Do sheep prove that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th? [Akin]

jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/SHEPH_FIELDS_ORTHODOX-300x225.jpgSt. Luke records that when Jesus was born an angel of the Lord directed a group of shepherds to go find him.

Luke introduces this group of shepherds by saying:

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night [Luke 2:8].

This has led to a common argument that Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th.

Why? Because it was supposedly too cold for the shepherds to be pasturing their flocks at night in late December.

Is this true?

Not on your life.

Shepherds’ Fields

Sheep definitely were pastured in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Luke is correct about that. In fact, they are pastured there today.

There are even two fields (one Catholic, one Greek Orthodox) that are known as the “Shepherds’ Field,” where pilgrims go to commemorate the events that Luke records. Both have shrines today.

The Orthodox one is pictured above.

You can read more about the Shepherds’ Fields here.

Neither can be established as the site Luke mentions. (Indeed, the site may have been at another nearby location entirely.)

Now about the argument that it was too cold to be grazing sheep on December 25th. . . .

Too Cold?

You know those fashionable fleece jackets that are really popular that people wear to keep from being too cold?

The ones that return between five and six million hits on Google?

Yeah those!

You know where the stuff those fleece jackets are made of comes from?

That’s right! Sheep! (And/or goats.)

It turns out that God decided to have sheep grow this amazing stuff called wool.

This wool stuff not only makes sheep soft and fun for children to touch at petting zoos, it also keeps them warm—just like it keeps us warm once we shear it off them.

In fact, wool is one of the main reasons that we keep sheep in the first place.

Sheep also need us to shear them, because if we don’t then their wool will overgrow and make it very difficult for the sheep to go about its normal sheep business.

Here’s a pictures of a sheep whose wool has been allowed to grow to the point that, when it was finally sheared, it produced enough wool for twenty men’s suits . . .

jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/Shrek21-300x194.jpg

Anybody want to say it was too cold for that sheep to withstand the rigors of a December night in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where the average nightly low for such nights (today) is 43 degrees Fahrenheit?

Of course, average temperature changes over times, but the first century was well after the close of the last Ice Age.

So maybe we want to be a little careful about declaring it “too cold” to keep sheep outdoors in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area without, y’know, actually checking the facts.

Speaking of which . . .

Let’s Check the Facts!

Whether or not Jesus was born on December 25th, the claim that sheep were not being grazed at this time of year is false. In fact, sheep are still grazed there at this time of year.

In biblical circles, there is a famous letter written in 1967 in which a visiting scholar noted that sheep were, in fact, being pastured in Shepherds’ Field on Christmas Eve itself.

Biblical chronologer Jack Finegan writes:

William Hendriksen quotes a letter dated Jan. 16, 1967, received from the New Testament scholar Harry Mulder, then teaching in Beirut, in which the latter tells of being *in Shepherd Field at Bethlehem on the just-passed Christmas Eve, and says: “Right near us a few flocks of sheep were nestled. Even the lambs were not lacking. . . . It is therefore definitely not impossible that the Lord Jesus was born in December” [Jack Finnegan,*Handbook of Biblical Chronology(2nd ed.), no. 569, quoting Hendriksen,New Testament Commentary: Matthew(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 1:182].

So the idea that Jesus couldn’t have been born on December 25th because of Luke’s reference to the pasturing of sheep on this night is false.

feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/jimmyakin/HPRf?d=yIl2AUoC8zA
http://feeds.feedburner.com/~r/jimmyakin/HPRf/~4/yHbDcYx4tO4

More…

My question is, why would shepherds pasture their sheep at night, regardless of the temperature?

For one thing, shepherds gotta sleep (just as sheep gotta sleep). Most warm-blooded animals sleep at night.

Some animals don’t sleep so much at night. These are called “predators.” The Holy Land had many predators in Biblical times, including wolves and big cats. Cats hunt visually, with night-enhanced vision. Canines hunt by smell, which is unaffected by darkness. This gives both classes of predator an advantage at night.

People in modern urban cities live under a constant nighttime “light bubble.” There were no light bubbles in Biblical times. A pasture would have been very dark, illuminated, at best, by a full moon, with an effective visual range of about twenty feet (assuming the shepherd was careful to not look at the moon, which would destroy his night vision for about 15 minutes).

I’ve experienced a Class-1 Darksky (we have them in eastern Oregon). This is when the moon is new, and rises late (all new moons rise late - shortly before dawn) and you’re well beyond any light bubble on a cloudless night. Many city-dwellers may have never seen the bands of the Milky Way in all their glory - the stars alone are bright enough to cast shadows. But effective vision is about four feet. All Biblical skies would have been Class-1.

So, visual range for the shepherds at night would be between four and twenty feet, depending on the moon (and whether they looked at it). He could not see an approaching predator until it was too late. The predators know this.

