Category Archives: John W. Welch

A Short Note on Thessalonians

by John W. Welch

Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians describe what I would call “The Way,” meaning to walk in the path of truth and life.[1]  First Thessalonians is Paul’s first letter back to his new converts in Thessalonica. He articulates what it means to live and walk as a Christian. He encourages the converts to seek faith, love, hope, and spiritual power:

Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake. (1 Thess. 1:3-5)

In chapter two, he reminds them to please God, not men, even when doing so causes them to suffer, trying their hearts (1 Thess. 2:4).

In chapter 4, he tells them that they can become sanctified by their purity and fairness (1 Thess. 4:3-6). They must seek holiness, brotherly love, study, being quiet or reverent, minding their own business, working with their hands, and walking honestly (1 Thess. 4:7-12).

In chapter 5, he tells them to esteem their leaders, rejoice, pray, give thanks, quench not the Spirit, despise not prophesyings, prove (test) all things, hold fast that which is good, and abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:13-22).

This rich description of what it means to live a holy life, walking in the path of Christ, still serves us well today.

Julie Smith has articulated in much more detail how the Way is described in Mark and the other Gospels, usually by the Greek word hodos. She explains that Paul used other language to describe a Christian life. See her presentation on The Way on video and transcript on this page, and in her commentary The Gospel according to Mark.  

[1] Although in 1 Thessalonians 3:11 Paul uses the word hodos, way, to describe the path that he needed to return to Thessalonica, it is not used to describe the way of Christian discipleship.

BYU NTC Conference Saturday, January 26, 2019

“In the Beginning Were the Words: A Closer Look at Key New Testament Terms”

The BYU New Testament Commentary committee announces that on Saturday, January 26, 2019, they will present a conference at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni Center at BYU in Provo, Utah. The conference is free and open to the public and will be held from 9 am until 4 pm. No registration is required. A video will be made of the presentations and posted on this website. Parking is available in the lot across the street to the east.

9:00 Welcome by Virginia Pearce Cowley, conducting the conference.

9:15 Eric D. Huntsman, Disciplemathētēs (μαθητής) Mathētēs is a word that John appeals to much more often than do the Synoptic Gospels. In particular, I will be stressing how John uses it for a much wider group than the Twelve, and how the different characters represent different walks of faith and different types of discipleship.

9:45 Julie M. Smith, Wayhodos (ὁδός) One of the earliest designations for the community of those who followed Jesus was “The Way.” The Greek word translated as “way,” hodos, exhibits a rich, multi-layered presence in the New Testament. In this presentation, we’ll examine the literal and figurative interplay of this word in order to gain insight into Jesus’ ministry and message.

10:15 John W. Welch, Blessed, Happymakarios (μακάριος)  Building on the treatment of the adored Beatitudes in chapter 3 of my book titled The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple (Ashgate, 2009), I shall examine how this term played a perhaps unsung but indispensable role in the Gospel of John, the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians, as well as in Revelation and elsewhere.

10:45 Break

11:00 Brent Schmidt, Gracecharis (χάρις) My earlier study of the term grace, published under the title Relational Grace, demonstrated that the original field of meaning was distorted as soon as it fell into the hands of the Christian fathers of the third and fourth centuries AD. Rather than describing a reciprocal relationship between God and believers that was undergirded by covenants, it became “cheap grace” that only depended on a passive, neo-Platonic and mysterious belief.

11:30 Richard D. Draper, Loveagapē (ἀγάπη) Of the words discussed today, the term agapē may be the most important. On it, Jesus affirmed, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). In his turn, Paul treated this intriguing term in the moving, beloved hymn to Charity (1 Corinthians 13). We shall probe these sources and more.

12:00 Lunch on your own, available at the Cannon Center at Helaman Halls or the food court at the Wilkinson Student Center

1:00 John Gee, Scribegrammateus (γραμμματεύς) Scribes were one of the major groups opposing Jesus during his mortal ministry. Unlike the Pharisees, however, the dogmas that they held are not clearly defined. We will explore who the scribes were and why they hated Jesus.

