Modern Midrash: The Myth of Migdal Eder
A new version of the Birth Narrative of Jesus has become popular, especially since 2012. This version envisions priests near Bethlehem who are shepherding special flocks whose lambs are destined for sacrifice in the temple. These lambs are immediately swaddled in worn-out priestly garments so they do not become injured and thus disqualified for use as sacrificial animals. All this is said to prefigure Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and ultimate sacrifice in the temple as a spotless lamb.
Those who promote this new version of Jesus’ birth claim that their additions are based on ancient Jewish sources. In their opinion, neither the shepherds in the original story nor we as modern readers can really understand the Gospel narrative without having these points of Jewish background in mind.
This version seems to grow in popularity with every passing Christmas. It is promoted in scores of sermons on YouTube, is being shopped around again this Christmas season in Facebook and email forwards, recently has been made into the movie Christmas with “The Chosen”: The Messengers, and is even making it into academic works.
This article documents the origins of the myth. It critiques the misuse of early Jewish sources that are used in attempts to support this tendentious historical reconstruction. Logical and historical inconsistencies in the New Birth Narrative are exposed with mitigating evidence introduced. Lastly, the practical and theological problems that the new reconstruction raises are addressed.
At Christmastime 2021, when the “The Chosen” franchise released the Christmas movie “Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers,” a very different spin was placed on the 2000 year-old story of the birth of Jesus. The newly released 2023 installment of the movie series entitled “Christmas With The Chosen: Holy Night” includes the same additions to the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth. This is not a new phenomenon: every culture and every time period has overlaid its own additions to this momentous event. What makes this version unique, however, is the sweeping and fantastic claims being made, and even more importantly, the questions it raises about the sufficiency of the original story and the Bible as a whole. Its presence on the “big screen” and the fact that it was produced and promoted by the very popular “The Chosen” franchise is a clear indicator as to how popular and pervasive this “New Birth Narrative” (henceforth, NBN) has become, so the time has come to give it a proper assessment.
Near the beginning of the movie, as Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, he says to her, “They [the inn-keeper and his wife] promised us…even lambs’ cloths for the baby” [emphasis added]. The meaning of this addition to the story becomes clear only toward the end of the video. At the 31 minute-mark, a conversation is taking place between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. Jesus’ mother asks Mary Magdalene to write down a part of the story of Jesus’ birth. There, the script reads as follows:
Mary the mother of Jesus to Mary Magdalene: [Luke has] been gathering his records of the stories and we spoke, but I didn’t tell him everything…..people must know…people must know…..There’s something else I want you to tell Luke. I want you to tell him about the swaddling cloths.
Mary Magdalene: You want him to write about it?
Mary the Mother of Jesus: People must know. I want to honor the help we received from the inn-keeper, but I also think it’s lovely that we used the same cloths they use to wrap newborn lambs. I wonder if God gave us that as a sign [emphasis added].
At the end of the conversation, Mary Magdalene says, “I will get this to Luke right away.” Next, there is a scene change, and Mary Magdalene is now in Rome and speaking to Luke. She asks, “You’ve been recording an account of Jesus’s [sic] birth, yes?” Luke answers, “Ah, yes…I have completed my writing of her [Jesus’ mother’s] account. Did she have something to add?” At this point, the video ends with a closeup of Mary Magdalene holding the scroll she had created in her hands in preparation to give it to Luke.
Tracing the Addition to Its Origin
This short, apparently benign addition (“…we used the same cloths they use to wrap newborn lambs. I wonder if God gave us that as a sign”) actually points to a larger, more problematic narrative that has existed for at least a century and a half in Christian circles. In fact, these few words reflect a much longer and detailed narrative that to this day, continues to grow every time it is told. The popularity that it has achieved at this point (a movie, a popular book, and an academic book), however, requires that the phenomenon receive a careful assessment.
In actuality, the NBN is not “new” at all. It does not derive from ancient times, from the Land of Israel, from Mary Magdalene’s notes, or from the lips of Mary, mother of Jesus. Instead, the original point of inspiration dates at least back to the mind of a Jewish Christian in England by the name of Alfred Edersheim, who in 1883 published a book entitled The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Because of Edersheim’s Jewish heritage, because there was considerably little written from that perspective at the time, and because of its affordability, it has found its way into most pastors’ libraries. Today it still enjoys considerable influence as an authority on the Jewish backgrounds of the life of Jesus and the Gospels. Often, Edersheim is right on the money on subjects he tackles. At other times, not so much so—and the current issue is a case in point.
Since not everyone has a copy of Edersheim lying around, the following is a collection of quotes from The Life and Times that are relevant to our subject. These are provided so that everyone has equal access to the origin of the current teaching and can assess the assertions/additions of the NBN. My brief comments appear alongside the quotes of Edersheim, although a more extensive discussion of his use of early Rabbinic Literature will follow in the next section.
