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Category Archives: Bandits and robbers in Palestine

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 5

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shepherds abiding in the fields

The shepherds did what they had done for endless days and nights—too many to remember—for a lifetime, really. That meant the constant search for food and water, and protection from thieves and varmints.  In the spring it was not so bad. Pastures were lush and green, and a flock ideally could graze near the home of its shepherd. And when the grain harvest was over, and the poor had gleaned their fill, the sheep came along behind and took care of the leftovers. Later the searing heat of summer transformed standing fields of grass into hay. A good shepherd[1] expertly navigated his flock through these cycles, in first one location and then another. He knew where fresh water flowed, and where wells with watering troughs were situated. Autumn and winter, however, presented the most challenge.

As the temperature began to moderate, and the nights grew cooler, the shepherd knew it would only be a matter of time before the winter rains, and the survival of his flock rested squarely on his shoulders. First he must find shelter, ideally in a cave turned sheepcote. If not that, then he would have to find a protected site, perhaps in a valley or on a sunny hillside, and build a sheepfold of large stones piled three to four feet high, secured with a gate, and topped with thorn branches to discourage predators, both men and beasts. (The bandits of Israel were known to climb stealthily over the walls of a sheepfold, drop in among the sheep, kill[2] as many of the hapless animals as possible by slitting their throats, heave them up and over the stonework into the arms of awaiting accomplices, and fade away without being caught.[3])

Sheep and lambs spring 2011

Sheep and lambs spring 2011 (Photo credit: Ambersky235)

Unlike goats that will hunt for the best feeding grounds, sheep had to be led by their shepherds to food and water. If there was little in the way of grasses to be found, the resilient caretakers must scour the countryside for anything edible including leafy trees and bushes—quite an undertaking if the flock was large. At the end of a day of foraging, the animals were led back to shelter, carefully counted and safely secured behind gated walls. Both animals and herders could then settle in for a night’s rest.[4]

Visitors from another realm

And so it was, on a seemingly routine fall night somewhere in the countryside near Bethlehem, that a particular group of shepherds bedded down with their flocks, tired and ready for sleep.[5] Tradition[6] has it that these were no ordinary shepherds; that these men were charged with tending flocks destined to be used as sacrifices during the Passover season in Jerusalem.[7] Newborn lambs demanded the most care and scrutiny because only the perfect males of the first year could be used for the Passover sacrifice itself, and thousands would be needed. Any shepherds responsible for such a flock would be held to strict account when they delivered their charges to the priesthood and the Temple.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a being like none they had ever seen before appeared, and said: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The very glory of the Lord shone all around the terrified shepherds; their hearts quickened as they heard the exuberant praises of an innumerable multitude of angels fill the night air. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”   (Luke 2:10-15). As though an invisible curtain had dropped, the heavenly host was gone, and all was quiet once again.

Though stunned by fright and amazement, the shepherds’ instant response was one of faith: to personally witness the event that had surely come to pass in Bethlehem.  Luke says, “They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (2:16). They could not contain themselves. Everywhere they went, they heralded the glorious news:  A Savior has been born! Spread the word! He has come!

When at last they returned to their flocks they continued to praise and glorify God concerning the things they had heard and witnessed that astonishing night. What unlikely messengers—social outcasts—of the gospel of peace.

Meanwhile Mary kept all these things in her heart, pondering the workings of God in her young life.

Sedition afoot?

It didn’t take long for word of the shepherds’ cosmic encounter to reach Jerusalem and create a buzz of excitement throughout its environs. Herod’s ubiquitous spies hastily brought him a detailed report, and he, too, pondered these things—but not as the workings of Israel’s God. This smacked of nothing less than sedition. He, Herod the Great, would know more about this so-called “Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(To be continued.)


[1] Society held a certain disdain for the lowly shepherd class. See The Woman’s Study Bible (1995), p. 1690. “Shepherds were often viewed as outcasts, and as dishonest, and unclean according to the Law.”

