Christmas is a time for celebration, for feasting and for relationships. But it is also a time for a mild engagement in iconoclasm, as we peel back the layers of accreted tradition and recover the origins of the Christmas gospel—something which needs to happen every year, it seems. In that spirit (and Spirit) I offer three Christmas surprises for you to unwrap at your leisure, peruse, and enjoy in between chomping on another turkey sandwich. The shepherds were not poor outcasts; the swaddling of Jesus was normal practice and not symbolic; and the holy family was not abandoned and alone.
1. The Shepherds were not poor outcasts
American author Randy Alcorn (who has written quite a good book on the subject of heaven) has written a book chapter and an online article about the poverty and status of the shepherds as poor outcasts:
In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them.
(Only Matthew mentions the magi, and John and Mark have no details of either, so I am not sure we should draw much conclusion from only Luke mentioning them.) Alcorn puts this issue of status ‘front and centre’ of his reflection on Christmas and the meaning of the incarnation—as will a thousand sermons on Christmas Day.
The proud religionists of Christ’s day have faded into obscurity, but the shepherd figure is once again elevated in church life as pastors “shepherd their flocks”…As we gaze on nativity scenes and smile at those gunnysack shepherds, let’s not lose sight of the striking irony. A handful of shepherds, marginalized by the social and religious elite, were chosen to break the silence of centuries, heralding Messiah’s birth.
I think it is interesting that not only does Alcorn contrast the shepherds poverty with the wealth of the elite, but he also wraps this into a focus on the irreligious (or at least unschooled) in contrast to the ‘religious elite’. There is quite a strong tendency in some strands of Protestant thinking to suggest that Jesus appealed to those who were not religious—forgetting both the historical reality that (in comparison with modern Western culture) everyone in Jesus’ day was ‘religious’, and the textual reality that Jesus commended the Pharisees to his disciples (Matt 23.3) and that Pharisees numbered amongst Jesus’ followers.
Alcorn has done his homework on this. He notes the contested status of shepherds in the narratives in Genesis, the conflict between settled farming communities and itinerant shepherds, and the sense of shepherds being unschooled or untrained as a surprising background for the rise of David as king (2 Sam 7.8) and the ministry and calling of Amos as a prophet (Amos 7.14). He cites Joachim Jeremias’ important study Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus who in turn draws on the Mishnah, and especially the later Babylonian Talmud:
Jeremias documents the fact that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. He wrote, “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property…The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called ‘my shepherd’ in Psalm 23:1.”
But David Croteau, in his Urban Legends of the New Testament, questions this traditional assumption. He notes the scholars who share this view, but points out that many of them depend on the view of Aristotle, who lived in a different region three centuries earlier. He also notes that most of the material on this point is drawn from the later Talmud rather than the earlier Mishnah, and so is of questionable value in settling this question. (It is also worth noting that some later Jewish teaching is actually shaped by a response to Christian teaching; if Christian theology elevated the status of shepherds, it is quite possible that Jewish teaching would have denigrated them as part of an anti-Christian polemic.)
Besides Aristotle, a comment by Philo, and one statement in the Mishnah, the bulk of the quotes used to demonstrate that shepherds were despised were taken from the Babylonian Talmud. I was unable to find even one source from first-century Israel used to support the view that shepherds were societal outcasts. Therefore, this viewpoint is dated after the events being studied in Luke 2. It is unreliable information and should be discarded when interpreting the Gospels.
By contrast, notes Croteau, the Old Testament texts are generally positive about the status of shepherds—and this would have been more significant for the New Testament writers. The great teacher of Israel Moses was a shepherd, as was the ‘ideal’ king David. God is a shepherd to his people, and he appoints leaders who are to shepherd the people like a flock. It is quite striking that, when the gospel writers record Jesus’ concern that the people are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Matt 9.36, Mark 6.34—note here his response is, like Moses, to teach them) there is no negative connotation for the term ‘shepherd’—nor when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’ (John 10.11). In relation to the story of the nativity, Croteau notes where the emphasis lies in the response to the message of the shepherds:
One clue in the context, a subtle hint, supports the opposite view of the legend. Luke 2:18 says, “And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” They weren’t amazed that shepherds were telling them; they were amazed at the content of what the shepherds said. If shepherds were viewed as societal outcasts, they would have been shocked that the shepherds were involved in the process. Instead, they were amazed at the story itself. This is a contextual clue that shepherds were not considered societal outcasts.
