The Real Christmas Story, Part 3

The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) Pupil of Rembrandt 1646This is the third installment on this series of articles dealing with the traditions and myths that surround Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus in the second chapter of his gospel. In this article and the next, we will look at the story of the shepherds. We will try to peel back the layers of tradition to find out what really happened on the night of Advent.

I had this part written several days ago, but after studying the subject further, I realized that I had not done due diligence in my research. Some would argue that I have still not given it enough research, but I will publish as is and listen for input that might enlighten us even more on the subject.


Luke 2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

This phrase “in the same country” means that the shepherds were in close proximity to the birth of Jesus, most likely on the hillsides just outside of the village.

One of the more interesting questions to arise about the Christmas story is the identity of these particular shepherds. There is a very interesting prophecy from the Old Testament prophet Micah concerning the coming of the Messiah.

Micah 4:8 And thou, O tower of the flock (Migdal Eder in Hebrew), the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.

In The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah, Alfred Edersheim commented on the identity of the shepherds based on this prophecy:

That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, [citation] was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, the tower of the flock.’ [citation] This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah [citation] leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, [citation] and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds… Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepherds watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. [1]

John Gill wrote in his Exposition of the Entire Bible

…the tower of Eder; which was a place of pasturage, and fit for his flocks, see Micah 4:8; it was about a mile from Bethlehem to the south (citation), and is supposed to be the place where the shepherds were watching their flocks, when the angel reported to them the birth of Christ, Luke 2:8; pretty remarkable are the words added here in the Targum of Jonathan,”the place from whence the King Messiah will be revealed in the end of days.” [2]

The use of towers to watch over sheep was apparently a common thing. The Pulpit Commentary includes several references from the Old Testament as evidence of the prominence of such towers. Here is one…

2 Chron. 26:9 Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, the Valley Gate, and the angle in the wall, and he fortified them. 10 Since he had much livestock in the foothills and in the plain, he built towers in the desert and dug many cisterns.

According to The Pulpit Commentary, “Migdol Edar, the Tower of the Flock (was) probably a turret, or watch-tower, erected for the convenience of shepherds in guarding their flocks…the site of which is uncertain, but which is commonly supposed to have Been a mile (Jerome) or more south of Bethlehem.”

I read ten commentaries on the verses in the OT that mention the “tower of the flock” or Migdal Eder, and all of them agree that the reference in Micah 4:8 is a reference, not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem.

In fact, if you read the entire context of verses surrounding Micah 4:8, you will realize that the prophecies there do not seem to be directly related to the coming of the Messiah as recorded in the Gospels, but seem to be more applicable to the establishment of Christ’s permanent kingdom on earth at His second coming.

Whether or not the shepherds of Luke 2 were a special group of shepherds specially trained in caring for and choosing sheep and lambs worthy of sacrifice in the temple, no one today can say with certainty. While such a thing is not impossible, we would be reading much into the story to attempt to make their identity as such so assured.

For now, and taking the text of Luke literally, they were simply ordinary shepherds watching over their flocks during the night who were allowed to be part of the most awesome story ever told.

Most of the traditions of the birth of Jesus talk of a “bleak midwinter” night and of snow on the ground. If Jesus was born in December, then such a vision of the events of that night might be accurate. However, there is a significant amount of information to cause doubt about the actual season of Jesus’ birth.

The phrase “abiding in the field” provides evidence that Jesus was not born in December. In Israel, the December weather would have been very cold, often with snow on the ground. Under such conditions, the shepherds most certainly would have kept their flocks in a fold.

This gives us a clue that Jesus was not born “in the bleak midwinter,” but most likely at the end of September or the first of October when the nighttime temperatures would have been much more comfortable at night. Luke’s version of the Christmas story give more evidence to support this.

According to Luke 1:5, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, served in the Temple according to the order of Abijah (See 1 Chronicles 24:7-18). Each of the 24 orders of priests served at particular times of the year. Though there is some uncertainty about the order, it seems each order or course of priests served basically around the same weeks of the year. Most of what I have read seems to confirm this. [3]

If this is so, the priestly order or course of Abijah typically served in the Temple from approximately mid-May to mid-June. This would lead to the conclusion that John the Baptist was conceived shortly thereafter, most likely by the end of June.

