Recently, I saw a video of a supposed Messianic Jewish rabbi talking about Luke 2:12. After declaring Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the angelic host tells the shepherds:
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
This rabbi goes on to say that the Mishnah teaches about “Levitical shepherds” who would take their birthing ewes to special caves and when their lambs were born, they would wrap the lamb in “swaddling cloths” to prevent them from injury so they could be presented as “spotless” for the sacrifice.
It is a nice little story, and it sounds so good that I found it quoted all over the internet. I decided to look into it; and SURPRISE, SURPRISE the entire thing is based on conjecture.
The entire idea evolved from a passage in Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (vol 1, p 186) which discusses the presence of sheep in December around Bethlehem and concludes that only flocks destined for the passover sacrifices could be kept close to the cities. His argument is indeed based on the Mishnah (Baba K 7:7, 80a); but nowhere in Edersheim or the underlying Mishnah passages is there a reference to swaddling the lambs.
In my research, I could not find a single reference in the rabbinical tradition to swaddling lambs, even those destined for the passover. There are LOTS of blogs and Christian websites reciting the statement as fact; but no one seems to be able to provide the source of this.
What seems to have happened is a confusion between the practice of swaddling infants and binding sacrificial animals, which was itself connected to the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:9). According to some sources, the binding of sacrificial animals was indeed to prevent them from harming themselves on their way to slaughter. This practice has been somehow mixed up with swaddling an infant to produce an image that has no connection to history.
So, what was the “swaddling cloths” all about?
The most obvious answers is that all babies get swaddled, especially in this culture. There is no reason to leap to the conclusion that this swaddling was meant as a sign to the shepherds and that they immediately recognized it and connected it to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God (especially since that image appears in John, not Luke).
There may also be a strand of Luke’s focus on the Gentiles here. In some of the Homeric Hymns about the birth of the Greek god Apollo, there are references to him being swaddled before being suckled.
And as soon as Eilithyia the goddess of sore travail set foot on Delos, the pains of birth seized Leto, and she longed to bring forth; so she cast her arms about a palm tree and kneeled on the soft meadow while the earth laughed for joy beneath. Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses raised a cry.
Straightway, great Phoebus, the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band about you.
Now Leto did not give Apollo, bearer of the golden blade, her breast; but Themis duly poured nectar and ambrosia with her divine hands: and Leto was glad because she had borne a strong son and an archer. But as soon as you had tasted that divine heavenly food, O Phoebus, you could no longer then be held by golden cords nor confined with bands, but all their ends were undone.
When I taught through Luke’s gospel several years ago, I highlighted some of the good evidence that Luke casts Jesus’s Virgin Birth as the reality of divine birth which is also seen twisted and broken in the pagan traditions of Greece. Luke calls his readers to see the TRUE Son of God in Jesus, of whom all other stories are only fractured shadows. He is savior of the world, not just Judaism.
If this is the case, then once again we see the subversive nature of the gospels, undermining Greek tradition to show true divinity.