‘The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.’ [NRSV]

This blog was first posted on Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception: 26/06/2015

1938: A Bedouin shepherd carrying a young lamb on the hills of Palestine
1938: A Bedouin shepherd carrying a young lamb on the hills of Palestine

John 10: 1-18 contains two of the seven so-called ‘I am’ (εγω ειμι) statements that characterise the teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel; the gate (v.9) and the shepherd (v.11).*

However, unlike the other εγω ειμι statements, this metaphor is developed in a much richer way. For the image to work, it is contrasted with two negative and opposing images – ‘the thief’ (vv. 1 & 8-10) and ‘the hired hand’ (vv. 11-13). Unsurprisingly, attention is generally placed upon the image of the Good Shepherd, the focus of this teaching (παροιμια – proverb/parable), and most commentaries tend to dismiss these figures as little more than a rhetorical device (for example, Carson, 1991).

Nevertheless, the choice of these opposing images, particularly the figure of ‘the hired hand’ (μισθωτος), can tell us about, not only the historical context of this story, but also hint at possible developments of the Jesus tradition within sections of the early church.

LOTS of Sheep, BIG business

The figure of the shepherd would have been familiar to those hearing these words being read. Sheep and shepherding had been an intrinsic part of the world in which they lived for a very long time. Wasse (2000:192-193) notes evidence of fairly widespread sheep husbandry in the Neolithic era Levant (the area in which Canaan and Israel would later be established). Early nomadic and semi-nomadic settlements appeared to have been sustained, at least partly, through a herding economy. By the time we get to the Bronze Age, the Old Babylonian Temple Records appear to indicate a developed and large-scale sheep industry in the period, 2700-2580 B.C.E. (at least in regard to the temples and their estates).

As might be expected with such a trade, a vocabulary also developed that progressed beyond the purely generic terms for sheep and lamb and helped to provide a more

The Kriophoros (Ram Bearer), 5th cent B.C.E. Barracco Museum, Rome. Image: reocities.com
The Kriophoros (Ram Bearer), 5th cent B.C.E. Barracco Museum, Rome. Image: reocities.com

precise means of identifying specific ovine types. Lau (1966:25) identifies at least nine different terms being used in the temple records.** Malina and Rohrbaugh (1998:182) note that, even today, “Arab fellahin classify sheep in a bewildering set of categories.” Although care must be taken when applying this to Iron Age Levant and then post-exilic and Graeco-Roman Israel, the growth and use of such a specific technical vocabulary would strongly suggest a fairly advanced shepherding economy.

The records show that flocks tended to average between 50-100 head of sheep, although a number of flocks comprising over 200 are also recorded. The largest number of sheep under the control of one shepherd is 360 (Lau, 1966:16). What is interesting is the sheer number of sheep that were being processed through the temple system. For example, Tablet 160 refers to a herd of 1,215 sheep. Sheep from other sources were also processed. For example, during the reign of King Dungi of Uru (about 2700 B.C.E.), Tablet 161 records that three large flocks were received from Girsu; the first of these flocks being the largest and comprising 66,155 sheep, the other two herds being of 3,612 and 3,367 sheep. The total number of sheep in this consignment was therefore 73,134 – this is more than twice the figure for total number of sheep and lambs (32,856) in the entire UK for 2013 as stated by DEFRA (EBLEX, 2014:8).

Sheep and Empire

The significance of this, is that sheep were seen as an important and useful means of taxation for occupied territories and vassal states. Temples, such as those within the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires (not withstanding the temple in Jerusalem) needed to be serviced with good quality, living sheep. In other words, sheep husbandry was not necessarily for local consumption and use; large numbers would be exported to foreign power-bases to be used for sacrifice and consumption.  Moreover, in order to meet these demands, land needed to be acquired.

