“shepherds.” The Bible never specifically says why the angels and the glory of God appeared to the shepherds, but the evidence is that it was to tie the shepherds at the birth of Jesus Christ to the record of king David who was a shepherd and a type of Christ. David was a well-known type of Christ, and the Bible calls the Messiah by the name of “David” in Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23, 24; 37:24, 25, and Hosea 3:5 (see commentary on Ezek. 34:23). Theologians sometimes refer to Jesus Christ as the “greater David.” David was a shepherd and taken from the flock to lead Israel (1 Sam. 16:11-13), and here in Luke 2:8-18, God announces the birth of the “chief shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4) and the true king of Israel to shepherds.
These shepherds were very likely watching their sheep that night in some of the very same fields that David had watched sheep in some one-thousand years earlier. After all, since David was a shepherd from Bethlehem and shepherds moved their flocks regularly, there is every reason to believe that David shepherded his flocks in the same fields that the shepherds were standing in on the night of Christ’s birth.
In order to properly understand the shepherds’ role in the record of the birth of Christ, it is important to clear up some misconceptions about them. For one thing, it has occasionally been taught that shepherds were insignificant and mistrusted, so God appeared to them as part of the whole traditional but erroneous “Jesus born into unfortunate circumstances” narrative (cp. commentary on Luke 2:7). In that narrative, angels appearing to poor mistrusted social outcasts showed that insignificant people are significant with God. While it is true that supposedly insignificant people are significant with God, that is not why God announced the birth of His Son to the shepherds. Shepherds were not generally mistrusted in the biblical world, in fact, they were usually well respected.
It is also taught and espoused in song, that besides being mistrusted social outcasts, the shepherds at Jesus’ birth were “poor shepherds” (e.g., “The First Noel”). But shepherds were like any other people in most of the trades in Israel. There were poor shepherds with few sheep and rich shepherds with lots of sheep. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are examples of shepherds with lots of sheep who were certainly wealthy. There was generally no middle class in biblical Israel. A very small percent of the population was quite wealthy while the majority of the population lived day-to-day with only a little in reserve, and another small part of the population was truly destitute people who survived only because of the help of others. Given that social scenario, there is no reason to assume the shepherds outside Bethlehem were especially poor. In fact, they were likely fairly well off.
It was part of God’s plan that the shepherds would begin to spread the news about the Messiah, because the angel said to them, “I bring you [the shepherds] good news” that would then be “for all the people” (Luke 2:10). The shepherds understood their role on this night of the Savior’s birth and immediately after seeing the baby they began to spread the word about the new Messiah (Luke 2:17-18). This leads us to conclude that the shepherds were men of faith and successful enough to be well respected in the general area. After all, if someone who is known to be untrustworthy and unsuccessful comes to you and tells you a story about an army of angels and the glory of God announcing the long-awaited birth of the Messiah, are you likely to believe them? The fact that God chose the shepherds to be the first evangelists of the Good News supports the conclusion that they were men who were respected and believable. Thus, the biblical and social evidence is that the shepherds were successful men of faith whose testimony was acceptable among the general population in Israel.
Shepherding in Palestine involved a lot of work, planning, and courage. Sheep require constant oversight, care, and guarding. For example, in Israel the water sources dry up or flood with the seasons, and the pastures are constantly changing, so planning ahead, knowing where to go, and then moving the flock are part of the job, which is why shepherds were usually nomads (cp. Gen. 37:17). Also, the sheep graze on the hillsides right next to farmer’s fields, so the shepherds must constantly watch that the sheep do not move into the growing grain, as that could be very expensive (cp. Exod. 22:5). Also, sheep are in constant danger from wild animals and thieves, which was why the shepherds at the birth of Christ were out at night watching the sheep, Facing down a hungry wolf or thief with just a club was dangerous and took great courage (cp. John 10:11-13). David acquired part of his courage to fight Goliath from his experience guarding his sheep, and in fact, he had to defend them from a lion and a bear (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Also, the sheep sometimes got hurt or even hurt each other (cp. Ezek. 34:21), so the shepherd must also know basic animal first-aid. Other skills a shepherd needed to have would have been knowledge of breeding and successful birthing, how to shear the sheep, and how to keep them safe and unblemished. Also, there is evidence that many of the sheep used as sacrifices in the Temple were cared for in Bethlehem, and although we cannot be sure, it is certainly possible that the sheep the shepherds were watching were being raised to be sacrificed in the Temple. Since the shepherds in Palestine provided some of their lambs as Passover lambs and other sheep for Temple sacrifice, they had to be diligent to keep them unblemished, which was something that non-Jewish shepherds did not have to worry about. Although shepherding involved a lot of sitting-and-watching time, a good shepherd in Palestine was diligent, skilled, and courageous, not lazy.
