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Where Christmas came from

18 December 2020

Elements of the Christmas story cannot be found in the Gospels. Margaret Barker tracks down their ancient origins


Ox and ass appear at the nativity: detail from the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus c.330-335, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Ox and ass appear at the nativity: detail from the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus c.330-335, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

MANY of the words and images we use at Christmas can seem to be just an elaboration of the simple Gospel story. Some of the well-known details are certainly later additions: St Matthew does not say there were only three Magi, nor does he name them; and there is nothing about midwinter, bleak or otherwise.

But many additional details are as old as the New Testament, and can be found in early materials.

The New Testament gives only an outline of nativity stories, but the value of other sources is now being recognised. Embedded in art, liturgy, and stories are important details that preserve earlier traditions: what happened, and how it was understood.

The non-canonical early texts are now a significant area of study: English translations are available from such languages as Ethiopic and Old Irish, as well as Latin, Greek, and Syriac.

Take, for example, the ox and the ass. These are not mentioned by Matthew or Luke, but present in the earliest depictions of the nativity. The earliest reference is about 155 CE, when Justin in Rome told the Emperor Antoninus Pius that Christianity fulfilled ancient prophecies, even though many Jews did not recognise Jesus. He quoted Isaiah 1.3: “The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Apology, 1.63).

We cannot know when this prophecy was first used of the nativity, but Justin shows that fulfilment of prophecy influenced what details were preserved. By the time a Latin Infancy Gospel known as Pseudo-Matthew was compiled in eighth- or ninth-century Europe, the prophecy of Habakkuk 3.2 had been added to the scene.

This is not what we have in English Bibles, which are based on the Masoretic Hebrew text, compiled in the seventh to tenth centuries CE, printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1524. Instead, it comes from the Septuagint Greek, compiled from the third to first centuries BCE: “In the midst of two living creatures you will be known, in the drawing near of the years you will be recognised, and when the right time comes you will be shown forth” (Pseudo-Matthew.14).

AlamyRogier van der Weyden workshop, nativity altarpiece

This is not in the Latin Vulgate, translated by Jerome about 400 CE, and so Pseudo-Matthew drew on material from the Greek East. The verses before and after the Habakkuk prophecy are still woven though the Christmas Eve services in Orthodox churches.

When Pseudo-Matthew was written, the earliest surviving nativity scene had been painted in Egypt. This is an encaustic icon now in St Catherine’s Monastery, in Sinai, from the seventh century CE or even earlier. The nativity scene is almost a diagram, with the manger, the ox, and the ass at the centre, Mary lying on a red rug across the mouth of a cave, the star on a beam of light from heaven, Magi and shepherds, Joseph looking anxious, and two midwives bathing the newborn Child.

Most of these details are not in the New Testament, and yet they formed the nativity icon which has remained unchanged in the Orthodox churches. When the Western Church began to develop a different style, the nativity icon was still the template, and the fundamentals remain unchanged to this day.


ALL the details in the nativity icon come from texts outside the New Testament. Matthew’s story of the Magi gives no detail of how many Magi came to Bethlehem, or where they came from. They were astronomers looking for the prophesied King of the Jews. The idea that they were three Gentile kings from the Orient is unlikely to be accurate, but lesser-known early texts have preserved details that Matthew did not record: things which seem strange because our picture of the Magi has been shaped by later elaborations.

www.aidanharticons.comModern nativity icon by Aidan Hart

Two of these early texts are the Protoevangelium (Infancy Gospel of James), a Greek text known to Origen in the early third century which has never been lost, and The Revelation to the Magi (RMagi), an early Christian text in Syriac, possibly from the third century CE, which has been neglected but is now available for the first time in English (B. C. Landau, The Sages and the Star Child, www.academia.edu).

The basic story in RMagi is also in a fifth-century Latin commentary on St Matthew’s Gospel, the Opus Imperfectum, and was known in 15th-century Flanders. Three Magi, their holy mountain, a sacred spring, and a great star enclosing the Child appear in a painting from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden.

The Protoevangelium has some of the details in the icon — the birth in a cave, the goats drinking, and two women helping after the birth — but it says little about the Magi. The RMagi has more, since it describes the nativity cave being at the top of a mountain, two women washing the newborn at the foot of the mountain, the star on a beam of light coming from heaven into the cave, and the Magi as kings or philosophers of different ages — old, middle-aged, and young — ascending the mountain to see the Mother and Child. None of these details is in the New Testament.

The RMagi tells the story of 12 Magi living near a holy mountain in the East, in the land of Shir. They were sons of Seth, descended from ancient kings, and they were known as the silent ones, because they prayed in silence and knew that the truths of God were beyond words.

At the top of their mountain was a cave: “The Cave of Treasures of the Hidden Mysteries of the Life of Silence”. The hidden mysteries are mentioned 21 times, and must be the key to the text and to the identity of the Magi. They were guarding some ancient holy books in which Seth, the third son of Adam, had recorded his father’s teaching.

These were the mysteries handed down from father to son for many generations, which explains the three ages of the wise men in the icon. Jewish tradition remembered Adam as the first high priest, and Eden as his lost temple; so the Magi were priests as well as kings, guarding mysteries older than Moses.

They were also astronomers. They used to ascend to the cave and look for the great star which Adam had seen over the tree of life in Eden.

One year, when they were purifying themselves in their sacred spring at the foot of the mountain, they saw a pillar of light. They went up to the cave and received a vision of the heavens opening, a pillar of light, and angels bringing a great star enclosing the Child. Led by the star, the 12 Magi and their entourage went to Bethlehem and found a similar cave, where they saw the Child and offered their gifts.

