Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Myth? Pushing "Evidence" Beyond the Christmas Story

"Shepherds Delight" by Neal Fowler is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Memes are circulating faster than ever. Stories "go viral" in a matter of minutes. Fictitious emails, doctored pictures, and urban legends rehashed as fact spread like wild-fire thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Having fallen prey to several of these in the past, I have become alert to some tell-tale signs and usually follow up by going to to see if it's "too good to be true." Nine times out of ten it is.

The other day my dad asked me to sit and watch a video with him called "Bethlehem: Beyond the Christmas Story" from Day of Discovery, hosted by Jimmy DeYoung. I have no previous experience with this ministry or the scholarship of Mr. DeYoung, so I had no idea of what to expect.

DeYoung presents a theory that the birth of Jesus took place in a room that shepherds used to birth sacrificial lambs. This room is purported to be at the base of an edifice we know only through Scripture and some rabbinic writings--Migdal Eder (Tower of the Flock). According to him, the shepherds that were tending to their flocks in the fields of Bethlehem were no ordinary shepherds but rather levitically trained shepherd who watched over the flocks destined for Temple sacrifice. As such, he claimed, they would have been familiar with the prophesies about the messiah's birth in Bethlehem. Then he offered up another intriguing morsel to tie up all the loose ends.

This final claim really caught my attention because it sounded so odd to me. He stated that when these shepherds delivered a lamb, they would wrap them in swaddling clothes and lay them in a manger until they calmed down. They didn't want the disoriented lamb to thrash around and twist a limb and thus be ineligible for sacrifice.

The supposed proof that unified this theory was that the angels never told the shepherds exactly where to go in order to find the baby Jesus. According to this theory, they didn't need to because a message of messiah born+wrapped in swaddling clothes+lying in a manger=the birthing room at Migdal Eder. Interesting theory...and also a little too neat and tidy for my taste. Lambs wrapped in swaddling clothes sounds like the very kind of thing people would have latched on to and talked about a lot, so why am I just now hearing about it? It's not like I have my head in the sand. I read commentaries and other material on 1st century culture and customs--books by guys like Victor Matthews, Craig Keener, Kenneth Bailey, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington III. So I set out to check the sources (if it gets overly detailed, this is because there are scores of blogs and websites that are touting unsourced hearsay in this matter).

To make this easier, let's break it down into individual claims:

1. Shepherds at Bethlehem were temple shepherds, caring for flocks destined for sacrifice.

2. There was a birthing room under Migdal Eder (the Tower of the Flock) in or around Bethlehem.

3. Shepherds wrapped new born sacrificial lambs in swaddling clothes and laid them in mangers to keep them from harming themselves and disqualifying themselves for sacrifice.

First of all, DeYoung uses Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century scholar who relied on late source material for many of his deductions. Since Edersheim's time the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi library have shed new light on the 1st century life and thought. Still, I wanted to be generous and thorough, so I pulled a copy of Edersheim's The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah to see what he actually wrote. His claim that Migdal Eder was linked in Jewish expectation to the Messiah finds it's source in the targum (translation/commentary) Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 35:21. However, current scholarship dates this targum to the 4th century A.D., so this doesn't necessarily tell us what 1st century expectation was.

 Edersheim makes a case for priestly shepherds based on a couple of passages from the Mishnah (Shekalim 7:4 and Bava K. 7:7). These seem to check out and reputable scholars, such as Keener, have allowed for the possibility.

However, Edersheim says nothing about the structure of Migdal Eder (and neither do the Biblical texts Genesis 35:21; Micah 4:8), nor does he say anything about these priestly shepherds swaddling newborn lambs. So, I referred to all reputable sources in my personal library that might speak to Migdal Eder or priestly shepherds or swaddling. My conclusions have led me to believe that...

Mr. DeYoung, secondly, seems to use anecdotal evidence or pure conjecture to make this theory more appealing. 

If such a practice as swaddling sheep and laying them in a manger were documented by historians, I am confident that I would have found some evidence for it in the works of careful and thorough commentators and historians as F.F. Bruce, William Barclay, Ben Witherington, Craig Keener, or N.T. Wright. However, the only place I can find any evidence of such a practice is on blogs, none of which cite any sources.

