Three Christmas Surprises

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 not mere motherly care; and the holy family was not abandoned and alone.

a. 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.)

Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

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)

b. The swaddling was not mere motherly care

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:

Swaddling Significance

Wow! Do you know the significance of Jesus being swaddled at birth? Watch this!

Posted by My Faith Votes on Friday, 8 December 2017


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.

This, 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.

c. 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 (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.

Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

27 thoughts on “Three Christmas Surprises”

  1. I agree with your criticisms of the Passover Lamb argument. However, I disagree with the suggestion that there isn’t a relationship between the birth and death of Christ in Luke. The wrapping of Christ’s body in cloths and laying him in the manger is paralleled with the wrapping of his body in cloths and laying him in the tomb. However, this is less a foreshadowing of his coming death than it is a foreshadowing of his coming ‘birth’ from the dead. Luke parallels these events in various ways, with a ‘virgin’ tomb coupled with a virgin womb, with the appearance of angels, with Marys and Josephs prominent in both stories, with marveling ‘shepherds’ who spread the news, entrance into the temple after forty days, etc.

    • Alastair, thanks, I like and agree with the theological readings of Luke’s narrative. (Are they original to you, or come from elsewhere?)

      But the question for me is whether they are textual or theological readings—that is, is Luke drawing our attention to them through his use of parallel words (my first instinct is no, since the word for ‘swaddling’ is not used elsewhere in the NT), or are these parallel things that we find beyond—in front of, as it were—the text?

      I have just been reading Augustine’s nativity sermons, and (not surprisingly) does this theological reading quite a lot. But much of it is projecting his theological constructions on the text, and not all of them are persuasive.

      • Thanks for the response. Some of the theological readings of Luke’s narrative are original to me, others I came across elsewhere. Others I came up with myself, before later encountering them elsewhere.

        I’ve not heard anyone drawing the connection between the presentation of the infant Christ in the temple and ascension forty days after the resurrection (cf. Leviticus 12:1-8), for instance. However, I think there is a good case to be made for this one. The Christ re-born from the dead is ‘presented’ in the heavenly temple after forty days, while the ‘bride’ enters the earthly temple, where it is constituted as a new temple by the Spirit. There is plenty of interplay between the themes in the beginning and the end of Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts. Both Luke and Acts begin with temple-focused narratives, with the Spirit coming first upon Mary, then upon the Church. Then there is the fact that Luke has so much of an emphasis upon the presentation account, along with the emphases upon the role of the Spirit in the description of Simeon. Finally, Luke is alert to the Levitical background of the events he records and the ways that Christ fulfils these patterns.

        Whether or not we see patterns in such places will in part be a function of the threshold that we set for recognizing them. Do we believe that Luke engages in such patterning and foreshadowing? The strength of the case can increase as our threshold lowers through a recognition of the way Luke (like the other gospel writers) routinely engages in such things. These cases are cumulative. For instance, in the first four chapters alone, there are echoes of Hannah and Samuel, various echoes of Exodus (e.g. forty days of testing in the wilderness following the water crossing), echoes of Elijah in the ministry of John, echoes of Ezekiel in the baptism and testing of Christ (thirtieth year, heavens opened and visions of God, being filled with the Spirit and led into the wilderness, mountain, and temple extremities to see apocalyptic visions, etc.). Beyond this, Luke tells foreshadowing stories, such as his account of the Boy Jesus lost and found after three days at Passover time.

        Then there is the way that Luke explores the interrelationship between signs. Note the threefold sign of Luke’s gospel, as Jesus tells his disciples three events that will befall them: the encounter with the tied-up colt and its owners, the encounter with the man bearing the pitcher who leads them to the upper room where they will celebrate the Passover feast, the coming of the Spirit upon them as they tarry in Jerusalem. Note the parallels between these and the threefold sign given to Saul and other events surrounding Saul being set apart for the establishment of the kingdom in 1 Samuel 9-10: an announcement concerning donkeys he was looking for, an encounter with men going up carrying items of food and drink, and the Spirit of the Lord coming upon him so he becomes a new man. Luke doesn’t belabour these parallels, but those with ears to hear will recognize that the meal with the great Prophet in the upper room who declares to his disciples that he is going to bestow a kingdom upon them is charged with added significance.

