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.

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49 COMMENTS

  1. Dr. Schaser, I have enjoyed your courses and this explanation of the swaddling clothes is the first time I am learning about it. Thank you for this teaching! Greatly appreciate it!! Hope you come up with more courses also like the Psalms. Blessings of the season!
  2. Where did Mary get the swaddling clothes? Could it have been a gift of “soiled linens” used by Zachariah as a high priest It was the same type of linens that are cut up and used for wicks in the Meno­rah for light? The fine linen.
    • Thanks for your question, Jim. Luke doesn't mention where Mary acquired the swaddling clothes. There's no data to suggest that they came from the Temple.
  3. I just thank you for the clarifications and tying this to local times and customs. However, there must be more. I seriously doubt the shepherds were aware of singula reference in the Book of Wisdom, let alone Hesiod, a Greek writer from 700 years in the past. I suspect there is much more to this and your article is a good starting point to research the subject.
    • Thank you for reading, John. As with most biblical passages, there's always more one could say -- which is what makes studying the Bible so rewarding.
    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
    • I agree with John Young. The Book of Wisdom was not part of the Hebrew Scriptures so unlikely that the shepherds would have known it or Hesiod - likely uneducated. The use of the Book of Wisdom raises a point, does Israel Bible Centre consider it "Inspired Scripture"?

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  4. I appreciate the Hebrew cultural context to bring a greater understanding, thank you. I have no interest in anything to do with the Greek when it comes to the Bible.. There has been a lot of damage and false doctrines in the church's teachings because of it and it really disturbs me when I hear people referring to the Greek when preaching or teaching. It always has bothered me. Holy Spirit revealed to me as a young follower of Christ that it was a Hebrew/Aramaic culture and language that was spoken. I could not understand how it became Greek until I signed with the Israel Bible Centre and heard the truth.. I have been a follower of Christ since 1984 so I have lived with that frustration a long time... Praise be to our wonderful Lord for The Israel Bible Centre.
    • Jodi Millett There has been a lot of damage and false doctrines in the church's teachings because of it Greek Are you now concluding The Holy Spirit lied ? And what Church group are you referring to? I started my walk In the 70's
  5. Thank you Nicholas. What a timely lesson. I have forwarded it to my family and friends as a Christmas blessing,
    All the best to you and yours.
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