1:30 Michael D. Rhodes, Mysterymystērion (μυστήριον)  A word that is found 28 times in the New Testament, the overall general sense is “secret knowledge revealed by God.” The term  mystērion occurs in a single significant setting in the synoptic Gospels when Christ explains to his disciples why he taught in parables. The remaining 25 occurrences are in the book of Revelation and the writings of Paul. I will examine the various nuanced meanings found in all 28 cases.

2:00 Brent Schmidt, Faith — pistis (πίστις) The earliest occurrences of the word “faith” embrace meanings such as knowledge, faithfulness, trust, and loyalty to covenants, all concepts that involve action on the part of the possessor. But in the third century AD, all this changed. From that point on, faith was seen as an inner, passive acceptance of whatever the early church taught termed “the Rule of Faith,” which later became the authoritative and solitary sola fide. This topic will be presented in detail in a forthcoming publication.

2:30 Break

2:45 Kent Brown, Inheritance: Who Owns All That Land? — klēronomia (κληρονομία)  One of the most important terms in scripture that dates from Abraham’s era, the word “inheritance” and associated terms underwent an important change in New Testament times, moving from a transfer of real estate and other property to the reception of a spiritual home in heaven.

3:15 Panel discussion on Mark’s Gospel and Julie M. Smith’s new commentary. Panelists are today’s presenters joined by Tom Roberts.

4:00 Closing

 

The Legal Cause of Action against Jesus in John 18:29-30

By John W. Welch

Published in Celebrating Easter, eds. Thomas A. Wayment and Keith J. Wilson, 157–76. Provo, Utah: BYU, Religious Studies Center, 2007.

It is a joy to ponder and appreciate the eternal importance of Easter. On the day before Easter, the body of the Lord lay in the tomb while his spirit inaugurated his redemptive work among the throngs in the spirit world. What a thrilling day it must have been for them to receive that visit from him. I imagine that the timing caught them by surprise, as it did among the Nephites. How much joy and excitement there must have been on this day before Easter on the other side of the veil.

In this paper, I will focus on only one aspect of the trial of Jesus, drawing more attention particularly to John 18:29-30 and articulating more clearly to an LDS audience why the accusation in that verse holds a key for understanding the legal cause of action and strategy of the chief priests before Pilate at that stage in the proceedings against Jesus. Continue reading

Why Did the Wise Men Give Gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

by John W. Welch

Little is known about the Wise Men. The Gospel of Matthew says they came from somewhere east of Jerusalem. The early Christian writer Justin Martyr said that they were Jewish men who came from Arabia, southeast of Judea. They may have been among the many Jewish people who were looking for the fulfillment of Israelite prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, such as Daniel’s 490-year prophecy.

Jewish traditions also spoke of temple priests who had gone into exile in Arabia awaiting a chance to return. The Jerusalem Talmud, Tacanit 4.5, mentions priests who had fled from Jerusalem and settled in Arabia around 625 B.C. Other priests may have been expelled by King Herod when he built his own magnificent temple in Jerusalem.

So, it is possible, as Margaret Barker first pointed out in her book Christmas: The Original Story (London: Continuum, 2008), that the Magi came from these priestly groups or from other groups of watchful priests awaiting the coming of the Lord of Holiness. If so, their three gifts could not have been more perfectly suitable, given by priests to their new High Priest.

 

Temple of Herod, model, in Jerusalem

Temple of Herod, model, in Jerusalem

The gift of gold would have sparkled like the gold that was required in the Temple. According to scripture, the inner doors, altar, table for the bread of the Presence, lamp stands, bowls, censers, utensils and implements of the Temple and the paneling on the walls of the Holy of Holies were to be made of pure gold or were gold-plated (1 Kings 7:48-50). Gold was incorruptible and did not rust. It was thought to have absorbed and embodied the radiance of the sun. Shiny gold objects reflected radiantly the heavenly glory of the sun.

