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. 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 this 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). 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:
This year 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!
57 thoughts on “Three Christmas myths: on shepherds, swaddling and support”
Fascinating stuff – many thanks Ian
You know, I’d never heard these myths before. I think that right from my Sunday school days (say 8 years old), I seem to remember that there was a general assumption that people who actually owned livestock weren’t exactly poor and weren’t exactly outcasts. I always remember (again from earliest days) people pointing out (when dealing with the Christmas narrative) that swaddling was perfectly normal in these days – and remarking on how views on how to look after new born children had changed over the ages (when the idea is now to put on loose clothing and give the baby as much opportunity as possible to move about). I’d also never heard of the idea that Mary was completely alone when giving birth ……
The myths are pretty widespread on social media!
Ian – well, it was a very nice post – even though I haven’t really encountered these myths.
I’d say that anyone who wants to know about shepherds should probably read Thomas Hardy’s `Far from the Madding Crowd’.
People with their own livestock did have a social status – and they took a personal interest in their own livestock.
The emphasis on the swaddling cloths seems particularly current.
I’ve talked about this with many of the older generation (and a few retired ministers) in my congregation, and while the ideas of outcast shepherds and an unwelcome/arms-length Mary are widely understood and recognised, no one I’ve spoken to seems to be aware of any symbolic meaning to the cloths, though I had seen it in my news feed shared by an American friend last year.
Any ideas on why this is the case, and why it’s more at the fore now? Or am I just mistaken in my perception that it’s new?
I sense two currents in contemporary discussion, in opposite directions:
a. an underinterpretation of the texts, fed by the vestiges of historical scepticism. Just had correspondence with an Anglican clergyman who doesn’t believe any of it is historical in the slightest.
b. an overinterpretation, which lays on the text multiple symbolic meanings which simply are not there.
I feel both of these spring from a lack of biblical literacy in one form or another. Any thoughts their interrelation Mat?
Are not a) and b) both tributaries of symbolic fiction – a curious ground of, an admixture of subjective relativism.
There is a divergence, however: b) seeks to make much of Jesus albeit with a fanciful eisegeis, not grounded in scriptural history a) is deism in disguise, wrapped, swaddled, in liturgical licence – form.
Yes, I suspect you are right—subjectivity where the reader is at the centre of the interpretive process, with the text itself losing its place.
I agree, but I think I’d put it more bluntly.
People are indecisive. Some want a Jesus that is spiritual, mystic, symbolic and in some sense divorced from the realities of this world. Others want the reverse, a Jesus who is distinctly human, and only so; a normal man just like you and I, absent any form of spirituality or divinity. Some flip from one to the other, depending on the questions they are bringing to the text…
I don’t have any particular leanings towards a) or b), as it’s rightly both, and depends on who you’re speaking to and in what context.
I’ll think about it some more.
Helpful article. My question would be if the wrapping in cloths was normal and ordinary, in what sense was it a ‘sign’ to the shepherds? How would they have got the right baby? Was there something else they were to look for?
Thanks. Two things occur to me: first, that the angels new of the birth; second, that this was a completely ordinary birth. In other words, God has come to them, in ordinary life, rather than remaining distant.
I think it’s the juxtaposition of “no room” and “manger” (with swaddling just accidental). There was a manger (as there would be in the main room of the house) ready to hand because there was no space in the guest rooms (where there would be no mangers available). Otherwise the “because” would be a puzzle.
My comment on this would be to suggest that it is primarily the manger which is the sign. The manger is mentioned three times (vv 7, 12, 16) but the swaddling only in the first two. It is finding the baby in a manger which was the confirmation that this was the child.
I wonder if Joseph, an artisan, would have wanted to make a crib or use an heirloom?
Maybe God didn’t want the (another) hunt for and worship of a lost relic;
that is, the ark of the new covenant – manger!!!??. He was, and is, implacably hot in His opposition to wayward devotion.
Of course there is likely to be much fanciful speculation over the tree, type of wood from which it was constructed. A tree of life, as it were, in which eternal life is to be found.
Even more, was Jesus not born in a contemporary, no -expense -spared, temple to modernity, barn conversion?
Worship Him. Emmanuel. The fullness of God dwelling bodily in Christ.
Lost in wonder, love and praise.
If not now, when?
