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Sunday, December 23, 2018
Were shepherds out in the fields at night in winter?
From a reader here:
Were shepherds out in the fields at night
January 22 1998
Personal Correspondence Department
United Church of God
P.O. Box 661780
To whom it may concern,
I am writing concerning an article entitled When was Jesus Christ Born? in the Good News of January/February 1997.
In the subsection of the article, there was a boxed-section entitled A New Hypothesis Proposed. In it was a quote, of a note on Luke 2:28 from the Life Application Bible, which stated:
“Luke records that Jesus' birth was announced to shepherds who supplied the lambs for the temple sacrifices that were performed for the forgiveness of sin.”
I would like to point out that this theory is at least 100 years old. Alfred Edersheim, writing in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p.132 said this:
“It was, then, on that 'wintry night' of the 25th of December, that shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrificial services, in the very place consecrated by tradition as that where the Messiah was to be first revealed.”
The prefaces for editions one through three were written between 1883 and 1886. If Edersheim believed the above, then it is more than likely that others have done so before him...
Addressing the points as presented in the boxed-section of the article:
(1) For me, "meticulously" and "simply" do not really go together. If Luke was meticulous [i.e., scrupulously careful: overcareful] he wouldn't put things simply.
(2) To use the argument "surely Luke, being the painstaking accurate historian evidence by his writing, would have explained the reason so his knowledgeable readers would not have been confused..." is an assumption, but it is not necessarily convincing.
If we look at Luke 4:13-14 we find that Luke leaves out one year of Christ's ministry, (see any harmony of the Gospels). This has caused much confusion for readers of Luke. Please refer to Mr Bradford's article, The Real Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the GN of January 1996, where he overlooks this point.
(3) If Luke's readers were 'knowledgeable', as you claim, maybe they did not need an explanation. Were Luke's readers 'knowledgeable' before or after reading the meticulous and at times simple account of these events?
(4) Why is it significant that the argument about the sheep for the temple was advanced only recently, when in fact it wasn't. If we come to a new understanding of the truth does that put it in a bad light because it is new?
(4) I presume that the Babylonian Talmud was used. So I would like to look at it in regard to your argument.
The article says "lets look at what the Talmudic sources say regarding the temple-sheep argument" and then you give a quote which refers to raising sheep [small cattle] in the land of Israel. Technically it may have been better to have said: "let's look firstly at what the Talmud says about raising sheep and then how this applies to the temple-sheep argument."
As you will appreciate Baba Kamma 79b and 80a covers a rule concerning where it is acceptable to raise sheep in the land of Israel.
In the article, the quote of the Talmud states:
"The rabbis taught: 'Flocks of animals should not be raised in Israel, but can [be] in the wooded areas or in Siria, and also where it is inhabited.' Another teaching says: 'No flocks should be raised in Israel, but can [be raised] in the wilderness areas of Judea.'"
In the Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Soncino Press, London 1964, which I am using, the Mishnah passage states:
It is not right to breed small cattle in Eretz Yisrael.
Then the Gemara comments:
Our Rabbis taught: It is not right to breed small cattle in Eretz Yisrael but they may be bred in the woods of Eretz Yisrael or in Syria even in inhabited settlements, and needless to say also outside Eretz Yisrael. Another [Baraitha] taught: 'It is not right to breed small cattle in Eretz Yisrael. They may, however, be bred in the deserts of Judah and in the desert at the border of Acco.
As you will appreciate, this differs somewhat from your quote. Your quote, with its punctuation marks, seems to imply that certain 'inhabited' settlements in the land of Israel were acceptable for raising sheep.
From my source, the inhabited areas seem to refer only to Syria. Syria, according to Edersheim, in the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, was considered part of Israel:
...Indeed, according to one view of it, Babylonia, as well as 'Syria' as far north as Antioch, was regarded as forming part of the land of Israel (Ber.R. 17). Every other country was considered outside 'the land,' as Palestine was called, with the exception of Babylonia, which was reckoned part of it (Erub.21a, Gitt.6a)... (p.6).
