Shepherds in the Bible and in Art by Steve Werlin

Since the seventh millennium B.C.E., humans have domesticated sheep and made use of their meat, milk, and wool. Along with goat, cattle, and pig, they have long been integral to the economy of ancient Palestine. Biblical texts preserve much evidence for a longstanding tradition of shepherding among the earliest peoples of the Bible. Notable biblical figures—such as Abel, Abraham, Lot, Laban, and Moses—tended sheep, often by way of contrast with others, such as Cain, the “tiller of the ground” (Gen 4:2). In some cases, references to shepherding give helpful details about the socioeconomic world of biblical authors. For example, in John 10:3, Jesus’ description of a sheep pen presumes a communal livestock area. In any case, ancient readers would have readily understood any biblical references to sheep herding (for example, in John 10 and Luke 2), since they reflected the realities of daily life.

By Jesus’ time, the population of Palestine had swelled under Roman rule, and the vast majority of its people made their livings through animal husbandry or agriculture. Much of the visual imagery of Luke 2—such as the fields surrounding the villages and the nativity manger—was familiar to the author’s immediate audience. Similarly, the use of shepherds in Luke as the recipients of the heraldic angels’ news (as opposed to the magi of Matt 2) was quite appropriate. The shepherds in Luke’s nativity account further emphasize Jesus’ humble origins, since sheep herding was considered unskilled labor and was relegated to the lower strata of society.

Despite the lower status associated with shepherding, the Bible typically highlights the shepherd and his flocks with positive metaphors. In Gen 49:24, for example, God is metaphorically referred to as “the shepherd,” but without any elaboration. A more detailed explanation of the God-as-shepherd metaphor can be found in Isa 40:11, in which God is described as a tender shepherd who cares for his people, the gentle flock. Likewise, the author of the well-known Ps 23 proclaims, “the Lord is my shepherd” who protects his flock from evil.

This image of God as the shepherd-protector no doubt influenced the description of Jesus as the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” in John 10:1-42. By contrast, the passage condemns “hired hands” who tend to the sheep but do not care for and protect them. The “hired hands” presumably referred to the Jewish priestly and Pharisaic leadership in Jerusalem. The passage draws heavily on Ezek 34, in which God, speaking through the prophet, criticizes the “shepherds of Israel,” that is, the kings and aristocracy, for failing to care for their “sheep,” that is, the masses—and so God himself must assume the role of shepherd. Ezek 34:23-24 further promises a Davidic “shepherd,” whom God will establish to care for the sheep.

Imagery of Jesus as the good shepherd appeared early in Christian art, perhaps as early as the third century, in the catacombs of Rome. The form—essentially a youth with a lamb over his shoulders—was borrowed from kriophoros, a figure known in Greek art since at least the sixth century B.C.E. As a result, it is difficult to distinguish when an image is a kriophoros and when it was meant to depict Jesus. This may have been a deliberate attempt to reappropriate imagery, or Christian artists may simply have used motifs familiar to their audience, with no ulterior motives. Centuries later of course, Christian art produced more original art in depictions of Luke 2 specifically, including the so-called annunciation to the shepherds and the adoration of the shepherds.

Steve Werlin, "Shepherds in the Bible and in Art", n.p. [cited 30 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/shepherds-in-the-bible-and-in-art

Contributors

Steve Werlin

Steve Werlin
Freelance Writer and Editor

Steve Werlin lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where he works as a freelance writer and editor and is active in local community initiatives.

Underground passages used for burial and religious practice; originally referred specifically to the catacombs beneath Rome.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

Birth, often accounts about the birth of Jesus.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Of or relating to a composite picture of a person or group's location within society and class structures.

Gen 4:2

2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.

John 10:3

3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

John 10

Jesus the Good Shepherd
1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.2The ... View more

Luke 2

The Birth of Jesus
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.2This was the first registration and was taken ... View more

Luke 2

The Birth of Jesus
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.2This was the first registration and was taken ... View more

Matt 2

The Visit of the Wise Men
1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,2asking, “Where is th ... View more

Gen 49:24

24Yet his bow remained taut,
and his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,
by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,

Isa 40:11

11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Ps 23

The Divine Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;3he re ... View more

John 10:1-42

Jesus the Good Shepherd
1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.2The ... View more

Ezek 34

Israel's False Shepherds
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus sa ... View more

Ezek 34:23-24

23I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.24And I, the Lord, will be their God, ... View more

Luke 2

The Birth of Jesus
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.2This was the first registration and was taken ... View more

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