Who were the Shepherds in the Christmas Story?

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Abraham Hondius, 1663, oil on panel.  Note the cherubim forming circular ring dances (ancient temple prayer circle) in the heavens, praising God.

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Abraham Hondius, 1663, oil on panel. (Click image for a larger view)

The Christmas story from Luke 2 reads in part:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them,

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another,

Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (Luke 2:8–20)

Most of us are very familiar with these scriptures, as it is tradition in many families to read this story at Christmastime every year to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.

But who were the shepherds?  Have you, like me, considered the angelophany to the shepherds in their fields something that was completely random?  Were the angels announcing the birth of the Savior abroad in the land, and this was just one of the accounts that was recorded in scripture?  Or was there a greater purpose to the angelic revelation specific to these shepherds? 

A couple weeks ago my perception of the shepherds changed, and I gained a greater understanding of their significance.  A preview of the upcoming Messiah documentary aired on BYU-TV on December 6th, in which Dr. Richard Holzapfel, professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, noted that the Christmas story takes on added meaning when we consider that the shepherds who were abiding by their flocks in the fields were perhaps watching over temple sheep, sheep that were being bred and protected to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem.  These shepherds may have been men who were accustomed to preparing lambs which symbolically represented the Messiah in their cleanliness, perfection, and their sacrifice on the altar of the temple.  This gives added depth of meaning, if true, to these scriptures which tell of the angels who came to these shepherds to proclaim the birth of the Lamb of God, the Savior of mankind, who would offer the last and ultimate sacrifice.

But there are more interesting details.  The place where the angels appeared to the shepherds is traditionally known as the “Tower of the Flock,” or Migdal Edar, which is very near Bethlehem.  One commentator notes:

This watch tower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts. It was the place ewes were brought to give birth to the lambs. In this sheltered building/cave the priests would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection. These special lambs came from a unique flock which were designated for sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem.

According to Edersheim in The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, in Book 2, Chapter 6, states, “This Migdal Edar was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks that pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but it lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage from the Mishnah (Shekelim 7:4) leads to the conclusion that the flocks which pastured there were destined for Temple sacrifices…

…What are we to make of all of this information from the writings of the rabbis? First, we know that Migdal Edar was the watchtower that guarded the Temple flocks that were being raised to serve as sacrificial animals in the Temple. These were not just any flock and herd. The shepherds who kept them were men who were specifically trained for this royal task. They were educated in what an animal, that was to be sacrificed, had to be and it was their job to make sure that none of the animals were hurt, damaged, or blemished. These lambs were apparently wrapped in “swaddling cloths” to protect them from injury and also used to wrap the Lord Jesus.

Thus, with the establishment of Temple worship in Jerusalem, the fields outside of Bethlehem became the place where a special group of shepherds raised the lambs that were sacrificed in the Temple. Being themselves under special Rabbinical care, they would strictly maintain a ceremonially clean stable for a birthing place. The Tower of the Flock was used for birthing ewes, and the surround fields were where these shepherds grazed their flocks. These shepherds customarily kept their flocks outdoors twenty-four hours a day every day of the year, but brought the ewes in to deliver their lambs where they could be carefully cared for. It was to this place that Joseph took Mary. It was in this special stable at “Migdal Edar” that Christ was born!…

Luke 2:8–18 records that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their sheep by night. Who then were these shepherds? Without question these were shepherds who resided near Bethlehem. They were none other but the shepherds from “Migdal Edar” who were well aware that the Targum hinted and many of the rabbis taught that Messiah might well be announced from “Migdal Edar” at Bethlehem. The angels only told the shepherds that they would find the Babe wrapped in “swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” There was no need for the angels to give these shepherds directions to the birth place because they already knew. These were the men who raised sacrificial lambs that were sacrificed in the Temple. When the angelic announcement came, they knew exactly where to go, as Luke 2 indicates, for the sign of a manger could only mean their manger at the tower of the flock! You cannot explain the meaning or direction of the sign they were given or their response unless you have the right manger and the right shepherds!

Typically, “Migdal Edar”, (the tower of the flock) at Bethlehem is the perfect place for Christ to be born. He was born in the very birthplace where tens of thousands of lambs, which had been sacrificed to prefigure Him. God promised it, pictured it and performed it at “Migdal Edar”. It all fits together, for that’s the place the place where sacrificial lambs were born! Jesus was not born behind an inn, in a smelly stable where the donkeys of travelers and other animals were kept. He was born in Bethlehem, at the birthing place of the sacrificial lambs that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem which Micah 4:8 calls the “tower of the flock.”1

I’m not sure how much of this commentator’s words can be corroborated, but it is interesting to consider.

