This would seem to comport with what Pervo has recognized as Luke’s free authorial abilities (though he still hangs on to Q). Anyhow, had Q survived as a distinct written source into the early second century, it perhaps becomes more likely that it would have been copied as a stand-alone document. Questions to ponder!
  • Assmann on the Creation of History. I’ve been reading Jan Assmann’s Cultural Memory and Early Civilization for a separate class during this last quarter. Can, I wonder, his theories and observations about early Israel, particularly related to the “invention” of religion based on the charter myth of the Exodus,[20] be applied to the work and genre of Luke-Acts? Assmann says, for example, that “the past … is a social construction whose nature arises out of the needs and frames of reference of each particular present. The past is not a natural growth but a cultural creation.”[21] This characterization seems eminently applicable to the work that Luke has accomplished, whereby religious identity is demonstrated and legitimized by miracles and numerical growth, epiphanies from God to Peter and Paul, and a line of succession back to Jesus. I have not explored the connections between Assmann and Acts in depth, but I would certainly like to.

[1] Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul toward the end of the second century, is the first extant Christian writer to connect the book of Acts with Luke, the companion of Paul according to the so-called prison correspondence (Adv. haer. 3.14.1). Irenaeus based his judgment off the “we” passages in Acts (i.e., Acts 16:10-17; 27:1-28:16, etc.), where the narrative has the appearance of first-hand experience by its author. There are a number of good reasons to doubt the authenticity of this judgment; many critical scholars recognize this as a literary device perhaps left over from the author’s source(s) but more likely as an intentional attempt to deceive later readers. Intentional or not, the device worked. I, like many other scholars, continue to call the author “Luke” out of convenience alone.

[2] Our first primary sources for followers of Jesus are from Paul, whose authentic letters date approximately from 48 CE (1 Thessalonians) to 55-56 CE (Romans). The gospels, as we have them, all date after 70 CE. Nearly two decades elapsed after the crucifixion of Jesus before any proto-Christian put their thoughts on papyrus! In this void, Luke set out to pick up the narrative where his gospel left off, in the days after the resurrection, in order to tell a certain kind of story about this “black hole” of Christian history.

[3] Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 533.

[4] Not only does the Acts Seminar Report use Pervo’s Hermeneia translation as its base text, but a significant amount of cross-pollenation has transpired between the two. Pervo was a voting member of the Acts Seminar, and often cites his colleagues, who wrote excurses for the Acts Seminar Report, from its sessions in the Hermeneia volume. Pervo similarly authored several of the excurses appearing in the Acts Seminar Report. Without taking away from the value of both publications, it may be said that the Acts Seminar Report is a reader’s digest version of the Hermeneia volume. Whereas Pervo intentionally overwhelms the scholar with his voluminous background research, the Acts Seminar Report attempts to reach a broader audience with a cleaner version supported, more silently, with equal scholarly bona fides.

[5] The example that comes immediately to mind is Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life, where the recently departed scholar simultaneously doubts Acts’ overarching witness to the biography of Paul, but nevertheless uses Acts when it aligns with his thoughts. Murphy-O’Connor believes, for example, that Acts preserves the truer version of the Jerusalem Conference than does Paul in Galatians. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 133.

[6] Whereas Bart Ehrman has recently suggested that the author of Acts doesn’t know the letters of Paul particularly well, Pervo and the Acts Seminar believe that he did, but sought to override them with his own narrative, wherein the “authentic Paul” became a Lukan construction of early orthodoxy. Bart D. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 281. Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson, eds., Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 117. While this latter perspective is not without its problems—for Luke could not have possibly thought that the Pauline letters would be suppressed—I am more inclined to accept it than the postulation that he knew of the letters but didn’t avail himself of the opportunity to understand them. Pervo finds that Luke used his other sources, such as the “Gentile mission source,” in highly creative and transformative ways to suit his discursive needs, and there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have done the same with the letters of Paul.

[7] Pervo, 525-526.

[8] Ehrman, 264.

[9] Pervo, 140, 400, 442, 506.

[10] One magnificent example of this that caught my attention comes in Lystra, where the locals claim that Paul and Barnabas are actually Zeus and Hermes after Paul heals an infirm man (14:8-18). Pervo, citing A. D. Nock, suggests that this comes from a tale of Ovid in which the residents of Phrygia fail to recognize Zeus and Hermes within their midst, and suffer for it with a flood that claims their lives. Pervo writes, “Those who know the story will appreciate its wit. These yokels are determined not to be taken unawares again.” Pervo, 353-354.

[11] Pervo, 592-593.

[12] Ibid., 42.

[13] Smith and Tyson, 4.

[14] Pervo, 620.

[15] It is likely that this portrait of Jews would have found favor with the Roman elite, who were all aligned against Jewish “superstition” in this period. Luke’s work has sought to distinguish Christians from Jews, but in so doing, substantiated centuries of lamentable Christian anti-Judaism. Shelly Matthews (in Smith and Tyson, 91), suggests that this was part of an endeavor to carve out space for Christianity in the Roman Empire.

[16] Pervo, 580.

[17] Often times, these sources include lists of names or places, but he hints at more comprehensive sources as well.

[18] I concur with Pervo that the Philip who features most prominently in ch. 8 is the Philip named among the “Seven,” not the Philip of the “Twelve.” Pervo, 205.

[19] Pervo, 307 n. 73.

[20] “Charter myth” is my phrase, appropriated from elsewhere. Assmann refers to Exodus’ function as a “memory figure.” Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 180.

[21] Assmann, 33.