If this is the case then it would contradict your statement that:
...the Talmud expressly permitted grazing sheep close to towns, which would be the situation with Bethlehem.
I believe that Bethlehem is in the land of Israel and that it was not exempted from the provision.
I would like to quote the full paragraph from which your above quote was taken, so as to comment further. You stated:
These prohibitions were measures to avoid depleting the agricultural resources of Israel, normally the valleys in which wheat and barley would be planted and sheep could ruin the soil. In upper Judea, this was not a problem because no grains were cultivated there, and the Talmud expressly permitted grazing sheep close to towns, which would be the situation with Bethlehem. This restriction, which concerned overgrazing, would not apply to the shepherds near Bethlehem.
In the footnotes to the Mishnah the reason, more technically correct, for the prohibition is that small cattle "...usually spoil the crops of the field..."
In the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia article on 'Bethlehem,' it states that "Bethlehem is surrounded by fertile fields, figs and olive orchards, and vineyards."
If the Talmudic rule was in force at the time of Christ, and that agriculture has not changed over time, then it is most likely that sheep would not have been 'close' to Bethlehem. Refer to Appendix 1 which looks at the Greek of Luke 2 to back up this position.
In the following paragraph, you state that:
Concerning the temple sheep, the Talmudic source is speaking of the Passover sacrifices and places the limit of finding the sacrificial lambs within one month before the Passover, meaning they would have to be determined in February or March.
Is the Talmudic source Shekalim 7.4 or Baba Kamma 79b-80a? From the context, it seems, that it is the latter. As you have not quoted it, the reader has to take it on face value what you are saying is correct. Baba Kamma 79b on this point says:
Again, though they said: 'It is not right to breed small cattle', one may nevertheless keep them before a festival for thirty days and similarly before the wedding festivity of his son for thirty days. He should, however, not retain the animal last brought for thirty days [if these expire after the festival]. So that if the festival had already gone, though since from the time he bought the animal until that time thirty days had not elapsed we do not say that a period of thirty days is permitted for keeping the animal, but [we are to say that] as soon as the festival has gone he should not retain it any longer.
I would like to point out that 'Passover' and 'sacrifice' are not mentioned in this rule, that it refers to all festivals and it also includes weddings. The question could be asked has it anything to do with "temple sheep" at all? A footnote to the Gemara on Bezah 40a says: For the prohibition of slaughtering pasture animals on a Festival is due to mukzeh, and therefore it is assumed that since Rabbi defines pasture animals, he accepts this prohibition. Also, Baba Kamma 80a then continues with:
'A cattle dealer may, however, buy and slaughter, or buy and [even] keep for the market. He may, however, not retain the animals he bought last for thirty days.'
To complicate matters further, you state:
This is a far cry from the temple-sheep theory, which proposes that the sheep were grazing three months before the Passover, with the shepherds weathering freezing conditions so the priests would have sheep available for Passover.
Why is it said the temple-sheep theory concerns only sheep for the Passover? Walter L. Liefeld, in the Expositor's Bible Commentary, mentions that "Morris (Luke, p.84) suggests that, if the birth did take place in winter, the shepherds may have been raising sheep for sacrifice at Passover a few months later." In looking at Morris, in the Revised Edition, p.93, he does not quite say that. It appears that Liefeld reads "Passover/three months" into Morris's statement. See Appendix 2 which looks at the temple-sheep argument, which includes Shekalim 7.4 & 5, and how this fits in with the Passover sacrifices.
The Life Application Bible notes, as quoted above, that "...the lambs for the temple sacrifices that were performed for the forgiveness of sin".
What does the author mean by this? Is he referring to the whole sacrificial system by way of synecdoche, or, to the sin and guilt/trespass offerings? If it is the former, sheep would be required all year round. If it is the latter, it would not apply to the Passover per se. From my understanding, the Jews did not consider the Passover a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin.