Information comes from quite another source to confirm this: Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town. Although the town’s name means ‘house of bread’, it was actually best known for its sweet water, and providing the water supply for the capital Jerusalem meant that Bethlehem was, throughout its history, a militarised town. That meant that it was also full of slaves, and shepherds would have been relatively well off. (Joel Green makes a judicious comment in his NICNT commentary on Luke, p 130: the shepherds would have been peasants, but they could hardly be despised by those who depended on their work in the sacrificial system.)
What, then, are we to make of the theme that ‘Jesus came to the poor’? The striking thing about the followers of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels and hinted at in the letters of the NT, is not that they were all poor, but that they were socially and racially mixed. Uniquely in the first century, the gatherings of those on The Way were places where all social groups were equally welcome and met together—which is probably still the case today. For Paul, the poverty of Jesus was not related to the social or economic class to which he came, but that fact that he came at all.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8.9)
Paul here cannot be referring to economic wealth—unless you think he is preaching some kind of prosperity gospel (‘you might become rich’). No, the poverty of Jesus was in becoming human, emptying himself and taking the form of a servant, obedient to death (Phil 2.6–8). The significance of the shepherds is not that they were particularly poor or marginalised, but that they were ordinary rather than elite. What matters is not whether we are rich or poor, but that we are human, and that in itself is poverty enough in comparison to the riches of his grace, freely offered in Jesus.
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” (C S Lewis Prince Caspian)
2. The swaddling was normal practice and not symbolic
Several people have sent me a video which is doing the rounds, suggesting that the ‘sign’ of the ‘swaddling clothes’ was an anticipation of the death of Jesus as the Passover lamb:
And the same argument is being shared in a written post on social media. Swaddling babies was certainly a traditional custom; note the negative reference to ‘the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths [swaddled]’ in Ezek 16.4. Others have made the connection with the sacrificial lamb:
And this shall be a sign unto you? How could swaddling clothes a “sign” if all babies were wrapped in such? A baby in a “manger” yes, that would be a sign, but what of these bands? There is a tradition that the shepherds, who in the hillside were not too far from Jerusalem, provided the “lambs without blemish” for the temple sacrifice at Passover. That first new-born lamb, to protect it from blemish (as it was required to be by the Law), was wrapped in swaddling cloth and placed in a food trough apart from the other sheep. Ah, this would be a sign indeed! They would find the Savior, Christ the Lord, wrapped just like they wrapped their own precious lamb after its birth.
But I am not quite convinced—mainly because there appears to be no emphasis on this at all in the text. The word for ‘swaddled’ appears nowhere else in the NT, and there is no hint of death in Luke’s account (as contrasted to the possible overtones of the gift of myrrh in Matthew’s). There is a fascinating parallel in the apocryphal first century Wisdom of Solomon 7.3–6, where Solomon is recorded as recounting the very ordinary nature of his birth into a common humanity:
And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth, and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. 4 I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. 5 For no king has had a different beginning of existence; 6 there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure.
Chad Bird, of 1517.org, also seeks to debunk these claims:
Some posts on social media and various blogs will go on to claim that Bethlehem was famous for producing unblemished lambs that were used for sacrifice, including Passover lambs. Of course, this claim is based on the earlier, questionable legend that these were temple flocks. Unlike the earlier opinion, however, this one is not even built on scanty evidence; it is built on thin air.
I have found no evidence in older Jewish literature—and certainly not in the Bible—that if you were to stop someone on Jerusalem’s streets to ask, “Where do the best sacrificial lambs come from?” they would respond, “Bethlehem, of course!” This claim, therefore, is wholly unsupported by evidence.
