According to Luke’s birth narrative, Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes (ἐσπαργάνωσεν; espargánosen) and laid him in a manger” (2:7). An angel describes the scene to shepherds, saying, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (2:12). Why does Luke repeat the seemingly mundane act of swaddling the infant Jesus, and why does the angel call the swaddled baby a “sign” (σημεῖον; semeion) for the shepherds? In the Jewish and Hellenistic cultural contexts of the first century, these verses denote human kingship and divine supervision. Luke refers to “swaddling clothes” in order to highlight Jesus as a royal son of David, and the anointed one of God.
In the Jewish book of Wisdom (c. 1st century BCE), king Solomon describes his earliest days, saying, “I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes (σπαργάνοις; spargánois). For no king has a different beginning of existence” (Wis 7:4-5). Luke notes that Yeshua is wrapped in swaddling clothes, just like Solomon, to show that this infant is a king in the line of David. The Lukan angel’s rhetoric supports this connection between Jesus and Solomon: “To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Lk 2:11-12). The swaddling clothes constitute a sign of Jewish royalty, and an affirmation of Jesus’ identity as the Davidic king of the Jewish people.
Another well-known reference to swaddling clothes appears in the Greek literature of Hesiod (8th century BCE). In a text called Theogony, Hesiod narrates the birth of Zeus to the goddess Rhea amidst her husband Cronus’s attempt to eat the infant! In order to trick her husband and save her child, Rhea wraps “a great stone in swaddling clothes (σπαργανίσασα; sparganísasa),” and Cronus consumes the rock thinking it is his son (Theogony 485). Cronus vomits up the stone, the child is saved, and Zeus grows to defeat his father and become the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. Any educated ancient reader of Luke’s Greek Gospel would have known this story of Zeus’s birth, but the evangelist echoes Hesiod’s terminology in a very different context: at Jesus’ birth, there is no other deity to threaten him; to the contrary, Yeshua is the “Lord” of all (Lk 2:11), and he brings “glory to God in the highest heaven” (2:14). The heavenly sign of Jesus’ swaddling clothes proclaims that this Jewish infant—not Hesiod’s Zeus—is the true king of kings and Lord of Lords.