A Messenger Stood Near Them

The pericope of the herders depicts perhaps the most dramatic moment in all the infancy narratives: the sudden appearance of an angel of the Lord and a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and declaring peace on earth. Assessing this scene’s historicity is a deep challenge because of all that is embedded in Luke’s references to angelos and stratias, traditionally rendered as angel and host in English. How are we supposed to translate these words and place them in their narrative and historical contexts? More to the point — what might have the herders witnessed that original Christmas Eve?

Here at the outset, let me propose a different scene:

Four adolescent cousins sit on the top of a hill overlooking a village of about twenty families. A patch of interconnected two-story houses made of limestone bricks and plastered with chalk mortar lies at the center of a bowl-shaped valley. Relatives and other visitors have come into town recently and needed accommodations in dwellings usually reserved for keeping sheep and goats inside at night. These cousins have the chore of taking their families’ small herds to the safest area for nighttime, the hilltop nearby where they can spot poachers or predators.

The surrounding hillsides give grass for livestock and a modest harvest of grains for the families to make bread and cakes. The young men clothed in sleeveless undyed cotton tunics tied at the waist with a goat-hair belt and goat-leather sandals take turns getting up at regular intervals to count a small herd of sheep, between 30 and 50 in number, with another half-dozen goats in the flock. They carry oak rods with barbs at the end designed for warding off desert wolves that pose the greatest danger this night. The herd animals mostly rest on the ground in a circle chewing cuds of grass they had grazed already. The body heat of the group is warmest at the center, and every few minutes, a sheep or goat moves from the edge to another side looking for little openings. A hungry sheep sometimes ventures a few feet from the flock to gnaw at the ground for some more grass.

A man dressed similarly to the herders walks up the slope toward the flock. The young men fetch their rods and rush to the front of the herd, taking the man for a poacher. The man says, “Don’t be afraid — I have come to bring you good news of great joy for all people. Just now, in the village below, a savior who is the Mashiach has been born for you. This will be a sign for you — you will find the baby swaddled and lying in a trough.” The man retreats, almost seeming to have mysteriously disappeared. The young men look at each other and say something to the effect that this must have been a malakh, one of the divine messengers of heaven, because of the word of the Mashiach’s birth and his mysterious appearance. They remark about the man’s bearing: he seemed lordly the way a malakh would be. As they gaze up into the night sky, a blanket of brilliant stars shimmers, and the herders themselves send up a song of praise and thanksgiving to the heavenly array of divine beings who must be rejoicing that the Mashiach has been born.

The young men tell each other they should go into the village. One of the visiting relatives must have been pregnant and delivered her baby while they had been tending the flock. They expect they’ll find lamps lit in the courtyards between houses where family members will be caring for mother and baby. Had the malakh visited others, too? And told them just how special this newborn is? The herders shake the oldest ewe to her feet and prod the other sheep with the smooth end of their oak rods. The flock rather quickly follows the ewe and herders down a well-worn path down the hill back toward their homes. Excitement builds as the young men reach the outer dwellings of the village and they see light escaping one of the houses. They wake a couple of their older brothers who work the fields to help them watch the sheep at the edge of the village while they venture inside looking through openings for an infant sleeping in a stone trough.

This version runs quite differently than our traditional presentations. I know that I’ve given it some specific details, but really I try to imagine this scene more impressionistically. Quite a few of the details could go another way, like the herders being adolescent young women, but there are probabilities that push against those possibilities. Let me explain why I have constructed this narrative in this way — but first, a word about the contexts at play in the Lukan account of the nativity and why we have to peel away many accretions that have affected the story.

Contexts

I want to distinguish between three aspects of this pericope, just to make sure I don’t get in a tangled mess going forward: (1) the narrative context; (2) the historical context; (3) the cultural context.

Narrative Context

By “narrative context,” I mean the surrounding text of Luke-Acts; and by Luke-Acts, I mean the earliest composite narrative in the manuscripts that give us Luke-Acts (not the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles as we read them in the modern biblical canon and chapter-verse format). When the pericope mentions an angelos appearing to the herders, its reference occurs within a larger narration that mentions angels elsewhere, and that larger narrative context should inform how we make sense of this instance of angelos.

Historical Context

By “historical context,” I mean the historical setting for both (1) the original nativity event, and (2) the composition of the Luke-Acts narration. What we know of Galilean villages, shepherding, and other historical details will inform the limits of interpretive possibility for how we imagine the nativity event. And the pericope was passed down and eventually committed to writing by particular oral and textual events. It’s probable that narrative elements were injected into the story much later than during earliest tellings of the nativity.

Cultural Context

By “cultural context,” I mean the cultural setting for the characters in the pericope as well as for the reporters, writers, copyists, and lecturers (whom I will group into one category, the “narrators”) who preserved and promoted the story. The herders may have interpreted their experience in different cultural terms than later narrators; or perhaps the later narrators were influenced by the herders’ experience and adopted a view of angels and hosts based on the pericope.