        When it comes to such parallels, I think Luke uses a fairly gentle literary touch. We don’t usually have direct verbal connections, but we have a lot of suggestive patterns and hints. For me the indications are that he was drawing intentional connections, but that the connections are rich and multiple. So, for instance, the divine sign of the infant in the manger to shepherds plays off the background of the sign given to the shepherd Moses at the burning bush, the prophecy of Micah 5:2-5, and foreshadows the sign of the empty tomb given to the apostolic shepherds.

        Parallel words can alert us to patterns, but there are also ‘visual’ patterns we should recognize. For instance, where the angels sit at the head and foot of where Christ’s body lay in John’s gospel, we should think about the Ark of the Covenant. Likewise, when we ‘see’ Jesus’ body being wrapped in cloth and laid somewhere as an act of great significance, we should pay attention. This is an arresting image, as it is an unusual thing to do to a body, which generally only is done after birth and after death. The verbal parallels are few, but the ‘visual’ parallel is striking.

        There are also structural parallels. For instance, the structural parallels between Luke and Acts, or between Luke and 1 Samuel. There are internal structures as well. Phase one of Christ’s ministry begins with the testimony and baptism of John and ends with John’s death and with rumours that Jesus is the resurrected John. Phase two of Christ’s ministry begins with the testimony of Peter and the Transfiguration on the Mount (which parallels with Christ’s Baptism) and ends with the death and resurrection of Jesus. My case gains a measure of strength from structural parallels in Luke-Acts, between Christ’s birth and his death.

        Then there are theological parallels and connections that are indigenous to texts. The juxtaposition of birth and resurrection is present in Lukan thought in a couple of places at least. In Luke 20, we see Jesus exploring this in his answer to the Sadducees: resurrection is the generative principle of the age to come, which contrasts with physical birth as the generative principle of the present age (which the practice of levirate marriage highlights). There is perhaps an implicit juxtaposition in speaking of John as the greatest among ‘those born of women’ (peculiar phraseology), yet less than the least in the kingdom of heaven. Christ is the one who opens the womb of the tomb, as the firstborn of the dead. The existence of such a theological parallel/juxtaposition (which goes all the way back to Genesis) gives added weight to literary parallels.

        • IMHO the presentation is because of Luke’s essential Samuel template in his initial chapters; whereas the ascension is because of his equally essential but different Elijah template. The advantages of that view are 3: Samuel and Elijah references are
          (a) undisputed,
          (b) plentiful,
          (c) newly introduced by Luke.

          • Luke, like the other gospel writers (and OT writers before them), is polyphonic. The Samuel template is obviously and most prominently present. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t interwoven with various themes from Genesis, Exodus, the books of the Kings, Leviticus, etc. Besides, the Samuel template itself is a modified Exodus template and the opening chapters of Samuel are full of Exodus themes. And the Elijah template clearly isn’t exclusive of other templates in Acts. Many have drawn attention, for instance, to the parallels in structure between Luke and Acts. A parallel between the ascension and the presentation in the temple could fit into this.

            The story of Pentecost, for instance, plays off the stories of the creation of humanity, Babel, Sinai and the violence of the Levites there, the establishment of the tabernacle and the priesthood, the OT festal calendar, the ‘pentecost’ of Numbers 11, the transition from Moses to Joshua, Davidic themes, the Solomonic temple, the descent of Elijah’s spirit upon Elisha, the prophetic appointment narratives, the prophecy of Joel, the Baptism of Jesus and his Transfiguration, etc., etc. We don’t need to play any of these off against each other. Some are more obvious than others, but Luke, again, like other gospel writers, has the ability to evoke rich intertextual resonances with an economy of literary brushstrokes.

          • This is just a list of possibles: in several cases, we’ve no way of being sure which ones the evangelist intended, and must flee postmodernism’s affirmation of ‘all of them’.

            Sticking to things that are generally agreed on, Samuel template and a series of Elijah links are not in doubt (and note the probative importance of my (a), (b), (c) above). It is a foregone conclusion that people would try to see structural parallels between Luke and Acts, and there are some; but this is not thoroughgoing: see all the places where there is no parallel. Whereas the prophet-typology covers Luke’s main sections neatly:
            -Samuel for birth & childhood,
            -ch.4 sermon (Isa. 61; Elijah’s widow’s-son; Elisha’s leper) prefiguring narrative additions and Isa61-derived redactional emphases
            -post-transfiguration (where Moses and Elijah are met): a nod to main elements of *Elijah* cycle at most appropriate junctures, and a thoroughgoing *Moses* (Deut 1-26) structure for the ‘central section’ journey narrative. Ascension is referenced at transfiguration; Pentecost (as you say) does follow on after, though I don’t see much Elisha material in Luke’s Pentecost.
            -finally innocent prophet motif for the Jerusalem visitation & passion.

