February 16, 2011

Shepherds without Sheep (= All Shepherds, nearly)

In the ancient world, as a rule, wealthy landowners hired shepherds to take care of *their* sheep. In other words, a shepherd could talk about "his sheep", but he wasn't their owner. In that sense, not even Jesus strictly claimed to possess his own (metaphorical) sheep, because even though he was Lord, and even though he did call them "my" sheep, he was also the Righteous Man who did everything on behalf of Another.

In the ancient world, if someone ever died to protect sheep, it probably wasn't the sheep's owner. Instead, the one who might have to die while protecting the sheep is a shepherd, who was hired by the owner. The owner who hired a good shepherd would expect that good shepherd to protect *His* sheep with his life. And the shepherd would risk everything right up to death, because the shepherd owed his own life to the owner whose sheep brought them both of their livelihoods.

In Jesus' case, especially, the only reason the Good Shepherd would lay down his life for "his" sheep, was because they belonged to the One whom the Good Shepherd most cared about pleasing.

All sheep need shepherds, but - and I'm talking about churches now - christian shepherds should never think of "their" sheep as *theirs*. If there's anything at all scriptural about the way someone might pastor one of God's flocks, that shepherd should only feed and protect sheep on behalf of Another.

(H/T - this post was sparked by a FB thread underneath Alan Knox's latest post.)


James said...

Do you have a historical reference to support this data? It is very intriguing, I would like to see where your premise is derived from?

Bill Heroman said...

I've mainly picked it up as general knowledge from a number of secondary sources, James, but here's more:

The Oxford Classical Dictionary says, "Many citizens possessed a few 'house' animals; but larger herds (typically not more than 50-100 strong) were owned by wealthy landowners employing individual hired or slave herders, rather than - as recently - by independent, low-status mobile pastorlist groups." (Pastoralism, Greek, p.1120)

That article cites, among other sources, one _Pastoral Economies in Classical Antiquity_, which looks like a good place to start if you want more.

For a sampling of pastoralism in Israel/Palestine, just go through the Old Testament, and look to see who was watching over the flocks. It's not usually the person who owns them.

The New Interpreter's Dictionary also cites Philo (Agriculture, 61) to support "the apparently low reputation of shepherds" in the 1st century.

Btw, Jesus' statement in John 10:12 seems odd to me now, and I'm looking more closely into it. But if the passage sometimes sounds like Jesus is the owner of "his" sheep, well, that leads right into John 10:30. (Also see 5:18, 14:9, 17:11, etc).

Hope that helps...

James said...

Thank you for the clarity of the references.

Looking at John 10:12 is very intriguing indeed, as I casually review it, the statement Jesus is making in v12 very clearly differentiates between the hireling and the owner. But then in v13, the owner is the one who would not flee should the sheep come into trouble, because he is the good shepherd.

I think very plainly, we have a direct reference to the divinity of Jesus, and the Godhead being acknowledged by him.

Good stuff Bill! Thanks very much for the insight.

Bill Heroman said...

I think you're right about 10:12, James. I'm amazed I never saw it before.

Good stuff indeed! :-)

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