Biblical Studies Zoology (Animals in the New Testament)
by
Peter Joshua Atkins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0297

Introduction

Animals have played significant roles in defining and shaping early Christianity. The fish served as a symbol for the Church from an early period, and Christian attitudes to the sacrifice and consumption of animals helped identify themselves in contrast to other peoples. Despite its relatively smaller size compared with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, animals are a significant feature throughout the New Testament too. Memorable examples might include the zoological imagery utilized within Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels; the Lamb, Lion, and Beast of Revelation; and Peter’s animal vision in Acts. These texts have been tackled by scholars using a range of different methods. Historical-critical studies have either attempted to identify specific species in the New Testament or have charted changing attitudes to animals in early Christianity. Scholars have also taken a more theological approach to find within the Bible a justification for a Christian animal ethic or a theology of animal welfare. The application of ecological reading methods to the New Testament has also drawn on the references to animals to promote the environmental credentials of the Bible. Most recently, the New Testament has been read in conjunction with critical animal studies which have highlighted the various (and sometimes problematic) ways in which ‘the animal’ has been constructed or interpreted in the text.

General Overviews

Those academic studies which have attempted to provide an overview of animals in the New Testament have tended to only form a relatively minor part of larger works focusing on animals in either the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament or Christianity more broadly. For an example of the former, see Riede 2002, and for the latter, see Jung 2007. Firmage 1992 also includes the New Testament data in his article. Pinney 1964 is a relatively older book-length study that documents the animals mentioned throughout the Bible, whereas Schroer 2010 is a more recent example. Both Gilhus 2006 and Hobgood-Oster 2008 focus on animals in early Christianity but contain chapters which specifically address the New Testament evidence. Ecological approaches to the New Testament, in Bredin 2010 and Habel and Balabanski 2002, have also surveyed the passages which refer to various animals.

  • Bredin, Mark. The Ecology of the New Testament: Creation, Re-Creation, and the Environment. Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2010.

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    An overview of the ecological content of the different parts of the New Testament with continued reference to animals throughout and some specific focus on animals in chapter 4.

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  • Firmage, Edwin. “Zoology.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 1109–1167. London and New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    Provides general archaeological and geographical information on animals in the Old and New Testaments as well as profiling some specific animals (listed alphabetically).

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  • Gilhus, Ingvild Sælid. Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203964798Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Traces attitudes to animals in Greek and Roman culture up to early Christian ideas. Chapter 8 specifically explores animals in the New Testament.

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  • Habel, Norman C., and Vicky Balabanski. The Earth Story in the New Testament. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

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    Although not focused on animals, this collection of essays reading the New Testament with an ecological hermeneutic makes frequent reference to the various animals found within the biblical text.

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  • Hobgood-Oster, Laura. Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

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    An examination of the place of animals within the whole history of Christianity. Chapter 3 contains an assessment of animals within the New Testament canon and apocrypha looking at a few key texts.

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  • Jung, Martin H. “Animals: Christianity.” In Religion Past and Present. Vol. 1. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Bernd Janowski, Eberhard Jüngel, and Don Browning, 242–243. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

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    A short article on animals within the New Testament and Christianity more broadly.

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  • Pinney, Roy. The Animals in the Bible: The Identity and Natural History of All the Animals Mentioned in the Bible. Frontiers of Knowledge Series. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Books, 1964.

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    After some useful introductory chapters (on animal worship, clean and unclean animals, animal symbolism, and zoological systems) the book provides chapters on various categories of animals mentioned in the Bible (e.g., mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish). The book covers both Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament.

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  • Riede, Peter. Im Spiegel der Tiere: Studien zum Verhältnis von Mensch und Tier im alten Israel. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 187. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002.

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    A collection of various essays on animals in ancient Israel, although chapter 10 provides an example overview of animals in the New Testament.

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  • Schroer, Silvia. Die Tiere in der Bibel: Eine kulturgeschichtliche Reise. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 2010.

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    A recent overview of animals within the Bible with chapters focusing on specific types of creatures.