Frankincense, a resin gathered from trees in south Arabia, provided fragrance in the Temple. The Holiness Code required incense to accompany every sacrifice “offered by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 24:7). Its sweet, billowing smoke was thought to carry prayers up to heaven. It was burned in the Temple to invite and invoke the presence of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:6 prophesied that camels would bring gold and incense from southwestern Arabia, but what about myrrh? Myrrh is another resin, drawn from the life-sustaining sap of another desert tree. It was a key ingredient in preparing the sacred oil that imparted holiness. The recipe for that anointing oil is found in Exodus 30:23-24. It calls for 500 shekel-weight of myrrh, 250 of cinnamon, 250 of calamus, and 500 of cassia to be mixed in a hin (about one gallon) of olive oil. That anointing oil was uniquely used to sanctify the temple, the ark of the covenant, and the temple vessels, menorahs, and altars. Most of all, it was used to anoint and consecrate the High Priest, and it could not be used outside the Temple (Exodus 30:26-33).

The holy myrrh had disappeared from the Holy of Holies and been hidden away in the time of Josiah according to the Babylonian Talmud, Horayoth 12a. It represented Wisdom (Ben Sira 24:15), and because of its preservative qualities it was used in preparing the dead for burial.

But more than that, this myrrh oil was known as the “dew of resurrection,” and it had anointed the royal high priests after the order of Melchizedek and transformed them into sons of God. One early Christian, Pope Leo the Great, said: “He offers myrrh who believes that God’s only begotten son united to himself man’s true nature.” That uniting of divine and human was the mystery of the myrrh oil in the Holy of Holies. Old traditions also spoke about Adam receiving gold, frankincense, and myrrh from three angelic messengers, so that he could offer proper sacrifices when cast out of Eden.

By giving Jesus these three essential, holy, and precious gifts, the Wise Men prepared Jesus, “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), to offer the ultimate sacrifice as the new and everlasting High Priest, bringing eternal light, life, and God’s presence from heaven above to earth below.

 

 

 

The Trial and Death of Jesus

By John W. Welch

Of the numerous things that could be said about the so-called trial and the death of Jesus, I want to emphasize ten personal reflections. These ten points center around two perplexing questions: Why was Jesus killed? and Who was responsible? As the world marks this year’s Easter season, it would seem especially appropriate to think about his death, since “for this cause came [he] into the world” (John 18:37).

Reflection 1. Latter-day Saints, and all people, should approach this subject with humility and cautiousness. It will long remain impossible to give a definitive description of the so-called “trial of Jesus.” Too little is known today about the laws and legal procedures that would have been followed in Jerusalem during the second quarter of the first century A.D., and too little is known about all that was done so long ago for any modern person to speak with any degree of certainty about the legal technicalities of this case. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written, “There is no divine ipse dixit, no voice from an archangel, and as yet no revealed latter-day account of all that transpired when God’s own Son suffered himself to be judged by men so that he could voluntarily give up his life upon the cross” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1981], 4:142). We are usually more glib about this subject than we intellectually or spiritually ought to be. Continue reading

The Question of Authority and Jesus’s Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21

John W. Welch

Deeply valuable symbolism is embedded in all of Jesus’s parables, and his parable of the willing and unwilling two sons in Matthew 21 is no exception. As Jesus entered the Temple the morning after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Chief Priests approached him and demanded to know: “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). Jesus answered these questions about his authority by telling a simple story about a man who had two sons. When asked to go down and work in the vineyard, the first son initially refused, but then he went, while the other initially said yes but then does not go (21:28-30), or so it seems. Continue reading

Raising Lazarus: Jesus’s Signing of His Own Death Warrant

By John W. Welch

The celebration of Easter usually begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But the events of Passion Week cannot be understood without backing up to the event just a few days earlier in Bethany, just over the hill to the east of Jerusalem. That event was the raising of Lazarus at the home and at the behest of Martha and Mary. That personal favor, offered by Jesus to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus whom he loved (John 11:5), is reported is detail in John 11, right before his entry into Jerusalem in John 12.

