It’s that time of year again for a wide array of questionable, if not outright false, legends to be circulated about details related to the birth of Jesus. Let me address a popular example, one that is frequently shared on social media.
There are several overlapping elements to this story/legend. We will tackle them one by one.
The first element goes like this: the shepherds around Bethlehem were not overseeing ordinary flocks but were responsible for raising sheep for sacrifice at the temple.
This opinion, popularized long ago by Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, is based on scanty evidence drawn from the Mishnah, the basic compendium of Jewish law. This is the document behind the vague references on social media posts to “Jewish practice” or “ancient tradition” at the time of Jesus. But when was the Mishnah dated? Maybe 50 BC? Or AD 75? No, around AD 200. That is, needless to say, two centuries after the events that transpired on the night Jesus was born.
While a graduate student at Hebrew Union College, I read and studied the Mishnah in Hebrew. I am very familiar with its background, contents, and importance. It is indeed valuable as later evidence that purports to preserve older oral traditions and teachings. That being said, the Mishnah cannot be used as reliable evidence for something that predates it by two hundred years.
So, were these individuals serving as shepherds for the temple, or (as some go on to boldly claim) even priests who were doing the shepherding? Maybe. Maybe not, but I doubt it. We do not have any verifiable way of knowing. We certainly do not, by any stretch of the scholarly imagination, have sufficient, irrefutable evidence to teach or preach that these were temple shepherds taking care of future sacrificial lambs.
The evangelist Luke offers no such clue, not even a hint, that these people were anything but ordinary shepherds taking care of ordinary sheep. Within the broader biblical narrative, their significance is likely to be sought in David himself being a shepherd around Bethlehem. As David was called from taking care of the sheep to be anointed as king, so these shepherds were sent by the angels to Bethlehem to see the newborn King and Shepherd of Israel.
Second, some posts on social media and various blogs will go on to claim that Bethlehem was famous for producing unblemished lambs that were used for sacrifice, including Passover lambs. Of course, this claim is based on the earlier, questionable legend that these were temple flocks. Unlike the earlier opinion, however, this one is not even built on scanty evidence; it is built on thin air.
I have found no evidence in older Jewish literature—and certainly not in the Bible—that if you were to stop someone on Jerusalem’s streets to ask, “Where do the best sacrificial lambs come from?” they would respond, “Bethlehem, of course!” This claim, therefore, is wholly unsupported by evidence.
So file this one under, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
When this claim is made, it is commonly joined to a description of the Migdal Eder, which is the third element under discussion. I will explain why momentarily, but let’s first identify what and where Migdal Eder is.
In Hebrew, a migdal (מִגְדָּל) is a “tower” and an “eder” (עֵדֶר) is a “herd or flock.” This “Tower of the Flock” or Migdal Eder is first mentioned in Genesis 35:21, as a place near where Jacob pitched his tent. In this context, Bethlehem is mentioned but we are not told how close Migdal Eder was to Bethlehem.
The other mention of this tower is in Micah 4:8, “And you, O tower of the flock [Migdal Eder], hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.” As is well known, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism, where the second line of a couplet will often be somewhat synonymous to, or expansive of, the first line. In this verse, the “tower of the flock” parallels “the daughter of Zion.” So, in Micah, if Midgal Eder is identified with any place, it is Zion/Jerusalem, not Bethlehem.
Why does this matter? Another wildly popular claim is that Migdal Eder is where the Jews expected the Messiah to be born and where Jesus was actually born! But does this claim hold up under scrutiny? No, absolutely not.
Part of this legend can be traced back to the Aramaic paraphrase, known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, on Genesis 35:21. It reads, “And Jakob proceeded and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder [Midgal Eder], the place from whence, it is to be, the King Messiah will be revealed at the end of the days.” Most likely, because the context of this Genesis verse is linked with Bethlehem, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, this paraphrase connected the revelation of the Messiah with this tower.
As with the Mishnah, so with Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: we are dealing here with a Jewish paraphrase that—at least in its finished form—far postdates the first century. The targums are notoriously hard to date. This verse from the Targum cannot be used to “prove” that Jews of Jesus’ day were pinning their hopes on the revelation of the Messiah at Migdal Eder. All we can rightly say about this Targum verse is that, at some time, probably long after the first century, some Jews linked the Messiah’s birth with this tower because Genesis 35 located it near Bethlehem. No more, no less.
Despite this fact, I have read countless fanciful claims online that this tower was central to the shepherding around Bethlehem; that it was used for sheltering ewes about to bear their sacrificial, temple lambs; that there were mangers inside it where newborn lambs were kept; and, as if all these made-up, historically unverifiable legends were not enough, some go on to claim that this was the exact spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. All of this is baseless. There is not a shred of verifiable evidence to back it up.
We come finally, to the fourth and most audacious of the claims: that these supposedly “temple shepherds,” who wanted unblemished lambs, would wrap them in strips of cloth and place them in a manger to keep them safe (some add, in Midgal Eder). They didn’t want them thrashing around and blemishing themselves. In this way, the swaddled lambs would be kept fit for sacrifice.
What is the evidence for this claim? There is none. Zero. I don’t know where it originated, but it has spread like wildfire on recent FB posts. I suspect it was the icing on the cake of the other legends which I have surveyed above. What we have is the fictional creation of someone’s mind.
So, when the shepherds were told by the angels to go to Bethlehem where they will “find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12), they did just that. They went to town not the Migdal Eder. They found baby Jesus wrapped in cloths, as was common at the time, lying in a feed trough, because that made for an excellent baby bed. These shepherds certainly did not say to themselves, “Ah, just like we wrap our lambs in cloths to keep them safe for sacrifice in Migdal Eder!” No, that supposition would have to wait for fertile minds to concoct twenty centuries later.
Stick to the Facts
The account of our Lord’s nativity, in its biblical and first-century Jewish context, is rich enough without seeking to supplement it with the counterfeit currency of legend. Stick to the facts. The biblical background of Bethlehem, David, the virgin, the angels, shepherds, and all the various details from the Evangelists have deep roots in the Old Testament. Trace those. Preach on them.
There you already have a bottomless treasury of truth.
Yes, draw also from Jewish writings either contemporary with the first century, or predating the first century, to shed light on those details. Texts like the books in the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls are often useful background for the New Testament. If the Mishnah is cited, for instance, or the much later writings of the Talmud, then honesty dictates that these later sources be used appropriately, as possible witnesses to earlier traditions or beliefs, not as proof of things that often predate them by centuries.
As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s birth, let’s do so with reverence for the truth. In truth is our confidence, our joy, our boasting. The truth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, the Son of David, who is born for us in Bethlehem, as long foretold.