If it refers to sin offerings then this would also be a year-round activity, which leads to another problem - where sheep out in the open all year round?
In the main article, it is said that:
...A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them."
No reference is provided to substantiate this claim. Adam Clarke's Commentary and The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary presume that this is the case. But how do we know that they are not working off a wrong premise and, if the premise is wrong, then the argument is wrong?
Edersheim, in this regard, says:
...Those who have copied Lightfoot's quotation about the flocks [not]lying out during the winter months ought, at least, to have known that the reference in the Talmudic passages is expressly to the flocks which pastured in 'the wilderness'... But even so, the statement, as so many others of the kind, is not accurate. For in the Talmud two opinions are expressed. According to one, 'the Midbariyoth,' or animals of the wilderness,' are those which go to the open at the Passover-time, and return at the first rains (about November); while, on the other hand, Rabbi maintains, and as it seems, more authoritatively, that the wilderness-flocks remain in the open alike in the hottest days and in the rainy season - i.e. all the year round (Bezah 40a; comp. also Tosephta Bezah 4.6). A somewhat different explanation is given in Jer. Bezah 63b. See Appendix? for the Mishnah and the Gemara on Bezah 40a. (p.131).
A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hasting, in the article 'Sheep' is also of the opinion, based on what I do not know, that sheep "are exposed to the vicissitudes of weather, winter and summer, frost and drought, in the immense treeless plains where they are most raised (Gn 31:40);..."
What is the basis for Adam Clarke's and the Interpreter's One-Volume Commentaries, and hence, your acceptance of this premise?
Even the weather may not be as harsh as you have presented. Edersheim, who supports winter as the time of Christ's birth, says this about the climate:
The mean of 22 seasons in Jerusalem <5 10="" bethlehem="" from="" miles="" to=""> amounted to 4.178 inches in December, 5.479 in January, and 5.207 in February... for 1876-77 we have these startling figures: mean for December, 0.490; for January 1.595; for February, 8.750 - and, similarly, in other years. And so we read:5>
"Good the year in which Tebheth (December) is without rain' (Taan.6b). (p.131).
In regard to "temperatures in the area of Bethlehem", The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this estimation:
The ISBE article on 'Snow' states that:
Snow is infrequent throughout most of Palestine, occurring about once every five years in Jerusalem (usually in the latter part of the rainy season) though most commonly in upper Galilee...
I have presented this information to show that are two sides to every argument. If the first-time reader found this article interesting and went to check "whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11b) and they found information to the contrary then it may damage the credibility of the magazine and the people who put it out. There is a danger in presenting only one, superficially researched, side of the argument. It is better to present both sides and then point out why you favour one side over the other, if space permits.
* [Update, September 1999: "In January the temperature may drop below freezing, possibly bringing snow (snow falls about once in five years). This is similar to the climate of the southern California coastal region, e.g., Los Angeles" (W.S. LaSor, Jerusalem, ISBE, Vol.2, p.1032).
Appendix 1 - Luke 2
And shepherds were in the same country, living in the fields, and keeping guard over their flock by night.
And it happened as the angels departed from them into Heaven, even the men the shepherds, said to one another, Indeed, let us go over to Bethlehem.
The International Critical Commentary on verse 8 states:
..."They repeatedly said unto one another, Come then let us go over," or "Let us at once go across." The compound verb refers to the intervening country (Acts 9:38, 11:19, 18:27),...
A Translator's Handbook on the Gospel of Luke concurs:
dierchomai 'to go through', 'to go', but always with the implication that a certain distance is to be traversed, cp. Moulton-Milligan 160.
While Bullinger, in A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament has:
8. διερχομαι(No. 4
with δια, through, prefixed,) to come or go through, to pass through; of water, to pass over.
So looking at the Scriptures that the ICC quote to see how dierchoma, a word Luke is fond of, "which occurs thirty times in his writings and less than ten times elsewhere in N.T.," is used, we have:
And Lydda being near to Joppa, the disciples hearing that Peter is in it, they sent two men to him, begging him not to delay to come to them.