In describing Luke’s original narrative, Edersheim speaks of its “…scantiness, or rather absence, of details…essential features, alike of legend and tradition…are otherwise wanting” (Edersheim, The Life and Times, 1:186). However, immediately following this statement about Luke’s bare-bones account of Jesus’ birth, Edersheim begins to describe “…the sacred gloom of the cave…its sky all aglow with starry brightness” (1:186). Already the embellishment has begun. It seems that Luke’s “wanting” account is simply not enough. It’s just too tantalizing to not embellish Luke’s stripped-down, straightforward account!
Next, Edersheim states that “…the manner of it [Jesus’ birth] would seem strangely incongruous to Jewish thinking” (1:186). He doesn’t explain why or provide references to ancient Jewish literature that would corroborate this assertion. This approach will mark his entire treatment of the birth narrative.
He continues, “And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction” (1:186). At this point, it would have been helpful to most readers for him to cite Micah 5:2 and its quote in Matthew 2:6. But this would likely have undercut his next assertion,
Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock’” (1:186, emphasis added).
At this point, he cites as evidence Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 35:21. Although Edersheim doesn’t bother to cite the words of this ancient Aramaic paraphrase of the biblical account of Jacob’s return from Aram, it reads,
And Jacob spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder, the place from whence, it is to be, the King Messiah will be revealed at the end of days” (emphasis added).
It is possible that Edersheim failed to reproduce the text of the Targum here because the appearance of this final phrase would have rendered this passage completely irrelevant to any discussion of the birth of Jesus. A fuller discussion of the problems with the use of this text to reconstruct the details of Jesus’ birth can be found at the beginning of the next section.
This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep-ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah [a note in his margin references Mishnah Shekalim 7:4, which will be addressed in full in the next section] leads to the conclusion that the flocks which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds (1:186-187).
A footnote on the same page adds the following comment, “…the only flocks otherwise kept, would be those for the Temple-services (Baba K. 80a)” (1:186, footnote 2). Here, Edersheim is suggesting that there are passages in early Rabbinic Literature that tell us that 1) shepherding was not common in this area; 2) these flocks were an exception to the rule and therefore had to be intended for use as sacrifices in the temple; and 3) the shepherds tending these special flocks had to be specially selected as well. In the next section, all three of the passages from Rabbinic Literature to which Edersheim appeals will be given full treatment. For those who do not want that degree of detail, suffice it to say that none of the passages to which Edersheim appeals come even close to establishing any of his three major assertions.
These quotes from Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah demonstrate that the current version of the NBN is neither new nor especially creative. These quotes clearly demonstrate that the origin of this “new” version of the Birth Narrative that is making the rounds today is at least a century and a half old. Yet the quotes above leave little question that Edersheim is indeed the original source of inspiration for the modern mythical revision.
In Edersheim’s final comment on the Birth Narrative, he makes what could almost be understood as a prediction of the new emphasis that we are seeing today, “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 year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak” (1:187). Based on current emphasis, it is safe to say that what Edersheim chose to leave unstated is now being further developed and shouted from the rooftops.
A Closer Look at Edersheim’s Use of Ancient Jewish Sources
Before addressing current developments, it is important to engage in an in-depth analysis of the “early Jewish” evidence that Edersheim provides to support his version of the story of Jesus’ birth. Because all of the modern versions of the NBN are based on the observations of Edersheim, it is important to assess the evidence he cites in support of his statements. If significant problems are found with Edersheim’s evidence, the entire edifice built upon his reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ birth must be held in suspicion as well.
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 35:21
There a number of serious problems with this first ancient text that Edersheim invokes. First, it is unlikely that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan been composed in Jesus’ day. Most scholars locate the origins of the Targumim between the second and seventh centuries AD. Therefore, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan would not have existed in the first century to inform anyone’s attitudes or opinions about the coming Messiah.
Second, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan’s interpretation of Genesis 35:21 is attested nowhere else in early Rabbinic Literature. Therefore, contrary to Edersheim’s assertion, this was not a broadly-held opinion or frequently-taught position. Consequently, it is unlikely that it was known among Hebrew-speaking Jews in the Land of Israel in the first century AD.
Third, this ancient Aramaic paraphrase of the original Hebrew of Genesis 35:21 is likely simply clarifying for Jews who were not intimately familiar with the location of Migdal Eder that its location was somewhere near Bethlehem, a connection that the biblical author had already made in verse 19. In other words, the author of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is simply clarifying for his readers that the Migdal Eder of the biblical account was in the vicinity of Bethlehem, the Bethlehem from which the Messiah was prophesied to come (Mic. 5:2).
