Three Stories of Loss
Lk 15:1-32, Mt 18:10-14
Other than the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son is probably the best-known of Jesus's stories. Often, the fact that it's part of a trilogy gets ignored, but that grouping reveals a much more complex story than a simple tale of sin and forgiveness.
The Hypothetical Villagers
The Younger Son
The Elder Son
A common component of Christian interpretations of this trio of parables is the idea that the Pharisees at which it was supposedly directed would have been offended at being asked to identify with either the "shepherd" in the first parable or the woman in the second.
First, it's worth noting that there is no shepherd in the first parable; there's a sheep owner.
Here's Craig Blomberg, a Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, an evangelical seminary, and a member of a number of well-respected institutions ranging from the Society of Biblical Literature to Tyndale House to the NIV translation committee, in Interpreting the Parables:
Interestingly, although the biblical shepherd was a cherished image of care for God's people, first-century shepherds were generally despised by the average Jew, due to their reputation for lawlessness and dishonesty. Jesus thus places his audience in a bind; the Pharisees naturally would have tried to identify with the authority figure in each case but would have balked when that figure turned out to be a shepherd or a woman.
Jared Wilson, who's a professor, director, author-in-residence, and so on at a number of Baptist seminaries, says something similar (no sources cited) in The Storytelling God:
Although the shepherd was a cherished image of God’s care for his people throughout the Scriptures, by the first century the average Jew thought of shepherds as somewhat shady characters. They were sketchy types, the stereotypical longshoremen or “cursing sailors" of their day. And in his opening inquisition, Jesus asks the Pharisees to identify themselves with the shepherds. Then, he suggests they put themselves in the place of a woman. How rude.
In Jesus the Storyteller, Stephen Wright, a professor at the British evangelical Spurgeon College, notes that many of the allegorical readings of various parable characters as God makes little sense, since surely such unflattering figures as a master who murders his slave or a woman or shepherd cannot be metaphors for God:
God is very unlike a reluctant friend (Luke 11.5-9), an unclean shepherd (Luke 15.3-7), a woman who has lost a coin (Luke 15.8-10), a master who will not serve his servants (Luke 17.7-10), or one who cuts an unfaithful slave in pieces (Luke 12.42-48). The logic of these parables is grounded in the fundamental unity of how things work’ in God’s world: in the images they might suggest of God they show an ironic awareness of the impossibility of truly imaging him.
Levine cites similar comments from Arland Hultgren (a professor at Luther Seminary (ELCA)), Kenneth Bailey (a professor at Princeton ordained by the Presbyterian Church, who became an Episcopalian theologian), Joachim Jeremias (a German Lutheran theologian and one of the most influential modern parable interpreters), Bernard Brandon Scott (a professor at the Phillips Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ) and a participant in the Jesus Seminar), Klyne Snodgrass (a professor at North Park Theological Seminary (ECC) and recipient of a Christianity Today book award), and Barbara Reid (a professor at and president of the Catholic Theological Union and past president of the Catholic Biblical Association). The section concludes with a quote from Ralph Wilson, author of the JesusWalk Bible Study Series (whose website, one might note, welcomes "Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist"—that is, every religion they can think of except Jews): "In contrast to rabbinical contempt for shepherds, . . . Jesus, who has fellowship with the despised and sinners, knows and appreciates them as people.”
This is not a fringe viewpoint; nor is it associated with a particular denomination. It is present in the teachings of both mainline and evangelical churches, Catholic and Protestant seminaries, among both conservative professors and those credited as feminist and progressive voices.
While most of these commentators at least note that the image of the shepherd had a long history of highly positive associations for Jews, they're all convinced that the Pharisees would have been deeply offended to be asked to identify with a shepherd in a story (and some go so far as to suggest that that offense would cause them to plot to murder Jesus).
First off, this sort of rhetoric Others the Pharisees into inhumanity and incomprehensibility. They were human beings, like all of us, and while we might not like being called out indirectly in a story, the overwhelming majority of us don't respond to an unflattering comparison by going out and hiring a hitman or attempting to get the storyteller executed. The Pharisaic style of interaction was debate, and the records of rabbinic debates are replete with everything from mild disagreement to full-on insults and yet no one murders anyone else.