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Animals in Early Christianity

Grant 1999 provides a good general introduction to the discussion of animals within early Christianity. Overviews are also offered in Gilhus 2014 and Miller 2018 who give different assessments of the position of animals in ancient Christian literature. The seeming lack of animal sacrifice within early Christianity is analyzed in Gilhus 2013, Ullucci 2012, and Petropoulou 2008. Miller 2001 covers the use of animals as poetic imagery, while Jackson 1983 looks specifically at lion imagery in the early Christian world. Animals also feature prominently in the noncanonical Acts of the Apostles, and this is assessed in Bovon 1999 and Spittler 2008.

Diet and Eating Animals in the New Testament

Diet and the consumption of an animal’s flesh have been key points of discussion in New Testament scholarship. Overviews of food in the New Testament and early Christianity are provided in Brazinski 2017 and Smith 2015. Seesengood 2014 specifically looks at meat-eating in early Christianity and examines it using critical animal studies. McGowan 1999 looks at the Greco-Roman context of meat-eating and the consumption of fish in early Christian ritual meals. The possibility that Jesus ate fish is examined in Alexis-Baker 2012 and O’Collins 1988. McGowan 2021 looks at the consumption of animals in relation to the construction of early Christian identity.

Animal Imagery and Language

Often animals are not referred to directly in the New Testament, but instead various types of animal imagery, metaphors, symbols, or language are used. Gáll 2018 looks at the occurrence of animal metaphors throughout the biblical canon, while Rothschild 2009 provides an introductory overview of various types of animal symbolism in the New Testament. Ovine imagery is frequently found in the Gospels and the mention of sheep in this way is covered in both Tooley 1964 and Weber 1997. Staples 2019 and Thiessen 2017 look at the use of animal imagery to depict gentile nations. Collman 2021 reads the canine reference in Philippians 3:2 as a derogatory term for Paul’s opponents. Callan 2009 examines the various animal imagery in Second Epistle of Peter 10 and how humans are compared to these animals.

  • Callan, Terence. “Comparison of Humans to Animals in 2 Peter 2,10b–22.” Biblica 90.1 (2009): 101–113.

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    An exploration of Second Epistle of Peter’s comparison between humans and in animals. Contains a relatively brief, but nevertheless useful, survey of other roughly contemporaneous comparisons between humans and animals by ancient authors.

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  • Collman, Ryan D. “Beware the Dogs! The Phallic Epithet in Phil 3.2.” New Testament Studies 67.1 (2021): 105–120.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688520000107Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Discusses the use of ‘dog’ as a derogatory term to refer to Paul’s opponents in Philippians 3:2.

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  • Gáll, Kinga. “Tiere und Tiermetaphern in der Bibel.” Kronstädter Beiträge zur Germanistischen Forschung 18 (2018): 183–198.

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    An assessment of the various animal metaphors used in the Bible (including in the New Testament) and how they have influenced subsequent attitudes to animals.

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  • Rothschild, Clare K. “Animal Symbolism: IV. New Testament.” In Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception. Vol. 2. Edited by Hans-Josef Klauck, Bernard McGinn, Paul Mendes-Flohr, et al., 15–16. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009.

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    A general overview of the positive and negative ways in which animals appear symbolically in the New Testament.

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  • Staples, Jason A. “‘Rise, Kill, and Eat’: Animals as Nations in Early Jewish Visionary Literature and Acts 10.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42.1 (2019): 3–17.

    DOI: 10.1177/0142064X19855564Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article looks at how various nations are commonly depicted as animals in Second Temple literature and argues Acts 10 is using a similar trope.

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  • Thiessen, Matthew. “Gentiles as Impure Animals in the Writings of Early Christ Followers.” In Perceiving the Other in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Edited by Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Wolfgang Grünstäudl, and Matthew Thiessen, 20–32. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 394. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2017.

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    Argues against the suggestion that early Jews called Gentiles ‘dogs,’ and instead uses New Testament texts to suggest that impure animal imagery used about Gentiles instead functioned to distinguish them from Jews while not excluding them from salvation.

