The Story in the Bible
There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And look, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. For there is born to you, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.”
Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward humankind.”
And it happened that when the angels went away from them into the sky, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us go to Bethlehem, now, and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough. When they saw it, they made known the saying which was spoken to them about this child. All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told them.
The History behind the Shepherds and Angels in the Christmas Story
At that time, many people think that sheep farmers were generally seen as having low or little value by other people.
The type of sheep the shepherds would have been raising were 'fat tailed' (or broad tailed) sheep. They often had lambs in the autumn and winter, rather than in the spring which most sheep in western countries these days.
The shepherds were quietly getting on with their own business when suddenly an angel appeared to them. I'm not surprised they were afraid!
The angel's words to them told them of Jesus and his amazing birth and how they could recognise him in a very crowded town. The words of the hosts of angels is very similar to the words sung during a sacrifice service in the temple when there were three blasts of the temple trumpets.
This is only the second time in the whole Bible that a group of angels rather than one angel had appeared to people, so this proved that they had a very important message to give to them. We don't know the names of the angels or how many there were of them, but in the Bible it says that there are millions of angels - so it would have been an amazing experience! If you'd like to know more about angels, go to whychristmas?com's sister site whyangels?com.
There's a theory that Jesus might have been born a couple of miles outside of Bethlehem - and was actually born in the company of the shepherds!
A couple of miles outside Bethlehem there was a special watch tower called the Migdal Eder, which means 'The Tower of the Flock'. It's thought that sheep born there were used as sacrifice animals in the Jewish Temple in near-by Jerusalem. So they were very special and the shepherds were thought of more highly than normal shepherds.
According to some sources, the lambs at Migdal Eder had their health checked by resting them in a 'manger' (or dip in a rock to stop them escaping) and they were even wrapped in swaddling clothes to show they were special!
You can read more about this theory on the pathos blog.
One ancient prophesy from the Bible also said that the Jewish messiah would come to the 'tower of the flock' (Micah 4:8).
I’m not convinced about Jesus actually ‘being born’ at 'Migdal Eder’ but having those shepherds being the first to be told about Jesus makes a lot of sense.
Having seen the new baby, the Bible says "...they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them."
If they were shepherds from Migdal Eder, they could have told the people they saw on the way back to hills, friends and relatives in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the 'middle class' people they sold sheep to and also the people and priests in the Jewish Temple when they took their best sheep and lambs to be sold there for sacrifices.
It would have been amazing to both the shepherds, and the people that they told, that this very special baby had been born in a 'normal' house (or in the Migdal Eder) not in a rich house or royal palace.