To be clear, despite Edersheim’s insinuation, neither the original Genesis account nor the Targum is claiming that Bethlehem is synonymous with Migdal Eder, since both describe Bethlehem as being spatially separated from Migdal Eder (i.e., “beyond Migdal Eder,” 35:21). Further, it is unthinkable that the pious author of the Targum would have intentionally contradicted the divinely-inspired prediction of the biblical prophet Micah in order to suggest a place other than Bethlehem, the City of David the forefather of the King Messiah, as the location of the birth of the Messiah. Luke is equally geographically specific with respect to the location of the birth. He declares unequivocally that the birth of Jesus took place inside the city of Bethlehem (“in the city of David,” 2:11). Further, the shepherds go “to Bethlehem” (2:15), not somewhere else near it, and there find the newborn Messiah.
Word choice matters, whether that word choice is by the author of the Book of Genesis, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or the Gospel of Luke. In this case, it is all three! None can be read in such a way that Migdal Eder is Bethlehem and that the Messiah was therefore born in the “Tower of the Flock” (better-translated, “A Tower of a Goat-Herd”).
Lastly, the final phrase of this section of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (on Gen. 35:21) provides us with the specific time-frame of the author’s point of reference. There, he uses the phraseבסוף יומייא (b’sof yomaiya), which is the Aramaic equivalent of the phrase b’acharit ha-yamim (literally, “at the end of the days,” but more dynamically, “at the end of time/human history”) that is used in biblical prophecy. In this Aramaic text, the phrase is a reference to the appearance of the Messiah at the cataclysmic, eschatological conclusion of human history at the end of time (cf. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Renggren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, “סוף”. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 10:188-190, which speaks of the “eschatological formulaic quality within an apocalyptic framework,” p. 189).
The same phrase is used in eschatological biblical texts such as Daniel 6:26 and 7:26, both of which fortunately for us, happen to appear in Aramaic—the same language of the Targum! It also appears in the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls, where it is used exclusively in eschatological contexts (1QH 18:30; 4QpPs37 1:6; 2:7, etc.). Therefore, the broader literary context of the Targum’s comments are in reference not to the birth of the Messiah, but rather to His appearance at the End of Time. Said another way, this text has absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus as described in the second chapter of Luke.
Mishnah Shekalim 7:4 (also discussed at BT Shekalim 20a and Kiddushin 55a)
A second text from ancient Jewish literature to which Edersheim appeals in two different places (The Life and Times 1:186 text and marginal note “b”; and 187) does indeed include major components of his narrative. Mishnah Shekalim chapter 7 contains the language of “animals”, “Passover offerings,” “temple”, “Migdal Eder,” etc. Therefore, a careful look at this text is in order. The text of Mishnah Shekalim 7:4 (which Edersheim never fully reproduces) reads:
If cattle which were found in Jerusalem as far as Migdal Eder or within the like distance in any direction, males must be deemed to be whole burnt offerings and females to be peace-offerings. R. Judah says: If fitted to be Passover offerings, they must be deemed Passover offerings [if they are found during the] thirty days before the Feast.
A few observations are in order:
- The Hebrew b’hemah (“cattle”) includes cattle, oxen, and goats. It also includes both male and female animals.
- The word “found” that appears in this text and again in 7:5 very obviously means that the animals under discussion were lost—they weren’t being shepherded by anyone, much less temple shepherds, priestly shepherds, or levitical shepherds. They were lost and therefore, unclaimed property. In fact, this is the issue that this entire section of the Mishnah is addressing. As such, this passage actually provides excellent background by which to better understand Jesus’ statement in Luke 15:4, 6 (cf. Ezekiel 34:4, 16).
- In other words, Edersheim has completely misconstrued the entire Mishnah passage. From the text itself, it is self-evident that the rabbis of the Mishnah are discussing what is to be done with animals that are lost and whose owners are not certain. They do not have in view specially-trained, specially-appointed shepherds who are intentionally shepherding flocks of sheep that have been pre-designated for temple sacrifice! In fact, no shepherds of any kind are ever mentioned in this text!
- A quick glance at the text as quoted above makes no reference whatsoever to Temple/Priestly/Levitical shepherds who were shepherding flocks destined for use in the sacrificial system and who were permanently stationed at Migdal Eder. The entire modern story is a literary creation that was started by Edersheim and then embellished by highly questionable internet sources, preachers, and even scholars.
- “Migdal Eder” appears in this Mishnah text only as a distance marker meaning “within six or so miles from Jerusalem.” This is made clear by the language of the Mishnah itself: “or within the like distance in any direction.” Therefore, this text is saying, “All lost and unclaimed animals within a six-mile radius of Jerusalem by default belong to the Temple.”