All of this assumes that the shepherd actually was a "despised" or even "unclean" figure to the Jews of Jesus's time. (Again, one's profession may have kept one tamei (in a state of ritual impurity) more often than average, and gentiles who had no interest in entering the Temple would have no reason to remove themselves from that state, but no human being is inherently "unclean" any more than any human being is inherently dusty or sweaty or muddy. And inversely, no one is never impure anymore than anyone is never sweaty. Surgeons have to keep themselves as disinfected as possible far more often than most of us, but that doesn't mean they're inherently cleaner than the rest of us. Shepherds may not have been able to get to the mikveh as often as priests, but neither were most people who didn't spend their days working in the Temple.)
Second, even granting—for the moment—the premise that Pharisees considered the shepherds of their time to be unsavory or untrustworthy, the idea that they would be insulted by the comparison or unable to identify with the shepherd in the story assumes that they would have heard the comparison as referring to modern shepherds, rather than to the traditional image of the shepherd as portrayed in the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh.
Shepherds in Jewish thought
Shepherds in the Torah have highly positive associations. Abraham is a herder, and so is Isaac. Jacob acquires wealth by herding and breeding Laban's flocks, and falls in love with Rachel, a shepherdess, whose name means "ewe." Joseph and his brothers herd Jacob's flocks, and Joseph instructs them to introduce themselves as shepherds when they are presented to Pharaoh. Moses and his wife Tzipporah are both shepherds. King David is a shepherd, and the image of God as shepherd and good leaders as shepherds appears throughout the Tanakh.
Given that rabbinic parables tend to evoke the world of the Tanakh rather than their times when drawing on images such as kings, queens, shepherds, and servants, there's no reason to assume that their first association would be with the supposedly despised first-century shepherd rather than the revered biblical one. It's like assuming that they would see a king in a parable as a negative figure because they would associate him with Herod, the current and despised occupant of the throne rather than with the metaphor of God as king used throughout the Tanakh or any of the legitimate kings that had held the throne.
Just like us, the Pharisees were capable of understanding characters in stories to be metaphors or taking lessons away from stories featuring characters that weren't exact matches for their social/demographic/personal characteristics.
The origin of the idea
So where does this idea that the Jews of Jesus's time despised shepherds come from?
In 1882, Frederic Farrar states in his commentary on Luke that "shepherds were a despised class." Farrar seems to cite Heinrich Meyer to support this, yet I can't find anything in Meyer's commentary that describes shepherds as a despised or unclean class. To the contrary, Meyer claims that it is only appropriate that the "lowly and yet patriarchally consecrated class of shepherds" receive the first "revelation of the Gospel outside the family circle" at Jesus's birth. In other words, Meyer is noting that the shepherds were poor, but also that they retain the aura of holiness of the patriarchs who shared their profession. Farrar's characterization of them as "despised" seems to be original, but it is an assertion which is repeated by Strack and Billerbeck (1924) and then becomes a trope in biblical commentaries.
Reference works such as Jeffers's The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era cite Aristotle as a source for this attitude. Aristotle is certainly an authoritative-sounding source for the attitudes of Greeks living some three centuries before Jesus, but less so for those of Jesus's Jewish contemporaries.
Levine lists Philo's On Agriculture 61, Mishnah Kiddushin 4, and Midrash Tehillim 23 as possible origins for this trope. But none of these provide good support for adducing this attitude to first-century Pharisees:
Philo wasn't a Pharisee; he was a wealthy Hellenized Jew living in Alexandria, so his attitude toward shepherds is not a good source for understanding the attitudes of Pharisees, who spanned the economic gamut. More importantly, Philo is describing the attitudes of kings and other wealthy people who are "loaded with great prosperity, without at the same time being endowed with prudence." He's criticizing the opinions of kings and nobles, not his coreligionists' local rabbis.
Kiddushin provides a record of a discussion between a number of rabbis about which professions they think make people trustworthy or untrustworthy. One rabbi cites herders as untrustworthy (along with everyone from shopkeepers to sailors), while others disagree. It's also a passage from over a century after Jesus, after the destruction of the Temple and subsequent upheaval, and so on.
Midrash Tehillim specifies that God does not have any of the failings of human shepherds. It's also a collection of midrash from various eras which was codified into its current form in the 13th century, which makes it hard to know when a particular passage is actually from.
The most seemingly compelling citation for the idea that the Pharisees (and first-century Jews in general) held shepherds in contempt is from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b). In the context of a discussion about who should be qualified to serve as witnesses in court, shepherds are disallowed since they allow their animals to graze on land belonging to others, which is a type of theft and thus disqualifies them from being reliable witnesses.
