Since the seventh millennium B.C.E., humans have domesticated sheep and made use of their meat, milk, and wool. Along with goat, cattle, and pig, they have long been integral to the economy of ancient Palestine. Biblical texts preserve much evidence for a longstanding tradition of shepherding among the earliest peoples of the Bible. Notable biblical figures—such as Abel, Abraham, Lot, Laban, and Moses—tended sheep, often by way of contrast with others, such as Cain, the “tiller of the ground” (Gen 4:2). In some cases, references to shepherding give helpful details about the socioeconomic world of biblical authors. For example, in John 10:3, Jesus’ description of a sheep pen presumes a communal livestock area. In any case, ancient readers would have readily understood any biblical references to sheep herding (for example, in John 10 and Luke 2), since they reflected the realities of daily life.
By Jesus’ time, the population of Palestine had swelled under Roman rule, and the vast majority of its people made their livings through animal husbandry or agriculture. Much of the visual imagery of Luke 2—such as the fields surrounding the villages and the nativity manger—was familiar to the author’s immediate audience. Similarly, the use of shepherds in Luke as the recipients of the heraldic angels’ news (as opposed to the magi of Matt 2) was quite appropriate. The shepherds in Luke’s nativity account further emphasize Jesus’ humble origins, since sheep herding was considered unskilled labor and was relegated to the lower strata of society.
Despite the lower status associated with shepherding, the Bible typically highlights the shepherd and his flocks with positive metaphors. In Gen 49:24, for example, God is metaphorically referred to as “the shepherd,” but without any elaboration. A more detailed explanation of the God-as-shepherd metaphor can be found in Isa 40:11, in which God is described as a tender shepherd who cares for his people, the gentle flock. Likewise, the author of the well-known Ps 23 proclaims, “the Lord is my shepherd” who protects his flock from evil.
This image of God as the shepherd-protector no doubt influenced the description of Jesus as the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” in John 10:1-42. By contrast, the passage condemns “hired hands” who tend to the sheep but do not care for and protect them. The “hired hands” presumably referred to the Jewish priestly and Pharisaic leadership in Jerusalem. The passage draws heavily on Ezek 34, in which God, speaking through the prophet, criticizes the “shepherds of Israel,” that is, the kings and aristocracy, for failing to care for their “sheep,” that is, the masses—and so God himself must assume the role of shepherd. Ezek 34:23-24 further promises a Davidic “shepherd,” whom God will establish to care for the sheep.
Imagery of Jesus as the good shepherd appeared early in Christian art, perhaps as early as the third century, in the catacombs of Rome. The form—essentially a youth with a lamb over his shoulders—was borrowed from kriophoros, a figure known in Greek art since at least the sixth century B.C.E. As a result, it is difficult to distinguish when an image is a kriophoros and when it was meant to depict Jesus. This may have been a deliberate attempt to reappropriate imagery, or Christian artists may simply have used motifs familiar to their audience, with no ulterior motives. Centuries later of course, Christian art produced more original art in depictions of Luke 2 specifically, including the so-called annunciation to the shepherds and the adoration of the shepherds.