Chickens and the Cultural Context of the Gospels

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One aspect of the cultural context of the Gospels that is often overlooked is the role played by animals. In this article I will explore the significance of chickens in first-century Jewish culture and the part they play in the story of Jesus.

ChickensOnDungheap
For Merle and Charlie Jewett of Alna, Maine.

One aspect of the cultural context of the Gospels that is often overlooked is the role played by animals. Nevertheless, a variety of living creatures were part of the everyday experience for people in the ancient world. In this article I will explore the significance of chickens in first-century Jewish culture and the part they play in the story of Jesus.[1]

How Far Does His Mercy Extend?

A biblical commandment seems to indicate that chickens were not part of the early Israelite experience:

כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן־צִפֹּור לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל־עֵץ אֹו עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים אֹו בֵיצִים וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל־הָאֶפְרֹחִים אֹו עַל־הַבֵּיצִים לֹא־תִקַּח הָאֵם עַל־הַבָּנִים׃ שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת־הָאֵם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח־לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים׃

If you meet a bird’s nest with chicks or eggs before you in the road, or in any tree, or upon the ground, and the mother is sitting on the chicks or the eggs, you must not take the mother with her children. You must send the mother away. Then you may take the children for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days. (Deut. 22:6-7)

This commandment describes coming upon a nest with eggs as a chance occurrence. Collecting eggs from domesticated chickens is therefore not within the purview of this commandment.[2] Evidently this commandment was given before the Israelites began raising chickens for meat or eggs.[3]

It used to be assumed that chickens did not become a part of Jewish culture until after the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple.[4] This assumption was supported by the fact that chickens appear not to be mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Conclusion

Our examination of chickens in first-century Jewish society has given us a tiny glimpse into the cultural context of the Gospels. Appreciation for the cultural significance of chickens in late Second Temple Jewish culture may be a relatively obscure subject, but it has helped us to evaluate the authenticity of the differing versions of the story of Peter’s denial in the Gospels.

Chicken&GrapesHerculaneum

Roman fresco depicting a chicken eating grapes. Herculaneum (first cent. C.E.).


  • [1] The author wishes to thank Hiromu Boschee Nagahara for his help locating many of the items in the bibliography, and Lauren Asperschlager for proofreading this article.
  • [2] This is stated explicitly in the Mishnah:

    The commandment to cover the blood [Lev. 17:13] is more stringent than the commandment to send from the nest [Deut. 22:6-7], for covering the blood is performed for wild animals and birds, both domesticated birds and not domesticated, but sending from the nest is not performed [for any animals] except for birds, and is performed for birds only if they are not domesticated. (m. Hul. 12:1)

    This mishnah goes on to specifically mention chickens, stating that the commandment to send the mother bird from the nest applies to them only if the hen is nesting in a park or an orchard, in other words, if the hen is unowned.

  • [3] John P. Peters (“The Cock,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 33 [1913]: 363-396) drew the same inference with respect to the biblical laws of sacrifice.
  • [4] See, for example, Henry Baker Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1883), 221; Peters, “The Cock,” 370; W. Stewart McCullough, “Fowl,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al.; 4 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 2:323; Merling K. Alomia, “Tell Hesban 1976: Notes on the Present Avifauna of Tell Hesban,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 16 (1978): 289-303, esp. 302.

Comments 4

  1. Scott Tilton

    What a fascinating treatise on the role of chickens in the scriptures. I especially liked how your comparison of the synoptic gospels for these specific passages lends support to the theory of Lukan Priority. My favorite section, however, was the author’s rendition of the cock on a pot handle!

  2. Joshua McClintock
    Joshua McClintock

    Hello Joshua, can you help me understand why this time marker was important?

    “It was not the number of crows, but the moment between night and the break of day that had cultural and religious meaning.”

    I guess I would have assumed that what would have been more important was when the sun set, because that would have marked when the new day started. Why would the first break of light matter religiously?

    1. Joshua N. Tilton Post
      Author
      Joshua Tilton

      Joshua,
      You are quite correct that sunset is an important time marker in Judaism, separating one day from the next. Cockcrow served a different function: to distinguish between nighttime and daytime. This was an important time marker because certain commandments had to be completed before the ending of the night (e.g., consuming the Passover lamb, reciting the evening Shema). Both time markers are important, but they distinguish between different things. Sunset separates days on a calendar, cockcrow separates time within a given day.

      1. Joshua McClintock

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