I never thought of the replacement crib (manger) being a foil against it becoming a Gideon Ephod but … good one!
Are there no relics of the true manger?
The legend that Mary gave birth alone is first attested (AFAIK) in the Protevangelium of James. This also has Jesus walking at trn mi utes of age.
It’s notable that the commentators in this blog who take a liberal or sceptical view about the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, like Andrew Godsall or Penrlope, haven’t expressed themselves on the historicity of the gospel burth narratives. I wonder if they think these stories are true or fictional as liberal theology generslly holds,
I don’t take a sceptical view on the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. I simply differ in my interpretation from you.
I don’t take a sceptical view on the Bible’s teaching on sexuality.
Not true; see for example:
Which is skeptical of whether Paul really knew what he was writing about, and therefore is skeptical about whether the Bible’s teaching is correct.
Penelope: my question was about the Historicity of the New Testament birth narratives.
Why do you doubt that Jesus was born by virgunal conception?
Why do you doubt that an angel spoke to shepherds at his birth?
Why do you doubt that magi came to Bethlehem after his birth to visit him?
It would be helpful to know why you reject the historicity of these accounts.
I don’t really take a sceptical view of the biblical views of sexuality. I don’t think the OT expresses a view on what we understand of same sex relationships now. And St Paul is the only person in the NT to express any view. Paul seems to have a peculiar view of sex – driven I’m sure by his (mistaken) understanding of the impending parousia.
As to the birth narratives. They are interpretations of what was the most significant event in our history – the incarnation.
As I have said many times before, the gospels are not tape recordings or transcripts. They are salvation history. Heilsgeschichte. So I have often expressed a view.
Thank you all for the interesting exchanges this year, but especially to Ian for his very hard work in keeping this going.
A very blessed and happy Christmas all!
Andrew Godsall: note that I said “liberal or sceptical view” on sexuality.
You chose only to feint with one word. Your views are certainly liberal with respect to Christian tradition (to say the least).
As for the Birth Narratives: you have clearly avoided answering the simple factual questions (“Was Jesus born of a virginal conception?” “Was he born in Bethlehem?” “Did shepherds come at the behest of an angel?” “Did magi come?” Etc).
You could have answered yes or no to all these simple factual questions, but I have to conclude that you doubt that these events really happened.
Why do you doubt thet these things happened?
And step forward, and on to Simeon’s song which speaks in the present and fast -forwards, condenses the Messiah, Saviour’s life to his death.
Again, so to sing, as we fast-forward to quake inducing, trembling, incomparable, unrepeatable, insurmountable, eternally focussed intensity, but infinite enormity of finite, (in time, place, space, and person, in history) incarnation.
Because of Jesus:
Lost in wonder, lost in love, lost in praise.
May we know Him more, better, every year, nearer my God to thee.
Played it loud through my ancient NAD amp.
Can’t recall when or where we first sang it, but it seems far too long ago, Steve. Not sure why it came to mind, or rather on my vocals cords. Couldn’t remember all the lyrics, so looked it up and rejoiced along.
NAD amp seems to ring a well regarded distant bell. We have Meridian pre and power amps, (chosen in preference to Naim after a home comparative demonstration) with a Linn Sondeck and Linn speakers, but they’ve not been set set-up for a good number of years. We were a bit of vinyl hi-fi buffs in much earlier life. The first digitally recorded vinyl was grim!
BTW, I wouldn’t know how to listen to music on the net through analogue amp and speakers. I’m something of a techno laggard. If I remember rightly, the speakers are not easy to drive.
But enough of this indulgence.
Thanks Ian for hosting such a splendid Blog.
I keep thinking I should desist and refrain from posting comments because I’m neither academic nor theological but every time I do slope off you come back with something to tempt me to yatter on with whatever enters my noggin.
Me too, Ian particularly as I don’t form part of your target audience, *scholarship. serving. ministry. *
Your steadfastness and stamina and watchman on the walls is needed. Thank you. I’m ever reminded of JI Packer’s teleological object of Christian theology and Biblical study is the reality of Knowing God and being known.
May the Joy of the Lord be yours and your family’s in celebration and thankfulness, of Him and each other.
Yours in Christ,
My appreciation too, as always. This wonderful blog is a delicate balancing act; it really has the ‘Goldilocks factor’ ideal combination of qualities.
Is that an interpretation of fiction? Or historicity?
