HELP: Fact Checking NAC: Luke use of Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 25b)

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Liam & Abi Maguire | Forum Activity | Posted: Tue, Dec 10 2019 7:21 AM

I was wondering I could get some help on something a bit technical? I'm prepping a sermon on Luke 2:8-20 for this coming Sunday. Researching the shepherds, I came across this comment from Stein in the NAC on Luke (2:8) (Logos link): 

“One should not romanticize the occupation of shepherds. In general shepherds were dishonest (Sanh. 25b) and unclean according to the standards of the law.”

He evidences his claim that shepherds were dishonest with a reference to Sanhedrin 25b in the Babylonian Talmud, presumably due to statements like: 

“It is taught in a baraita: The Sages further added the following to the list of those disqualified from bearing witness: The shepherds, who shepherd their animals in the fields of others and are therefore considered like robbers” (source: Sefaria)

My question is, given that the Babylonian Talmud wasn't compiled until at least 475CE, how certain can we be that the view of shepherds in Sanh 25b is reflective of the views of those living in and around Bethlehem at the time of the angels' visitation?

Any help on this rather technical question would be gratefully welcomed.

Blessings, Liam

Carpe verbum.

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Rich DeRuiter | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Dec 10 2019 7:34 AM

Liam & Abi Maguire:
My question is, given that the Babylonian Talmud wasn't compiled until at least 475CE, how certain can we be that the view of shepherds in Sanh 25b is reflective of the views of those living in and around Bethlehem at the time of the angels' visitation?

From the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary:

Later rabbinic writings describe shepherds as dishonest and untrustworthy, and some commentators have suggested that here they represent the sinners Jesus came to save. Yet the biblical portrait of shepherds is almost always positive, and nothing in this context suggests otherwise. David was a shepherd; the Lord is our shepherd (Ps. 23:1); Jesus is the good shepherd (see comments on 11:23).[a footnote here references Jn.10:11, Hebrews 13:20 & 1Peter 2:25] What is clear is that shepherds were among the lower class in Israel and so represent the poor and humble for whom the message of salvation is indeed good news (Luke 1:52; 4:18).

Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 342.

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Lew Worthington | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Dec 10 2019 7:42 AM

You are right to be suspicious. This is the same odd jump many scholars make when they assume rabbinic writings accurately reflect a "monolithic Judaism" or even a Pharisaic Judaism in the NT era. (I think it's even worse when social science methods are applied to NT exegesis based on the assumptions that Mediterranean societies worked the same way then as they do now.)

Furthermore, I find it odd that the scholar, Stein asserts that shepherds in general were dishonest. Even if the Talmud's citation from at least the 5th century even held true in the first century, the most we could say is that shepherds had this kind of reputation. It's similar to the gap that existed between the reputations Corinthians, "barbarians", Scythians, Cretans, (or Christians, for that matter) etc. had in the first century versus the way they really were. It's just an odd overstatement.

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Lew Worthington | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Dec 10 2019 8:01 AM

I should add, though, that it almost doesn't matter what they were really like since Luke (and other NT writers) wrote to an audience that may have had a negative perception of the way they were. And, as Rich's citation suggests, the NT does a lot to speak against that perception.

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Mattillo | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Dec 10 2019 8:20 AM

Bock is one of my favorites and usually a go to for me:  BECNT Luke on 2:8

The shepherds are often characterized as representing the “downtrodden and despised” of society, so that the first proclamation of the gospel is said to have come to sinners (Hendriksen 1978: 149; Godet 1875: 1.130; R. Brown 1977: 420 n. 38). The evidence for this view draws on material from rabbinic Judaism (SB 2:113–14; b. Sanh. 25b; Midr. Ps. 23.2 on 23:1 [= Braude 1959: 1.327]). But there are two problems with reading the shepherds as symbols of the hated. First, the rabbinic evidence is late, coming from the fifth century. More importantly, shepherd motifs in the Bible are mostly positive. The NT (Luke 15:4Mark 6:34Matt. 18:12John 101 Pet. 2:25Heb. 13:20Eph. 4:11) portrays shepherds in a favorable light, even describing church leaders with this figure. In the OTAbraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds at some point in their lives.4 Thus, the presence of the shepherds is not a negative point. Rather, they picture the lowly and humble who respond to God’s message (1:38524:16–18; Fitzmyer 1981: 408).

Jesus’ birth is followed immediately by a proclamation to an everyday group: shepherds in a field. Of course some (as mentioned in the additional note) do not see any historical basis for mentioning the shepherds. But one is hard pressed to suggest a clear motive for the creation of such a detail through an appeal to Greek and Jewish culture and literature.5 If Luke is creating this motif, it is not at all clear why shepherds are picked as representatives of humble people over other, better-attested possibilities, like the poor or the widows. The shepherds’ presence in the text reflects their presence in fact.

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David Thomas | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Dec 10 2019 9:17 AM

Mattillo:
More importantly, shepherd motifs in the Bible are mostly positive.

This quote from BECNT Luke vol. 1 is an example of why the December Baker sale on BECNT 18 vols is a good deal!

Also, in exploring the shepherd motif I find good thinking in https://www.logos.com/product/80721/shepherds-after-my-own-heart-pastoral-traditions-and-leadership-in-the-bible by Timothy Laniak. 

Making Disciples!  Logos Ecosystem = Logos8 on Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (Win10), Android app on tablet, FSB on iPhone, [deprecated] Windows App, Proclaim, Faithlife.com, FaithlifeTV via Connect subscription.

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Liam & Abi Maguire | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 12 2019 2:46 AM

Thank you everyone. These are brilliant answers, which by and large confirm my suspicions. 

Time to apply my suspect citation highlighter style and move on. :D

Carpe verbum.

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