Not all shepherd imagery was 'pastoral' - here an Akkadian king (left) with shepherd hat and staff subdues his enemies. Image: British Museum
Not all shepherd imagery was ‘pastoral’ – here an Akkadian king (left) with shepherd hat and staff subdues his enemies. Image: British Museum

The picture that begins to emerge coheres with those presented by authors such as Hanson and Oakman (1998: 116-119) and Freyne (1988: 94-95, 148-152) where land is taken away from those within the lower strata of society and coalesces into  large estates, owned by (often absent) landlords. It would appear that, despite the concerns of the Deuteronomists to stem this tendency, this aggregation of land into estates owned by a wealthy élite and away from ownership by the general populace, applied as much to Second Temple period Israel as it did to the Roman estates described by Cato and Varro. The day to day management of such estates was undertaken by a strata of tenant workers, responsible (economically at least) to the land-owner.

The accumulation of land by the élite, whether members of the Jewish oligarchy or those of the occupying power, created a class of peasant labourers who depended upon their patronage to give them opportunities to subsist through work (see Matt. 20:1-16). Consequently, ownership of livestock becomes increasingly restricted to those who not only had the resources to buy them, but also the land upon which they can be kept – or could afford to rent for pasture land (See Cato’s On Agriculture CL).

This provides a context for us to explore the main characters in this teaching.

Reality and Romance of the Shepherd

The juxtaposition of the ‘shepherd’ (ποιμην) and the ‘hired worker’ (μισθωτος) is an interesting one – and one which some might find surprising being placed on the lips of Jesus.

The figure of the shepherd is an ancient one and would have been very familiar to those in the ancient world. However, this teaching would appear to be evoking a

Christ the Good Shepherd. 3rd Cent fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. Image: BAS
Christ the Good Shepherd. 3rd Cent fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. Image: BAS

romantic historical image rather than the realities of the time. In fact, for this metaphor to work, the depiction of the shepherd and sheep necessarily requires to be romanticised… everyone would know the fate that ultimately awaits those sheep and that, within the sheep industry of Roman Palestine, these sheep are principally an economic commodity.

For some reason, the good shepherd is contrasted here with a hired labourer and not, as the hearers might have expected, the figure of the ‘bad shepherd’; a common and pervading motif within the Jewish prophetic tradition (for example see, Ezekiel 34:1-10 and Jeremiah 23:1-2). The point being made is not about the relative merits of shepherds and their shepherding techniques (good v bad shepherding), but about ownership. We are repeatedly told that the shepherd is a ‘good’ shepherd precisely because he owns the sheep (vv. 3, 4,  12, 16); the corollary of which is that the μισθωτος (hired labourer) is not ‘good’ because the sheep do not belong to him and, as a consequence, he must therefore not care (μελω) for them (v. 13).

Commentaries generally point to the fairly clear inference that the hired hand’s interest in the sheep is purely in terms of financial gain (his wages) and that he has little regard for their well being. Malina and Rohrbaugh’s (1998:182) explanation for the peasant labourer’s action, based on Gen 31:39, that hired ‘shepherds’ were not responsible for losses caused by predation should be questioned. Although reflecting a later time, the Mishnah holds hired herders liable for compensation for any losses (see Schnackenburg, 1980: 296). The hired hand’s mercenary attitude is contrasted with that of the good shepherd who is depicted in highly romanticised terms; the shepherd will stay with his sheep and is prepared to give his life for them (in their place?). The power of such a statement lies, not only in its apparent absurdity, but also in the way it subverts the motives and practice of real shepherding, where the sheep are protected and nurtured in order to gain the best economic return for them from the market. Although apparently different, the shepherd’s relationship to the sheep is essentially the same as that with the hired hand; the sheep are commodities upon which their livelihoods depend.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, mosaic,  Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy. Image: http://artelisaart.blogspot.co.uk/
Jesus as the Good Shepherd, mosaic, Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy. Image: http://artelisaart.blogspot.co.uk/

This raises some interesting questions. The rhetoric employed in vv. 11-13 will be fairly familiar to 21st century ears in relation to private ownership and ‘people can’t be trusted with other people’s goods.’ Moreover, the emphasis upon the issue of ownership, places the shepherd within a much more privileged class than that of the hired worker. If our reading is correct, the majority of those tending sheep would not be those who can access the resources necessary for their purchase and upkeep, but would be labourers hired by tenant estate workers. The good shepherd of John 10 would be a very unusual figure (one more at home in the romance of historical legend than in reality).