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  • Tooley, Wilfred. “The Shepherd and Sheep Image in the Teaching of Jesus.” Novum Testamentum 7.1 (1964): 15–25.

    DOI: 10.1163/156853664X00033Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An overview of the use of sheep imagery in Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels.

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  • Weber, Kathleen. “The Image of Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:41–46.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59.4 (1997): 657–678.

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    An historical-contextual investigation into cultural trends with respect to keeping sheep and goats in Greece and Syria. This is used to help interpret the image of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.

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Animals in the Gospels

Bauckham 2011 provides an introductory overview of some key Gospel passages that refer to various animal creatures. Scholarly discussion has tended to focus on how violent or peaceful Jesus’s interactions with animals are within the Gospel texts. Key examples are: Bauckham 1994 and Heil 2006 who look at Mark 1:13; and Alexis-Baker 2012 and Neufeld 2011 who look at John 2:13–15. Linzey 2007 and Wilson 2015 use various extrabiblical or noncanonical texts to establish Jesus’s kindly perspective toward animals. Nortjé-Meyer 2019 attempts a more theological approach to interpreting animals in a Gospel passage through a Christological assessment of John 1 and 6. Finally, Moore 2017 uses critical theory to read animality in the Gospels.

  • Alexis-Baker, Andy. “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13–15.” Biblical Interpretation 20 (2012): 73–96.

    DOI: 10.1163/156851511X595549Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An investigation into violence in John 2:13–15 and questions whether this text depicts Jesus’s violence to animals.

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  • Bauckham, Richard. “Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark 1:13): A Christological Image for an Ecological Age.” In Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology. Edited by Joel B. Green and Max Turner, 3–21. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

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    Argues that Jesus’s time with the wild animals in Mark 1:13 is an example of peaceable companionship between human and nonhuman animals.

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  • Bauckham, Richard. “Jesus and Animals.” In Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology. By Richard Bauckham, 79–110. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011.

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    A good introduction to animals in the Gospels which outlines Jesus’s understanding of the human–animal relationship as contained within the various Gospel texts.

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  • Heil, John Paul. “Jesus with the Wild Animals in Mark 1:13.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.1 (2006): 63–78.

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    Suggests that Mark 1:13 is not a description of Jesus peaceful relationship with other creatures, but instead the wild animals signify part of his wilderness testing by Satan.

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  • Linzey, Andrew. “Jesus and Animals: A Different Perspective.” In Creatures of the Same God: Explorations in Animal Theology, 97–113. Winchester, UK: Winchester University Press, 2007.

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    An examination of some noncanonical Gospel accounts of Jesus’s interaction with animals and stresses the compassionate and companionable nature of their relationship.

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  • Moore, Stephen D. Gospel Jesuses and Other Nonhumans: Biblical Criticism Post-poststucturalism. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1wf4cw2Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uses posthuman critical theory to read the Gospels and Acts. Chapter 4, “The Dog-Woman of Canaan and Other Animal Tales,” specifically engages with animal studies to recognize alternate assemblages of the human and nonhuman in the Gospels.

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  • Neufeld, Thomas R. Yoder. Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

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    An assessment of the relationship between the New Testament and violence. Chapter 4, “Violence in the Temple?” focuses on the cleansing of the Temple and the ambiguity of whether Jesus acted violently toward animals.

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  • Nortjé-Meyer, Lilly. “The Logos as ‘Flesh’ in John 1:14 and 6:51–57: Formulating a Christology for the Liberation of Animals from Humanarchy.” Neotestamentica 53.3 (2019): 535–555.

    DOI: 10.1353/neo.2019.0026Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Focuses on the Johannine language of Jesus’s flesh and formulates a Christology of animal liberation.

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  • Wilson, Walter T. “Matthew, Philo, and Mercy for Animals (Matt 12, 9–14).” Biblica 96.2 (2015): 201–221.

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    This article reads Matthew 12:9–14 in relation to Philo’s writings to suggest the biblical text presents the merciful treatment of animals as a conventional rather than a legal stipulation.