Then, indeed, they who were scattered by the oppression taking place over Stephen passed through to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except only to Jews.
And he having intended to go through into Achaia...
In Acts 9:38 we see that Lydda was near to Joppa. These towns were approximately 10 miles apart as the 'crow flies'. It could be said that they were both in the "same country," similar to the intent of Luke 2:8.
From the information presented above, it is more than likely that the shepherds were not as close to Bethlehem as you contend. In fact, they may have been in the wilderness of Judea, (which Bethlehem is close to), as the Mishnah contends.
My opinion is that the shepherds were abiding in the fields (literally: lodging in the fold in the field), at night, in temporary to semi-permanent lodges, depending on the situation, in the summer half of the year, and that, in the winter they would have been in more permanent lodges, caves or sheltered areas protected somewhat from the winter clime.
* Bible verses quoted in Appendix 1 are taken from The Interlinear Bible, Jay P. Green General Editor and Translator.
Appendix 2 - The Temple-sheep Theory as presented by Edersheim:
...And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that he was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, 'the tower of the flock.' This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep-ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah (Shek.7.4) leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, that were pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices,(15) and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds... The same Mishnic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover - that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly the greatest. 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 the year round...
15. In fact, the Mishnah (Baba K. 7.7) expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel, except in the wilderness - and the only flocks otherwise kept, would be those for the Temple-services.
Edersheim, makes two assumptions based on Shekalim 7. Shekalim 7.4 mentions:
Mishnah 4. If cattle were found in Jerusalem as far as Migdal Eder, and within a like distance on any side [of Jerusalem], males [must be considered as being] burnt-offerings, but females [must be considered as] peace-offerings (11). R.Judah says: If they were fit for the Passover-offering, [They must be considered as] Passover-offerings [when found] within thirty days before the Feast [of Passover].
11. The finder must offer them as such... Most cattle in Jerusalem and the vicinity were intended for sacrifices.
Shekalim 7.4 refers to finding stray sheep in a specified area, with Jerusalem as the centre and Migdal Eder as the radius point. This position is reinforced by Shekalim 7.5:
Mishnah 5. Aforetime they used to distrain (1) anyone who had found such a [stray] animal unless he also offered the drink-offerings thereof. Then men would leave the animal and run away; so the court ordained that the drink-offerings thereof should be offered out of public funds.
1. His goods to pay for the necessary drink-offerings and meal offerings;
Migdal Eder, 'tower of the flock', was a place between Jerusalem and Hebron. It seems, owing to the speculation about the 'temple-sheep theory', that no one quite knows why Migdal Eder was chosen as a reference point for finding stray sheep. Shekalim 7 refers to an all-year-round activity. It would apply even if the sheep were outdoors all winter, which is my subjective opinion, or if they were "taken back home and sheltered."
What was the significance behind the name? Were sheep pastured there, a conclusion most likely based on its name, as Edersheim contends? Baba Kamma makes no provision for this. Maybe it was a staging area for the sheep, from the south and south-east, to be taken to Jerusalem. It seems that there is no way of knowing for sure. Even if sheep were pastured there, there is no way of tying the shepherds there in with Luke's.
Appendix 3 - Sheep outdoors in winter?
Mishnah. ...The following are household animals: They that pass the night in town. Pasture animals are such as pass the night in [more distant] pasture ground.
Gemara. Our Rabbis taught: The following are pasture animals and the following are household animals. Pasture animals are such as are led out about [the time of] Passover and graze in [more distant] meadows, and who are led in at time of the first rainfall. The following are household animals: such as are led out and graze outside the city-border but return and spend the night inside the city-border. Rabbi says: Both of these are household animals, but pasture animals are such as are led out and graze in [more distant] meadows and who do not return to the habitation of men either in summer or in winter.
Bezah cannot be used as a basis for the position that the "common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back and sheltered them," and so excluding sheep grazing in more distant meadows in winter.