So file this one under, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”…
We come finally, to the…most audacious of the claims: that these supposedly “temple shepherds,” who wanted unblemished lambs, would wrap them in strips of cloth and place them in a manger to keep them safe (some add, in Midgal Eder). They didn’t want them thrashing around and blemishing themselves. In this way, the swaddled lambs would be kept fit for sacrifice.
What is the evidence for this claim? There is none. Zero. I don’t know where it originated, but it has spread like wildfire on recent FB posts. I suspect it was the icing on the cake of the other legends which I have surveyed above. What we have is the fictional creation of someone’s mind.
So, when the shepherds were told by the angels to go to Bethlehem where they will “find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12), they did just that. They went to town not the Migdal Eder. They found baby Jesus wrapped in cloths, as was common at the time, lying in a feed trough, because that made for an excellent baby bed. These shepherds certainly did not say to themselves, “Ah, just like we wrap our lambs in cloths to keep them safe for sacrifice in Migdal Eder!” No, that supposition would have to wait for fertile minds to concoct twenty centuries later.
The swaddling, then, is testimony to the very ordinary nature of Jesus’ birth. And I wonder how much, for Luke, it was a detail that confirmed his eye-witness sources for his account—since he emphasises that Mary ‘treasured all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2.51) and was his source of information about the nativity.
3. The holy family was not abandoned and alone
My third surprise comes from Eddie Arthur, who works in Bible translation with Wycliffe, and is reproduced here by permission. Eddie wants us to apologise to the women of Bethlehem for supposing that they neglected Mary and Joseph in their hour of need:
Most people realise that there are a number of problems with the traditional interpretation of the Christmas story. For example, Mary and Joseph were almost certainly not condemned to sleep in a cattle shed by a heartless innkeeper. Joseph’s family were from Bethlehem, he had relatives there who would certainly have put him up. However, because there was no space in the guest room (wrongly translated as “inn”, in many English translations), Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the downstairs space that some of the family shared with the animals. A strange setting to us, maybe, but not at all unusual in the context.
If you’d like to know more about this you could read Kenneth Bailey’s books on the subject, or you could watch these four excellent half hour talks.
However, I’d like to pick up on another aspect of the story: the idea of Mary, a poor teenage-girl, giving birth to her first child alone in a town far from friends and family. There is a problem with this image. In a communal culture, like first century Palestine, no one would have left a girl on her own in this situation. The local women would have rallied round to support her and there would be experienced midwives there to advise Mary and to help out when help was needed. It wasn’t a modern-day hospital, with formally trained staff, but these women would have seen lots of babies born and they knew what to do. Meanwhile, Joseph as a mere, useless male, would have been dispatched somewhere out of the way, probably to share some wine with the local men who would tell stories about the birth of their children.
How do I know this happened? Well, the details might be wrong, but this is how people act in community-based societies. They rally round to help and no one is left on their own when they need support – even if they are foreigners. In fact, you can’t always get solitude even when you want it. The women of Bethlehem would never have left a woman to give birth on her own, much less a young woman having her first child.
We read the story of the Nativity from the point of view of our individualistic society and we read into it on the basis of our own experience. The problem is that the Bible was written a long time ago in a country far, far away. We need to read and understand the Bible in its own context before applying it to ours.
This goes much further than just rethinking the Christmas story. It applies to how we should read the whole of the Bible. Let me give you an example: the famous passage in Ephesians 6 where Paul tells us to put on the whole armour of God, is written in the plural. He is telling us to prepare ourselves like a squad of soldiers, a legion, to face the challenges of the world. We tend to read this as an individual command, for each of us to be prepared, on our own, to face down the forces of hell. Roman armies were incredibly powerful because they fought as groups, supporting and protecting each other as they advanced. An individual soldier who broke ranks and fought on his own would be in all sorts of trouble; but together, they could beat much larger armies. When we read this passage in its original context, it challenges the values of our individualistic society and gives a very different picture of the church.
Reading the Bible in its own cultural context is for life, not just for Christmas.
