Questions From Readers
● A newspaper that I saw carried a picture showing shepherds and flocks in a field outside Bethlehem at Christmastime. I thought that it was too cold there for shepherds to be in the fields with their sheep around December 25, the traditional date for the birth of Christ. Is this so?—J. B., U.S.A.
A number of newspapers in the United States carried this picture. Typical of the comments appearing below the photograph were those in the Marion, Indiana, Chronicle-Tribune, for December 26, 1968: “Israeli soldiers probe for possible terrorist mines in a field outside Bethlehem Christmas Eve as shepherds tend to their flocks in the background. (AP Wirephoto by radio from Tel Aviv)”
Though the caption says the photograph represents “Christmas Eve,” it is obvious that the picture was taken when the sun was high in the sky that day, for distant figures are well lit and visible, and the shadows are very short.
What does the Bible say about the shepherds near Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth? At Luke 2:8 we read: “There were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Notice, the shepherds were actually living out of doors, not just strolling outside during the day. Furthermore, they had their flocks in the field at night. Would that fit the traditional date in December, or early in January as believed by the Orthodox and Coptic churches? No, it would not! The cold, rainy season near the end of December would not fit the Bible’s comment about the time of Jesus’ birth.
During January 1969 the overseer of the congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses in the Bethlehem area visited and interviewed the shepherds who graze their flocks in the traditional “Shepherds’ Field.” We will quote from the report of that interview:
“Close to the field is a large cave that is used as a winter shelter for the sheep, goats and shepherds. Up until the latter part of November the flocks of sheep sleep in the fields. During these months the shepherds’ families join them, pitching their black goat-hair tents nearby. During October and November the goats graze with the sheep during the day, but they need protection at night and so are herded into the cave.
“With the further drop in temperature that comes at the end of November, the sheep too are taken in at sunset. The shepherds themselves move in with the sheep and goats to care for them day and night. Food becomes sparse in the fields, hence the flocks are fed from stored hay and straw. During severe days all stay under shelter around the clock, but on sunny days the sheep are led to nearby fields to crop whatever green shoots begin to sprout with the onset of the winter rains.
“So there are sheep and shepherds who stay in the Bethlehem area all through the year, and there are winter days when they are to be seen in the field during the hours of daylight, weather permitting. But conditions do not permit nighttime out-of-doors activity at all.”
Consequently, the picture in question in no way upsets the conclusion that the weather conditions around Bethlehem during late December or early January do not match the description in Luke 2:8. More reasonable, and in harmony with other evidence, is the position that Jesus was born about October 1.