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The God in the Manger

The birth of Christianity, part 08


Fabulous: the adjective can be applied in all its meanings to the collection of stories known as ‘the bible’. Both old and new testaments make use of the broad and millennia old collection of fables commonly referred to as the Aesopica, or Aesop’s fables. In “Triplets and Trinities” I already noted the use of well-known fables by the authors of the gospels. I will slightly rephrase from those notes and reapply the remark for this article’s sake”:


The teachings of Jesus were not always as revolutionary as they are sometimes made out to be. Whether copied directly or used independently, some of his moral lessons or “parables” already appeared as part of the moral lessons expressed in Aesop's fables. This applies for instance to the idea of god helping those who help themselves, or the famous adage “Physician, heal thyself”. This does not mean that the gospel authors would have needed to directly cite from "Aesopos", as the moral lessons contained in the fables were known to all the cultures and societies of the eastern Mediterranean (and to one extent or another, every society). The Talmud recounts how Yoshua ben Hananan, featured in our post 'Three Tannaim’ equally used the stories "attributed to Aesopos" as parables to instruct his students.

The authors of all three synoptic gospels of the New Testament and the Pauline letters seem to have been quite familiar with some of the fables and refer to or rework them as part or basis for the parables of Jesus. References to the known fables may not always have been very obvious but in some instances the references to older fables are quite clear. There are a few examples in the Old Testament too, but in this post, I’ll go over three clear examples in the New Testament canon.


The Beaver

The Beaver (to which the talkative Greeks have given the name of Castor, thus bestowing upon an animal the name of a God—they who boast of the abundance of their epithets) when can no longer escape the dogs, is said to bite off his testicles, because he is aware that it is for them he is sought; a thing which I would not deny being done through an instinct granted by the Gods; for as soon as the Huntsman has found the drug, he ceases his pursuit, and calls off the dogs. If men could manage, so as to be ready to part with what they own, in order to live in safety for the future, there would be no one to devise stratagems to the detriment of the naked body.

In its most basic and original form, the above fable may simply have been an expansion on the idea “better maimed than dead”. Whether that is the case is possibly subject to its own debate. Likewise it can be questioned whether Phaedrus’ inclusion of the lesson contained in his last two lines is his own or equally derived from older sources he draws from. The reference to the Greeks may be indicative of that. Perhaps the fable is copied from the collector we mentioned in our reference post ‘Tales with tails’, Demetrius of Phalerum, but since we have no extant copies from the ten books of fables he is said to have compiled, we cannot state that with any certainty. Perhaps a supporting argument can be Pliny the Elder’s reference of the beavers in his Naturalis Historiae, who seems to rely on Demetrius to some extent for his information on the regions surrounding the Black Sea (mentioned in below notes as Euxine, the Greek name for it).

Either way, the story seemed to have been widely known and there is nothing miraculous about finding it used or referenced in the Greek epics known as the gospels.


If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” - Mark 9: 43-47


If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” – Matthew 5: 29-30


In the same gospel, Jesus repeats the ‘moral lesson’ or instruction in Matthew 18: 8-9 and a literal reference to castration is made (again) in Matthew 19: 11-12.

In Galatians 5:12 (*) Paul tells his readers that those preaching a different announcement than his own to “his” churches should castrate themselves (rather than perform or require a physical circumcision). It is unclear whether he is simply cursing them or still speaking in the same allegorical sense as the above fable (even if the context of his anger may lead to opt for the first). But it is clear that Paul is certainly no stranger to the “Aesopica” either, as our next example shows.


The Belly and the Members

The Members of the Body once rebelled against the Belly. "You," they said to the Belly, "live in luxury and sloth, and never do a stroke of work; while we not only have to do all the hard work there is to be done, but are actually your slaves and have to minister to all your wants. Now, we will do so no longer, and you can shift for yourself for the future." They were as good as their word, and left the Belly to starve. The result was just what might have been expected: the whole Body soon began to fail, and the Members and all shared in the general collapse. And then they saw too late how foolish they had been.

This fable is also known by other versions titled ‘the Belly and the Feet’. It has a very long history however, going all the way back to the second millennium BC. It is recognizable as a political metaphor in Egyptian papyri (under the title ‘the Belly and the Head’) and is referenced by Plato, Plutarch, Livy and multiple times in the Pauline epistles [Romans 12: 4-8, Ephesians 4: 11-16, Colossians 2: 19]. An almost entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 12 is built on this ‘parable’ or fable. I.e. (verses 15-17):


“… Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? …”


Paul uses the fable in more than one way. He uses and expands on it to express his views on the spiritual circumcision versus the physical one required by the “Jewish Christians” and ‘agitators’ who require the adherence to Mosaic law as a prerequisite to become Christian. Yet he also uses it in its age old sense to promote the obedience to church hierarchy. This last brings us the third example of a fable used in the New Testament.


The Dog in the Manger

A Dog was lying in a Manger on the hay which had been put there for the cattle, and when they came and tried to eat, he growled and snapped at them and wouldn't let them get at their food. "What a selfish beast," said one of them to his companions; "he can't eat himself and yet he won't let those eat who can."

We can’t trace how far back this fable goes back into time; not based on what remains of the written record. The first mention we have is a gloss by Diogenianus of Heraclea from the early second century. Depending on the chronology one accepts, it may have been preceded by Logion 102 of the gospel of Thomas:


Jesus said, "Woe to the pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat."