Chad Bird ends his piece with an appeal to seeking truth in a post-truth culture:
The account of our Lord’s nativity, in its biblical and first-century Jewish context, is rich enough without seeking to supplement it with the counterfeit currency of legend. Stick to the facts. The biblical background of Bethlehem, David, the virgin, the angels, shepherds, and all the various details from the Evangelists have deep roots in the Old Testament. Trace those. Preach on them.
There you already have a bottomless treasury of truth…
As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s birth, let’s do so with reverence for the truth. In truth is our confidence, our joy, our boasting. The truth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, the Son of David, who is born for us in Bethlehem, as long foretold.
There are already many riches in the truth of the incarnation—they do not need fantastical elaboration!
60 thoughts on “Challenging Christmas myths on shepherds, swaddling, and support for the holy family”
Thanks for challenging our assumptions. The internet makes it easy for false information to be treated as kosher. It’s wise not to head too far from Scripture into constructed backgrounds. It’s especially wise not to believe unsubstantiated backgrounds.
I take your point about shepherds generally presented in a good light. Used metaphorically kings and leaders were shepherds. Yet I wonder why the angels appeared to the shepherds. Does it not suggest that they were peasants even second class citizens.
Are we not intended to take from ‘no room in the guest room’ hints of the outcast that Jesus will become. And is not the manger a kind of further sense of the humbling that Jesus will experience in life. I’m asking why Luke who deals with reversals includes this information.
But point taken.
“Yet I wonder why the angels appeared to the shepherds. Does it not suggest that they were peasants even second class citizens.” Why does it?
Hebrews 13v2 tells us we may meet angels ‘without knowing it’. Does that only happen to ‘second class citizens’?
I.m thinking of how in Luke God takes those of no significance and exalts them. Mary’s Magnificat.
Both Nazareth and Bethlehem are mentioned neither of which was of moment.
“Both Nazareth and Bethlehem are mentioned neither of which was of moment.”
….. but they were of moment – as the places that Joseph and Mary were among family.
I notice that you never answered my question about angels and ‘second class citizens’.
Jesus rose from the dead early. Jesus was up early praying during his ministry. I can only assume he was born early, born under a star, too early to be noticed by anyone except night watchmen, and shepherds. Night watchmen seem to have fallen asleep by the C1 so only shepherds were available.
I thought I did. Angels appear to all kinds of people but my point was that at the birth of Jesus Luke is telling us that it is the insignificant who first hear of God’s salvation. The shepherds were insignificant. Nazareth was despised. Bethlehem was the least among the clans of Judah (Mic 5). Mary considered herself someone of ‘humble estate. Giving birth among the cattle and using a manger as a crib further highlights the struggle of people like Mary. In one sense Jesus came to the poor, ‘The poor have the gospel preached to them’. Mary cannot afford a lamb for her purification rites and brings turtle doves. Thus while we should not exaggerate this humility of position I think we should recognize Luke’s intention.
This intention is clear a couple of chapters further on when we are given a list off important people in the world and then told the word of the Lord came to John.
They were not off moment in societal terms.
Steve ‘I can only assume…’
How do you spell ‘assume’? ‘It makes an ass out of u and me…’!!
my point was that at the birth of Jesus Luke is telling us that it is the insignificant who first hear of God’s salvation. The shepherds were insignificant.
Indeed they were, in that there was nothing special about them. They were just ordinary shepherds, minding their sheep. They weren’t second-class citizens, they weren’t especially despised, they were just ordinary, common people, going about their ordinary, everyday business, when suddenly the majesty of God broke into their day.
Were they peasants? Yes. But then most people in that time and place were. Being peasants didn’t make them ‘second-class citizens’, it made them ordinary. Insignificant, as you put it. Just like most of us.
“Are we not intended to take from ‘no room in the guest room’ hints of the outcast that Jesus will become.”
But… Jesus seems to have been born amongst “the household” not apart in any way?
This “hint” (of which the Gospel is absolutely silent) seems to me to detract from the birth narrative’s own (and opposite point ) importance.