Is it interpretation through the lens of the person of Jesus, God the Son?
What or who is worshipped, even, or particularly, in this season of the reality of supernatural incarnation.?
Otherwise it can be seen as hideous worship of a mere man, or deism based
on a void of fictional delusion, self – fulfilling make believe perhaps worthy of atheistic ridicule.
Yes, He is the reason for the season.
With every blessing in Him.
Yours in Christ,
I’d never heard of the swaddling thing, but I had heard about Mary and Joseph being alone and the shepherds of social outcasts.
I’d like to challenge the assertion that Mary and Joseph lived in a community based culture so they would not be alone. The difference here is, to those around in Bethlehem, and Joseph’s family, Mary would have been a source of shame. An betrothed woman already pregnant. I’m not surprised there was no room for such as these. In a community based culture I suspect others would have been asked to bed down with the livestock, not a pregnant woman. But instead no room is found for the woman who was pregnant before marriage. We’re talking about a small town in the back blocks. I think they were alone for this birth.
In terms of the shepherds, I also think that it is possible they employed by others to mind the sheep. There is no evidence that the sheep were owned by the shepherds, or that the sheep were owned by others. We don’t know either way, so I wouldn’t get hung up on either explanation.
Jenny – examples from Scripture: Jesse entrusted his flocks to David (his son). Laban entrusted his flocks to Jacob (a near kinsman). Unless things had changed remarkably in the time between 1 Samuel and Luke’s gospel, you can be sure that the people tending the flocks were either the owners or people whom the owners trusted implicitly (e.g. close family). I knew one farmer who kept sheep – the job of looking after the sheep went to his son.
And Jesus contrasted the hired men who run away with the Good Shepherd. Jeremiah 43.12 uses the image of the shepherd cleaning his cloak of vermin. Just like King and Priest and Prophet, the title ‘Shepherd’ carries both good and bad connotations and the idea that the common view in the later Talmud and Mishnah has no bearing whatever on the view at the time of Jesus seems frankly simplistic.
Well, I agree that there are good shepherds and bad shepherds, but can you point me to biblical data that point to ‘shepherd’ in itself being a negative image? The term appears to be universally positive elsewhere.
Simon Cox – yes, the Jeremiah text indicates something that has always been the case – that there are dirty aspects of farming livestock and it’s a good idea to give your clothes a good wash – but I don’t really see how this has any bearing.
I haven’t looked at the Talmud and Mishnah – so I can’t really comment on it. Genesis 46:34 makes it clear that the Egyptians considered shepherds to be detestable. It would, of course, be par-for-the-course if, by the time of Jesus, the Israelites despised their own heritage, but I find it unlikely that they had so completely and blatantly dumped the book of Genesis and were taking the other side.
Not quite on topic, (more pertinent to an earlier one) here is a facinating article by historian Tom Holland:
Merry Christmas. Worship the Christ. Remember Him, meet Him, in Spirit and Truth. Enjoy Him.
In my reading, this verse: Lk2:7 ‘…and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
has always anticipated this verse: Lk23:53 ‘…and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid.’
That’s an interesting symetry to meditate on.
No heirloom crib . No ancestral tomb.
No heirloom crib
No private room
Nowhere to lay his head
No ancestral tomb
To the tune of only fools and horses
Not seen that. Good.
I had never though of you, Ian, as a ‘Myth-Buster’. Most Evangelicals I know are friends of the Scriptures and very serious about their intrinsic veracity. Perhaps though, for you, the only important bits to be debunked are those about the story of Christ’s birth. Other bits – like the Con/Evo insistence on cis-gender only relationships – are very securely held as ‘Holy Writ’.
Never mind, fortunately our gracious God is not too taken aback by the maunderings of experiental theologians. However, God is Holy and Righteous – the only human being – Except the Incarnate Jesus, Whose self-offering on the Cross has redeemed ALL humanity. Deo gratias!
I note, Ian, that my comment is still ‘awaiting moderation’. Does this mean that you don’t want others visitors to your site to see this comment, for obvious reasons?
What it means is that I had some time off over Christmas with my family.
But if I didn’t decide to approve it, it would be because you don’t appear to resist commenting with a kind of sneering disdain and patronising superiority. If you could follow the comment guidelines more closely, we would all be grateful.