Given all that, where does the teaching that shepherds were social outcasts and mistrusted in Israel come from? It seems to have come from only a few ancient sources. One was Aristotle, who viewed shepherds as lazy. But while that was Aristotle’s opinion—and perhaps his experience in Greece—anyone who sees the effort and personal risk that responsible shepherding takes in Israel knows that what Aristotle said did not apply in Israel. Aristotle lived in Greece over 300 years before Jesus was born, and he was not speaking about shepherds or shepherding in Palestine.
The other main sources for the idea that shepherds were social outcasts are the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. The Mishnah is a collection of sayings of the rabbis, written between 200 and 250 AD. The Babylonian Talmud came much later, around 500 AD, and is a collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Mishnah. But we must keep in mind that the Mishnah and Talmud were composed long after the time of Christ and in an environment that was antagonistic to anything that supported Christianity—and one of the biblical records that clearly supported Christianity was the shepherds’ testimony that the Christ had been born.
Furthermore, the Jewish leaders who wrote the Mishna and Babylonian Talmud had other reasons for denigrating shepherds besides anti-Christian sentiment. The tasks involved with shepherding meant breaking many of the “commands” (actually “traditions”) that the Jews had set up as part of their religion. For example, shepherds had to keep tending their sheep on the Sabbath, which did not seem to be “work” to Moses but was eventually considered work to the later religious leaders. Also, if a sheep wandered off on the Sabbath, a shepherd may have had to go more than a Sabbath day’s journey to find it. Those kinds of behaviors irked the religious leaders and caused a bias against shepherds.
Thus, although Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud have a few sentences—and only a few sentences—against shepherds, there is evidence that those statements do not reflect what the average person at the time of Christ thought about them, and there is evidence that shepherds were, in fact, well respected.
There is reliable biblical and extra-biblical evidence that, in general, shepherds were trusted. For example, in both the literature of the ancient Near East and the Greek and Latin literature, the word “shepherd” was often used for political leaders and kings. In fact, “they often appear in Hellenistic bucolic poetry as representatives of an ideal humanity.”a J. M. Creed gives the names of some famous ancient people whose birth and childhood were associated in history and mythology with shepherds, including Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome, Mithras, and Cyrus the Persian.b
As well as the extra-biblical Greek and Latin evidence about shepherds, the Bible also speaks favorably of shepherds. God is referred to as a shepherd (Gen. 48:15; Ps. 23:1; 28:9; 80:1; Isa. 40:10-11), and so is Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus was called a “shepherd” in prophecy before he was born (Gen. 49:24; Ezek. 34:23; 37:24; Zech. 13:7); then he referred to himself as “the good shepherd” during his ministry (John 10:11, 14), and he is still called a shepherd after his death and resurrection (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4). If shepherds were known as dishonest social outcasts, there would be no reason the New Testament would refer to our Lord Jesus as a shepherd.
Many of the great people of the Bible were shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos (Amos 1:1). The kings and leaders in Israel were called “shepherds” because of the way they cared for the people (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; 1 Chron. 11:2; 17:6; 2 Chron. 18:16; Ps. 78:71-72; Jer. 3:15; Zech. 10:2). The prophet Jeremiah referred to himself as God’s shepherd (Jer. 17:16). Also, God said of the Persian king Cyrus: “He is my shepherd and will perform all my pleasure” (Isa. 44:28). But it is doubtful if calling a king or leader a “shepherd” would have been common if shepherds were mistrusted social outcasts. Also, in the prophecies of the future kingdom of Christ on earth, the Bible says God will set up godly shepherds over the people (Jer. 23:4).
More biblical evidence that shepherds were respected is the fact in the New Testament, the word usually translated as “pastor” (Eph. 4:11) is the word “shepherd” in Greek, and is translated “shepherds” in several English versions (cp. CJB; DBY; ESV; Rotherham; Young’s Literal Translation). Would God really designate one of the most respected church positions as “shepherd” if to be a shepherd implied being a mistrusted social outcast? Thus, examining all the evidence supports the conclusion that the shepherds in the record of the birth of Christ were godly men of faith who were looking for the coming of the Messiah, who were successful businessmen, and who faithfully communicated to the community around Bethlehem what they had seen from God.
There are important lessons we can learn from the shepherds. One is that they were obviously waiting for and expecting the Messiah to come, just as we Christians should be. Another is that they understood their God-given commission to spread the Good News about the birth of the Messiah, and they obeyed that commission. Christians also have a God-given commission to spread the news about the Messiah, and we should follow the example of the shepherds and obey that commission.
What happened to the shepherds? The Bible does not say, but it is likely that they had died by the time Jesus started his ministry about 30 years later. There is no indication anyone tried to seek them out to confirm their testimony that the Messiah had been born, nor is there any indication they tried to join the followers of Christ before or after his death.
“living out in the fields.” This is a good indication that Jesus was not born at Christmas time. It would generally be too cold in Bethlehem in December to keep the sheep in the fields at night. They would be brought into a sheepfold and some kind of shelter. Many scholars think Jesus was born around September, and Ernest Martin gives some good evidence that it was in September of 3 BC.c