Narrators

We don’t know the identities of the original narrators of the pericopes that made it into Luke-Acts. An introductory dedication addressed to Theophilus in both Luke 1 and Acts 1 has led readers to consider Luke-Acts the work of a man named Luke who was a disciple of Jesus during or after the ministry of Paul. The texts that make up the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are rather quite complicated in their production and provenance. A popular argument among biblical scholars is that the Gospel of Luke is derived from at least three sources: the Gospel of Mark; a hypothetical collection of Jesus’s sayings known as Q; and additional narrative traditions evident only in Luke known as L. We have Mark but we don’t have Q or L except in whatever editorial selections preserved Q and L material in the Gospel of Luke. Mark’s gospel manifestly presents pericope traditions that had circulated within an oral culture of early Jewish followers of Jesus; Q sayings evidently circulated as well; L material may or may not have been the production of a single author. Even if we discount the Q and L hypotheses, the Lukan text presents us with enough variation and signatures of oral production that we must accept the narrative as primarily the memory and retelling of many people and not a biography written by an eyewitness or even a reporter.

The historical context for the production of Luke-Acts, therefore, involves a thematic interest of late-first-century and early-second-century North Mediterranean Jews speaking to a non-Jewish audience. These narrators appear to care about the imperial cult of Augustus that was being heavily enforced under the reign of Domitian. Augustus (Octavius/Octavian before ascending to the status of emperor of Rome) had become associated with godhood by the administration of Domitian, and the cultus surrounding veneration of Augustus lauded him as savior, prince of peace, and lord of lords. Lukan devotees of Jesus rejected Augustus as lord and savior and remembered Jesus’s birth in terms strikingly aligned with the Augustan cult.

The imperial cult included holidays and festivals that worshiped Augustus as the child of Apollo, born of Atia who had miraculously conceived while in the temple of Apollo and whose womb was purified by starlight and sunlight.[1] Also, Augustus was extoled as the imperator who had brought peace by commanding Apollo’s heavenly army — indicating an ideology that a divine military led by a divine son of God was a peaceful army, a host that by its presence elicited the gratitude of conquered peoples.[2] We have today a kind of civic religion that reverences the United States military — notice how people expect honor and respect and even reverence for soldiers in the displays and pageants that surround “supporting our troops” or observing Veteran’s Day or July 4, etc. This style of veneration was present in Rome and commanded enough awe that even early Christians who were averse to the imperial cult worshiped the banners of the Roman armies. (Tertullian said this to a Roman critic as part of his defense of Christianity: “You also worship Victories, since crosses are the skeletons of trophies. The whole religion of your army is the worship, the adoration of standards. I praise your diligence: you did not wish to worship unadorned and naked crosses!”[3]) The Roman army wasn’t just the superpower of its time; it was the divinely commissioned, divinely commanded host of Apollo and Augustus with banners/standards paraded ahead of their arrivals proclaiming them the bringers of peace to the world.

The pre-Lukan narrators who told and retold the stories that informed and became Luke’s gospel had within their immediate social and political context a popular imperial cult that paraded and presented such forms and symbols and elements of public worship. The connections between the imperial cult of Augustus and Luke 2 are so striking, it’s almost obvious when we consider the audience for the pericope: Roman imperial subjects who were obliged to perform the rituals and pageants of Augustan worship were interacting with some of the first Gentile converts to Apostolic Judaism, and those converts, who themselves had recently been worshiping Augustus as the son of God and the lord of lords and commander of the heavenly host, now pivoted to Jesus and saw Jesus as the true Augustus, the true son of God and savior-figure.

When we read of angelos and stratias in Luke-Acts, there exists a strong historical context suggesting these terms are hybridizations that reconcile Hebrew Bible references to malaki [=messenger] and mashiach [=messiah/anointed] with angelos [=messenger] and christos [=anointed]. The narrative context for Luke 2 in the surrounding Luke-Acts accounts bears out this theme, even placing such synthesis as a contribution of Paul and the other apostolos who ventured the sayings of Jesus into non-Jewish, Pagan provinces of the Roman Empire.

All of this is to say, when the Luke 2 narrative has herders encountering an angelos and a sudden appearance of a stratias, the narrative and historical contexts for the narrators telling the story is that the narrators believed (or at least wanted to present) that a brilliant, glowing messenger of God frightened the herders by its appearance and the multitude of the heavenly army was like the Roman army in all its pomp and majesty.

Early Reporters

But what of the first reporters of the story? As a fact, the earliest possible reporters would have been the principal observers who antedate the Lukan narrators by about a century or more.[4] During the Herodian period, the Augustan cult had begun to materialize but had not experienced widespread enforcement and had not developed the virgin-birth narrative. Augustus did present himself as the divine son of Apollo and was announced at all appearances under the title of divine emperor. Had the herders witnessed a multitude of the heavenly army, they more likely would have gauged this in Hebrew terms and symbols — the ẓava’ (later sabaoth, “host”) as opposed to the stratias.