Gosh, what an odd comment. Where do I say that Scripture it not reliable? The myths are the stories and traditions that people have woven around Scripture—which Scripture itself does not support.
Do you need to read the article again, and this time a little more carefully…?
The NT cannot easily be read to support the kind of universalism you are claiming here.
Thank you Ian. This paradox between shepherds being out casts and OT positive imagery had always seemed odd. Certainly I understand that everyone was religious in that time and place. But perhaps the shepherd were out of the mainstream because of their work. Constantly looking after sheep, would not have left much or any time for synagogue.
I have also wondered how the shepherds could leave their flocks open to danger, by abandoning them look for Jesus.
Perhaps—and yet there does not appear to be any hint of this in the NT. It is only in either much earlier and distance sources, or much later, that this negative view arises.
“Meanwhile, Joseph as a mere useless male, would have been dispatched somewhere out of the way —“. This is hardly the image of Joseph that is presented in Matthew 1: 18 ff. And more to the point, verses 18 and 19 offer a picture of the man ( and his wife) that seems to me to be more in tune with the acute observations posited by Jenny!
Colin – I’m sorry – I don’t follow. In what way does Matthew 1:18 indicate that Joseph participated in the practical aspects of the birth? Are you trying to say that he had communicated to the whole world `this isn’t my child, nevertheless I’ll stick with Mary anyway’?
The text you quote (and you use the esv version) indicates that everything was in order. I’m not sure exactly what `betrothal’ meant, but clearly he would have had to `divorce’ Mary (esv translation) if he didn’t like the fact that she was carrying someone else’s child – so the child was legitimate.
We can understand the Jewish tradition from, for example Genesis 24, narrative of Isaac and Rebekah. She became his wife in Genesis 24v67, so I’d infer (based on Scripture) that the `betrothal’ of Matthew 1 is the legally binding aspect here.
Anyway I simply don’t see anything in the text that you pointed to which is relevant to what you are saying.
Jock If you look carefully, particularly verse 19 you will see that everything was not in order as you say; otherwise exactly what does it mean when it says: he (Joseph) “did not want the expose her to public disgrace – the point, I think, that Jenny was making earlier!
Yes,betrothal was a legally binding agreement which conferred the status of marriage; but the consummation of the marriage only occured when the man took the woman to his home – consequently the reference to Joseph seeking to “divorce her quietly”. Verse 18 indicates Joseph was not the father; while clearly stating that Mary was pregnant. As to who was the real father? Verse 18 makes that clear – a point that at the least Joseph would have initially found hard to swallow. However verses 20 – 25 provide the denouement.
Colin – In verse 19, I thought that the key point there was the word `privily’ (I think that word comes from the KJV – he wanted to put her away *privily* so that he would not be exposing her to public disgrace). The fact that he didn’t put her away, but instead `took his wife’ (verse 24 in the ESV) indicates that she was not exposed to public disgrace in any way – unless (of course) Joseph had been advertising loudly and clearly that the child wasn’t his to a very wide audience – in which case the his decision not to put her away would make a fool of both of them. But there is no hint of that in the Scripture.
By the way: (1) Your Matthew 1:18 was highlighted in blue – and taking the cursor over it gave the text. Did you do some html code to get that? (2) My current NIV, dating from approximately 2000 is now somewhat worn out and I’m thinking of replacing it. Unfortunately, if I refer to on-line versions of the bible, I find a text (under NIV) that looks strangely different (and worse) than the hard copy that I have. In fact, it looks as if it has been down-graded to the style of the old Good News bible that I seem to remember from many years ago. Is the ESV the favoured text these days?
Jock You seem to be retreating into the use of terms such as “privily” without attempting to define what this word, for example, actually means. Moreover, exactly what do you mean by *putting her away privily” ? To me,it actually trivialises the full import of what is happening here.
Allow me to quote from the New Bible Dictionary re v18: “Betrothed: this was a binding relationship and unfaithfulness during it was regarded as adultery”! How do you think Joseph
must have felt in those circumstances, given that he was only made aware of the truth behind what was happening *after* [v20] he made his decision! And what was that decision? Certainly not to *put her away privily*, but to “divorce her quietly” (quoted in both NIV and ESV)! Such a divorce was permissible in these circumstances under Jewish law.
