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
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
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
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
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
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.
Thorpe Morieux, Suffolk
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