As a writer of historical fiction, I am always looking for unique insights into well-known events. I try to find the unusual details that make a story come alive, often focusing on ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
We all think we know the Christmas story, and nativity plays seem to follow time-honoured traditions. When my children were young, each year I would hunt down the most authentic-looking tea towel I could find, and dig out the slightly grubby lamb from the bottom of the toy box, so my son could adopt the role of the shepherd he was inevitably cast as in the school play. But are these traditions really based on fact?
It’s conventional to see the shepherds as a reminder that Jesus came as much for ordinary country folk as for high born and educated men. But when I delved a little closer into this well-known story, I discovered some surprising information.
As a writer I am drawn to characters who are complex so I was interested to find contradictory reports about how shepherds were viewed at the time. In scripture, shepherding is often depicted as an honourable occupation: bible heroes such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses and David all looked after sheep. However, Philo, a Jewish sage in Egypt and a contemporary of Jesus, wrote that shepherds ‘are held to be mean and inglorious’ and the Babylonian Talmud presents shepherds as being lawless, dishonest and unreliable, often because they had a habit of trespassing onto other people’s land to graze their flocks. So it’s not a clear picture. The plot thickens…
Talking of plot, I also found some twists and turns in the backstory that are not evident in popular versions of the shepherds’ experience. The shepherds written about in the gospel of Luke, according to the Jewish Mishnah, were not ordinary shepherds but those rearing sheep for sacrifice in the temple in nearby Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century, records that at the Passover up to 265,000 lambs would be sacrificed in the Jewish temple. The Passover lamb was known as the ‘Lamb of God’ – a term later used to describe Jesus. It was the shepherds’ job to make sure only perfect first-born male lambs were selected.
In a valley where these sacrificial sheep were reared, situated only one thousand paces from Bethlehem, was a tower that had stood for nearly a thousand years. It was known as Migdal Eder or ‘tower of the flock’ and served as a great look-out for shepherds watching their flocks.
The prophet Micah, writing seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, foretold:
‘And you, O tower of the flock, Hill of daughter Zion, to you it shall come, the former dominion shall come, The sovereignty of daughter Jerusalem. (Micah 4 v. 8). He then went on to write, a few verses later, ‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.’
When these sacrificial lambs were born they were wrapped up in strips of cloth to protect them and placed in a manger at the base of the tower, until the priest could come by to inspect them. So when the angel said to the shepherds, ‘This shall be a sign for you. You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’ (Luke 2:12) the men would have understood exactly what the angels described.
It seems these ancient shepherds, with their somewhat mixed reputations, were the people best placed to announce the arrival of the human ‘Lamb of God.’ We can only imagine their astonishment and excitement when they ran to Bethlehem to discover the baby wrapped in identical swaddling clothes to those they used to protect their sheep, and lying in a similar manger to the one they used for their own lambs. I wonder if they grasped at the time that the baby they rushed to see would himself become a sacrificial lamb thirty-three years later.
When I write novels, I have to constantly check to make sure all my facts fit the story and that any loose ends are tied up at the end. In my research into those biblical shepherds, I was amazed that an ancient old testament prophecy was fulfilled in a new testament account, and that the seemingly inconsequential props of the shepherds’ profession became significant elements of the nativity story.
I will never look at a tea towel in the same way again!
Gill Thompson’s new novel ‘The Child on Platform One’, inspired by the real-life escape of thousands of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe on the Kindertransport trains to London, is available on Kindle.