As a side note, I also found it interesting when I was searching for an image to introduce this post that I found the painting “Annunciation to the Shepherds” by Abraham Hondius.  This 17th century art piece depicts the angels in heaven forming circular ring dances, reminiscent of the ancient temple prayer circles, with the cherubim taking each other’s hands.  Dr. Jeffrey Bradshaw has described this form of heavenly worship in an article recently at Meridian Magazine, which also describes temple themes in the Christmas story:

In ancient literature, heavenly worship is always described as taking a circular form. For example, in Abraham 3:23, God is described as standing “in the midst” (i.e., “in the center”) of the premortal souls. Nibley clarifies this description by observing that: “He’s surrounded on all sides.” Likewise, Lehi describes God upon his throne “surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.” Nibley again points out: “A concourse is a circle. Of course [numberless] concourses means circles within circles.”

Similar imagery relating to sacred circles is found in the Islamic hajj, where pilgrims circumambulate the Ka’bah and offer prayer in likeness of the angels. Teaching His disciples about prayer, Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them [in the center].”2

Notes:
  1. Cooper P Abrams III, “Where was the Birth Place of the Lord Jesus? []
  2. Jeffrey Bradshaw, “Temple Themes in Luke’s Account of the Angels and the Shepherds,” Meridian Magazine, 17 December 2009. []

12 Comments

  1. Posted December 18, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Wow! How very neat.

    It’s interesting, we just had a youth fireside at the bishop’s house where the subject was the nativity, and that same question of who the sheperds were was asked, to which bishop pretty much responded that there must have been something special about them for them to have heard it out of all the others.

    Special indeed, if that commentator is right!

  2. Jim White
    Posted December 20, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Loved it. Great article. I shared with my family too. Keep up the great work! Merry Christmas and Hosanna to the Highest!

  3. Krasimir Kolarov
    Posted December 21, 2009 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Thank you! Remarkable! Merry Christmas to all of you from Bulgaria!

  4. Bryan Hansen
    Posted December 23, 2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is interesting and does make sense. Incidentally there is LDS mythology that some of the wise men were Nephites. I do not konw what I think about that idea either. There is a book about translated beings, etc. which discusses this idea as the specific Nephites were translated beings.

  5. Chris - Oregon
    Posted December 25, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Very interesting! It really makes a lot of sense. I shared this with my family members, who were equally as impressed. Great research! We loved it! Merry Christmas!

  6. Posted December 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I believe its Bruce R. McConkie’s “The Mortal Messiah” Vol 1, where he says this same thing about the shepherds. Now perhaps he was just reading other sources like those you quoted, but he did write and publish while an Apostle. So I definitely think that adds some weight to the idea within LDS theology. And it makes a lot of sense. If its not true, then there must’ve been something else that was special about these shepherds.

    Bryan Hansen mentions the identity of the “wise men.” From what studying I’ve done, I think its far more likely that they were mortals, like the shepherds, but also very special in their beliefs and role. There are several options, but one very likely one is that they were Bedouin tribal leaders, or other Arab, Median, or Persian leaders. As such they might have been of the same Abrahamic tradition as Jethro, holding Priesthood and knowing of the prophecies of the coming Messiah.

  7. Frederick Smith
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Possibly the most important component of the shepherd’s visit to the Christ child is that these men were the designated witness as to who could be a sacrifice in Israel. They were the ones trusted to verify that the sacrifice was a first born male without blemish.

  8. JL
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Bryce, in his trilogy, The Kingdom and the Crown, Gerald Lund uses the shepherds’ experience to lay the foundation of believers who decades later are watching and waiting for the Messiah’s mission to begin. It brought clarity to why these shepherds received the visitation, and pointed out that there were witnesses of his birth who recognized Him in His ministry.

  9. Posted April 18, 2010 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    So in essence what the commentator is saying is that the Levites and those who held the priesthood authority to over see the Temple and its rites received the revelation of the birth of the messiah? Very interesting observation

  10. Brent
    Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Excellent article. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Sarah
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    From The East: A Book of Mormon Perspective on The Three Wise Men by Jeffrey Holt is a very interesting read. If you are looking for theories on the identity of the Wise men. Once again the Lord does not do anything if not symbolically. And if you are going to send someone to teach the Messiah aren’t you going to be very careful who you choose?

  12. Frederick Smith
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Another sign was that Jesus was a first born son and male lambs that were first born without blemish would be sacrificed at the annual passover for the sin offering in the temple. These shepherds were the only ones authorized to say which lambs were worthy of such an offering. They were the authorized witnesses that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the only worthy sacrifice for the sins of the world and of mankind. The wisemen came much later to the party to bear witnesses that Jesus is the Christ, the King.

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