The Shepherds of Bethlehem are not really glamorous. They’re easy to take for granted. They’re not interesting exotic wizards from a distant land. They’re not powerful kings or tyrannical rulers. They’re just ordinary, working folks. Sure, they claimed to see a choir of singing angels, but that’s their only claim to fame right?
After writing a book about the identity of the mysterious magi who came to honor baby Jesus I became curious about the Bethlehem shepherds. Why were they included in the Christmas story? What was so interesting about them? Why did St Luke take the time to weave them into the account of Jesus’ birth?
My employer happened to owe me some sabbatical time, so I decided to go to Bethlehem and investigate. I had two months to live in a monastic community in Jerusalem—the famous Ecole Biblique. I was able to do my research in their world class library and travel to Bethlehem to meet some modern day shepherds.
The Shepherds: A Living Link To The Old Testament
The first reason not to overlook the shepherds of Bethlehem is because they were a living link with the Old Testament. Father Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. So was Moses. So were Isaac and Jacob. By the time the future king David was a shepherd boy in Bethlehem, the shepherds of Israel had become semi-nomadic. The shepherds of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth were therefore a living link back through time to David the Shepherd King and to all the shepherd ancestors of Jesus.
The second reason the shepherds of Bethlehem are important is that they were probably raising the lambs that were to be used for the temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. I discovered a detail in the Mishnah—a collection of ancient Jewish rules for worship that suggests that the animals raised in the six mile area between Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to be designated for the sacrifices at the temple. Therefore, if Jesus was the Lamb of God, he was born in the town where the sacrificial lambs were born. It’s possible, therefore, that when the Bethlehem shepherds went to see the Christ child they were aware that they were also going to pay homage to the one who would be the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.
The Shepherds of Bethlehem are important for two more reasons. First, their lifestyle indicates where Jesus was born. When I was in Israel I noticed the nomadic Bedouin tribesmen would often set up their tents in front of caves. I was told they would keep their livestock in the cave for safety while they lived either in the tent in front of the cave or in a simple dwelling built in front of the cave.
I visited two churches in Bethlehem built over caves that archeologists say were occupied by similar semi-nomadic shepherds two thousand years ago. One of those churches is the ancient Church of the Nativity. The grotto below the church is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.
At the site of the Shepherd’s fields in the town of Beit Sahour—just a short distance from Bethlehem— there are several caves that served as dwellings and stables from time immemorial. Therefore we can conclude that the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave aligns with the archeological and historical evidence.
An Eyewitness Account
Finally, the shepherds of Bethlehem are important because I believe their descendants were the source for St Luke’s account of the events of that historic night. At the beginning of his gospel Luke says he consulted with the eyewitnesses, and my research uncovered the methods by which the Bedouin and the Palestinian people transmitted their oral tradition. Sometimes they just passed the story of an event on like gossip. However they also used formal memorization. The genealogies and poetry relating the tale had to be memorized word for word. They also used informal controlled story telling—in which the basics of the story were memorized but there was room for elaboration, characterization and dialogue.
So when we read the detail of one of the shepherds saying, “Let us go into Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place.” We are hearing the first or second generation after the shepherds themselves” re-telling the story to St Luke. What seals the deal is that when the Empress Helena came to the Holy Land three hundred years later looking for the birthplace of the Savior it was the local people who identified the cave where he was born. The Shepherds are therefore important because they were the eyewitnesses who passed the story on faithfully in oral form until St Luke came along to hear the tale and record it for posterity.