According to Luke 1:24-25, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to inform her that she would give birth to the Christ child. Assuming that the conception was immediate, Mary conceived Jesus six months after the conception of John the Baptist somewhere near the end of December. (See also verses 36-45.)

If the dates are correct so far, then John the Baptist was born near the end of March or the beginning of April, very likely during the Feast of the Passover. This would mean that Jesus was born six months later near the end of September or the first of October during the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles.


Luke 2:9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Angels were messengers of God. The Bible always refers to angels with a male pronoun. This means that angels did not look like young attractive shapely women nor as chubby babies with stubby wings. Often angels appeared simply as men. At other times, their appearance called forth fear or awe and quite often, the impulse to worship and reverence. For the shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the angels produced a great deal of fear.

Nor is there any evidence in Luke 2 that the angels were flying or that they even had wings. Again, on many occasions, angels appeared simply as men.

Hebrews 13:2 Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (as in the case of Abraham).

There are references where heavenly beings are flying, but this does not mean that all angels could fly or that all angels had wings. Since they are creatures of a spiritual realm, angels would not require wings to move between the spirit world and the created world, nor would their movements be hindered by the physical world.

Following His resurrection, Jesus appeared in a room without ever having passed through a door and disappeared just as easily. He did not need wings to make this happen (though one might argue that neither was Jesus an angel).

Neither is there any conclusive evidence the angels sang. The angels lifted up praises to God together – in unison, though not necessarily in song.

The word “praising” means “to sing praises,” but in the sense of worship, not literally singing. I might sing the praises of my wife’s homemade biscuits (which I do!), but I do not sing when I do so. The Bible actually says the angels “said” – that is, used words set in a particular order that communicated a complete thought, meaning they spoke in sentences, not meter.

This does not mean that angels do not sing or that they cannot sing. The Bible simply does not say that they did on this particular occasion in Luke 2.

It is also interesting to note that, hark, the herald angels did not sing, “Glory to the newborn king.” Instead, if they sang, they sang, “Glory to God in the highest.” While the “newborn king” was God in the flesh, the angels directed their praise, not to a manger in Bethlehem, but to the throne of God in the highest heavens.

Finally, the message of the angels – and the message of Christmas – was not peace to all of the people of the earth. During His ministry, Jesus said very clearly, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34)

Most modern versions translate the end of Luke 2:14 to say…

  • on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (ESV)
  • on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased! (NET)
  • and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (NIV)

The world, with the approval of the church, has appropriated as its own a promise that God never intended for universal application. There will never be peace on earth while the world continues to reject the Savior of the world. Such peace will not be known until Christ returns in all of His glory and majesty to establish His kingdom over all the nations.

The angel explained in verse 11 the real reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem…

Luke 2:11 …unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

The real message of Christmas is not “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” but that Jesus has come as Savior to fulfill God’s eternal plan of redemption formed before the foundation of the world. The peace of God is available only to those who please Him – those He calls into the kingdom and who are enabled to confess Christ Jesus as Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, the final installment in this series.


NOTES

[1] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah. (1886) PDF version © Christian Classics Ethereal Library, p. 209-210.

[2] A targum is a translation of the Pentateuch completed during the days of the early church composed of both translation and commentary. The Jonathan Targum is more accurately called the Jerusalem Targum

According to Wikipedia, “Targum Jonathan, otherwise referred to as Targum Yonasan/Yonatan, is the official eastern targum to the Nevi’im. Its early origins, however, are western, and the Talmudic tradition attributes its authorship to Jonathan ben Uzziel, a pupil of Hillel, a doctor of the Law at Jerusalem in the time of King Herod…Although Targum Jonathan was composed in antiquity (probably in the 2nd Century CE) it is now known only from medieval manuscripts, which contain many textual variants.”

[3] If you are interested in pursuing this subject, William Struse has an excellent article on the subject complete with charts on his blog at http://www.the13thenumeration.com/Blog13/2012/11/02/the-course-of-abija/. There is another somewhat lengthy post on the subject of the dating of Jesus’ birth that discusses the course of Abijah at https://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Christmas/christmas.html.

Picture Credit: The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) Pupil of Rembrandt 1646 https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/11133532935

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