What Animals Were In The Nativity?

We had a Christmas party at my church last week, and – thanks to my work schedule – my son and I were able to get there nearly two hours early to help set up. He’s an active five-year-old, and so our Youth RE Minister got him to help set up the Nativity. This got amusing quickly, as he really got into things. Soon the stable was set up, and the shepherds, and the three wise men. Then he ran over into the nursery, and came back with a box of animals to pad out the scene.

At first, his choices worked. More sheep, more cattle, that sort of thing. Then he added chickens, which we weren’t sure fit the time and place. Then he wanted to add a penguin, and some dinosaurs. That’s where we drew the line. He took it well enough, but it got me wondering: what animals could have been found in a stable in the Near East in the first century CE?

Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel discusses the following breeds of domestic animals in the region:

  • Dogs
  • Sheep
  • Goats
  • Cattle
  • Pigs
  • Donkey
  • Horse
  • Camel

The book also defines a breed as “a group of animals that has been selected by man to possess a uniform appearance that is inheritable and distinguishes it from other groups of animals within the same species”. It also indicates that breed should not be confused with subspecies.

The difference between these two terms is that a breed is a product of artificial selection by man and geographical barriers need not play any part in its development, while a subspecies is always restricted to a given locality where it has evolved as a result of reproductive isolation.

Dogs are the most difficult to pin a date down for. Origin of Domestic Dogs reports that some studies suggest that dogs were domesticated around 10,000 years ago, while others suggest they were domesticated around 32,000 years ago. UCLA says they originated in Europe at least 18,000 years ago, but then UCLA turns around and says that small dogs were present in the Middle East as much as 31,000 years ago. So, yeah. The jury’s still out on when they arrived on the scene. But they were certainly there as of the 1st century CE.

Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. From this paper, we get the following dates for four more breeds of domestic animals being introduced into what would become the Roman province of Judea:

  • Goats, about 9,500 years ago.
  • Sheep, about 9,000 years ago.
  • Pigs, about 8,500 years ago.
  • Cattle, about 8,500 years ago.

Of these four, it probably goes without saying that pigs would not have been in a Judean stable.

According to A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, “donkeys were domesticated in North Africa (from at least two wild populations) and, like the horse, appeared in the Near East in the 3rd millennium.” As a result, both could have been present in a 1st century CE Judean stable.

Camels would have been able to be present as well, since domestic camels were introduced to the region sometime in the 9th century BCE – although the date is disputed, as the Bible appears to mention them as being in the region much earlier. Regardless of which specific date is accurate, however, we can be certain that they were in use as domestic animals in the 1st century CE.

Dinosaurs were there, too. They are assumed to have died out 65 million years earlier, but they still had a presence in the form of a distant descendant called the chicken.  These birds were introduced to Egypt by the 18th century BCE, and since they were domesticated originally in Southeast Asia they would most likely have passed through the Near East on the way.

Sheep.  Goats.  Cattle.  Dogs.  Horses.  Donkeys.  Camels.  No surprises for Nativity scene manufacturers, here.  Except for the dinosaurs.