Do Sheep Graze in Bethlehem in December?
Sheep (having wool coats) are easily able to endure even winter cold, and are grazed in the winter, even in very cold and snowy conditions.
One common polemical argument against a December birthdate for Jesus is based on a skepticism toward: “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (RSV).
Atheists, biblical skeptics and even serious observant Christians make the fallacious argument that it was too cold at that time of year in Bethlehem for sheep to graze, or for shepherds to be in the field watching them. But this objection has no rational basis and is in fact a fatally weak and desperate argument, as I will demonstrate.
This question, then, basically comes down to four things:
- How much cold can sheep endure?
- Can/do shepherds graze sheep in the winter?
- What is the average temperature in Bethlehem in December?
- Were/are sheep in fact kept outside in December in or near Bethlehem?
Let’s consider each factor in turn.
First, how cold is too cold for sheep? I looked up several livestock web pages online. A Farm & Ranch Guide page stated that “Sheep are most comfortable at 45-70 degrees Fahrenheit,” but that lambs have problems maintaining their body temperatures “below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The opinion expressed by a second site was that winter posed very little difficulty at all: “Snow is no obstacle to grazing, and sheep, with their thick wool coats, aren’t bothered by even the coldest temperatures.”
A third from the OSU Sheep Team stated: “Full fleeces also work well to keep sheep warm when temperatures drop below freezing, but if precipitation and windy conditions occur or temperatures drop below 0°F, even sheep with full fleece will undergo cold stress.”
So far so good! But — whatever temperatures they can stand — are sheep actually grazed in the wintertime? An article about “Winter Grazing” from the Cornell Small Farms Program answers in the affirmative: “Snow on the ground does not necessarily mean that the grazing season ends. Sheep have the ability to dig through the snow to get to the grass.” It does caution, however, about “wet snow” and “drifted snow.” The biggest obstacle is “cold winds” and the article recommends access to something that will protect against it — not necessarily a barn, but at least a “thick hedgerow.” The OSU Sheep Team in another article observes that “in Ohio it is possible to graze year round,” as long as adequate preparation is undertaken.
Now we move on to determining what the weather is like in December in Bethlehem.
“Average Weather in Bethlehem,” a web page on the Weather Spark, site fits the bill. It informs us that “the coldest day of the year is January 25, with an average low of 41°F and high of 53°F.” A weather chart provided showed that the average high on Dec. 5 was 60 degrees, and the average low, 46. Weather Atlas states that in Bethlehem in December, the average temperature is between 44.6° and 57.2°F. Lastly, AccuWeather: Bethlehem indicates that today (Dec. 26, 2022), the forecast high was 49 degrees, with a forecast overnight low of 43. The low temperatures until the end of the year were predicted to range from 41 to 43 degrees.
As we can see, all of these temperature ranges are easily able to be withstood by sheep and even lambs, who do fine down to 32°. It looks like Bethlehem rarely ever gets that cold, even in December.
What about the actual history of sheep grazing in Bethlehem in December? What can we find out? David J. Gibson, in a 1965 article for Bible League Quarterly entitled, “The Date of Christ’s Birth,” provided some fascinating information:
In the dry summer season the hills are well-nigh bare, affording insufficient pasture, so the shepherds then normally keep their sheep near the town and enfold them at night. But when the winter rains fall, the hills become clothed with grass, and the shepherds, knowing this, take their sheep further afield. Then, because it would make the sheep walk too far to reach the folds every evening, expending energy needlessly, they simply watch their flocks in the fields all night. This seems to be precisely what the evangelist Luke describes [Luke 2:8].
Smith’s Bible Dictionary (1863), under the heading “Palestine: the Climate,” explains that the winter rains in the area commence in early November and continue through mid-March, but that there is usually a diminution of rain in the third and fourth weeks in December, and into January. This period, with new grass and temperatures averaging about 55 degrees, would actually be one of the best times all year to graze. Father Dwight Longenecker, in his article, “The True Story of the Bethlehem Shepherds,” also notes that “any animal to be sacrificed at the Temple had to be born within five miles of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is just five miles from Jerusalem,” and that “the breed of sheep most common in the Middle East — the Awassi — give birth in December.” Many thousands of these newborn lambs were “set aside for the Spring [Passover] sacrifice.”
Conclusion: sheep (having wool coats) are easily able to endure even winter cold, and are grazed in the winter, even in very cold and snowy conditions, though there are some limits with ice preventing them from eating, etc. The average low temperatures in Bethlehem are in no way prohibitive for sheep (and of course, it rarely snows). History shows us that sheep were and are grazed in December near Bethlehem. Before A.D. 70, it was primarily for the purposes of Temple sacrifice, which occurred daily, all year round. Therefore, this particular polemical argument against a proposed birthdate of Jesus in December fails miserably on all counts. If we have good reasons to believe that Jesus was born in December — even possibly on the 25th (and we do, on other grounds, as I’ve written about), this attempted polemic does not refute them at all.