Prof. Paganini, Prof. Paganini, you both deal scientifically with the Christmas story. Do you have a nativity scene yourself?
Claudia Paganini: Yes, we have a beautiful old model from a Tyrolean artist. But unfortunately she is in a box because we have kittens that would make short work of the crib.
Simone Paganini: And of course, although you know that ox and donkey weren’t there, we have both.
What makes you think these animals weren’t there?
Simone Paganini: We have two stories of the birth of Jesus in Luke and Matthew. You will not find ox and donkey in it.
Claudia Paganini: And there were no oxen at all back then. In ancient Israel it was not allowed to castrate male animals. If so, there could have been a bull or a donkey.
So why are we assuming that today?
Simone Paganini: That has to do with translation problems and references to other passages in the Bible. In the book of the prophet Habakkuk, the original Hebrew says that the Messiah is to come between “two distinct ages.” Then the book was translated into Greek, “ages” and “beasts” are written almost the same here. When the text was then translated into Latin, an error probably happened and the ages became animals, with the result that Jesus now had to be born between two animals. There is also another passage, the 14th chapter of the book of Isaiah, where God says to the people of Israel: “You understand nothing about your God, but the ox and the donkey do very well”. These were two animals that were regarded as symbols of the society of the time. Also, Jesus is said to have been born in a stable. Of course, an ox and a donkey then come to mind. But the biblical text about the birth of Jesus doesn’t say that, ox and donkey are fake news.
What did the ox and donkey stand for if they are symbols?
Simone Paganini: In the tradition, according to which the poor baby Jesus is said to have been born on a cold night, the animals function quite banally as radiators. They were the classic culture animals of the time, but not from a Jewish perspective. The gospels were not written for devout Jews either. Of course, Jesus is a small Jewish child who was born in Judea, but ox and donkey were not exactly native there, there were more small livestock like goats and sheep. Ox and donkey were part of Greek culture, as were the people who read the texts.
They also devote an entire book to the Christmas story, “Von haben Heiligen Weihnachts”. It’s a kind of fact check of what really happened at the birth of Jesus. What was the idea behind it?
Simone Paganini: Many simply buy what the Bible says or thinks it says without asking any questions. Christmas is a central aspect that we wanted to show: This is a work of literature, historically there is hardly anything tenable about this story, except that a child is born. We wanted to explain how certain traditions came about. It was not an attempt to destroy beliefs or invalidate traditions. Because even if many things did not happen at the birth of Jesus as we imagine, the message remains: the belief that a child was born as the son of God.
You write that Maria probably gave birth to the child in a normal house.