Every year at Christmas, we are once again reminded that the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were poor outcasts, that the holy family was abandoned and alone, and perhaps that the swaddling of Jesus was not something ordinary but a sign of spiritual significance. 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 indeed 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. Luke’s gospel especially puts pious, observant Jews at the heart of his story as examples for us to follow and those whom God visits.
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 often included in the Christmas story 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)—and our richness is that we come into relationship with him, incorporated into his body. 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 indeed mere motherly care
Several people have sent me a video which was doing the rounds a couple of years ago, suggesting that the ‘sign’ of the ‘swaddling clothes’ was an anticipation of the death of Jesus as the Passover lamb:
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 has worked 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.
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.
(originally posted in 2017)