‘The Spirit Descended like a Dove’: Bird Divination, Carrier Pigeons, and the Baptism of Jesus
Jennifer Eyl [+]
Gospels authors unanimously agree that when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, a “spirit” (pneuma) in the form of a dove descended from the sky, accompanied by a divine voice identifying Jesus as the son of God. The bird in question, the peristera, was one of the most common birds in antiquity. This essay argues that gospels writers’ use of the pneuma-as-peristera is best understood in three contexts: ancient practices of bird divination (ornithomancy), widespread uses of the peristera as the ideal messenger among all species of birds, and the moral virtues appended to the bird by the first century. Birds were widely understood as bearing divinatory meaning in antiquity; the peristera, in particular, makes sense inasmuch as delivering messages is often what that species was bred to do. Equally, the bird would eventually be associated with wisdom and moral perfection—which the gospel authors wish to parlay to Jesus.