If we read Luke’s narrative with no other sources colouring our thinking, I think we would assume that Joseph and Mary’s inability to get a room, having to sleep with the cattle, Mary obliged to give birth there and the child using a manger for a crib is narrative intended to convey humility, a level of diminishment/abasement and inconvenience.
I do think ‘no room in the guest room/inn’ may presage Christ’s rejection. And I think the cattle stall manger and its occupant is a paradox. Jesus rights and his birthplace were at odds.
The trouble with narrative is interpretation is a matter of inference.
John Thomson – as I indicated earlier, I disagree. The plain meaning of ‘no room at the inn’ is that there existed an inn (hence the definite article) in which they were housed (nothing to suggest that it was a tiny place with only one inn). The ‘no room’ (if we’re reading the English version without reference to anything else) would appear to mean ‘no room for the baby’ (i.e. no cot or crib) and the manger was an object of suitable shape and size, which was presumably moved into the room in which Mary and Joseph were staying. That would be the plain meaning, a ‘first guess’, based purely on the English (and how English seemed to be used in the 17th century) if other people hadn’t built other things around it and if there weren’t a whole host of commentators who suggested something to the contrary.
As far as the shepherds go – and their status – there doesn’t seem (at least to me) to be anything in Luke’s gospel to suggest that shepherds had a lowly status at that time. If they did, then this would be extremely interesting, since it would mean that Torah-reading pharisees were taking the side of the Egyptians against the Israelites (c/f end of Genesis, where Jacob et. al. came to Egypt and were shepherds in Goshen, we’re told that being a shepherd was detestable to the Egyptians – nevertheless, it was something that the Israelites were good at and it was how they made their money). It seems to me very unlikely that shepherds had a low status and a priori much more likely that they were revered, particularly among Torah-reading pharisees – but if NT scholars could prove that it was indeed the case that they did have a low status, then it would say an awful lot about the Pharisees at the time of Jesus and just how hypocritical their observance of the Torah actually was.
So I’m looking for people who think that shepherds really did have a low status to come and explain the arguments for this.
I can’t see your earlier comment. As you see I am basing my conclusions on the actors and settings in Luke’s nativity. He seems to me to be stressing the humble surroundings of Jesus birth. Historical information is not for its own sake but expresses a theological truth. I think the manger sits in juxtaposition to who Jesus is.
Shepherds, I accept don’t get a bad press in the Bible. Yet they do apppear to belong to a poorer strata of society. David was mocked by Saul as ‘the son of Jesse’.
God told David he was taking him from the pastures to be a prince.2 Sam 7:8. Amos was not the son of a prophet but a herdsman. The point in both is contrasting humble origins with later status.
Messiah is called ‘the root of Jesse’ which seems to again be stressing humble origins. Alcorn’s article is worth reading. Jeremias gives some evidence they were looked upon with disdain. I’m not however unhappy with Ian’s conclusion that shepherds were ordinary rather than the elite.
“Joseph and Mary’s inability to get a room” is not what the text says. There was not enough space in the ‘kataluma’ (οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι) to place the new born baby, so he was laid in the manger. ‘Room’ here is the same as “budge up, give me some room to sit down”, not a division of a dwelling.
It was the Latin diversorium which gives us ‘inn’, although the Latin word has a fairly wide semantic range, according to the Online Latin Dictionary.
The only other use of ‘kataluma’ in the NT is with reference in Mark to the place where the Last Supper was held. Mark 14:14: and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room (kataluma), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ (ESV)
The word is used quite a bit in the LXX to translate various words which are forms of dwelling.
The NIV gets it nearly right, but also so wrong with “there was no guest room available.”
Our English translations are coloured by the past, particularly the KJV. That in turn was coloured by the Latin with which the first translators were very familiar. [That influence was so strong that Erasmus put into his Greek text back translations from the Latin of text which appears in no Greek manuscript.]
That last comment is both fascinating and very worrying!