Also, DeYoung repeatedly claims that it was a 2-story stone tower, but where he gets this information is beyond me. He states that the remains of such a tower have not been discovered, but then he states that there was a room in the lower level of this tower where the shepherds would birth sheep. DeYoung admits that they have looked for the remains of this tower but could find none, so without archaeological or textual evidence for the design of such a structure I have no idea how he can make these claims.

 If someone can prove me wrong, I would love to see hard evidence. Sometimes I feel like the Grinch, but thinking Christians need to be careful to investigate information before they pass it along. Don't take everything you read or see at face value.

That being said, my conclusions are that the status of this tale is: unknown. While there is some Biblical and extra-biblical evidence for such a place as Migdal Eder in the vicinity of Bethlehem and possibly tied to the revealing of the messiah, we have no proof or usable evidence for what such a tower would look like. Moreover, while the Bethlehem shepherds may have been priestly shepherds, we have no documentation on how they delivered their sheep.  If I could re-title Mr. DeYoung's theory, I would have to call it Migdal Eder: Beyond the Evidence of the Christmas Story.


  1. Sounds similar to some of the tales Ray Van DerLaan tells in his The Way of the Master series. You won't find them in any commentary or historical treatment. (I had an email exchange with Witherington about him once, he's very helpful)

    1. Yes. I have caught some inaccuracies and shoddy scholarship in Van DerLaan's work as well. I'm sure BW3 is unimpressed with both these guys. They know how to tell a story and speak well enough, but they seem to rely on Edersheim and late rabbinic writings for their 1st century background. There are a lot of myths circulating that I haven't been able pin down, but I'm a sucker for fact checking. I only wish mainstream Christian speakers were too.

  2. I appreciate you writing this. I just heard this story at a Christian's Men's Conference in Fairview Michigan called Camp Barakel and I was taken aback at hearing it for the first time. I also want to be very scrupulous about what I hear and read so I'm glad you wrote this. I hope to give some feedback to the speaker Tom Harmon about some of the things you've written and researched on. If you find out anything more, please let us know.

  3. I appreciate you writing this. I just heard this story at a Christian's Men's Conference in Fairview Michigan called Camp Barakel and I was taken aback at hearing it for the first time. I also want to be very scrupulous about what I hear and read so I'm glad you wrote this. I hope to give some feedback to the speaker Tom Harmon about some of the things you've written and researched on. If you find out anything more, please let us know.

  4. Other than physical evidence of the Migdal Eder tower much of this story does seem to have a basis in the scriptural account. I think we should be careful that we become so analytical as Christians that we miss what faith itself is all about. The evidence of things not seen!

  5. Other than physical evidence of the Migdal Eder tower much of this story does seem to have a basis in the scriptural account. I think we should be careful that we become so analytical as Christians that we miss what faith itself is all about. The evidence of things not seen!

  6. Hi, Gary. Thanks for commenting. I am curious as to what you mean about this story having a basis in the scriptural account. If you mean that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that shepherds came to his birth, and that Jesus was laid in a manger, Then yes this does have have basis in the scriptural account. But I failed to see how undocumented speculation about a tower and swaddling sheep in a manger have any basis in the scriptural account. I'm not trying to be overly analytical but when it comes to cute little tie-ins to the scripture I think that all too often Christians are pulled into Extra biblical ideas that have no grounding in history, exegetical proof etc. noticed that in the verse you referred to above there is the word evidence. Our faith is not based on speculation. Luke was very careful to say that all of his gospel was based on eyewitness account, Paul, John, and Peter all made sure to stress that they were not making up stories but rather basing their claims on what they had witnessed. There is always going to be an element of uncertainty to her face and there are always going to be things that we don't know for sure but I don't think that anything in the Bible tells us to throw her brain out the window. Rather we are called to study to show ourselves approved unto God. Like I said at the end of the article I'm not ruling out the possibility that this is true however I am saying that it is unverifiable and therefore probably unlikely to be true.