- The references to “whole burnt offerings” and “peace offerings” rule out the idea that there were entire flocks of lambs being shepherded exclusively as “Passover lambs” (a supplement to Edersheim’s work that appears in many of the more recent iterations of the NBN).
- The Mishnah text appealed to here specifically stipulates here that the animals involved include “females”. So it is legitimate to ask the advocates of the NBN if, in their minds, Jesus would have been just as accurately prefigured by a cow or a nanny goat. Of course, the idea is as patently absurd as the use of this text is to attempt to support the NBN.
To conclude this assessment of the treatment of Mishnah Shekalim 7:4 by Edersheim and those who follow him, it is necessary to point out that it is not a difficult text to interpret. The context is perfectly clear. Edersheim and anyone who bothered to look up his references could have easily arrived at this conclusion because the Mishnah text is SO straightforward!
BT Bava Kama 80a
A third and final appeal Edersheim makes to ancient Jewish literature is to a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (henceforth, ‘BT”). The relevant section of this text reads as follows:
“…the Sages said that one may not raise small domesticated animals [in the Land of Israel]” (BT Bava Kama 80a).
On the basis of this text, Edersheim asserts,
In fact the Mishnah (Baba K. vii. 7) expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel…and the only flocks otherwise kept, would be those for the Temple-services (Baba K. 80a) [The Life and Times 1:186 footnote 2].…and, accordingly…the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds [1:186-187].
As with his use of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, however, there are manifold problems. First, BT Bava Kama 80a is actually citing the earlier Mishnah at Bava Kama 7:7,
One may not raise small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel. But one may raise them in Syria…and in the wildernesses [here and below, the plural of the translation reflects the original Hebrew] of the Land of Israel emphasis added].
Evidently, the “ban of Rabbinism” (1:187) was not as absolute as Edersheim has led us to believe. In fact, on the same page of the Babylonian Talmud from which his citation derives, the rabbis admit,
His students asked Rabban Gamaliel, “What is the halachah with regard to the raising of small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel?” Rabban Gamaliel said to them, ‘It is permitted’” (BT Bava Kama 80a, emphasis added).
In addition, on the previous page (where the discussion begins that continues on page 80a), the rabbis say,
One may not raise small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel…But one may raise them…in the wildernesses of the Land of Israel (BT Bava Kama 79b, emphasis added; clearly this part of the BT is a quote from Mishnah Bava Kama 7:7).
Again, on the same page,
The Sages taught in a baraita: “One may not raise small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel. But one may raise them in the forests of the Land of Israel…” (BT Bava Kama 79b, emphasis added).
Yet again, also on the same page,
One may not raise small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel. But one may raise them in the wilderness that is in Judah and in the wilderness that is on the border near Akko (BT Bava Kama 79b, emphasis added).
From the quotes above, it almost goes without saying that Edersheim selected a snip of an ancient text to prove his points—that shepherding ordinary sheep had been banned, so Luke’s narrative must have been referring to special sheep that were being shepherded by special shepherds.
However, as can be seen from the other parts of the larger discussion, it becomes clear that not all early authorities agreed with this ruling (e.g., Gamaliel). Sheep bones from young to very old sheep found by archeologist Moti Aviam in first-century towns like Yodfat/Jotapata demonstrate that this halachah was never implemented even in densely populated areas. Further, built into the stricter version of the Halachah were exceptions such as forested areas and midbarot (wildernesses, deserts, steppe-like land, intentionally pluralized in the ancient text in order to demonstrate that there were numerous locations which fell into this category) areas. This is especially significant to our study because Bethlehem is situated directly adjacent to the Wilderness of Judah—an area specifically mentioned as an exception to this Halachah. Lastly, there are many people mentioned in Rabbinic Literature who kept small animals, from unnamed shepherds (e.g., BT Avodah Zarah 26a; Bava Kama 79b, etc.) to prominent rabbis like Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa (BT Ta’anit 25a). This reality, by the way, corresponds perfectly to the teachings of Jesus, where the shepherding of sheep and goats appears to be widespread and quite familiar to His audiences (Matt. 9:36; 10:6, 16; 12:11-12; 15:24; 18:12; 25:32-33; 26:31; Luke 15:4, 6; 17:7; John 10:1-16; 21:16-17, etc.).
Therefore, the assertion by Edersheim (and a plethora of others who follow him) on the basis of BT Bava Kama 80a, that the sheep being kept by the shepherds of Bethlehem/Migdal Eder had to have been a special herd destined for the temple has to be rejected. The evidence introduced above demands it. The popularity of the NBN, the persuasiveness of the presentation of its advocates, the warm feeling experienced by those who embrace it, and the sense of greater importance that comes with having insider knowledge—NONE of these are worth the abandonment of our belief in absolute truth based on evidence.
