An earlier Fish Hooks titled ‘Holy Cow!” dealt with the odd fact that a winged ox is the traditional symbol for St. Luke the Evangelist who authored two of our New Testament books of the Bible (the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles). That earlier Fish Hooks pointed out that this ox was a memorable image that helped ancient readers connect Luke with the Gospel he wrote by referencing a unique incident in the first chapter of his book: the appearance of an angel to Zechariah to announce the coming birth of a son (John the Baptist) to his barren wife Elizabeth. This angelic appearance took place while Zechariah was performing his duties as a priest in the temple, and since priestly duties included sacrifice of bullocks on the temple’s altar, a very obscure connection can be made between Luke and the symbol of an ox.
But, as that earlier bit of trivia noted, that doesn’t explain why Luke’s ox symbol is depicted with wings. That’s a whole different connection (equally as obscure) which is best addressed in the context of the traditional symbols for all four of the Evangelists (clockwise in inset):
- John: An eagle. Eagles are masters of the sky and were believed to be able to look directly into the sun. John’s gospel begins with a soaring statement of Jesus’ divinity, so that sort of makes sense.
- Luke: A winged ox. (The sacrificial ox was already explained.)
- Mark: A winged lion. Lions are noble creatures that were thought to sleep with their eyes open, and this symbolized the resurrection. (Why that represents Mark isn’t at all clear!)
- Matthew: A winged man. Matthew’s gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus, thus emphasizing that Jesus was also true man.
Now even the most generous reader will agree that those symbolic connections to the Gospels are really creative stretches of the imagination. These connections are SO strained and arbitrary that there must surely have been something else at work here. And indeed there was!
The precedent for these four particular creatures is found in the book of Ezekiel (chapters 1 & 10), where the prophet relates visions of four winged creatures with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Similar creatures feature again in the book of Revelation (chapter 4). However, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that these visionary creatures are supposed to represent the Four Evangelists. So, though we might enjoy the colorful allegory, there’s no real substance to these associations.
Is this sort of thing harmless or problematic? It all depends on how seriously we take it! It’s kind of cool to have these ancient and interesting symbols of the Four Evangelists. And in telling their associated stories, we perhaps do establish memorable links to some aspect of the gospels they represent. So there’s certainly nothing wrong with using these symbols.
But on the other hand, when we start to take such allegorical symbolism seriously, we are reading unwarranted meaning into the Bible and that’s never a good thing! An example of that kind of error is illustrated by the case of Saint Irenaeus (ear-ren-ay-us), the bishop of churches in the Roman Empire’s region of Gaul (now France) in the late second century. He was a strong opponent of the heresy of Gnosticism and also weighed in against spurious “gospels” that some thought should be part of the Christian Bible – that’s all to his credit. However, to support his position, he took literally the identification of the creatures of Ezekiel with the Evangelists and argued that this proved that there could be only four valid gospels! A classic example of making a bad argument for a good cause!
Knowing the stories of these ancient symbols, you’ll probably be intrigued how you’ll see them popping up (especially in churches named after St. Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). Enjoy them for the ancient and colorful traditions they embody! But let them also be a reminder that imaginative embellishments of Biblical accounts are only human creations, and should never be confused with the essential and legitimate truths of Holy Scripture.