Without seeing this as background, it is hard to imagine a reason why a large multitude of people would have followed Jesus into Jerusalem shouting Hosanna! Save us now! It was widely known that he had saved Lazarus from the grave. Many of the leading Jews in Jerusalem had come out to Mary’s home “and had seen the things which Jesus did” and they “believed on him” (11:45). John makes it clear that the crowd was especially excited by the raising of Lazarus: The people who were “with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead” were talking openly and strongly and did “bear record,” and because of that, “for this cause” the people in the city came out and “also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle” (12:17-18).

In addition, without seeing the raising of Lazarus as background to the Passion Week, it is perhaps even harder to imagine why the chief priests turned Jesus’s popularity into utter abandonment and were able to move so quickly and tactically to arrest him, condemn him, take him to Pilate, accuse him, get permission to execute him, and complete the crucifixion, start to finish, all within about ten hours’ time.

How could that have happened? Perhaps the raising of Lazarus, which was the greatest and most closely observed of all of Jesus’s miracles, was simply too powerful, too convincing, too threatening, or too unusual, and at the same time too close to Jerusalem for it have been ignored, one way or the other. Either it was the greatest manifestation ever seen of divine power in the Temple district, or it was the most deceptive act ever imagined by a clever imposter. While many saw it the first way and believed on Jesus, others continued to fear that Jesus had tricked or “deceiveth the people” (John 7:12, 47) and “some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done” (11:46). This report, which must have been tantamount to the filing of an official complaint, galvanized the deep division between the two extremes that confronted Jesus as he humbly rode into Jerusalem on the day after his last ordinary Sabbath.

Indeed, before that triumphal day arrived, other important legal steps had already been set into motion. John 11:47 reports: “Then gathered (synēgagon) the chief priests and Pharisees a council (synedrion).” More than just getting together for an informal conversation or committee meeting, this assembly must have been something of an official gathering, the calling of a session of the Sanhedrin with both parties, the chief priests (the Sadducees) and the Pharisees involved. What was their concern? They wondered “What do we do?” They felt the need to take action. They readily recognized that Jesus had not just worked miracles, but that his many miracles constituted signs, pointing to something more than just doing good. The Sanhedrin found that Jesus in fact had given “many signs” (polla sēmeia). If these signs or wonders led people to “go after other gods,” those miracles were evil and that wonderworker “shall be put to death” (Deuteronomy 13:2, 5).

As they discussed the case, some argued, “If we let him thus alone (aphōmen),” or if we allow him to go on in this way, or forgive him, or condone his conduct, everyone (pantes) will believe on him (pisteusountes eis auton, or trust and have faith in him), “the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (11:48). They fear that “the place” (ton topon, or the temple) and the people (to ethnos, the people of Israel) would be arousin, that is, destroyed, taken away, swept off, conquered by force, even by killing.

Caiphas, the high priest, however, rejected these arguments (saying “Ye know nothing at all”) and made his case based on logic (logizesthe), that it would be better, advantageous, or helpful (sympherei) for us that one man die on behalf of (hyper with the genitive) the people and not the whole people be destroyed (11:50). This he did not say on his own personal authority, but acting officially as the High Priest (11:51) he actually and authoritatively (even if unwittingly) prophesied that Jesus would die for the people, and not just for the people but so that the scattered (dieskorpismena) children of God could be gathered into one (11:52).

This gathering and these words have a ring of legal finality to them, and thus the Gospel of John continues, “Then from that day forth they took counsel (or were legally resolved together, ebouleusanto) that they would kill him.

As people compare the account of the trial of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which occurs after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, people wonder why there is no legal trial in John 18, when Jesus is taken from the Garden of Gethsemane to Annas and then is handed over directly to Pilate where he is tried. In the synoptic gospels, members of the Sanhedrin meet right after the arrest of Jesus and conduct something of a hearing, although not really a full trial.  But even less of a trial occurs before the high priest in John 18. Thus the question often asked is where is the Jewish trial in the Gospel of John? The answer may well be: In John 11 we have a convening of the Sanhedrin, formal accusations, deliberation, reasoning, and even reaching of a verdict. This reading of John is confirmed in several ways.