More Recent Developments
Over the past several years more and more videos have appeared on YouTube promoting one version of the NBN or another. A good question to ask is, “After this story had remained dormant for almost a century and a half, how did it become so popular now?” At least one reason is a 2012 publication entitled Jesus: a Theography. While never citing the work of Edersheim directly, his influence is clearly discernable. In order to illustrate the ongoing process of development for those who do not own this volume, some direct quotes are in order:
But what is less widely known and what connects with the Arabic translation of “Bethlehem” as “house of meat” is this: the kind of sheep cared for by Bethlehem shepherds was a special kind that made the name “Bethlehem” synonymous with fields full of lambs ripe for slaughter. Bethlehem carried another brand identity alongside “house of bread”: “house of meat.” (Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus: a Theography. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012, p. 65).
Bethlehem shepherds were not just any shepherds tending sheep. They were descendants of David, tending “David’s flock”—sheep destined for the temple (another possible translation of “Beth” besides “house of” is “temple”). Jerusalem was only a short two miles from those Bethlehem slopes. You may even think of Bethlehem shepherds as outsourced employees of the temple, royal shepherds (Sweet/Viola, pp. 65-66).
But before they were slaughtered, each lamb was required to be a pet in the family for at least four days. So the day after the final Sabbath before Passover, shepherds from the Bethlehem hills drove thousands of lambs into Jerusalem, where they were taken in by Jewish families for at least two days and treated as members of the family. Before sacrificing the lamb, the Jewish priest would ask, “Do you love this lamb?” If the family didn’t love the lamb, there would be no sacrifice (Sweet/Viola, p. 66).
Bethlehem’s priestly shepherds had to learn and follow special techniques and rituals during the lambing season. Bethlehem lambs born for slaughter were special lambs. To prevent harm and self-injury from thrashing about after birth on their spindly legs, newborn lambs were wrapped in swaddling cloths. Then they were placed in a manger or feeding trough, where they could calm down out of harm’s way (Sweet/Viola, p. 67).
In a video from 2020 by the same author, he takes the NBN to another level.
Because of the popular medium of video, his words are echoed in countless other videos posted by pastors who preach this material from their pulpits at Christmas and Easter,
…all these lambs had to be what? Without blemish or spot. And so the temple kind of helped…these shepherds to raise lambs without blemish or spot because one of the things they did is when these priestly undergarments got used to the point where they had frayed and they couldn’t be worn anymore you just don’t throw them away so they recycled them and they gave them to these Bethlehem shepherds and they also used some of them for burial cloths but these cloths were given to shepherds so that…when is the most dangerous time when a lamb was born? So that it would break its leg or do something bad that would damage it or blemish it. Well, right after it was born. So these Bethlehem shepherds would take these cloths and as soon as the lamb was born, they would swaddle that lamb, wrap it up tightly, so it wouldn’t hurt itself and stumble while it was trying to walk. And lambing season is chaotic and everything is going on at once, so a lot of trampling can take place. And that’s why they also not just swaddled it tightly, but they would put it in mangers and feeding troughs. Hence, hence, “And this will be a sign for you…” [Luke 2:12, emphasis in the original]…..They had just done this to temple lambs …..they would see what they had done many times themselves and seen before” (“‘Do you Love Your Lamb?’ The Procession of the Lambs” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChXFQy9zuHY).
These representative quotes are reproduced to enable the reader to see the points of dependence upon the work of Edersheim and at the same time, to see the growth of the legend to epic proportions. To provide a thorough critique of this version of the NBN would literally require an entire book. However, such prolific creativity demands at least some brief comments:
- In a book that postures itself as an academic work, it is astonishing that not one of these fantastic claims is supported by any documentation whatsoever. None.
- All of the critiques above of Edersheim’s conclusions should be applied to these later works that are clearly dependent upon Edersheim.
- It makes no difference what the Arabic means. Arabic was not a spoken language in the area of Bethlehem until 1,600 years after King David and 600 years after Jesus. The meaning of any Arabic word in terms of reconstructing the Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament is therefore pointless.
- If you type “How far apart are Jerusalem and Bethlehem?” into a Google search, you get plenty of search results that fall between six and seven miles, not two. While this might seem trivial and mundane, if authors can’t be trusted to get correct something this simple, they probably shouldn’t be trusted for sermon material that fundamentally reworks the Birth Narrative of the Messiah.
