Three surprises for Christmas

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.

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.

(originally posted in 2017)

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17 thoughts on “Three surprises for Christmas”

  1. This is now part of a comforting Christmas tradition and some of us probably repeat ourselves from previous years.
    Does it matter about the status of the shepherds? And why so important to debunk the idea that they were poor / marginal / irreligious?
    It matters, because we should do our best to understand as fully as possible the world and its constructs that Jesus lived in.
    However I don’t think the case for un-pooring the shepherds is as strong as you are making, though it has some helpful challenges.
    Yes, people were all religious in those days (if by that we mean they believed in God, and in the Torah), but there were many who were unclean because of their way of living, their destitution, those who are called sinners as a group in our gospels, the people of the earth.
    Did the shepherds who kept watch at night fall into that category? We don’t know: some suggest they were the guardians of the temple flock – the lambs that they tended would be sacrificed so they were special and the shepherds needed to be ritually clean also; some suggest they are the night-watch, hired hands doing the unwanted shift through the night.
    People are amazed at what they say because the shepherds were the only witnesses to this nocturnal angelic choir and message.
    Luke mentions the shepherds, as night-workers who are privileged to hear the angels, and who are the first witnesses to the birth. Does he make much of their profession or their status? Should we contrast them with others who were not so privy and privileged?
    The dominant contrast in the first couple of chapters of Luke is between the ordinary and fairly rural world of Mary / Elizabeth, and the grand statements about Augustus, who wants to tax the whole world. The shepherds seem to fit most obviously in this contrast as similar ordinary people to Mary and Elizabeth, people who discover that true Peace is not found in Augustus but in a baby born in a small village. The birth narrative is book-ended with the Temple / Jerusalem, which matters to Luke. Zechariah is silenced, and finds a voice when John is born; Simeon and Anna find a voice to extol the infant Jesus.
    Quite how marginal the shepherds are may be open to question, but Luke does present a birth which is in the margins of the world, and witnessed by ordinary people.
    If the shepherds are low-paid hirelings doing the night-shift then they are almost certainly very marginal; if they are the family member doing a shift at night, owning a small flock somewhat less so. What they are not is large-scale sheep-farm owners who happen to be insomniacs. The argument that the shepherds are the temple shepherds might be attractive, but requires a lot of reading into the text; it is at best speculative. If they were so, you would think they would have informed the priests!!
    If some overdo the poverty and the marginalisation of the shepherds with insufficient evidence, then the same might be said for those who counter this as strongly.
    I suggest there is a complex strand of marginality running through the birth narrative and it includes the shepherds as witnesses.
    As Kenneth Bailey points out the shepherds are reassured that they can visit the baby because – remarkably – the baby is in the sort of house they would have, swaddled and place in the manger, not somewhere grand, where they would not be welcome. This is earthy ordinariness, and ordinariness in those days did mean a somewhat precarious existence.

    • “1 Believe God exists and 2 believe he rewards those who seek him” sugests most cultures have many who do not believe a god exists at all. I think it is a modern idea that the past was full of believing, credulous ppl. I suspect one would only need to scratch the surface of polite society in the 1st century to find nothing spiritual at all.

    • I believe that this matters. Some of us were raised in a moralistic faith that flaunted a kind of “noblesse oblige” in its holiday-time giving. It did so either by “Loving the poor is a great mitzveh” or the kind of “popular commentary” of which Ian Paul speaks. I’m by no means condemning charity to the poor and infirm–Heavens, no! But, I believe that the point we should take away is that the coming of Christ is all about grace, not a new code of what we should and should not do. The “poor” to whom Christ came are not necessarily just the homeless and hungry, but the fallen humanity to which all of us belong. We aren’t saved because we give so much in charity (although charitable giving may be a wonderful way to show gratitude for what we have received), but because God condescended to us by becoming one of us.

  2. Thank you Ian, for bringing out the biblical theological symbolism of shepherd from and through the OT.
    To me it is also significant that there was a revelation at night, a time of symbolic darkness which also draws out that true shepherds were on the look – out, were watchmen, or wakemen.
    The deep significance of shepherd is emphasised in the Gospel according to John, where Jesus contrasts true shepherds of people, with self -serving hirelings and Jesus himself is in the scriptural line of shepherd, as the true Davidic Shepherd/King.