  7. Thanks for the article. I'm working on a Sunday school series on Luke 1 and 2, and am finishing up with Jesus birth this Sunday. I found the reference to Migdal Eder in some commentaries, and I also tried to research it, but, as you found, all the references kept coming up with the same source, Alfred Edersheim. I still think it's a fascinating theory, though. It seems pretty clear from scripture that Migdal Eder was was in or very close to Bethlehem. In Micha 4 says: "As for you, watchtower of the flock, stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.” And that’s followd by the Bethlehem reference to the Messiah in chapter 5. Maybe that provides a connection to the the Messiah and the tower, and the shepherds who would in their fields near Bethlehem. For me, it’s a second reason that God might have chosen shepherds to announce the birth of the messiah. We think of the shepherds as some of the lowest in that culture. Dirty. Considered ritually unclean. We say that Jesus birth being announced to shepherds means that God reaches down to the lowest of low, and this is certainly clear from scripture regardless of that. But, maybe there is an even more compelling reason why God chose these shepherds. If they were the shepherds who birthed, cared for and certified the lambs for temple sacrifices, it seems the perfect symbol for them to be the first to see the final sacrificial lamb. For me, whether they swaddled their lambs, or whether Jesus was born in the bottom of the tower, is not as important.

  8. Thank you for this article as well. Like you, I could not find any scholarly evidence to support the practice of the passover lamb being wrapped in swaddling. I have been to the tower of the flock and there is no way Christ was born in the tower like DeYoung alleges. Consequently there is a threshing floor and a cave very close to there (within 100 yards. The cave has the Davidic symbol over the entrance. Above it there is the ruins of a late first-2nd century church building. it is also right next to the Roman Road that would have passed through the area. It can not be proved but it shows that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to prove that Constantine's mother was looking for a great place to build the church of the Nativity and not the actual birth place of Christ. But I remind us all, no sites is Holy! God is!

  9. Just today, I ran across Edersheim's reference to Migdal Eder in "Skethces of Jewish Social Life" (Ch.5, on the geography of Judea). Wanting to compare Edersheim's comments to Luke's account, I went back to the text and read. I see the detail in Luke that the "shepherds began saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord made known to us.' So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph..." Note the shepherds had to leave where they were and go, not to the fields in the outskirts of Bethlehem (where the watchtower was and where, presumably, they were already), but to Bethlehem proper, and they had to work to find Mary and Joseph. The implication is clear that the shepherds left one place and went to another place somewhat nearby to find Jesus. If Jesus were at Migdal Eder, Mary and Joseph would have first had to find the shepherds and Migdal Eder, then give birth to Jesus, not vice versa. I can give credence to Edersheim's relating Migdal Eder and shepherds tending a flock of sheep for sacrifice to Luke's Christmas story, and I personally can even find room to believe the shepherds would have taken their charges to the Temple in Jerusalem, so I don't find it hard to credit Edersheim for something good here. But I think DeYoug's proposition that Jesus was born at Migdal Eder is probably at variance with this detail in Luke. To me, that's a significant variance.

    G. M. Gervin

  10. Thank you for your skepticism in this the folded napkin left behind by the risen Lord, and the rope tied around the High Priest's ankle when he went in to the Holy of Holies, stories take on a life of their own and get placed side-by-side with pure doctrine from God's Word. That's why we need to be careful and do our due diligence to research the origin of these lovely little stories to see if they can be backed up by historical evidence. We are never wrong to go with scripture, but sometimes we get carried away with these stories and tie-ins.

  11. Being, as I am, a shepherd/goatherd, I can testify that the idea of newborn lambs thrashing about and hurting themselves is utter nonsense and could only be spoken from the same ignorant stance of those who always insist that sheep are remarkably stupid.
    I only heard this theory recently and am myself investigating it before giving it credence. I also looked at a messianic Jew site, where many of these folks were brought up in life as Jews and know something of those traditions and they say nothing about it, and in fact, they follow what I have read before: that the swaddling clothes were more similar to the wrapping of a corpse in their stye and look to protect the baby.
    Speculation is fine, helpful at times, and historical studies can certainly help clarify things the bible tells us, but we must always be careful to hold to only those things the Bible makes clear, to consider them only as doctrinal truth.