First, following this decision, an order was issued that anyone knowing of the whereabouts of Jesus needed to report that information so that he could be captured. “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment, that, if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him” (11:57).

Second, plans for the arrest of Lazarus were also contemplated: And “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (12:10-11). Presumably, Lazarus was either an accomplice or at least a witness of what Jesus had done in raising him from the tomb, which some of the Jews thought was some kind of legally actionable trick or deception.

Third, although Jesus was not present at that hearing, none of the members of the Sanhedrin doubted the factual accuracy of the allegations against Jesus, and neither does the Gospel of John doubt that Jesus worked many controversial miracles. Upon his arrest, Jesus presumably would have been given some information about the legal determination that had been reached against him, with perhaps a chance to recant and change his behavior. Something like that opportunity was given to Jesus in John 18:19-23, but there would have been no need to reconvene the entire Sanhedrin to vote again at that time on something that the Sanhedrin had previously decided.

Finally, the determination and action of the chief priests would not have come as any surprise to Jesus. Entering the Temple the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was immediately asked by the chief priests and the elders, “By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). These were questions Jesus had been asked before, when the scribes (lawyers) had come up from Jerusalem to Galilee at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. On that occasion, the scribes came to investigate by which “authority” (Mark 1:27) Jesus was performing his miracles. If he performed miracles by the power of God and to God’s glory, his miracles were beyond reproach. But if it was “by the prince of the devils [that he] casteth he out devils” (Mark 3:22), then he was committing a capital offense for which he could be put to death.

By asking this very question once again of Jesus right after the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and the elders would have been acting on the assurance that his many signs and wonders, and most recently of all his conspicuous raising of Lazarus, warranted his death. Having been confronted by this very challenge on previous occasions, Jesus could well have anticipated—as he walked toward Bethany to answer the plea of his dear friends to come and heal their dying brother Lazarus—that by openly raising Lazarus from the dead, he was effectively signing his own death warrant.

What on Earth are Swaddling Clothes?

by John W. Welch

            As is well known from the often told Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke, Mary wrapped her newborn son “in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). What on earth were swaddling clothes, and why would Luke have bothered to include this detail in his account of the birth of Jesus?

While we may not know for sure exactly what kinds of clothes were used or how they may have looked in Jesus’ case, it seems highly likely that all infants in the ancient Mediterranean world were tightly wrapped in long bands of cloth. So these bands were not “clothes,” like a shirt or pants or pajamas, and they were not just a diaper, but long strips of cloth wrapped all around the baby.

Indeed, the early English translators of the New Testament probably used “clothes” as the plural of “cloth,” both here in Luke 2:7 and also in the passages describing the linen cloths used to wrap the body of Christ for his burial in Luke 24:12 and John 19:40; 20:5, 6, 7. In mentioning the burial cloths, the plural noun othonia (linen cloths) is used. But in Luke 2:7, no noun is used, but instead only a single Greek verb appears; translated by the King James translators as “wrapped in swaddling clothes,” esparganōsen is a past tense form of the word sparganoō, “to wrap.” The clear meaning of this word, in any text dealing with a baby, is to swath or bundle an infant.[1]

No indication is given here what was used to swaddle Jesus, but nothing in this particular word should be used “as a sign of poverty or of the Messiah’s lowly birth,”[2] since both rich and poor alike were swaddled. The Latin Vulgate rendered the Greek by saying that she wrapped him in “pannis,” meaning pieces of cloth or bandages, usually shabby rags. But because the Greek verb here clearly derives from the Greek noun sparganon (“band,” usually appearing in the plural and meaning specifically “bands for swathing infants” [3]), the Latin probably invites a possible misunderstanding. Luke’s statement does not imply a lack of ordinary preparation for the birth of Jesus. Aimed as it was to his Greek audience, Luke’s statement instead draws attention to “Mary’s maternal care; she did for Jesus what any ancient Palestinian mother would have done for a newborn babe.”[4]