We come to another troublesome translation issue: what to make of ẓava’, the Hebrew word/concept that was targeted as an apostate behavior King Josiah ordered to be purged from the Israelite histories and scripture. In addition to being redacted in many places of the Hebrew Bible and being redefined by Josian scribes, the word ẓava’ was confused with the homonymous ẓeva’ot that means “gazelles.” (For example, Song of Solomon 2:7 and 3:5 are rendered as “powers” in the King James Version when the word should be “gazelles.”) And ẓeva’ot was transliterated as “sabaoth” in Latin and English versions of the Old Testament, creating a translation error for later readers. Joseph Smith, for instance, made a big deal of “Lord of Sabaoth,” and it’s probably fair enough to take this as simply “Lord of Hosts,” except the plural “hosts” is never used in Hebrew except to point out how non-Hebrew translations have gotten ẓava’ wrong.[5] Conceptually, Joseph Smith got the “hosts” part of the concept wrong, or at least perpetuated the late Christian innovation of angelic hosts, God’s heavenly entourage, and the like. The Greek stratias really only makes sense in an original Galilean context as the Hebrew ẓava’, but if we cannot reliably extrapolate an inference to the Hebrew ẓava’from Luke 2, then this probably means we have identified an interpolation by non-Hebrew, Greek-oriented narrators.

I think it’s still quite possible for the herders to have witnessed a Hebrew ẓava’ and not a Greek stratias. In other words, they could have seen a multitude of the host of heaven and the only available term in Greek for describing this experience, stratias, introduced a projection of the Greek concept of heavenly army. Tellings and retellings in Greek then could have easily inflected the pericope with cultural elements drawn from the Augustan and imperial cults rather than preserving the Hebrew worldviews of the principal observers.

How would this work out? Hang in there with me on a couple of historical premises — first of all, we know that Josiah was offended at what he deemed apostate worship behaviors and sought to purge such apostasy from his kingdom, from the historical record, and from Israelite scripture. One such apostasy was the actual worship of the ẓava’, something Ahaz and Manasseh turned into a cultus of their own. In putting down ẓava’ worship, Josiah insisted on the definition of ẓava’ as the Host of Heaven, God’s warhost that assisted the earthly armies of Israel in conquering in the name of God. Among the literate class of Hebrew Bible readers in the time of Jesus, this definition of ẓava’ was predominant. Nevertheless, the earlier “apostate” definition remained in folklore and in various cultural elements — the ẓava’representing the stars in the heavens, the assembly of divine malakh or envoys/messengers of God. The Ahaz and Manasseh ẓava’ worship involved astral plotting and singing/praying to stars, not in an astronomical or astrological sense, but rather in a personal way. A star could represent an ancestor or an unborn child, a personality who could connect with the living, and the “host” was not an army but rather the visible heavens.

What if the folklore at the time of Jesus’s birth treating ẓava’ as signs of the multitude of the heavenly host was conflated with the same folklore that identified a “new” star with the birth of a prominent person, like, say, a king of the Jewish people? Or the Mashiach? See how the cultural context really affects how we read a late reminiscence of a pericope?

Put simply: imagine a regular-looking person approaching herders out on a night watch, and this person announces the birth of Jesus. The message of “good news” that the Mashiach had been born in their village by its substance would easily have inspired the herders to take the person for a malakh, a messenger of God. Their astral culture of singing to stars, the ẓava’, would not be far-fetched, in fact, quite an automatic reaction to such news.

A Christmas Devotional

This exploration into the source material and the historical settings grew quite fast for what I had intended as a Christmas study. But it boils down to a devotional thought that comes to my mind on this Christmas Eve on a disastrous and strenuous year for all of us. Just as those humble and anonymous shepherds received a humble message of a humble birth in the dead of night, so we have this dark year of crisis and suffering a humble message we have long heard and long known, a message we have heard without the ornamentation of an Augustan retinue, without the supernatural wonders of angelic choirs in the sky splitting the air with their music — unto us was born a savior who is Mashiach, as approachable as an infant baby was to tired shepherds. We are going to get through this. Merry Christmas!


  1. Suetonius, The Life of Augustus, 94, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Augustus*.html.↩︎

  2. Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).↩︎

  3. Ando, Imperial Ideology, 264.↩︎

  4. Jesus was likely born around 5 BCE (I’ll leave the controversy over his birth year to another post); Luke-Acts was almost certainly compiled after the Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem in 70 CE; other indicators make a reasonable composition date for Luke-Acts between 80 and 120 CE.↩︎

  5. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., cf. “Host of Heaven.” I have also drawn a bit from Sabine R. Huebner, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).↩︎