PS. If the ‘no room in the guest room/inn’ is a hint then the gospel is not silent about it. It may of course not be a hint.
Is there not however a contrast between who Jesus is and the circumstances of his birth.
Two elderly people (male and female) are privy to his birth . One, Simeon, says,
‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed’. With Messiah the humble are raised up and the proud abased.
Just some other reflections.
There are clear prophetic statements in the Nativity narratives. But “no room in the guest room” isn’t written in that way, especially if we accept Ian’s, and Ken Bailey’s, understanding. To me, taking this part of it as a sign of future rejection looks like an over-active theological imagination (aka a form of eisegesis).
Me again, sorry.
If Jesus had been born at three in the afternoon there might have been a few Rabbis about to pass on the herald’s message. Perhaps shepherds were the only humans awake at, say, six am?
On everybody back in C1 being religious. Paul made two good bullet points: 1) Believe God exists 2) believe He rewards seekers. No presumption on religiosity there. Also “the fool says in his heart there is no God” this would not need to be said if all were religious.
I disagree on “the fool says in his heart there is no God”. In the context where that was written, Israel’s whole identity was based on being God’s chosen people. Other nations also had their gods. Everyone was religious. The shock of the psalm is that the fool – described as the person who believes he can do what he likes without judgment or come-uppance (that’s why he’s a fool) is actually believing inwardly (in his heart) that there is no God.
As always, on point. I think Bailey preceded Arthurs in the comments about women/midwives and hospitality to the holy family.
I’m sure that Kenneth Bailey did proceed me. However, there is only one of me!
Thanks for this Ian. Interesting and helpful look at recent attempts to show extra significance in the birth narrative from Luke. As I’m preaching on it on Christmas Day it certainly got my attention! And helpful warning from Chad Bird: “The account of our Lord’s nativity, in its biblical and first-century Jewish context, is rich enough without seeking to supplement it with the counterfeit currency of legend. Stick to the facts.” I’ll be trying to do just that. They are wonderful facts.
Thanks for the blogs – always food for thought!
P.S. We are all in debt to Kenneth Bailey, aren’t we?!
They are indeed. Yes, we are—though he is also building on previous work of others, stretching back some way.
If Joseph was from Bethlehem and his family was ‘middling’ so to speak, perhaps his family owned an inn. A bit of irony then if there was no room? Perhaps Joseph arrived unexpectedly early, unannounced?
Why not speculate? It makes good conversation.
Steve – well, here’s another speculation – perhaps they found themselves in a ‘Hotel California’ situation where they discovered that they could check out, but they couldn’t exactly leave (and hence got stuck in a stable).
I assumed because the Christmas cards I have show A star over a stable at night. Shepherds were the only ppl on nights , I assume. 😉
Ian, what are we to make of the view expressed several times in my hearing recently that in the culture of that time Mary as expecting a child conceived out of wedlock would not have been accepted into Joseph’s family home because of the shame involved? The little experience I have of honour/shame cultures suggests that is entirely plausible. Putting it another way you make a good case from the text that they weren’t turned away from the ‘inn’, but it is not so clear from the text that they were just moved downstairs in the same house. The same possibility affects the question of whether other women would have helped or not?
But who else would have known except Mary and Joseph?
Later Jesus is disparaged for being a son of fornication so these things get out.
Well, just once, and in a rather oblique way.
Greg, Lynn Cohick offers a good answer to that based on careful research about the lives of women in the first century.
Thanks Ian, just what I was looking for.
Mary’s Baby Bump
“Lynn Cohick offers a good answer –based on careful research” ? Based on what exactly? The article quoted comes from *Christianity Today – Dec.18 2009* and entitled: “The Real Problem with Mary’s Baby Bump.”
In other words it is a summary of Cohick’s book “Women in the World of the Earliest Christians.” ‘She’ argues that Mary, being betrothed to Joseph , had entered a “legally binding arrangement” with Joseph and then ‘she’ proceeds to say” all that awaited the couple was ‘the wedding’ .
But this illuminates two major ambiguities (and once again I quote): “If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm .”
