Recently some have proposed a new explanation to attempt to reconcile Luke's account of shepherds tending sheep in the fields with a December 25 birth of Jesus Christ. According to this theory, the shepherds were out at night in winter because they were caring for sheep destined for temple sacrifices: "Luke records that Jesus' birth was announced to shepherds in the fields. These may have been the shepherds who supplied the lambs for the temple sacrifices that were performed for the forgiveness of sin" (Life Application Bible, 1988, note on Luke 2:8 Luke 2:8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
American King James Version×).
What are the weaknesses of this hypothesis? First, Luke, who meticulously describes the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, mentions simply that the shepherds were out at night, as would be customary during the normal season from spring to fall. He carefully notes the two rulers of the time and the location, as well as the fact that the shepherds were tending their sheep in the fields at night.
If this had been winter, surely Luke, being the painstakingly accurate historian evidenced by his writing, would have explained the reason so his knowledgeable readers would not have been confused. Yet he doesn't explain extenuating circumstances at all. The account certainly cries out for an explanation from Luke for shepherds tending sheep out of doors in the dead of winter at night. Also of significance is that the argument about sheep for the temple was advanced only recently.
Let's look at what the Talmudic sources say regarding the temple-sheep argument. The Talmud, in Baba Kamma 79b-80a mentions a rule prohibited overgrazing: "The rabbis taught: 'Flocks of animals should not be raised in Israel, but can [be] in the wooded areas or in Siria, and also where it is inhabited.' Another teaching says: 'No flocks should be raised in Israel, but can [be raised] in the wilderness area of Judea.'"
These prohibitions were measures to avoid depleting the agricultural resources of Israel, normally the valleys in which wheat and barley would be planted and sheep could ruin the soil. In upper Judea this was not a problem because no grains were cultivated there, and the Talmud expressly permitted grazing sheep close to towns, which would be the situation with Bethlehem. This restriction, which was concerned only with overgrazing, would not apply to the shepherds near Bethlehem.
Concerning the temple sheep, the Talmudic source is speaking of the Passover sacrifices and places the limit of finding the sacrificial lambs within one month before the Passover, meaning they would have to be determined in February or March. This is a far cry from the temple-sheep theory, which proposes that the sheep were grazing three months before Passover, with their shepherds weathering freezing weather so the priests would have sheep available for Passover.
Notice also that in Luke's account many shepherds were out in the fields. Many shephers would not have been with many sheep in December.
The argument regarding their being sacrificial sheep contracts the plain sense of God's Word. GN