- “Do you Love Your Lamb?” and “The Procession of the Lambs”: there is no place in all of Rabbinic Literature or any other ancient Jewish literature that corroborates either of these mythical events. No evidence is offered by the authors in support because there is none. These and all the other incredibly detailed additions to the story of Jesus’ birth that are floating around today would be great if they were true, but they are simply the products of the fertile imaginations of modern-day midrashists. Our response to all who would abridge, edit, or add to the Word of God as written, or overthrow hundreds of years of interpretation must be “Show us your evidence and then we will evaluate it for ourselves!” If nothing more than conjecture, ramblings from unaccountable authors on non-peer-reviewed websites, and a titillating feel-good story are all they have to offer, they are rightly to be ignored.
- There were no priestly shepherds, no special lambs, and no special techniques that anyone had to learn to protect them. If there was evidence for this in ancient literature, this would have been produced by those who make such claims.
- To be clear, there is never a place ANYWHERE in ancient Jewish literature of ANY kind, whether in the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the intertestamental Apocrypha, the intertestamental Pseudepigrapha, Philo of Alexandria, Josephus Flavius, or ANYWHERE in the voluminous Rabbinic Literature that suggests that any lambs anywhere were ever swaddled. Again, this is why no source is ever cited by promoters of the NBN when making this point. Further, both Palestinian and Jewish shepherds in Israel will tell you that this is madness—within hours, a newborn lamb that was swaddled and laid in a manger would be dead. While teaching in Israel, I spoke to shepherds in the area of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When asked if they were aware of an instance in which it would be beneficial to swaddle newborn lambs, without exception, their response was, “What? They’d starve in two hours!” The story as being told today is not only never documented by reference to ancient literature; it is also patently absurd on the practical level, life experience, and common sense.
Further, following the rationale of the myth-makers of the NBN, if Jesus was found by these Temple-shepherds already swaddled, then the swaddling cloths that would have been recognized by the shepherds could not have been given to Joseph and Mary by those same shepherds. Where then did the earthly parents of Jesus get these worn-out priestly garments? NBNers must think that Joseph and Mary had received their swaddling cloths from the same priests who supplied swaddling cloths to the Temple-shepherds. So were there priests running around all over Judea handing out worn-out priestly garments to every expectant mother and shepherd that they could find? If so, how then would the shepherds have ever viewed “a baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths” as being unique in any meaningful way? How could these “swaddling cloths” have served in any real way as a “sign” that they would easily recognize as reflecting their own practice of swaddling their newborn lambs? Also, if the practice was as widespread as NBNers suggests, why is it not documented in ANY ancient source?
- Priestly garments by their very nature were considered kadosh—“holy”, used only for a specific, sacred purpose. Consequently, they were used only in association with service in the temple. There is only one use mentioned of these garments in Rabbinic Literature that is outside their normal use as clothing. When they were completely worn out, what was left of them would be twisted together and used to make wicks for olive oil lamps in the temple (Mishnah Sukkot 5:3; Shekalim 5:1; BT Sukkah 51a). To suggest that these sacred garments could be used not only outside the temple, but also for common purposes like swaddling lambs, newborn babies, and even as burial cloths (thus contracting corpse-uncleanness, the highest level of ritual impurity) is not merely an instance of creativity run wild. It is a demonstration of ignorance of Judaism and its literatures surrounding the biblical periods. This, in turn, should disqualify those who engage in such antics from being taken seriously when discussing the Jewish backgrounds of biblical texts.
Even more recently, much of the NBN was repeated in The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi, by Kathie Lee Gifford with Jason Sobel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018). This book has had an impact on people within the Church who are interested in the Land of Israel and the Jewish backgrounds of the Bible.
Within the first few pages of the book, the authors promise readers that they will be provided “…the secret of the biblical story [of Christmas]” (p. 4; unfortunately, the allure of “insider”, “gnostic” knowledge seems to be ever-present within the Body of Christ.) Their version of the NBN begins shortly thereafter and continues for five pages. This particular section was written by messianic rabbi Jason Sobel, who also participated as an advisor in the development of “The Chosen” video series (see above).
