And There Were Herders

It’s Christmastime and I’m always drawn to the few accounts of Jesus’s birth (what historians often call the “Infancy Narratives”). Our best sources for the Nativity remain Papyrus 4, Papyrus 75, and the Codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Bezae. All are rendered in Greek and appear to be the production of north Mediterranean Greco-Roman Jews (not Galilean or Jerusalem Jews). This means that Paul’s network of ekklesia, which by the second century functioned as “house-churches” to put a somewhat crude label on them, was behind telling, retelling, and ultimately writing down the most famous Christmas Story, the Lukan account of Joseph and Mary visiting Bethlehem to deliver the baby Jesus. What is frustrating from the outset of any serious study of Luke 2 is how removed the group producing this text was from the events they describe—they shared a Jewish religiosity with Jesus’s family and his first followers, but differed (and were sometimes disdainful) in language, socioeconomic status, literacy, and politics. We have to grapple with the likelihood that Lukan/Pauline Jews wanted to present the Galilean peasant Jesus as cultured, sophisticated, and civilized (“civilized” in the Roman genteel fashion expressed in civilitas), but all within the Jewish idiom of Hebraic prophecy. In making the case that Jesus was Messiah/Christos, the Lukan Jews recalled Jesus’s birth in terms of Isaiah messianic prophecy while also projecting their values of glory, honor, and majesty onto the birth of the Son of God. This is a princely tale—the new king’s birth—set in the known locale where Jesus was raised. And so Luke 2 presents us with a hybridization, a synthesis if you will, of the majestic and the poor.

Of course it’s this synthesis that isn’t lost on anyone and in fact is celebrated every year. The popular adoration of Nativity is how God came down from heaven and assumed the form of a helpless infant. But what strikes me is how, if we detect flourishes in Luke 2 as exactly that—flourishes, ornaments, dressing—and hit the pause button on their historicity, if then we ask the question about how the scene would have appeared to our eyes, or to a regular passerby, we would probably witness a Galilean Jewish mother and an infant baby and some villagers paying them a visit much like we might see any day in any hospital’s maternity ward. The pageantry surrounding the Nativity had not developed at the time of the birth itself; the necessary elements of the pageant are accretions starting with Pauline Jews contending against a popular rumor that Jesus was an illegitimate child and arguing that Jesus represented the fulfillment of Isaiah messianic prophecy. How does one render the humble, backwater birth of Yeshua of Nashrath in a way that resembles King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace encomia? That’s the rhetorical motive behind the Lukan narration.

Such questions visit me every year. The Nativity I once nostalgically admired began some years ago to seem more like the Manti, Utah, melodrama that warps the vision of Moroni into Joseph Smith finding gold plates in an ancient Indian burial mound. This sentimentalized presentation reflects to my eyes more than history the cultural tastes and whimsies of sometimes histrionic modern West European pop-Christian worshipers. In the same way that My Buddy Jesus doesn’t quite hit the mark, or “Footprints in the Sand” feels contrived, so too has the popular American Nativity felt … American, white, popularized, sentimentalized, sensationalized.

No, I want the nativity, I don’t care how much it breaks with tradition or sentimentality or nostalgia. So, this means I have signed up for probing the texts, checking the provenance, remembering context, staying constrained by the sources, keeping myself circumspect in what can be said of the past. This tends to mean stating things as probabilities and letting go of absolutes and even spiritual subjectivities.

There are so many places where we could begin, so many ways of entering the history. I admit, I consider the possibilities and select something to start with, which could violate my stated values—an arbitrary approach, potentially. For this reason, I’m going to try to keep my mind open and conclusions limited. This study isn’t a final conclusion by any means, but always a work in progress.

I don’t know how many study sessions will focus on the Nativity. Perhaps I’ll get to January and dig into the Doctrine and Covenants with the rest of my ward. (How will I resist that?) But almost certainly I bet next December I’ll be back to these questions, considering and reconsidering what we know, what we can know, and what we’ll never know about Jesus’s birth.

Today, I just want to consider the shepherds, those figures of the story who probably played a role in anyone even knowing about a nativity scene in the first place. Without diving deep into the source history of Luke 2 (the only account that mentions the shepherds), I’ll just say that we have a pretty good block of Greek text to work with. I have taken the liberty of translating this passage and offering alternative renderings where the Greek doesn’t flow too easily or directly into our English:

