In my research, I discovered that the shepherds were important to Saint Luke for a simple reason: they were the primary eyewitnesses to the events in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born, and they passed on the story through established methods. of oral transmission. .
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of spending a two-month sabbatical in Jerusalem. The object of my study was to better understand the shepherds of Bethlehem who play such an important role in the story of Saint Luke’s childhood.
Why were they important to the gospel writer? Some scholars have felt that Luke was merely adding local color – quaint rustics – rather like Shakespeare’s “mechanics” in Dream of a summer night. Others have suggested that shepherds had a traditional place in Greek and Roman literature as simple sages – embodying a kind of peasant wisdom. Others have observed that shepherds in first-century Middle Eastern culture had a reputation for being thieves and scoundrels and that Jews viewed shepherds as ceremonially unclean. Thereby. Saint Luke insisted on the fact that Christ came to the humble, the poor and the suspects of respectable society.
Rather, I discovered that the shepherds were important to St. Luke for a simpler reason: they were the primary eyewitnesses to the events in Bethlehem that night, and they passed on the story through established methods of oral transmission.
To understand the significance of this, it is first necessary to review some of the theories of New Testament origins. At the beginning of the 20th century, the sciences of archaeology, anthropology and comparative religions developed. Discoveries in these disciplines influenced the nascent industry of biblical criticism.
Critics of the form have compared the findings of anthropologists and mythologists and have suggested that the gospels were formed in a manner similar to the cultural and religious development of myth. To put it simply, the religious myth has developed over time. It was the product, according to scholars, of cultural evolution. The community gradually transformed their stories into myths with all the religious and cultural implications.
This process, proposed by form critics, was the method by which the gospels mutated and grew. The early church community, it has been suggested, retold the simple stories of Jesus – the stories of a simple wandering Jewish rabbi – and elaborated on them over time, adding supernatural elements. It was therefore the task assigned to Rudolph Bultmann to eliminate the “mythological” supernatural elements in order to discern the historical core beneath all the elaborations.
This theory is extraordinarily elusive, and it doesn’t take a great scholar to point out the inconsistencies and absurdities. “There wasn’t enough time for the stories to develop this way before they were written.” “The theory does not reflect what we know of the composition of the gospels of the apostolic fathers. Why would a theory dreamed up in European universities in the 20th century be closer to the truth than the statements of Middle Eastern writers in the 2nd century? “What evidence is there of this evolutionary mythology of the gospels?” “Do Christian faith communities do this kind of storytelling?”
In his groundbreaking book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses British biblical scholar Richard Bauckman says of the form critics’ theories that “virtually every element of this construct has been questioned and rejected by some or even most scholars”.
Indeed, in the 1960s there was a backlash to the form critics theory of an oral tradition that developed within the community. Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson studied Jewish methods of teaching and transmitting traditions. He found that “the disciples of the rabbis were expected to memorize the teaching of their master, and importance was attached to the preservation of the exact words”. While this may be true, the gospels themselves do not appear to be the result of word-for-word memorization. While some of Jesus’ sayings may be the result of his disciples memorizing his words, the stories are too loosely told and variations between synoptic gospels that tell the same stories would preclude strict memorization.
Instead, a middle path has emerged. Kenneth Bailey was a teacher and pastor who lived and worked in Palestine for decades. He observed the oral tradition at work among the local inhabitants and discerned three ways in which the inhabitants passed on their stories and traditions: The first was uncontrolled informal oral tradition. It was just casual anecdotes, jokes or even gossip. The second form was formal controlled oral tradition. This was when the traditional story or passage of the tradition had to be memorized, and the elders and teachers (as well as the listeners) would audibly correct the person reciting the tradition if they made a mistake. The third category of oral tradition that Bailey discerns is informal control. In this transmission of tradition, the community may be gathered around the fire, and someone tells a traditional story. The storyteller can elaborate and add drama or characterization, but if he strays from the essential facts, the elders and teachers (and the whole community) correct him.
Bethlehem shepherds are said to have been part of the largest and oldest Bedouin culture in Palestine. Another Bailey, Clinton Bailey, was an American Jewish scholar who also spent decades living in Palestine. He was a student of Bedouin culture and observed and recorded how Bedouins pass on their oral traditions. This matches, unsurprisingly, Kenneth Bailey’s observations. The Bedouins convey their history using narrative poetry, which is very formal and must be memorized, and they rely on genealogies which must also be memorized. Additionally, they use prose narration that has some flexibility and allows for personal flourishes – adding humor or characterization. However, additions or elaboration cannot alter the basic story content. “Prose storytelling” is essentially the same as the “controlled informal” oral tradition of Kenneth Bailey.
In Luke 2:17-18, the evangelist tells us that the shepherds transmitted what they had experienced: “When they saw him, they spread the news of what had been told them about this child, and all who heard him were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
The narrative is told in poetic form and therefore relies on word-for-word memorization, but the story itself adds characterization and dialogue: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing of which the Lord has spoken to us. The repetition of the important phrase “swaddled and lying in a manger” indicates a crucial element of the story that had to be memorized because it was a “sign”. It was also a sign that this part of history could not be forgotten.
Does this mean that Saint Luke met the shepherds and heard their story? It’s not impossible, but you have to remember that Luke was writing at least forty or fifty years after the events. It is more likely, however, that the shepherds continued to share the story of their experiences that night, and that their mostly reliable method of oral tradition kept the story fresh within the Bethlehem community – and that it was from the next generation that Luke heard the tale. Would local herding families have kept history alive? We know that in the middle of the 4th century, when the Empress Helena discovered the birthplace of Christ (on which stands the ancient Church of the Nativity), the site was identified because the inhabitants remembered the place where Christ was born.
This essay is an adapted version of a chapter on p. Longenecker’s next book, The secret of the shepherds of Bethlehem, be published in November by Sophia Institute Press.
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Image shown is “Angel Appearing to Shepherds” (1760s) by Philip James de Loutherbourg, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.