Swaddling Cloths

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.



At Bedford Road, we finished up Luke 5 yesterday. To be honest, I am still a little surprised that it took me so long to work through the chapter but there is just so much depth to these first encounters with Jesus. The way Jesus turned these people’s lives around, and then he encounters a group of self-righteous, religious bigots and shakes his head saying, “Once you drink the old wine, you won’t like the new.”  That’s master teaching, right there.

In the message yesterday, I mentioned that Luke does a little word play with the Greek words for good and Christ, so I thought I would put them up here for you to see.

Good = χρηστός
Christ = χριστός

And like I said on Sunday, both η and ι are pronounced as a long e sound in Greek, so the pun is complete. It is one of those things that really makes you shake your head and wonder if Jesus was speaking Greek or if Luke noticed the pun when he was composing his gospel and chose to insert it.

I’m Feeling Pretty Intimidated

Sunday night, I started doing my preliminary reading of Luke’s Gospel. This year, we’re going to do something a little different for Advent and Easter, incorporating the two seasons into a single teaching series from that Gospel. We haven’t come up for a title for the teaching series yet, but the idea is to create an overarching study – with a weekly discussion guide for people to have with them when they come together during the week to pray. (I should mention that the series will be concurrent with an emphasis on gathering with other believers in the congregation during the week to pray.)

So, why am I intimidated? The short answer is that a study on the life of Jesus is pretty daunting. There’s no way around it. The longer answer is that Luke’s Gospel is particularly unusual. It is the most Greek of the Gospels, and in many ways it is more similar to a Greek tragedy than to the Hebrew Scriptures. It is part musical, part drama, part morality play, and part theological text.

This is one rich book.

Most traditionalists steer clear of Luke except on Christmas, when they have to read the first couple of chapters. This is probably because it also contains some pretty crazy stuff. There are lots of cast out demons and Holy Spirit kind of things that are a bit off-putting to the casual reader who wants a nice, neat Jesus who always fits the family Bible stereotype. On top of that, Luke changes the order of events from Matthew and Mark, muddying up attempts to synchronize the Gospels into one big, happy story.

For this reason, a lot of modern commentators insist it was the last of the three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). I think they miss the point of the book entirely, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, I digress.

Here’s to a couple of weeks of intense reading and planning to get ready for the coming seasons!