And there were (herders/shepherds) in the same place (field-dwelling//dwelling/abiding//out in the fields/outdoors) and (watching over/keeping watch)
(guarding/watching/keeping/setting a watch) by night their flock
And a (messenger/angel/watcher/emissary/courier/heavenly being) of the Lord stood near them
and the (opinion/glory/repute/honor/magnificence/brightness/splendor/marvel) of the Lord (shone/gave light/whited/lit) around them
and they were greatly (frightened/reverenced/terrified/awestruck/astonished/shocked) with (fear/terror/reverence/awe/astonishment/shock)
and the (messenger/angel/watcher/emissary/courier/heavenly being) said to them
Don’t be (afraid/terrified/surprised/astonished/shocked)
for (see/behold/lo/look)
I (proclaim good news/announce good news/bring good tidings) to you of great (joy/delight) that will be for all the (people/peoples)
because today a (deliverer/savior/rescuer) who is (Christos Kyrios/the Anointed Lord) was born to you in the (city/town/polity) of Dauid
and this will be the (sign/calendar mark/token/miracle/wonder/mark/signal) for you
you will find the baby swathed and lying in a (trough/manger/shovel/feeder/stall)
and suddenly there appeared with the (messenger/angel/watcher/emissary/courier/heavenly being) a (quantity/number/great number/throng/multitude/horde/mass) of the heavenly (army/host/company/band/legion/corps/crowd)
praising the god and saying
Glory to the god in the highest and on earth peace among people of goodwill

The English “shepherd” has a root in sheep-specific herding, i.e., sheep-herder. The term of course has come to mean a herder of non-bovine, non-equine livestock. But in this case, we’re dealing with a late-antique Greek text, and its terms belong to a late-antique setting. And that setting differentiated between sheep herders, goat herders, cattle herders, and just herders. The poimenos were herders who likely tended goats and sheep but not cattle or donkeys. We know of the Galilean region that herders as opposed to villagers and farmers really only herded sheep and goats. It seems the case here that the Lukan narrators are referring to such, so right away I have the unfortunate task of popping a sacred balloon—we’re not even dealing with shepherds in the strict sense, but herders, which just doesn’t sound so aesthetic to our Christmastime ears. I can feel myself resisting with the argument that “shepherd” in today’s English captures sheep and goat herding just fine, so why be so pedantic? But isn’t this an impulse to protect the Nativity story? Ah, then, I’m sticking with plain “herder.” This illustrates what is at issue here and the little accretions and justifications for anachronism that have given us a centuries-distant drama in the first place.

We have another nitpicky word in the Greek that just isn’t easy to translate no matter how pedantic or not you’re willing to be. The narrative mentions the herders agralountes, rendered in the King James Version as “abiding in the fields.” This isn’t bad because really nothing in English is good. The verb agralountes appears only once—once!—in all the Septuagint, and by my initial study, doesn’t show up in classical Greek literature. (I’d love to be shown otherwise.) This is because it’s a poetic or creative construction of two words, agros [=field/land/country (as in, opposite of city/polis)/fields/territory] and aule [=court/garden/courtyard/dwelling/abode/chamber/town/gate]. We do this in English where we take a noun and verbify it (the egregious one I hear about from editors is “impact,” as in, “to impact something”; it just grates on their ears because “impact” is supposed to stay a noun). So the Lukan narrators smash agros + aule together and then verbify it in the present progressive, agralountes. Do they mean to say “fielding-courting”? That rendering just hurts to rationalize, it’s so crude. But if we’re faithful to text, we have to remember that if the original author was crude or inelegant, well then, to be accurate, our translation would have to be inelegant. No apologies there if none are warranted. What about “outdoor-dwelling”? At least that makes more sense to our English sensibilities. I don’t have any pristine answers here, but what I think we can make of agralountes is that the narrators want us to see the herders as being outdoors, out of town, exceptionally not at home or indoors. This verbified compound noun likely serves a rhetorical function of emphasizing the irregularity of these herders on this night not being inside their homes.

This aligns well with other sources we have about everyday life in late-antique Judaean pastoral culture: those people did not venture beyond their villages with their flocks; they were not nomadic but rather lived in extended family complexes grouped in a village format that allowed them to protect their flocks from theft and predation. In their everyday routines, they took their flocks outdoors in the mornings to graze, then brought their animals indoors at night. Hence, troughs were built on the ground floor rooms where livestock slept and family members slept in lofts and upper rooms and sometimes on rooftops. (This is obviously going to matter for how and where we imagine Jesus being swaddled.) The herders were villagers not nomads and they were keeping watch, meaning, fully awake and patrolling the edges of their flock, likely trying to keep their flock from grazing too much, helping the animals sleep, and looking out for predators or poachers. Keeping the narrative in context, we are probably limited in how far we extend agralountes—if it suggests “countryside” or “in the fields,” then these are areas within sight of village dwellings, potentially only yards away.

There’s certainly more to explore in this passage. Stay tuned for how we might understand a messenger suddenly appearing and maybe freaking out the herders by his or her presence.