  2. Your sheep must have been a major part of your wealth, your means of survival and perhaps your status. The idea of putting them in the hands of untrustworthy ne’er-do-wells runs counter to the most basic common sense.

    When I’ve been in parish churches or cathedrals where they parade an uplifted bible with great solemnity before reading it, I do wonder if it may serve to remove what is read from its real earthly (earthy?) reality in time and place – using liturgical drama as you would a museum display case in order to protect its contents from the hoi polloi.

    It may sometimes be disconcerting to have cosy myths debunked but the real truth is way more fascinating and enlightening; the alternative is to wallow in uncurious ignorance, and that cannot be spiritually healthy for Christians.

    Happy Christmas, Ian!

  3. Agreed that Mary would have been treated in the way you suggest if M & J’s marriage had been, so to speak, kosher. But, as we know, it was not – they appeared at the least, to have jumped the gun.

  4. Dear Ian,

    The article was very good, but one thing needed to changed. In the quote from Randy Alcorn he said,

    “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.”

    The problem is that “Palestinian” did not exist until after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of the 132-136 AD. The correct designation of the shepherds would be “Judean.” In point of fact, it is inaccurate to refer to the ancient land of Judah, Samaria and Galilee in the First Century AD as “Palestine.” It was called “Judea” or “Judah.”

    Now, I have read Alcorn. So, it is surprising that he would make such an error on a known, historical fact.

    Other than that I liked the post.

    Merry Christmas,

    ?? ??????,

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    • Thanks. I’ve had this debate with people in the past. But he is not using the word to refer to a legal state or region, but to talk of the culture of the area. we might use the word ‘Turkish’ to refer to something in the region now called Turkey, even before the modern state was constituted.

      I think it is more problematic that the word is now used to refer to an ethnic group rather than a region, or a political cause, both of which are ideological distortions of the historical meaning of the term.

      • Ian,

        Thanks for your reply. I understand that the use of “Palestine” is referencing the culture of the area. Unfortunately, that is a “modern” day culture with its own customs and traditions with Arabic as the spoken language. The use of the term to refer to an region that was not called that even by the Romans or Jews of that area is applying modern standards to those of the First Century AD standards.

        In the First Century AD that culture was decidedly Jewish with Hellenized portions found in the area of the Decapolis around the South and Southeast end of the Sea of Galilee. One would have recognized three languages being spoken Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. The district of Galilee was more cosmopolitan, while the Southern area of Judea proper was decidedly more Jewish; although there was some Hellenized portions especially with the Romans and Greek areas in the Temple area.

        The Northwest Semitic languages of Aramaic, Hebrew, Ugaritic and Phoenician are from the Second Millenium BC. Thus, the Arabic is from the Central Semitic language group and is initially from Northwest Arabia derived from Nabataean of the First Century – Fourth Century AD.

        The issue is one of great importance. Islam has a habit of integrating the underlying culture and making it its own and obliterating that culture and its traditions and customs. Thus, the Jewish character, its viewpoint, its customs and traditions and language are obliterated to the detriment of Biblical Studies.

        Again, thank you.

  5. Hmm – unconvinced by the shepherd argument – which I recognise is not yours, but David Croteau’s. Is the Babylonian Talmud really to be ruled out for NT interpretation? That seems a little baby and bathwater-ish. Jesus himself has a go at hired shepherds in John 10 – thus supporting the negative view of ‘herdsmen’. And as for family members as shepherds, David the shepherd boy was clearly at the bottom of the family pecking order – being left out with the sheep when the prophet came was a sign of being less than honoured. So there is still BIBLICAL evidence for low status which fits in with the later Talmudic. (Not necessarily as worst of the worst, alongside tax collectors, but still definitely not the kind of boy you’d want your daughter to be stepping out with – or to be the first to visit the Son of God.

    • I think I would agree mostly with Croteau: as Ian H says below, it is hired shepherds that Jesus criticises, which doesn’t really contribute to a sense that shepherds as a whole were despised.