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Animals in Pauline Texts

The following scholarship engages with references to animals in the Pauline epistles. Horrell, et al. 2010 offers an ecological reading of Paul’s writings and highlights the place of animals amidst this wider environmental focus. Alternatively, animal ethics within the Pauline texts is the subject of Gräßer 1990. The potential of 1 Corinthians 9:9–11 for animal ethics has been much debated and various viewpoints are offered in Brewer 1992, Schafer 2010, and Verbruggen 2006. Newton 1998 and Tite 2019 also focuses on 1 Corinthians and the issue of meat consumption in the epistle, while Williams 2006 looks at the reference to wild animals in same letter.

  • Brewer, D. Instone. “1 Corinthians 9.9–11: A Literal Interpretation of ‘Do not Muzzle the Ox’.” New Testament Studies 38.4 (1992): 554–565.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500022074Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Looks at Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 amid early rabbinic exegesis to argue that the connection between an ox and a Christian minister is literal, not allegorical.

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  • Gräßer, Erich. “Das Seufzen der Kreatur (Röm 8,19-22): Auf der Suche nach einer ‘biblischen Tierschutzethik’.” Jahrbuch für biblische Theologie 5 (1990): 93–117.

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    Uses Romans 8 as a springboard for investigating animal ethical concerns in biblical texts.

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  • Horrell, David G., Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate. Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.

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    A study of Pauline literature which, although it has a primarily ecological focus, provides a useful foundation for investigating animals in such texts.

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  • Newton, Derek. Deity and Diet: The Dilemma of Sacrificial Food at Corinth. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 169. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

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    Explores the problematic nature of consuming animal meat in 1 Corinthians 8–10 due to its cultic associations.

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  • Schafer, A. Rahel. “‘Does God Care About Oxen?’: Another Look at Paul’s Use of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 21.1–2 (2010): 114–132.

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    Argues that Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 25:4 is partly analogical, but also relies on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament context of God’s care for animals.

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  • Tite, Philip L. “Roman Diet and Meat Consumption: Reassessing Elite Access to Meat in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42.2 (2019): 185–222.

    DOI: 10.1177/0142064X19873523Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Assesses the consumption of meat in the Roman world, though specifically in Corinth, to argue that all levels of society would have eaten it and 1 Corinthians 8–10 was not about socioeconomic conflict.

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  • Verbruggen, Jan L. “Of Muzzles and Oxen: Deuteronomy 25:4 and 1 Corinthians 9:9.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49.4 (2006): 699–711.

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    An assessment of Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 which argues the original biblical law was not directed toward animals themselves but was rather economic in focus. First Corinthians 9:9 is thus seen as following this principle.

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  • Williams, Guy. “An Apocalyptic and Magical Interpretation of Paul’s ‘Beast Fight’ in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32).” Journal of Theological Studies 57.1 (2006): 42–56.

    DOI: 10.1093/jts/os-XXXI.1.42Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An article focused on Paul’s fight with wild animals in 1 Corinthians 15:32 which interprets the text in terms of evil spirits or demonic forces.

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Animals in Revelation

Compared to other New Testament books Revelation is relatively full of significant animal creatures. The most prominent are perhaps the Lion and the Lamb of Revelation 5, and the various interpretations of these animal creatures are surveyed in Skaggs and Doyle 2009. More detailed historical-critical studies of the Lamb are conducted in Johns 2003 and Middleton 2018, while Strawn 2007 provides a similar investigation into the Lion. Witetschek 2008 also conducts a historical enquiry into Revelation’s animals although he focuses on frogs and the froglike spirits in Revelation 16. Bauckham 2008 takes a more theological approach to interpreting the four animal-like creatures who worship at the divine throne. Scholars have also used critical animal theory (particularly that of Jacques Derrida) to understand the animals of Revelation. This is undertaken in Moore 2014, which concentrates on the Lamb, whereas the Beast is the primary focus in Strømmen 2018a and Strømmen 2018b.

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