First, is this what the author actually said? Or is it the adaption made by the magagazine? Whatever the case —-
Secondly, what is meant by, on the one hand, ‘the wedding’ (see above) and on the other by the phrase ‘cultural norm’?
Finally, we are directlly confronted by the following assertion :” *Later rabbinic writings* allowed that a future groom who had sexual relations with his bride-to-be at her father’s house was not guilty of immoral behaviour.”
In spite of the fact that the rest of the article seems to revert to biblical perceptions ; given that a significant proportion of the leading article in this post was given over to criticism of an approach based largely upon “rabbinic insights”, are we now to deduce that “the real problem with Mary’s bump” can be resolved by recourse to “later rabbinic writings ” and not the text of Scripture?
Indeed Colin. I think I’d want proof that sex in the betrothal period was acceptable. I imagine religious people would frown on it and believers would be surprised and disappointed. Of course, I’m projecting present day responses but I’m inclined to think C1 would be the same only more so, I don’t really like rabbinical insights.
Again, if I ask what the biblical narrative is suggesting, I come up with a number of angles. Mary bows quickly to the Lord’s will and rejoices at her privilege. Joseph, although ready to put her away quietly, also bows to the Lord’s will. Zachariah and Elizabeth seem to accept the birth is miraculous. This may be indicative of family reactions. 30 years on Mary seems to be fully integrated at the wedding in Cana. There is the one occasion when Jesus is accused of being born of fornication.
It seems probable that family have accepted her and that only others who want to be nasty will throw it up.
I doubt that’ no room in the inn’ was rejection because of an illegitimate pregnancy. But I equally doubt the room belonged to family and that they stayed with family. I cannot help but feel the narrative suggests that the rejection Jesus will experience has already begun.
The bottom line for folks in the C1 as with folks in C21 is whether they believe Mary conceived as a virgin.. Those like Zechariah and Elizabeth believe she did. Most would scoff. For some the judgement may come down initially at least to the character of Mary. As the Prof asked ‘who would normally tell the truth – Edmund or Lucy?’ (Parap). In time the character and work of Christ would help. An extraordinary son like Jesus must have made its own impact.
Is Lyn Cohick’s normalizing of betrothal sex likely to cast further doubt on the virgin birth? Though we have proof Joseph is not the father.
” The little experience I have of honour/shame cultures suggests that is entirely plausible.”
Only if the first century AD Palestinian ‘honour/shame culture’ used the same mores as those you are familiar with.
I’m still gnawing at the bone. From what I can gather shepherds were not given a very good press in the C1 Mishnah. For instance apparently buying food from shepherds was forbidden because they were probably stolen goods.
I know nothing about the Mishnah other than on one page I saw it seemed to be critical of others too. I keep coming against the view that shepherds were considered unclean – presumably to do with their dirty job. I’m wondering if these are just urban myths or express a rabbinical and maybe priestly way of thinking. Another article suggested they were banned from temple activities or duties.
I can see how city and bookish people may have looked down their noses at shepherds who being men away from civilization for a time may be uncouth and a bit whiffy.
I recognize these are online resources.
I repeat, however, the biblical record is either neutral or generally positive with, it appears, only one or two negative views.
Sorry Ian, I missed or forgot your reference to the Mishnah.
Has this got any legs from Jennie Pollock
“could the significance be more that the chief shepherd went to his fellow shepherds? That he revealed himself to them not just because they were lowly but because he was one of them. He wasn’t born in a palace because he wasn’t a palace sort of a king. He did appear to shepherds because he was a shepherd sort of a king.”
I listened to D.A. Carson for the first time. Excellent stuff on Melchizedek. Thanks Andy.
Well worth reading or listening to. You may enjoy his Revelation series.
Thanks for the heads up John.
Andy, that is interesting—but if so, why do not a single one of the gospels make that connection anywhere?
In one of Gerald Durrel’s books he describes seeing a baby born to a Greek mother on Corfu. The baby was wrapped tightly, his arms and legs being held straight by the cloths. The belief was that otherwise his limbs might not grow straight.
