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Christian Urban Legends

Were the shepherds at the birth of Christ really despised, social outcasts? This popular story makes for a great Christmas sermon message, namely that lowly, poor shepherds, having the social reputation equivalent to prostitutes, were given the honorary privilege of giving testimony to the birth of the Messiah. Though well intended, it turns out that this is largely an urban legend.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. (credit Wikipedia: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202)

Evangelical Bible scholar, David Croteau, the Dean of Columbia Biblical Seminary, and author of Urban Legends of the New Testament, acknowledges that many other scholars over the years have commented on the supposed despised nature of 1st century Jewish shepherds, citing sources like Aristotle and the Babylonian Talmud, for support. However, Croteau points out that Aristotle was not a Jew, and lived several hundreds of years before Christ, and the Babylonian Talmud was not produced until several centuries after Christ. Furthermore, British Bible scholar Ian Paul notes that the Babylonian Talmud’s denigration of shepherds might have been shaped more by an anti-Christian polemic, rather than the actual historical context. In other words, these are not the best expert witnesses as to how shepherds were viewed by 1st century Jews.

As it turns out, Croteau cites the best evidence that counterbalances this legend directly from the New Testament itself. Luke 2:18 tells us that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” when speaking of the appearance of angels. But the people were not amazed by the supposed fact that these were “lowly” shepherds. Rather, they were amazed by what the shepherds were talking about, that of the birth announcement of the Messiah.

Instead, the Bible holds the profession of shepherding in high respect. For example, Genesis 13 notes that Abraham had much livestock, herds, and flocks of sheep. Also, Exodus 3:1 tells us that Moses was a shepherd, and that before David was king, 1 Samuel 17 tells us that David himself was a shepherd. Jesus himself speaks of being “the good shepherd [laying] down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

True, shepherds were not wealthy, and belonged to the lower class, and thus represented the poor and humble, but they were hardly the social equivalent to prostitutes. With such an established pedigree, from Abraham to David, to ultimately Jesus, the traditional story of the “despised” Bethlehem shepherds simply does not fit the actual data.

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