There are a few important things to understand here. First, the Talmud is a record of debates around the Mishnah. Reading it is essentially sitting in on a conversation in which theories and opinions and ideas are floated and picked apart and analyzed. Second, the debates the Talmud records go into the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The passage in question even notes that the idea that shepherds should be disqualified from serving as witnesses is a late development. The Mishnah, on the other hand, which the document upon which the Talmud is later commentary, cites shepherds as reliable witnesses. Levine cites Mishnah Bava Kamma 10:9 as speaking of accepting shepherds as judges, but that passage does not contain such a provision, and I'm unable to locate what passage she may have meant.
In other words, to support the idea that shepherds were despised by Jesus's contemporaries and that Pharisees would have been insulted by a story that asked them to identify with a shepherd, Christian commentators turn to the attitudes of Egyptians living around 1500 BCE, Greeks living around 300 BCE, or Jews living in 300-400 CE.
First-Century Jewish Views on Shepherds
So what was the attitude of first-century Jews living in Judea or the Galilee toward shepherds? The answer is an unsatisfying "we don't know."
The Damascus Document, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, may be the only non-NT reference we have from non-Hellenized Jews of the time, and it uses the sort of elevated language about God-as-shepherd (carrying the Qumran community "in their distress like a shepherd a sheep") found in the Tanakh rather than discussing real-life, contemporary shepherds.
Why are Christians so wedded to the idea that shepherds were despised?
As Levine notes wryly, "it is almost impossible to read about Luke 15 without encountering the term 'outcast' every three or four pages." Christians want very much to see the "tax collectors and sinners" of the context as poor people persecuted by snobbish and hateful Pharisees. But the gospels rarely bother to specify what sins its oft-referenced "sinners" have committed, but when it does, they tend to be wealthy people who are failing their obligations to the poor. (We probably should see wealthy people who exploit the poor as sinners, but most of us would not describe them as "outcasts.")
But recognizing this would make Jesus's decision to socialize with them a little more challenging to accept, and possibly give the Pharisees a point we can sympathize with, rather than treating them as inhuman, incomprehensible "religious authorities" who hate sweet, humble shepherds with their adorable lambs.
Christian commentators who sneer at the Pharisees for not wanting to have a cordial dinner with wealthy Roman collaborators who are harming the vulnerable and show no interest in ceasing to do so, however, ignore that Paul instructs Christians to do exactly the same thing—in fact, to be even more exclusionary—in Corinthians 5:11:
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. 'Expel the wicked person from among you.'
Why, then, do Christians accept Paul's instructions not to sully their own moral purity by dining with those who are "sexually immoral," or those suffering from afflictions like alcoholism, and to cast such people outside their community, while condemning the Pharisees for refusing to dine with those who abuse and extort their own people to live comfortable lives as the puppets of occupiers?
These commentators want so much to position the protagonist of the first parable in the trilogy as a humble outcast despised by cruel, self-righteous Pharisees that they fail to actually read the parable: the protagonist is a sheep owner, not a shepherd.
Is the protagonist wealthy? It's hard to say. The most analogous modern culture is probably the Bedouin, in which village families tend to own about 12-25 sheep, while pastoralist families own 85-235. If the sheep owner isn't someone who makes most of his income from the sheep, 100 is quite a lot sheep, and most likely would require help to manage (among the Bedouin, caring for the sheep among village families is usually the responsibility of unmarried daughters; in the Torah, Rachel is the one who herds her father's flocks). On the other hand, if raising sheep is his primary business, 100 is on the low side (especially compared to someone like Jacob, who can spare 220 sheep, and as many goats, as a gift for his brother). Again, we just don't know.
Either way, the insistence that Jesus here is positioning himself with the poor, persecuted, and outcast and that the Pharisees would be insulted to be identified with the protagonists of his stories distracts from the main theme of the story: the active measures taken by the sheep owner to locate and reclaim his lost sheep, and his invitation to the community to celebrate his success.
Abuse as Love
I wish I could say that strange Christian ideas about Jewish shepherds were merely baffling, but of course they stray into the usual territory of portraying first-century Jews as alien and cruel.
A recurring trope is the idea that Jewish shepherds broke the legs of their sheep to teach them dependence on the shepherds and to scare them from straying. Needless to say, there is no evidence that this ever happened, and the Torah prohibits deliberate cruelty to animals.
This page provides a decent debunking of the idea, although in its long list of objections to it, it fails to include the anti-Jewish slander of the idea.