Ancient Jewish and Greek sources, discussed below, indicate that wrapping an infant in this way was common, ordinary, and meaningful. On the night that Jesus was born, the angel told the shepherds that if they would go looking in Bethlehem, they would find “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). And they went quickly and indeed found the babe “lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16), but here the swaddling clothes are not mentioned. The angel had told the shepherds that something about this whole situation would be a “sign” (Luke 2:12). So, it is reasonable to ask, what is so significantly indicative here? It would probably not have been unusual to find a newborn baby in Bethlehem. And, it would not have been remarkable to find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. But to find a newborn in a manger, that would be very unusual and therefore singularly significant. After all, how many newborns are placed in a phatnē, most likely a feeding trough[5] for cattle, oxen, goats and sheep?

As far back as the time of Ezekiel in the sixth century B.C., swaddling was referred to as an indication that a baby was properly cared for. In Ezekiel 16:4, the Lord speaks to Israel about the abandoned and desperate condition in which He had found his people, saying “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee, though wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.” In that allegorical description, the baby was cast out into an open field, unwanted and exposed, and the lack of salting (for drying and cleansing) and swaddling was a sure sign that the baby had been legally abandoned and could be claimed. This is evidence that swaddling was normal and significant well back into the ancient history and customs of Israel.

Swaddling bands are also used metaphorically of the creation of the earth in Job 38, speaking of the time in heaven when the morning stars and all the sons of God shouted for joy. As part of that creation, God reigned in the primordial sea, as if the earth had broken the waters within the womb as it was coming forth in birth (Job 38:8), and then God wrapped the earth overhead in the cloud or firmament between heaven and earth, when He “made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it” (Job 38:9). Here, God serves as a father, providing his creation with the kind of loving care and parental obligation that would have been commonly understood to be the first token of acceptance and validation given to a newborn by its lawful parents. Thus, when Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling bands, this sends recognizable signals to all in their culture that this baby, who has come down as a creation of God, is wanted, owned, embraced, and is being fully cared for. Mary and Joseph were prepared at the time of the birth, having brought to the stall these bands in which to tightly bundle and gratefully receive the infant Jesus.

One writer has offered the following description of swaddling: “For years the Orientals of Bible lands have cared for an infant child much as it was done when Jesus was born. Instead of allowing the young baby the free use of its limbs, it is bound hand and foot by swaddling bands, and thus made into a helpless bundle like a mummy. At birth the child is washed and rubbed with salt, and then with its legs together, and its arms at its side, it is wound around tightly with linen or cotton bandages, 4-5 inches wide, and 5-6 yards long. The band is placed under the chin and over the forehead.”[6] Although based on customary practices whose antiquity cannot be determined precisely, nothing could signal more clearly the helpless state of a newborn human more than being wrapped tightly in any such way. Such a being has relinquished all power even to move, let alone to do, at that point, much of anything.

Nativity scene by Giotto di Bondone, Cappella Scrovegni a Padova

Nativity scene by Giotto di Bondone, Cappella Scrovegni a Padova

             It is possible that swaddling bands were, at least on some occasions, marked in some way or accompanied by other tokens in order to identify whose baby it was. Babies could, after all, be easily mistaken, as can happen in hospitals even today. The importance of identifying features coming in connection with the swaddling bands of a child’s earliest infancy was understood widely enough that classical Greek and Roman tragedians and comic writers could make literary use of such bands and tokens as “objects left with an exposed child, the marks by which a person’s true birth and family are identified.”[7] Apparently, it was the combination of some sign, token, or marking with the concurrence of swaddling that was especially noteworthy. In the case of Oedipus, he was marked from his swaddled infancy (sparganōn) with a pin that riveted his feet together.[8] In the case of Jesus, the sign of being laid in a manger came together with his being swaddled.  

