Andrew W. Mellon Collection/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Isaiah and Ezekiel frame a Nativity scene in this 30-inch-wide panel painting (1308–1311) by Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. Each man bears the scroll inscribed with prophesies that, in Christian tradition, were interpreted as predictions of the Virgin birth: Isaiah’s (at left) reads, in Latin: “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son …” (Isaiah 7:14, a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not actually mention a virgin). Ezekiel’s states: “I saw a door in the house of the Lord that was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it” (based on Ezekiel 44:2).

At center, Mary reclines as an ox and an ass gaze at the babe. Angels appear in the heavens. Joseph sits just outside the cave, at lower left. In the foreground midwives bathe Jesus. At lower right an angel informs the shepherds of the recent birth.

In Christian tradition, the prophets are recognized primarily for predicting the life and death of Jesus Christ; to emphasize this, their books are placed at the end of the Old Testament, directly before the Gospels. In Hebrew Bibles, the Prophets appear in the middle, between the Torah (Pentateuch) and the Writings. This shift, author Rendtorff suggests, has led Christians to read the prophets outside their historical context—which is to misread them altogether.