The silence, the great star that dwarfed all others, and the human form within it, were known to Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote in about 100 CE of the three mysteries of the great silence: the Virgin, her childbearing, and the death of our Lord. They were made known by a great star which shone with a light beyond words. God was appearing in human form (To the Ephesians, 19).

None of this is in the New Testament.

The mountain of the Magi in the land of Shir was Mount Seir, whose people were cursed by Ezekiel (35.1-9); yet the Lord was expected to come from Seir with blessings (Deuteronomy 33.2), and the Magi of Mount Seir were guarding books from Adam and waiting for the Messiah. They must have been of Hebrew heritage. Who were they?


M. R. JAMES, best known for his ghost stories, was a scholar of the apocryphal texts. In 1927, he published a book on two medieval Latin texts (alas, with no English translation): one from the Arundel collection now in the British Library, and one from Hereford Cathedral Library (Latin Infancy Gospels, Wipf and Stock, reprinted 2009).

Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of Trinity College DublinThe Book of Kells, Folio 7v: Virgin and Child

These show another version of the Magi story: related to the RMagi, but saying that they found their prophecies about Christ in scriptures older than the Old Testament: apud nos sunt antiquiores scripture (“We have older writings”).

James, writing 20 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, assumed that these ancient writings in a cave were the works of the Gentile philosophers; but now there is more evidence. What were these older holy writings?

He discovered the same story of the older scriptures in an Old Irish text, found copied in the Leabhar Breac (c.1410), which is now in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. This version has only three Magi, and they brought many gifts, including a length of fine white linen. This story and several other Old Irish apocryphal texts are now available in English (M. Herbert and M. McNamara, Irish Biblical Apocrypha, T&T Clark, 1989).

The Grey Friars of Hereford and the Carthusians of Mainz, who copied out those Latin Infancy Gospels, the unknown scribe of the Leabhar Breac, and the painters of 15th-century Flanders knew stories about the Magi that we have largely forgotten.

When the Magi had the vision of the Child in the cave, and when they saw him in Bethlehem, he addressed them as “the sons of my mysteries”. Early Christian texts often mention secret teachings with a temple context — the liturgy and its meaning — and the early Christians claimed that Jesus was their great high priest (Hebrews 4.14), who had learned these mysteries and taught them to his disciples.

Bishop Ignatius wrote of Jesus: “The priests were worthy men, but the high priest is greater, the one to whom the most holy things were entrusted, for to him alone were the secret things of God committed” (To the Philadelphians, 9).

Clement of Alexandria wrote in about 200 CE of a tradition of blessed doctrine “which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the apostles. . . The teachers of truth are those who enter in, through the tradition of the Lord, by drawing aside the curtain” (Miscellanies, 6.7, 7.17).

Origen (d. 251 CE), perhaps a pupil of Clement, said that the tabernacle furnishings were wrapped before the Levites were allowed to carry them (Numbers 4.1-15), because only priests were permitted to see and understand them. So, too, certain Christian practices and teachings “were handed down and entrusted to us by the high priest and his sons” (On Numbers, Homily 5).

AlamyDuccio di Buoninsegna, Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (detail) (1308-11)

A century later, Basil of Caesarea wrote of practices that had no basis in the New Testament but came from unwritten tradition: liturgical customs such as the sign of the cross and facing east to pray; and prayers such as the epiklesis.

“Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?” They “guarded the awful dignities of the mysteries in secrecy and silence”. They were matters beyond words, and so should not be spoken. They were the mysteries (On the Holy Spirit, 66).


ORIGEN’s “high priest and his sons” points to a widely quoted saying of Jesus that is not in the New Testament: “My mystery is for me and for the sons of my house.” Clement of Alexandria said that it came from “a certain Gospel”, but did not name it, (Miscellanies, 5.10).

A work attributed to Clement, Bishop of Rome in the 90s, has Peter say: “Our Lord and teacher said ‘Keep the mysteries for me and the sons of my house’ wherefore he explained to his disciples privately the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Homilies, 19.20). In an early hymn, Jesus says: “Keep my mystery, you who are kept by it” (Odes of Solomon, 8.10). There are several other examples.

The mysteries are mentioned in the New Testament, but little is said of their content. Jesus told his disciples that he taught in parables to conceal the mysteries: “To you it has been given to know the secrets [literally ‘mysteries’] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13.11 and parallels).

St Paul wrote of “the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long years but is now disclosed” (Romans 16.25), and of “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1.26).

AlamyRogier van der Weyden workshop, nativity altarpiece, detail

He said that Christians were “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4.1); and “Great indeed is the mystery of our religion: he was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3.16).

Were the Christian mysteries the teachings preserved by the Magi? Increased knowledge of biblical Hebrew means that the saying attributed to Jesus, “My mystery is for me and for the sons of my house,” can now be identified as Isaiah 24.16, when the prophet announced the coming of the Righteous One.

St John saw this in the vision of the mighty angel coming from heaven bringing a little book that he gave to John. He said that when the seventh angel sounded his trumpet, the “mystery of God as he announced to his servants the prophets, would be fulfilled” (Revelation 10.7).

The Magi on Mount Shir had been guarding the mysteries until the Righteous One appeared, and then they went to find him in Bethlehem.


The following texts mentioned above can be found online: Justin Martyr, Apology; Pseudo-Matthew; Protoevangelium; The Revelation to the Magi; Ignatius, To the Philadelphians; Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies; Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit; Clement, Homilies; Odes of Solomon.

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