Of all the possible signs that could have been given to these shepherds, why did the Lord choose a baby lying in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes? Why was this so significant? To answer this question, we need to dig deeper and explore the Jewish context in which the New Testament was written…..The first question we need to ask is: Who are these shepherds? Is there anything unique about them? I believe these were no ordinary shepherds. They were Levitical shepherds, trained and tasked with the responsibility of tending and guarding the flocks used for sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. Next we must ask, What was so significant about the location in which they found Jesus? When it was time for one of the flock to give birth, the shepherds would bring the sheep into one of the caves surrounding Bethlehem that were used for this purpose. These birthing caves were kept in a state of ritual purity since these lambs were destined to be used as sacrifices in the temple. In fact, many of the male lambs born around Bethlehem would be used for the Passover [his footnote here is to Mishnah Shekalim 7:4, p. 203; see this text reproduced and discussed above]…..[Jesus] was born in one of the many caves used for birthing these sacrificial lambs, because He Himself would be the ultimate sacrificial lamb. Not only would the location of Jesus’ birth be significant to these shepherds, but so would the fact that Jesus was swaddled in cloths. These shepherds were responsible for making sure that the newborn lambs did not contract defects, for only animals without spot or blemish could be used as a sacrifice in the temple. Baby lambs are very clumsy when they are born, so many scholars believe that these shepherds would swaddle their newborn lambs in order to prevent these future sacrificial lambs from becoming blemished by injuring themselves on jagged parts of the cave…..I believe the actual garments in which the baby Jesus was swaddled were meant to be a sign to them as well….. Any priestly garment[s] that…w[ere] no longer acceptable to be worn during priestly service…..were not destroyed; instead, they were cut up. And the fabric was used for another holy purpose…..This is speculation, but I believe Jesus’ swaddling clothes could have been made from the torn priestly garments…..So the shepherd priests, who encountered angels, went to a place where the lambs used for the sacrifices were born and swaddled. There, they saw the baby Jesus swaddled like a sacrificial Passover lamb in priestly garments…..Now it should make more sense as to why a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be such a significant sign to these shepherds, for it pointed to Jesus being both the Lamb of God and the Light of the World (p. 35-39).
This section will only address aspects of the NBN that have not already received comment.
- This version of the NBN contains most of the same problems of priestly shepherds, flocks intended for sacrifice in the temple, a special location for birthing that somehow connects to the location of Jesus’ birth, swaddling the lamb to protect it from contracting a blemish, etc. It has in common with the other versions of the NBN missing as well as misunderstood documentation from ancient Jewish sources.
- Jesus could NOT have been “born in one of the many caves used for birthing these sacrificial lambs.” This is because the Bible clearly states, “And in the same region there were shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night….. 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord….. 15 And…the shepherds begansaying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem…” (Luke 2:8, 11, 15). The shepherds were in the wilderness, left that wilderness, went into the city, and there found the holy family in a residential area inside the city. The biblical Birth Narrative describes a change of location, from an area being used to shepherd sheep to a residential area. These two different locations cannot be seen as one and the same because the divinely inspired details in Luke’s narrative will not allow it. The reader is therefore forced to choose between Luke’s Birth Narrative and the NBN because they are mutually contradictory.
If the reader (and the Church as a whole) is hungry for Jewish backgrounds material, we should be looking more closely at the word “inn”. This traditional translation in itself should be enough to distinguish the original location of the shepherds in an agrarian context from their eventual destination within the city of Bethlehem proper. However, the original language of this divine revelation creates an even clearer contrast. The Greek word traditionally translated “inn” is kataluma (Luke 2:7). This is the same word that appears in Mark 14:14, where it is correctly translated “guest room”. Luke actually uses this same word elsewhere with this very nuance (22:11). This is to be compared with Luke 10:34, where he uses the word pandoxeion, a true place of lodging for travelers, which was run by a pandoxeus (10:35), an “innkeeper” (who by the way, is absent in Luke’s Birth Narrative in chapter 2). Therefore, original language and in-context study informs us that the birth of Jesus took place not in a place of business or its barn/stable, but rather in a utility/overflow/multi-purpose area, probably a cave-fashioned-into-a-basement of a private home. Such features have been discovered all over Israel—in Judea (where Bethlehem is located), Samaria, and Galilee. Some of these cave basements, such as those found in excavations in Nazareth, have been found with ovens and storage jars right alongside mangers and places for tethering small animals—clear indications of humans and animals occupying shared space! This kind of study is actual, legitimate, evidence-based New Testament background study.
- “These birthing caves were kept in a state of ritual purity since these lambs were destined to be used as sacrifices in the temple.” This is yet another example of an attempt to create “Jewish backgrounds” without evidence and even in contradiction to evidence that actually exists. By its very nature, childbirth automatically renders ritually impure the location where the birth occurred (cf. Lev. 12:1-8). However, we are not dealing with human childbirth here. The scene as created (out of whole cloth) by the author envisions the birth of an animal, not a human being, and ritual purity is not associated with the birth of an animal.
- Ezekiel 16:4 sees swaddling as standard treatment for a newborn. Job 38:9 suggests universal familiarity because of the way it is used metaphorically to refer to God setting boundaries for the ocean. Closer to the time of Jesus, in the late-second or early first-century BC, the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-6 describes “swaddling” as a common occurrence for all newborn children of that time, “I…am…like all men, a descendent of the first-formed child of the earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of 10 months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage. And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth, and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes…for there is for mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure.” Within the early rabbinic community, it was evidently practiced so commonly that the rabbis suspended the normal prohibition of work and permitted it to be done even on the Sabbath (BT Shabbat 129b).
