If anybody is to have a sneak preview of the saviour of the world, who should get it? According to Matthew, the preview was given to wise men from the East. According to Luke, it was given to a bunch of shepherds in fields just outside Bethlehem. Why choose them?
I take it that nobody saw it all happen and told Luke. Luke tells us he tried to get his facts right, but he still began by doing what biographers did in his day: using a story to illustrate the character of the person he was describing. The story is designed to explain who Jesus was and why he mattered. When he brings shepherds into the story he’s not just reporting what somebody told him; he’s making a point about Jesus. This post describes the point he’s making.
It would have been obvious to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, but for us thousands of years later the significance of shepherds needs explaining. Shepherding had a distinctive social role, both in the Bible and in first century Galilean society.
The first account in the Bible is about the sons of Adam and Eve.
Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard (Genesis 4:2-5).
Favouritism? In the first millennium BCE, in that part of the world, most families were one or the other. Agriculture produced more food, but only on fertile ground with enough rain. Marginal land could produce enough grass for nomads to feed their sheep for a while before moving on to uneaten grass. Climate change sometimes meant changes of land use.
There was often conflict. If you till the ground you stay put. If you keep sheep you move round. If you have planted food in your ground you don’t want somebody’s sheep eating it. Conversely, if you know where your sheep can get grass you don’t want some peasant claiming the right to grow their own crops on it.
The sheep farmers were the poor relations. The story of Cain and Abel implies that God was on the side of the poor relations.
Shepherds also faced a different kind of conflict. About a thousand years before Jesus, Israel was a loose grouping of small tribes threatened by Philistines. The Philistines challenged the Israelites to single combat and produced their best fighter, Goliath. David, then a young shepherd, volunteered to fight him. According to the biblical text,
Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. (1 Samuel 17:33-35).
That’s shepherding. The story continues that he killed Goliath with a single stone from his sling. He must have been practising his sling-shots for years.
By the time of Jesus Israel was governed by the Romans. Most people were still farmers. They either owned a small farm of their own or they worked on somebody else’s farm. Shepherds no longer owned their own flocks of sheep. They were paid labourers, keeping flocks of sheep belonging to other people. The Romans imposed high taxes, which meant there was much more pressure on land. This made it more likely that sheep would get into farmers’ fields. The historian Ramsay MacMullen summarises:
The less populated countryside throughout the empire approached a state of endemic warfare, from which only a stout cudgel, a fast horse, or a well-built little fortress gave protection.
Very different from Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
Psalm 23 had become an embarrassment. By the time of Jesus and Luke it wasn’t like that at all, if it ever had been. Shepherding was a despised occupation. People often graduated from being a shepherd to being a bandit.
There were a lot of bandits in the Roman empire. The social system simply ignored the large numbers of people who couldn’t get an income at all. They survived as long as they could by begging or stealing. Robbers would co-operate by forming groups of bandits.
How do we respond to that? Do we condemn them? Do we judge that they should have desisted, and starved to death?
400 years after the time of Jesus, the Christian bishop Augustine would ask:
Remove justice and what are states but gangs of bandits on a large scale? And what are bandit gangs but kingdoms in miniature?
By Augustine’s time the Roman empire had seen many men progress from shepherd to bandit and from bandit to general in the Roman army. One even became Emperor. Even in Jesus’ time the Romans knew that they governed not because of any natural justice but by sheer force.
The Jews had a supreme model for this kind of promotion. Their greatest ever king, David, had progressed from shepherd to bandit and then king.
According to the Jewish scriptures, what made David the rightful king rather than just a successful bandit was that he had been made king by the prophet Samuel. The official process was that the prophet anointed the king with oil, in the name of God. The Hebrew for a person so anointed was ‘Messiah’. The Greek translation of Messiah was ‘Christ’. This is why the oil used in Christian anointing is still called ‘chrism’.
At the time of Jesus, desperate Jews longing for independence from the oppressive Romans hoped God would raise up a successor to David, a new Messiah. Around the time Jesus was born one shepherd called Athronges became a bandit and declared himself king. He didn’t last long against the Romans.
So when Luke tells us that the angels sang ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all’, the choice of shepherds would have sounded absurd. Luke did it for a reason. He was giving his readers a deliberate foretaste of how the grown-up Jesus would turn out. The adult Jesus would side with the poor and marginalised people of his society. Not just the ordinary poor, but the outcasts, the ones everybody hated.
He would do so in the name of the Jewish God. Here lay a big difference between the Jewish and Roman traditions. To the Romans justice was whatever the emperor said it was. That is the nature of government by brute force.
When Augustine asked: ‘Remove justice and what are states but gangs of bandits on a large scale?’ he was writing as a Christian, an inheritor of the Jewish tradition about God.