Thursday, 16 December 2010

In search of the Christmas Donkey

It was the the reference to the Christmas Donkey from the Natwivity that made me ponder.

For surely we all know the story of the Little Donkey. How it carried Mary safely on her way, following a star to Bethlehem. And much is made of the heavy load it carried. And, somewhat strangely, it is exhorted to "ring out those bells tonight", which I suspect must have been terribly difficult with hooves.

So I hied me to the gospels to discover wherein the Little Donkey is mentioned. And found nothing. Not in Luke - angels, and censuses, and consuls of Syria in abundance. But no donkey. And not in Matthew. No, there is an unspecified number of wise persons but no Little Donkey. And I could not find the Nativity in Mark either. Which leads me to believe that the start of that Gospel fell off at the same time that apparently the end did. I've known that happen to books.

But there the song definitely is. And there are pictures as well.

Like this one. Although this is Giotto's Flight into Egypt, I'm sure we can assume that it's the same donkey.
File:Giotto - Scrovegni - -20- - Flight into Egypt.jpg
So we have a problem of textual history here. How do we explain the well-attested presence of the donkey, but its absence from the Bible as it currently exists?

I considered the possibility that someone had gone around the world, expunging the reference to the donkey from all copies. But had to discount it. Sure, all that circumstantial stuff in Luke 2 regarding King David could have been put in place of the original words "taking his donkey", but consider the logistics. How could anyone, even with a good grasp of languages, have got round the world changing all those Bibles? It would have required a considerable team, and then Wikileaks would undoubtedly have got hold of it.

There is a possibility that Giotto, and all the artists in his line all the way down to the present day, could have invented the donkey to add a little colour. But let's face it, that seems pretty unlikely. I think we can accept that the donkey existed. Which leads me to my third suggestion. The one that had Drayton spluttering into his low-fat sugar-free cocoa last night.

Maybe the original version of Luke's Gospel had the Little Donkey in it. As it left Luke's pen, the text had the donkey - there along side the description of the dusty road and all the rest of it. But at an early point, before the Gospel had disseminated across the empire, that line had been lost. Maybe just what I believe is called a copyist's error. The scribe's wife called in to ask what the score was at the Colosseum, the line was lost, and the donkey passed from the scriptural record, although remembered in the folk memory.

It is an intriguing question what will happen if we ever find that earlier version of the Gospel including the donkey. Will the authorities recognise it for what it is? Will new versions of the Bible be rushed out incorporating the reinstated verse? Will verse re-numbering be called for?
I am determined that we get the answer to these questions. So I am organising an archaeological expedition. We're going to dig up the entire Sinai desert looking for earlier versions of Luke's Gospel. I've worked out this could be quite an expensive operation, so I'm looking for donations.

So don't forget, just £10 will buy us a spade. £8.35 will buy me a rather snazzy pith helmet.
Will you donate? You owe it to the Little Donkey.


  1. Have you never heard of the Nag Haammadi scroll The Gospel of Eeyore? I'm sure there's a documentary about it over Christmas and scholars are developing the Old Perspective on Equus africanus asinus as I write.

  2. Isn't it always the way - everything seems to be going so well and someone makes an ass of themselves....


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