- “Now it should make more sense as to why a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be such a significant sign to these shepherds.” Rather than greater clarity, however, we have actually witnessed a descent into speculation, zero evidence, and an entirely implausible historical reconstruction. Based on NO evidence, this version of the NBN envisions the shepherds as able to recognize the infant Jesus because he was swaddled with worn-out priestly garments. In reality, Bethlehem was so small and the circumstances as described by Luke were so unusual (born that day and laid in a manger, Luke 2:11-12) that the shepherds were able to make a positive identification quite easily. This reading may not be as exciting, sell a lot of books, or make anyone famous, but it is faithful to Scripture as written.
What Can We Expect Next?
Given the degree of added details supplied by current versions of the NBN, it is difficult to imagine the next developmental level of this new mythology, but it will surely come. In fact, those who deal in undocumented myth-making are surely already at work creating what will be the NBN 2.0. If the current trend continues, the claims will be even more detailed and fantastic than what has been produced up to this point. Like current versions, it will either misinterpret the ancient sources or (more likely) will not attempt to support their assertions at all.
Concerns and Challenges
At this point, it should be obvious that the Church and its leadership has been bamboozled—again. It seems that all it takes is a great storyline, the right packaging, and a convincing speaker and almost anything is accepted. In fact, it appears that the stage is already set for greater and greater deception. Is there any hope? There is!
For starters, instead of falling hook, line, and sinker for yet another quick thrill, we have to learn from our mistakes! The Body of Christ and its leaders should have hit the brakes long enough to ask the question: If this version of the story is so helpful, enlightening, and powerful, why has it taken so long to surface? Why are we just now hearing about these exciting insights into the Christmas Story 2000 years after the actual event?
Here are some more hard questions we should have asked, and need to learn to ask of such teachings in the future: Isn’t the biblical account “good” enough? Isn’t the Word of God as written sufficient? Aren’t a virgin birth, angelic revelations, etc., exciting and “Jewish” enough as is? Why do we have to add to, sensationalize, and mysticize it? Why aren’t the explanations and connections that the Bible itself makes sufficient to explain the significance of various aspects of the story? Where is the ancient evidence to support such fantastic claims?
As we move forward, here are some more difficult questions to ponder. When non-Christians find out about the fallacy of the new-and-improved version of the Birth Narrative, won’t this make the entirety of the biblical account less believable? Does this pre-condition the Body of Christ to accept other, more dangerous “truths” without any evidence? Will this further deaden our exercise of biblical “discernment” that’s already on life-support? Will we ever get back to a time where things that are preached and taught to the Body of Christ are required to be grounded in reality and evidence? Will we ever get back to the point where we compare everything we see and hear to the unchanging, authoritative standard of the Word of God?
Here are some questions for scholars and other serious students of the Word. What will happen to the legitimate search for the Jewish backgrounds of Jesus, the NT, and early Christianity when such hoaxes are exposed? When will we ever get to a place where historical reconstruction and Bible interpretation are based on EVIDENCE rather than how something makes people feel?
The kind of revisionist history and supplementation of the biblical account engaged in by promoters of the NBN have to be challenged by those in authority who know better. We all have to strengthen our spiritual discernment and our resolve to stick to the Scriptures as written. We have to insist on “rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”
Further, believers have to be taught and leaders have to role-model for the Church the absolute necessity of demanding evidence when any author, teacher, preacher—even a YouTube or TikTok video—makes such fantastic claims, claims that only serve to exalt the interpreter and undercut the Sufficiency of Scripture. People who regularly generate modern midrash/apocrypha should be called out or at least ignored, and if their myth-making becomes a pattern, they should be marginalized.
Christians who still maintain that truth is knowable, objective, and established by appeal to evidence are urged to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, emphasis added). The constant command to “add not unto His Word” (Prov. 30:6; cf. also Deut. 4:2; 12:32; 1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18) must be obeyed. No amount of excitement or “feel-good” is worth what happens when we choose the wide and easy way of revising, updating, and supplementing the written Word of God. The ancient Gnostics would have loved the final words in the movie “The Messengers”: “People must know.” May these words be replaced by the command to “not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6)!
Dr. Wave Nunnally
Professor Emeritus of Early Judaism and Christian Origins Evangel University, Springfield, MO
Jewish backgrounds, New Testament, Hebrew language and the land of Israel are areas of expertise for Dr Wave Nunnally. He has studied, taught and written in these areas for over… More