    • In relation to the night-time revelation and symbolic darkness, perhaps a recently published article on behalf of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can shed some theological illumination on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. It concerns the significance of Jacob as the father figure of Israel:

      Lord Sacks poses the question: “What is it that made Jacob – not Abraham or Isaac or Moses – the true Father of the Jewish people?” He proffers a three-fold answer:

      First, “Jacob was the man whose greatest visions came to him when he was alone at night, far from home, fleeing from one danger to the next.” In his epiphany at Bethel, having fled the wrath of his brother Esau, he (jacob) has a dream of a stairway to heaven populated by ascending and descending angels. When the dream is over, possessing a radically new assurance of God’s presence and guidance, he continues on his way (Genesis28: 10 – 17).

      The second stage in the process as understood by Rabbi Sacks is, not unexpectedly, the encounter at Peniel(Genesis 32:22 – 31). He is “in great fear and distress”(32:7). Throughout the night, he wrestles with a man sent by God. At the end of the night long conflict, the stranger pronounces that “Your name is no longer Jacob but Israel,because you have struggled with God and with men and overcome.” Jacob has not only encountered the presence and guidance of God, he has secured the strength and power that only God can provide!

      The final point made by the Rabbi is that this strength has been “bequeathed to the Jewish people.” Not only have they “survived tragedies that would have spelled the end of any other people” (including those caused by their own diosobedience!) ; they have experienced continual renewal and recovery.

      What possible connection can this have with the events surrounding the birth of Jesus? Well, at this time of year, we think, for example, of the nocturnal manifestation of angels surrounding the shepherds. We might even ponder the spiritual darkness engulfing the psychotic Herod.
      But perhaps (supremely?) we might meditate upon, via the historic antecedence and example of Jacob, the fulfilment of Israel’s destiny(and ours) through the one “who learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), and again revealed in the one of whom it is said:”With justice he judges and makes war (Revelation 19: 11) and “He will rule the nations with an iron sceptre” (Rev.19:15).

      But if this is reserved for the future, then let us rejoice in the promises enshrined in “realized eschatology” : “Praise be to the lord, the God of Israel, because He has COME and has redeemed his people —-to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins”—- and “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the path of peace.” –
      (The Benedictus)

      • Much appreciated, Colin.
        There is also the 400 year darkness of the absence of God’s voice or word.
        And John 1: 50-51 Angels ascending and descending on Jesus, references Bethel and Jacob. Jesus is the point place, the Person where heaven comes down and heaven and earth meet.
        Jesus is the fulfillment of the God’s promise made to Jacob, Bethel a place where he encountered God; ” When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, Surely the LORD is in this place and I was not aware of it. He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven… ” ( Gen. 28:16-19).
        There is much that can be extrapolated, such as sleep/darkness/unseeing (of the self -serving, grasping conniving shepherd patriarch, Jacob) and the Angel’s reassurance to to the awake shepherds, not to be afraid.
        But of eternal significance is Jesus is God come down, the One in whom the world sees and encounters God in his full glory.

  3. John 1 : 50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

    Jesus is the ladder. The angels are the Holy Spirit.

  4. Some further thoughts. ponderings, treasuring and doxology
    1 Mary
    Mary may or not have had support from family and or friends, not isolated, but she was alone when visited by the angel.
    Though she was told she was highly favoured, she was greatly troubled and had to be pacified and confirmed that she’d conceive Jesus, the Holy One, God’s Son of the Most High and that Elizabeth was six months pregnant, in old age though unable to conceive.
    Mary submitted as the Lord’s servant and requested that the unfailing word from God would be fulfilled, God God made good his word. Luke1:27-38

    There is no scriptural evidence that she let anyone know about this encounter, keeping her own counsel and confidence. with no talking it over with anyone (even if she was well attended upon).