A torch has an effective visual range of about 10 feet. Not even as good as a full moon.

What idiot shepherd would pasture his flock under such conditions? Why expose the flock to the most dangerous possible conditions? When would the shepherd sleep? When would the sheep sleep?

(say “sheep sleep” three times fast)

Im falling asleep :yawn:

You bring up some very good points.

(My own personal experience with Class-1 Darkskies were on the weather deck of an American missile-tracking ship in the tropical North Pacific. It was very, VERY dark!)

Ice age?

:rolleyes:

I believe 25th December.

Because there was no where else to put them. :shrug: If you have a large flock or several flocks of sheep you would need a very large stable to house them, plus the wood needed to build such structures. I am guessing shepherds had to move their flocks from pasture to pasture (much like ranchers ranch cows in the American West). And thus would be too far away for any structure, if one existed, to make use of it on any given night.

Sheep are placed in open pens, not stables (those are for horses and such). A small pen is sufficient for a large flock - sheep like to crowd together. The pen need not be very sturdy - sheep are not prone to escape.

You can’t pasture your flock 24 hours a day. Shepherds and sheep need sleep. That should be happening at night.

Is it possible that the message of the angels was given
"to certain poor shepherds in fields" who could not afford to buy pens ?

Southern Israel is very arid. There are not a lot of trees. That is why the “cedars of Lebanon” were so highly prized in the Bible.

John

Early spring is typically the time of year for sheep-shearing. This relieves the sheep of their year-old coats in time to keep them cool and comfortable, and gives them plenty of time to grow a coat that’s long and heavy for the winter. Shearing may begin in March unless the weather is particularly mild, in which case producers sometimes begin shearing toward the end of February. Shearing timing has a lot to do with the lambing season, too. Shearing pregnant sheep about a month before their lambs are due encourages ewes to take shelter, so their lambs aren’t born outside. Shearing also stimulates ewes to eat more just before lambing, which provides nutrients to Mama sheep and her baby, establishes a more hygienic environment for the lamb to be born in, and clears the way for easy nursing once the baby has arrived.

So they would’ve had those cozy warm coats in the winter. :smiley:

If we really need to know on what day Jesus was born we can always ask His mother. I’m sure if we needed to know this information she would be happy to share it with us.

But the sheep are still outside and still vulnerable to predators in pens. Thus you would have multiple shepherds keeping the watches at night.

To be clear. I do not take the position that Jesus had to be born on Dec 25th, rather the arguments that say he could not have been born in the winter time (as Jehovah Witness’ like to claim), have major flaws.

The date Jesus was born would be interesting to know but it is not important. It has no impact on our faith one way or the other.

Really? Think of it from a predator’s point of view. First of all, a predator is probably not well versed in structural engineering, and would assume that the only means to breach a sheep pen would be to scale it. That’s not much of a problem.

The problem, for the predator, is carrying the prey away from the pen (and the shepherds guarding it). The predators have learned that the shepherds will respond to an attack. The predator realizes that his only hope of a meal is to scale the pen (easy), and then grab a sheep, and scale the pen WITH THE PREY IN ITS MOUTH. That’s a whole nuther story. It’s easy to get in, but hard to get out with a sheep, which might weigh as much as the predator, and may well be still alive (and struggling), and seriously impeding the predator’s front arms.

There is a reason why sheep pens were used in ancient times, and are still used today. The reason is that pens protect the sheep from predators at night.

Shepherds were rostered from a community of shepherders to look after the entire communities sheep in a field outside the town. Sheep have the habit of going “baa” when threatened. Sheep see the predator and go “baa” and the shepherds respond accordingly. Sheep also know their owners, by voice.

When would the shepherds sleep? Tomorrow morn.

Well, having grown up in an agricultural community, I can assure you most livestock is pastured at night so long as it is not too cold to do so. It’s safer and healthier for them to be pastured rather than kept in pens or stables, and so we pasture as much as possible.

Sheep, which are a very docile animal, were traditionally pastured with shepherds (who may doze through the night but can awake with the sound of trouble) who were assisted by dogs. Today, most people pasture a donkey with their sheep flock, because donkeys are very aggressive animals when threatened.

If you still aren’t convinced, read James Herriott’s stories about delivering lambs in the pitch-black of night in England, where the temperatures are colder than Bethlehem.

This is still the practice today, to let livestock “pasture” as much as possible and provide some sort of protection. My mother raises ducks and geese in Eastern Canada, where it gets very cold at night. Unless the water is going to be frozen solid overnight, her geese have free reign of her property day and night to keep her ducks safe from small predators like raccoons and foxes. She has not lost any of her birds to predators since adopting this practice.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.