      There is clearly a contrast between shepherds and warriors or prophets, in the sense that the labour involved was comparatively mundane and unskilled. But that is not quite the same as saying that this group was despised and outcast. And how would you answer *my* observation that Talmudic views might well have been shaped counter-Christianly?

      The bigger issue (which I hint at) is that we are in real danger when we project our contemporary ideas of social hierarchy on an agrarian economy where *most* people are not much above subsistence. And I was put onto this whole discussion by the historical assessment of Nicholas Blincoe, which was entirely unconnected with the Christmas story.

      The theological point remains: for Paul, the poverty of Jesus was in his becoming human. That is poverty enough.

  6. Hi Simon….

    ‘Hired shepherds”.But isn’t the contrast that with decent, ‘owning’ shepherds? The hired hand cares less than than the owner (&Good Shepherd) would. It’s not tarring all shepherds with a negative brush.

    “David the shepherd boy was clearly at the bottom of the family pecking order – being left out with the sheep when the prophet came was a sign of being less than honoured.” Isn’t that the family pecking order though. They were all shepherds surely?

  7. It’s all nuance and precision with these debates, isn’t it? You brought me back to Joel Green who makes a similar point to Croteau – saying ‘it is doubtful’ that they were unclean, and thus that they were despised and outcast. But he also says that ‘they were peasants, located toward the bottom end of the scale of power and privilege.’ I.e, as he goes on to say, they were the very opposite of the (rich and) powerful in 2:1-2, echoing the song of Mary (1.52). So I think it’s still pretty fair for us preachers to make THAT point, as long as we’re not overstating the case (as I confess we are sometimes tempted to do!)
    But if we add in Simeon, and Matthew’s magi, as well, we get a more rounded and balanced picture – Jesus does come for the religious (S.) and the wealthy (m.) as well. As I shall indeed say in about 3 hours’ time!

  8. Prayers for a Happy and Holy Christmas to you and your family, Ian.

    You provide a truly outstanding service with your blog – your pieces are always judicious, interesting and thought-provoking – and faith-building. I never fail to learn something valuable for ministry.

    Semper sis in flore!

  9. (Two years after the last comment…)
    Not everyone is listening.
    This Christmas morning I turned on the radio and there was a Nativity Service from Wintershall. The appearance to the shepherds was cast as God appearing to the marginalised and outcast. It seems that we have the Christmas story which fits a particular theology rather than the story itself shaping our theology.

  10. Putting all this together including Carlson’s contribution it seems to me that the following is both credible and consistent with the Biblical narrative:

    1) Mary’s family regularly stay with Zechariah & Elizabeth during their regular visits to Jerusalem for the major festivals.
    2) Through Z & E a marriage is arranged between Joseph of Bethlehem and Mary
    3) The betrothal ceremony takes place in Nazareth and Joseph returns to Bethlehem to prepare a place for them as an annex to Joseph’s parents house.
    4) The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary
    5) Mary tells her parents and they panic – will Mary be stoned to death? (I have read somewhere that Galilee was perhaps a more zealous area than Judea can’t find a reference now). They decide Mary should visit Elizabeth. As a priest, Z knows about angels appearing and perhaps something can be sorted out with Joseph but anyway it would be safer.
    6) During Mary’s stay something is indeed sorted out with Joseph (with the help of the angel) and it is decided that Mary (then 3 months pregnant) should return to Nazareth before it is obvious she is pregnant and that Joseph will come and take his bride complete the marriage,
    7) M & J live peacefully in Bethlehem until the baby is born. The hastily built annex is a bit small so the birth happens in the family room and Jesus is laid in the manger.
    8) Shepherds visit
    9) Many months later Magi arrive
    10) After they have gone the family flees to Egypt
    11) When they are able to return their initial thought is to return to Bethlehem, but they do not consider it safe so go to Nazareth. Time has passed in no one will calculate the exact age of the child so they should be safe from the religious zealots there.

    This seems to make a lot more sense than the traditional telling of the story to me. Any problems?

  11. You recommend Bailey, but from what I can see, he agrees that the shepherds were outcasts, unclean and of low social status. He summarises: “The shepherds were welcome at the manger. The unclean were judged to be clean. The outcasts became honored guests. The song of angels was sung to the simplest of all.”


Leave a comment