    2.2 Together; at one with Elizabeth, worship and glorify God.
    2.2.1 Next there is a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, with Elizabeth being filled with the HolySpirit, being beside herself ,loudly proclaimed a blessing and pronounces the blessing on Mary who believed God would fulfil his promises to her.

    2.2.2Mary responds, soul and spirit, glorifying God and rejoicing in God her saviour. But more than that she recognises that not only was God fulfilling his promises to her personally; it was of far greater import God was also at the same time fulfilling and being merciful to Abraham and his descendants. forever, just as he promised. Luke 1: 49, 54-55.

    2.2.3 Mary is awed and amazed and astonished and surrender, her will in obedience and dependence. Not her will but God’s will be done. Like mother like Son. By dying to self they both brought forth life.

    3 Mary, alone in her thoughts but not on her own Luke 2:18 19

    “18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
    The culmination of events resulted in “pondering” and “treasuring”.
    This is not merely trying to interpret; it is to keep it alive and savour, to be deeply affected, by the preciousness, wonder, power for it to sink in, comfort, convict and change.

    Question: How would our lives be different if we REALLY believed all this from the bottom of our heart? How would it change our thinking, feelings, actions, our prayer life , our relationship , feelings and attitude to God?

    (Taken from Hidden Christmas , by Timothy Keller)

    2 Shepherds:
    2:1 While it has been proffered that this was a religious culture God by-passes,
    Herod, the Chief Priests, teachers of the law, all Jerusalem, Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, regardless of whether shepherds were held in high regard or not.

    2.2 The Glory of God was manifest to the shepherds

    2.3 Connotations of God’s Glory
    2.3.1 Shining around (like the sheckinah glory), brightness
    2.3.2 omnipresence “around them”
    2.3.3 God’s didnity, or weightiness, of his will
    2.3.4 worshipping god in giving thanksgiving for the birth of his Son
    2.3.5 God bringing honour to his Son and for the way it was ordained, the way it was prophesised and the way god fulfilled his prophecy
    2.3.6 when we realise and acknowledge why Christ came: born a Saviour
    2.3.7 The Naming of “Jesus” for he would save his people from their sins

    2.4 The event was climaxed by a celebration of the glory of God. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Luke 2:14

    3 Glory of God in Christ.
    To exult and press in even more.

    3.1 “in him the fullness of the Deity dwells”
    Colossians 2:
    6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

    8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11

    3.2 Fullnes of the Deity includes his glory. all that he is with all all God’s attributes found in Christ; omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, holiness, justice, wrath. love, mercy. truth. wisdom.

    May we ruminate in wonder, glory and praise, and treasure Christ in all he is,
    O happy incarnation.
    O Happy Day.

    Thanks to Dr, RT Kendall for the content of paragraphs 2 & 3 ; Understanding Theology Volume 11

  5. Hello Ian,
    You may or may not know that you have been of some influence; you were mentioned in the Keswick Ministries Christmas Message email.
    Here it is copied, just for you:

    “She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” Luke 2:7

    We all have our Christmas traditions. Some are based on the truth, and some live on because, well, they just do. They’re part of our collective memory, our story, our rituals. Think of Santa Claus, the reindeer, the carols, the nativity plays, the Christmas cards.

    When it comes to Father Christmas, we may go along with the traditions for a bit of fun, but we don’t think they’re true. But we may not be aware that some of our traditions about the birth of Jesus may be traditional rather than historical.

    We can think Jesus was born in a stable because he was “placed in a manger” (Luke 2:7). But in Jesus’s day, animals were kept overnight inside part of the one-roomed house. Mangers were in the home. And the word often translated “inn”, where “there was no room” (Luke 2:7), is now recognised as the guest part of that same house. It was probably already occupied by other relatives.

    So Jesus wasn’t born away from ordinary life. It was inconceivable in that culture that a heavily pregnant woman would have been left to fend for herself, or that Joseph, returning to his family home, had to go to an Airbnb. No. Jesus was born right in the heart of the home.

    Does it matter? Yes. Traditions about the stable put distance between us and Jesus. Far away, long ago, different, distance. Safe distance. But, as one writer, Ian Paul, puts it, “In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it….” That’s the incarnation. Jesus is one of us. He comes to us in the ordinariness of our lives. And yet he is a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.”

