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The Gospel according to Luke tells that an angel announced Jesus' birth to some humble shepherds who were spending the night in a nearby field. Many Bible commentators have remarked that this incident shows that God's favor rests with the poor, since they were the first to receive news of Christ's birth.

After receiving the angel's visit, the shepherds journey to Bethlehem in order to pay homage to Jesus, the newborn king. They find the Holy Family lodged in a stable. Since Mary had no crib, she laid the baby Jesus in a manger, or trough used to feed animals. Thus in Luke's account of Jesus' birth, the Holy Family lodges with the animals and is visited by shepherds.

The Gospel according to Matthew offers a different version of events (see also Gospel Accounts of Christmas). In that account, educated and well-to-do men from the East, the Magi, are the first to learn of Jesus' birth. Matthew's story implies that the Holy Family lives in Bethlehem. No shepherds appear in Matthew's account, just as no Magi appear in Luke's account.

Sheep and Shepherds in the Bible

In biblical times people relied on sheep and goats more than any other kind of domestic animal. Important figures from the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, were shepherds - such as Abraham, Moses, and David. Nevertheless, shepherds were considered very humble folk and were thus looked down on by some.

The Bible mentions sheep and shepherds hundreds of times. Most of these references are metaphorical rather than literal, however. Sheep require a good deal of care and the expert guidance of a shepherd to flourish. In order to illustrate God's care for his people, biblical writers sometimes described God as a shepherd and God's people as sheep. The Bible also compares good leaders to shepherds.

Jesus, who began his life among animals and those who care for them, would later be described as both lamb and shepherd. In explaining his mission as a teacher, healer, and leader, Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd (Luke 15:4-7, Matthew 15:24, John 10:3-30). The early Christians pictured Jesus in this way as well (Hebrews 13:20, 1 Peter 2:25). The Bible also portrays Jesus as a lamb (John 1:29). The ancient Jews sacrificed lambs as a means of reconciling themselves to God after having sinned. The first Christians came to see Jesus as a kind of sacrificial lamb, whose willing death for their sakes released them from the consequences of sin.

Christmas Customs

The shepherds' pilgrimage to Bethlehem has been reenacted in countless Nativity plays, including the Hispanic folk play known as Los Pastores. In some predominantly Catholic countries, people refer to the dawn mass on Christmas Day as the "Shepherds' Mass," in honor of their journey to visit the newborn Jesus. Pilgrims to Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem can visit various "Shepherds Fields," sites promoted as the place where the shepherds received the angelic announcement of Jesus'birth.

Further Reading

Freedman, David Noel, ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. Keck, Leander, ed. New Interpreter's Bible: Luke, John. Volume IX. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995. Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, eds. "Sheep, Shepherd." In their Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003


notified by angel of the birth of the Messiah. [N.T.: Luke 2:8–17]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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