[2] It is interesting to note Jesus’ later reference to this nefarious activity in John 10:7-10: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”

[4] Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 231. “…the shepherd also had to look after the sick sheep and those that were hurt, take care of the gravid ewes and the new-born lambs, make wethers of the male lambs that were not to be kept for rams, and tithe the flock according to the Law, which was done by making all the animals pass through a narrow gate, every tenth beast being set aside for the priests.”

[5] If the flock was particularly large or perhaps a combining of several different flocks (which, in regard to this event, the Bible doesn’t indicate) each shepherd would stand his designated watch to insure safety throughout the night from thieves and predators. See Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 230.

[6] See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), pp. 80-81; also Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (updated edition, 1993), p. 131; and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, note on Luke 2:8, p. 845.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, in their book, Killing Jesus (2013), mention that the high priests controlled the sale of Temple lambs at Passover and received a cut of every exchange made by money changers. They owned vast farms and estates which garnered additional profits for their bottomless coffers (p. 228). It is possible that this flock was owned by some temple official.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)


[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Akko_BW_13.JPG

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/node/1511 .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King

Setting the stage

For over 500 years the nation of Israel chafed under the thumb of first one Gentile kingdom and then another—Babylon, Persia, the Greco Macedonians, and now Rome, with its absolute ruler Caesar Augustus, and Herod the Great, one of his ruthless client kings. It wasn’t unusual, particularly during Passover season, for passions to ignite as the tribes of Israel revisited the story of God’s intervention and the stunning liberation of their ancestors.  When the white-hot flames of resistance and rebellion flared, they were summarily stamped out under the cruel boot of Herod’s soldiers.

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exorbitant taxation compounded the misery of oppression in pre- and first-century Palestine: the mandatory tribute to Rome; locally imposed taxes; several layers of temple tax; impromptu levies to fund military expeditions and building projects. Privation and hardship enveloped the land like a dank, smothering blanket, and peasants found themselves forced to sell their land holdings—inheritances from generations past—in order to survive. The swelling ranks of day laborers told the tale.

No relief

After a reign of more than 40 years, Herod the Great died in agony—some say from intestinal cancer, and many assert, a fate fitting for such a tyrant. Instead of relief, what ensued was a mad scramble for power and outright revolt. Research professor in the classics and religion at the University of Massachusetts, Richard Horsley, describes the aftermath: “As for the scribal rabbinic elite, so also for the ordinary people, resistance under Herod’s iron-fisted rule was futile and suicidal. But the minute Herod died, revolt erupted in every major district of the land, and the Romans mounted a massive expedition to reconquer Galilee and Judea. Thus, Jesus’ parents’ generation and his own generation as children in villages such as Nazareth suffered the slaughter or enslavement of family members, burning of their houses and goods, and the general trauma of war.”

As things worsened the dream of a messiah-deliverer flourished, only to fall prey to opportunists and pretenders. Pseudo-messiahs deluded the people with false hopes, created dissensions, and gave rise to sects. Their influence was mostly local and temporary; some, however, succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers, and created movements that lasted for considerable periods. Others, along with their ardent followers, died as insurrectionists.

A quiet miracle in Nazareth

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. via http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_middle_east.html Category:Historical maps by William R. Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a cool autumn morning sometime before Herod’s death, in the frontier town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee, a young woman prepared for a long trip to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus called for a census, declaring “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1-5) and ordered that everyone[1] must register in their ancestral home. And so, Mary, nearly full-term in her pregnancy, helped Joseph load the cart with the necessities they would need to see them through their journey to the ancient city of David.

She must have replayed the angelic visit innumerable times, and marveled at Gabriel’s amazing pronouncement. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

While Herod in his paranoia planted spies and scoured the countryside for seditious plots and traitors, the prophesied King of Israel, the longed-for Deliverer, quietly and miraculously grew in the safety of the womb of a young virgin, Mary of Nazareth, waiting to be born.

(To be continued.)


[1] The Archaeological Study Bible (2005), p. 1669, a note on Luke 2:5 states that in Syria (the Romans included Palestine under Syrian jurisdiction) “women twelve years of age and older were required to pay a poll tax and therefore to register.” This would explain the historical impetus for Mary’s making this trip, and the advancing of a divine plan.

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