It is paraphrased in the gospel according to Matthew, Matt. 23: 13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Matthew’s entire chapter 23 calls out the selfishness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Parts of Luke 11 copy Matthew verbatim, but verse 52 rephrases the moral of the Dog in the Manger as: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”


The God in the Manger


Is it a coincidence that the two canonical gospels that reference or paraphrase the ‘Dog in the Manger’ fable, Matthew and Luke, are also the ones that have a birth narrative of their protagonist being laid in a manger after birth? I have absolutely no idea whether this observation or question has been made before or has been looked at by biblical scholars or religious historians. If it turns out to be a mere speculation from my end then I’m perfectly fine with that. Who’s to say however that it may not be within the realm of the literary brilliance of the authors of fore mentioned gospels? In any case, it circles back to the posts I started this journey with and if this idea is nothing more than a question that will remain unanswered then that’s fine too.


None the less you may wonder with me whether the reversed imagery is intentional or not. In and by itself a new-born baby being laid in a manger would not have been extraordinary and was literally everyday reality for millions of people throughout many centuries. Jesus’ condemnation of the Sadducees, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law is at points harsh, if not to say full of contempt. And if he really cared so much for his fellow humans being able to access the divine that it became a central theme in his ministry, this anger towards the authorities that prevented that is understandable. Besides not throwing pearls (of wisdom) before swine, Jesus also heeded his audience to not cast what is sacred to dogs. Talking about their hypocrisy once again in Matthew 7, Jesus compared the religious authorities of his day with swine and dogs in the same breath. Calling anyone either of those unclean animals may have been intended and received as a most offensive insult.


At the same time, this theme of “the way to heaven being shut by priests” is countered by the character of Jesus himself, who not only shows people the manger to eat from, but is the very example or even gateway to the food of god, the manna of wisdom and righteousness. In early Christian and even older “pagan” terms, Jesus is presented as the Way and the “Bread of Life” and opposed to the dog in the manger, encourages everyone to eat from it.



Darryl P.A, Richard Dalet, 17 June 2022

 

Notes, sources, references:


Fabulous:

The fable of 'the Beaver'

  • Text retrieved from: “The comedies of Terence and the Fables from Phaedrus – Literally translated into English prose with notes, by Henry Thomas Riley, B.A, late scholar of Clare Hall, Cambridge; to which is added A metrical translation of Phaedrus, by Christopher Smart, A. M”, London: George Bell & Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, 1887 Produced by Louise Hope, Carl Hudkins and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net, The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Fables of Phædrus, by Phaedrus, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/25512/25512-h/25512-h.htm#NF_XXIX

  • Wikipedia, “The beaver (fable)”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beaver_(fable)

  • “Muskrat Self-Castration To Save Its Life”, excerpt from “Did Jesus Quote From Aesop's Fables?”, British Israel US, https://www.british-israel.us/211.html

  • The reference to beavers made by Plinius the Elder in his Natural History encyclopaedia of 37 books. Retrieved from: “Pliny the Elder, The Natural History”, John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D8%3Achapter%3D47 The reference is found in book VIII, chapter 47: The beavers of the Euxine, when they are closely pressed by danger, themselves cut off the same part, as they know that it is for this that they are pursued. This substance is called castoreum by the physicians.2 In addition to this, the bite of this animal is terrible; with its teeth it can cut down trees on the banks of rivers, just as though with a knife.3 If they seize a man by any part of his body, they will never loosen their hold until his bones are broken and crackle under their teeth. The tail is like that of a fish;4 in the other parts of the body they resemble the otter;5 they are both of them aquatic animals, and both have hair softer than down.

  • (*) Is it mere coincidence that Paul expresses his anger in such way precisely in the letter to the Galatian churches? I may yet come back to this in a separate article, but if you’re curious why I’m raising this question here, you could already look into this yourself by googling topics like the Galatians, the galli, the priests of Cybele and Attis, Pessinus etc.

The Belly and the Members

  • Text citation retrieved from V.S. Jones’ 1912 translation, see ‘Tales with Tails’

  • “Muskrat Self-Castration To Save Its Life”, excerpt from “Did Jesus Quote From Aesop's Fables?”, British Israel US, https://www.british-israel.us/211.html

The Dog in the Manger

Other examples:

  • The Eagle and the Fox, number 1 in the Perry Index and number 250 in the V.S Vernon Jones collection listed in ‘Tales with tails’. Referenced in Luke 6 and Matthew 7. Shares related morality in ‘the Eagle and the Beatle’ and dates back to at least 650 BC.

  • ‘The Fisherman piping’, also known as ‘the Fisherman and his flute’, number 11 in the Perry Index and number 225 in the V.S. Vernon Jones collection. Referenced in Luke 7: 31-35 and Matthew 11: 17, it dates back to at least 425 BC as it is used through the mouth of Cyrus the Great in Herodotus’ Histories.

  • ‘The Oak and the Reed’, also known as ‘the Reed and the Oak’, number 70 in the Perry Index and number 41 in the V.S Vernon Jones collection. Referenced in Matthew 11 and in the Mishnah by rabbi Yohanan (John) (Taanit 20.a) and by rabbi Eleazar ben Shimon (Lazarus ben Simon)( Taanit 20.b). It overlaps with the Chinese proverb “A tree that is unbending is easily broken”, stemming from a foundational text of Taoism, in casu the Tao Te Ching from 400 BC.

Images:

Comet P1/Halley, as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch Large Scale Penomena Network https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2a/Lspn_comet_halley.jpg/1024px-Lspn_comet_halley.jpg

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