Isn’t it wonderful how this custom was handed down through the centuries in mediterranean societies? I wonder if there are places that treat newborns in this way today.
Hi Mary. Wikipedia tells me this:
Swaddling is still practiced worldwide. In some countries, swaddling is the standard treatment of babies. In Turkey, for instance, 93.1% of all babies become swaddled in the traditional way. According to the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), 39% of all documented contemporary non-industrialized cultures show swaddling practices; further 19% use other methods of movement restriction for infants. Some authors assume that the popularity of swaddling is growing in the U.S., Great Britain and the Netherlands. A British sample showed up 19.4% of the babies are swaddled at night. In Germany, swaddling is not used as routine care measure and experiences relatively little acceptance, as the missing mentioning of this practice in the standard work on regulatory disturbances of Papusek shows.
Hi Eddie! Remember me when I was an Aussie Wycliffer?
I believe that I have put together the best argument which refutes/defeats the supernatural claims of evangelical Christianity. I would appreciate your input:
You are asking me to help you beef up your argument against my own views? Seriously??
Well, I admire your chutzpa!
Yes. Critique it. Try to tear it apart. If my argument is poor, you will succeed. If my argument is good, you will not.
And if I succeed, will you change your view?
A theologian from Westminster Seminary in California just tried to shoot down my argument. He failed miserably. Please keep in mind: Your counter argument against my argument must be rational. You can’t ask for the Christian Scriptures to be treated and analyzed differently than we would any other ancient text just because you believe them to be “divinely inspired”. Thanks.
Who was that?
R. Scott Clark. You can read what he said here:
Clark doesn’t respect majority expert opinion.
Respect for majority expert opinion is fundamental to any advanced society. Mr. Clark believes that he is the final authority. It is impossible to have a rational discussion with such a person. Unfortunately, this is the problem with many evangelical Christians. They believe they are the final authority on all controversial issues, whether it is the authorship and dating of the Christian Scriptures, climate change, or the Covid 19 virus. Educated non-Christians can justifiably reject evangelical Christianity if the proponents of this belief system reject majority expert opinion.
“…this is the problem with many evangelical Christians. They believe they are the final authority on all controversial issues ….”
They actually believe that a correct translation of scripture is the final authority. It is a refreshing change from decades of the CofE and its scripturally largely ignorant ‘tradition’.
“They actually believe that a correct translation of scripture is the final authority. ”
And according to many evangelicals, who decides the correct translation? THEY do. They have set themselves up as the final authority, experts be damned.
As I say in my argument, evangelical Christianity rises or falls on the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. Yet, a broad spectrum of NT scholarship doubts the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. And it isn’t just liberal Protestants and atheists. Most Roman Catholic scholars who very much believe in the supernatural also doubt it. Evangelicals reject this broad consensus of majority expert opinion, alleging “bias”. Yes, yes, dear evangelical Christian. Everyone is biased…except you.
“And according to many evangelicals, who decides the correct translation? ” The translators who are not necessarily evangelicals.
Everyone brings bias to their argument – for Christians that is apparent in the very early church where Paul writes of it – and who are you in the Christian fellowship that you think your view is correct? You call on a
“… broad spectrum of NT scholarship doubts the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. And it isn’t just liberal Protestants and atheists. Most Roman Catholic scholars …” I see in that statement many Foolish, and many willing, workers for Satan.
Why do you believe that your view is correct, my friend. If you say, “the Christian view”, I must ask: Which one? There are many.
I would like an answer from Rabbi Sobel concerning the teaching of there being “priestly shepherds”. I can find no biblical references, nor any references in the Torah of such a thing. All the teaching references of “priestly shepherds “ online always resort back to a book written in 1880’s by a professor, talking about a tower of the flock ( that existed long before Jesus was born & no longer exist). If there is only one reference to a teaching & it’s “man’s” knowledge, that’s not acceptable to me.
I think you are right. So may of these things are built on ‘amazing insights’ which turn out to have no historical basis.