But further evidence would need to be found to know if these bands or tokens were ever in some ways distinctive to particular families. It has been suggested that swaddling bands could be “embroidered with symbols indicating family history and genealogy,”[9] and indeed one may add that early Christian tradition associated Mary with spinning, so she may have had access to good cloth and thread out of which to make bands of swaddling cloth for her child. That being the case, since Joseph and Mary were from the tribe of Judah, the swaddling bands wrapped around Jesus “may have used symbols common to that lineage such as a lion, a lamb, or a tree of life,” together with the royal colors of blue and white,[10] but that idea, however endearing, goes well beyond anything we can say or know for sure.

Also, it may be that “according to ancient and modern custom, the embroidery, to be acceptable, must be exactly the same on both sides. This was a type showing that the outward life and the inner life were the same—they were never to have a ‘wrong side’ to their character,”[11] and that “under the wedding canopy, these decorated bands would be tied around the clasped right hands of the bride and groom; hence the saying, ‘they tied the knot.’ These bands would later be used to fasten the swaddling clothes of their children.”[12] Such a practice would nicely merge with the idea that swaddling conveyed the message that the child had not been abandoned but belonged under the marriage rights and privileges that blessed the home into which that child was received. But again, the authentication of these interesting suggestions, which are advanced on the basis of more recent practices, must await evidence from ancient sources.

So, what on earth were swaddling clothes, and what can be said of Luke’s inclusion of this detail in his infancy narrative? In the final analysis, they represent maternal care and concern, being wanted and owned, received and embraced, and when accompanied with some sign or token they could presage a portentous future. But most of all, these bands signal the helpless state of the newborn infant, within the bounds and conditions of earthly mortality. As the author of the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon reflects, as he speaks in the voice of even the legendary king of Israel: “I myself also am a mortal man, like unto all. . . . When I was born I drew in the common air and fell upon the earth, . . . I was nursed in swaddling clothes (sparganois), . . . for there is no king that had any other beginning of birth. For all men have one entrance into life, and the like going out” (Wisdom 7:1-5). Thus, being wrapped in swaddling clothes, even as an eternal heir apparent, symbolizes—and perhaps does so more than any other accoutrement of life—one’s entrance into full humanity. Indeed, that the Lord Jehovah would become flesh as a helpless child and was swaddled like any other infant is an exquisite manifestation of his unfathomable condescension (see John 1:14; Philippians 2:7; 1 Nephi 11:16–20).


[1] Liddell, Scott, and Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 1624.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981), 408.

[3] Liddell, Scott, and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 1624.

[4] Fitzmyer, Luke, 1624.

[5] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977), 399. Brown points out that the word phatnē can mean either “stall” or “manger,” but that “the picture of wrapping the baby and laying him down better suits a cradle-like manger.”

[6] Fred H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (Chicago: Moody, 1953), 108-9; quoted in Monte F. Shelley, Remembering Christ at Christmas (Orem: Summit View, 2008), 44.

[7] Liddell, Scott, and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 1624, citing Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 1035; Menander, Perikeiromenē 15; Donatus ad Ter, Eun. 753, and  possibly Aristophanes, Acharnenses, 431. In Plautus’s Rudens 4.4.111, the story alludes to a “custom of tying round the necks of children, when they were exposed, little tokens or ornaments, which might afterwards serve as means of recognition.” Richard Jebb, The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 110 n. 1035. Further examination of such references is called for.

[8]Oedipus Tyrannus lines 1034-35. He was exposed a few days after his birth, line 77, but thereby was recognized years later.

[9] Donna B. Nielsen, Beloved Bridegroom (Salt Lake City: Onyx, 1999), 35; quoted in Monte F. Shelley, Remembering Christ at Christmas (Orem, Utah: Summit View Publishing, 2008), 46.

[10] lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,7244-1,00.html.

[11] Nielsen, Beloved Bridegroom, 36; quoted in Shelley, Remembering Christ, 46.

[12] Nielsen, Beloved Bridegroom, 35-36; quoted in Shelley, Remembering Christ, 46.