Some may baulk at what was happening here. Others may avoid the topic. As for me? It only enhances one of the great truths concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into this world: ” Who being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant —” [Philippians 2: 6-7]
Colin – I’m not really sure that there is so much disagreement between us. `Put her away privily’ is the old KJV way of saying `divorce her quietly’ – exactly the same thing – `privily’ means `quietly’, while `put away’ means `divorce’. Both the KJV an the ESV are saying exactly the same thing.
We both agree that, before the communication from God (via the angel) in v20, Joseph felt thoroughly betrayed; the bottom probably fell out of his world. Adultery in any day and age is, and always has been, a horrible thing among people of decency (and Holy Scripture tells us that Joseph was a man of decency). But the KJV says (v19) that `had a mind to’ – it does not say that he actually did it and it does not even suggest that he had even started the process by the time the angel appeared to him in v20; the wording is that he `had a mind to’ and implies (at least to me) that the angel came before he actually got round to doing anything about what was in his mind. I see no hint here that Jesus was considered by the outside world (i.e. the world outside Mary and Joseph) to be illegitimate.
On the other hand, John 8:41 indicates that there might have been an air of scandal about it – they say `we are not illegitimate children’, with a possible subtext that there was a question mark over the legitimacy of Jesus – but I think that may be reading too much into it. This is the only suggestion I see – I simply don’t see any other suggestion in Scripture to suggest that Jesus wasn’t considered to be fully legitimate at the time of his birth.
Thanks Ian. All most helpful.
Thanks to those writing comments too. Well worth reading and thinking through.
Prompted by Jock and Colin’s discussion above I did a bit of googling on ‘betrothal’, and came across this interesting article:
It gives details of the two-stage process: betrothal and nuptuals. Interestingly, there are, or were, three means of the first: money, contract or intercourse. The last was definitely frowned upon, and deemed deserving of flogging.
The two stage process was normal even to the 12th century.
There is this paragraph:
This first stage of marriage is not a preliminary agreement to contract a marriage at a future date (like the western concept of engagement), but an integral component of the two-step marriage process. The betrothal portion is a sort of inchoate marriage; from that point onward, the couple is considered married. Until the second step is taken, however, the bride may not cohabit with the groom (or any other man). In this social suspension that marks the difficult transition from the single life to the married state, the couple is together yet apart. Until the twelfth century, this first stage of marriage lasted up to one year in order to make preparations for the final step. The second stage of the marriage process is the consummation. It is alternatively termed nissuin, meaning elevation of status, from nassa, coming by carriage from the father’s home to the groom’s; or chuppah, wedding canopy.
So, it seems Joseph and Mary were in this state of ‘social suspension’ when the angelic messages were delivered. It is not clear from the article how the betrothal might be undone. However, the Greek verb used, apoluō, has a basic meanings of ‘release’, or ‘send away’. It is not inherently a legal term.
Then I suggest that we can see in Matt 1:24 “Joseph took his wife (or woman)” the journey from the father’s house to the groom to complete the nuptuals. The verb is paralambanō, which does seem to have the sense of ‘taking on a journey’, as e.g. in Matt 2:14 and Matt 17:1.
Is this journey also seen in Luke 2:4,5? What other journey would a man make “with his betrothed”?
This may shed some light on what it was, (including David Wilson’s point relating to Matthew).
From the same source, here is an article about divorce or putting away.
It is good to move away in his discussion from theories involving textual variations and idiosyncracies. It is even more enlightening to analyse Jewish antecedents in order to try to understand their contribution to this debate. However, I would suggest that it is even more valuable to at least examine the text in its original context and where necessary to refer to scholarly biblical research on the topic!
Incidentally, the very first remark I made on this whole issue was with refererence to a remark Ian made in relation to Joseph (Dec 26th, 7-43pm). To elaborate my statement, I make the following two points:
(1) There is in my mind the clear possibility that (based upon Matthew 1:18f that Joseph was a man of great integrity and enormous sensitivity (not to mention extremely practical).
And (2) a probability exists that, given the circumstances as recorded Matthew, “the local women would – *not* – have rallied round” Mary!
Just found this as I was researching for a response to this Instagram post – which is very meaningful, but it embraces some of the swaddling cloth metaphor which is simply not provable.
I deeply appreciate your thoughtful, joyful and helpful post! Thank you for writing and for loving to write! Merry Christmas!