  6. The desire to associate Jesus with the social underclasses and the poor against the rich is a recurrent one, especially among left-wingers. In the Latin American Catholic-Marxist matrix of liberation theology that temptation has also led to making Mary the proto-socialist, thanks to those lines in the Magnificat about filling the hungry and sending the rich empty away. And before Latin American Catholics embraced Marxism, socialist Anglicans were making similar claims – a large house to build on such a small foundation, it always seemed to me. Of course the message of Jesus resonated with the destitute and the day labourer, but his supporters, male and female were people of some substance who contributed to his needs. I have often wondered about the relative economic status of fishermen, especially those who own their own fishing vessels. Would we consider them poor or prosperous working class?
    Regarding shepherds, it is worth reflecting that outside the province of Judea (Iudaea) few Jews were probably engaged in agriculture. For most of their history the Jews have been overwhelmingly an urban-dwelling people, and that goes a fair way to explaining the distinctive urban culture that Jews developed (working in hand crafts, trading, music making, finance) as well as their differences from the pagan and later Christian majorities, who were overwhelmingly peasants. Were there any Jewish shepherds in Babylonia when the Talmud was put together?
    Last of all, why I say “Judea” instead of the anachronistic and inaccurate term “Palestine”: because that is the Bible’s own first century usage. In Peter’s own words: “You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee” (Acts 10.37).

    • For most of their history, the Jews have bent overwhelmingly an urban-dwelling people.
      You just can’t make this stuff up!

    • I very much agree that the fisherman had a good business going for them. But as for a large house on a small foundation, I can only quote Michael Bird, talking about Luke 4….

      “Whether you like it or not, this is the one part of the Bible where you must admit that the liberation theologians are onto something. Jesus does not read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the affluent middle classes who want enough religion to make them feel secure with God, but nothing too cumbersome that is going to unsettle their consumerist and hyper-individualist way of life.” Jesus speaks of Isaianic salvation in terms of God liberating the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the captive. The idea taps into the Jewish notion Jubilee from Leviticus 25 with the remission of debts and the freeing of slaves. It is the rescue of such vulnerable people that is the proof that the day of salvation has dawned and that Jesus is the promised Messiah (see Lk 7:22-23; 19:9-10). This would have been very meaningful to Jesus’s own audience who were still waiting for the grand promises of the exilic prophets to fully and finally end the lasting effects of the Babylonian exile. It was also good news in Luke’s day when his many of his own audience lived lives on the margins of society, suffered under various caste systems and systemic injustices, who knew poverty, hunger, alienation, and shame.”

      • I’m increasingly doubtful of Tom Wright’s claim that “Israel still thought of itself in exile” and Jesus was announcing “the end of the exile”. I cannot find a convincing exegetical basis for that in the New Testament. It doesn’t do justice at all to the post-exilic literature of the Old Testament.
        Did Jesus appeal especially to the poor, the sick and the demon-possessed? Yes he did. But I said that already.
        Liberation theology was wrong on so many levels. It doesn’t need enconia today.

    • Before being dispersed, the Jews were probably as agricultural as any other ancient people–especially in ‘Eretz Yisroel itself. The prevalence of agricultural/rural imagery in Jesus’ parables suggests this–although Paul is clearly an urban man (as is typical of many who belong to a diaspora community, whether ancient Jewish or modern Chinese).

      Perhaps there was more urbanization in first century ‘Eretz Yisroel than in many other areas, since it sat athwart long-standing trade routes. But I am sure that the majority in Jesus’ time were Jewish peasants–and shepherds.

      BTW, Ian Paul’s critique of Joachim Jeremias’ work citing the Babylonian Talmud is worthy of much consideration. As much of a gap separates the rabbis of 5th century Pumbita or Mahoza as separates modern Americans from George Washington’s day. Their treatment of terms in biblical Hebrew is sometimes reminiscent of modern schoolboys playing with Beowulf or Chaucer. The Evangelists, however, are barely within decades of the events they describe.


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