Eschatological Reversal Reversed?

Carson (1991:387) is undoubtedly correct in his assertion that the μισθωτος  is “primarily a foil to emphasise what is characteristic about the Good Shepherd.” Nevertheless, the choice of terms is interesting. Jesus’ sweeping accusations concerning the attitude and alleged conduct of peasant labourers could have stung deeply. For those belonging to this group (and it would be the majority***) it was the rhetoric of the élite and more to be expected from those like Cato who were speaking/writing from a position of power and privilege.

Making the hired worker/peasant labourer the antagonist in this story is significant as it is exactly this group of people that tended to feature as protagonists (either as role models or as examples for specific life experiences) within the Synoptic tradition (Matthew, Mark and Luke) of Jesus’ teaching. Within this tradition, it was often the landowners and powerful who were portrayed negatively (see for example,  Lk 12: 16-20, 16: 19-31, 18: 1-8)  In fact, it could be argued that the shepherds in Luke’s birth narrative, to whom the birth of Jesus was announced, would have probably been exactly the type of hired hands depicted in John 10; those that Luke has worshipping the infant Jesus are now presented, within the Johannine tradition, as being, at best, untrustworthy, irresponsible and mercenary and at worst antithetical to Jesus.

The Jesus of John 10 indicates not only the characteristic Johannine shift from the Synoptic presentation of Jesus as ‘the one who proclaims the Kingdom of God’ to ‘the one who proclaims himself’, but also a change in language and attitudes that would appear to reflect a more advantaged class than that predominantly found within the Synoptic tradition. For those more familiar with the Synoptic Jesus, who tends to be viewed as identifying with (and is indeed often identified with) the poor and dispossessed, this might be rather surprising.

* The other ‘I am’ statements can be found in: 6:35, 8:12, 11:25, 14:16 and 15:1. Although not strictly following the εγω ειμι formula, some also include 8:58.

** Lau (1966:25) observes that differentiation is made between; male lamb, female lamb, large sheep (perhaps ram), fat sheep, ram at age of puberty, pregnant ewe (though this is unsure), pubescent sheep, full grown  tupped ewe, full grown pubescent – but perhaps not yet tupped – ewe. A further distinction is made between lambs, which Lau (1966:25) suggests might refer to whether they have been weaned or not.

*** See Hanson and Oakman (1998) chapters 4 and 5

Robert Myles’ December 2014 blog on Jesus’ Exploitation of Servant Labour explores the question of a more bourgeois Jesus being presented in John’s Gospel.

For more information on the place of sheep in early Bronze Age Mesopotamia, see Walther Sallerberger’s  ‘The Value of Wool in Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia. On the Control of Sheep and the Handling of Wool in the Presargonic to the Ur III Periods (c. 2400–2000 BC).’


Carson, D.A. (1991) The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

EBLEX (2014) UK Yearbook 2014 Sheep. Kenilworth: Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

Freyne, S, (1988) Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary and Historical Investigations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Hanson, K.C. and Oakman, D.E. (1998) Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Lau, R.J. (1966) Old Babylonian Temple Records. New York: AMS Press.

Malina, B.J. and Rohrbaugh, R.L. (1998) Social-Scientific Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Sallerberger, W. (2014) ‘The Value of Wool in Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia. On the Control of Sheep and the Handling of Wool in the Presargonic to the Ur III Periods (c. 2400 to 2000 BC)‘. In. Breniquet, C. and Michel, C. (eds.) Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 94-114.  

Schnackenburg, R. (1980) The Gospel According to St John. Volume 2. London: Burns and Oates.

Wasse, A.M.R. (2000) The Development of Goat and Sheep Herding during the Levantine Neolithic. Volume 1. Unpublished Thesis. University College London.

Other ancient sources

Cato. Cato and Varo: On Agriculture. Loeb Classical Library 283 with Eng. trans. by Hooper, W.D. and Ash, H.B. (1935)


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