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Shepherds' character reference

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20 February 2015

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I have noticed over the past several years that the shepherds abiding in the fields have changed from being medievally bucolic to being "disreputable characters, forbidden to act as witnesses in court" (Features, 19/26 December). Can anyone come up with any primary source references for this? . . .

The description of the Bethlehem shepherds as "disreputable characters" is not the product of a Christian urban myth, but is based on rabbinic traditions, the precise date of which unfortunately remains uncertain.

A primary source is the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 25b, which records that herdsmen were added by earlier rabbis to those who were ineligible to act as judges or as witnesses in court. As a class, shepherds acquired a bad reputation as being lawless, dishonest, and unreliable, above all because of their habit of trespassing on other people's lands to graze their flocks.

An inscription, dated 42 CE, reads: "the shepherds let their flocks into the pasturage which I have in the olive-yard of Thermoutharion" (see J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, 1949, page 524). If Luke had been aware of this tradition - and this is a moot point - it would explain one of the possible reasons that he chose to include the story of the shepherds in his infancy narrative.

Many New Testament scholars are convinced that he intended the despised and outcast shepherds to represent the sinners whom Christ Jesus came to save. This view is certainly supported by the way the angels' announcement is directly addressed to them (Luke 2.11).

This illustrates what Michael Goulder described as "Luke's predilection . . . for the salvation of the shady" - in a Gospel that abounds with disreputable characters all of whom found Christ to be their Saviour, the One who "came to seek out and save the lost".

It is likely that Luke meant readers to discover several levels of meaning in the story of the shepherds at Christ's birth, of which the sinner/salvation theme is one of importance.


(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Monmouthshire


I have been looking for primary sources about shepherds, and have looked in the Talmud and have found relevant information in Avodah Zarah 13, 15, and 26; Berecoth 35, and Sanhedrin 25, just to select a few references. The opinions they present are complex, and typical of the way in which the Talmud presents differing views in the form of a debate rather than in a didactic manner. The danger is that these have been interpreted in a one-sided and simplistic manner.

The Talmud, which seems to be the main primary source for this recently presented view, was only completed in the Jewish diaspora after the destruction of the Temple and therefore after the cessation of the Jewish sacrificial system. One of the main requirements for lambs had therefore dried up, and I imagine that there must have been many shepherds now unemployed and their profession somewhat devalued.

We have to be very cautious in the way we use these sources to judge the status of shepherds in the first half of the first century, especially as the Hebrew Scriptures speak highly of their profession in so many references, seeing God as their pattern, as in Psalms 23 and 80.


(The Revd) John Fieldsend
Thame, Oxon


According to Ken Bailey in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008), of five lists of "proscribed trades" recorded in rabbinic literature, shepherds appear in three. He states as his source Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (1969).

It is interesting to note how this perspective on the shepherds has become increasingly well-publicised. In 1978, Howard Marshall in his commentary on Luke was more sceptical, although he did recognise the sources in the rabbinic literature, noting that they came from the period after Jesus.


James Ashdown
Thorpe Morieux, Suffolk


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