The swaddling clothes of the Baby Jesus could arguably be the most famous baby blanket in the history of the world. But were they really a baby blanket in the 21st century sense of the term? Well sort of.
Upon entering this world from the cozy, confines of mommy’s womb, babies compel us to clean, comfort, and protect them in some sort of wrapping. Even God Incarnate, who came to us as a vulnerable infant, was swaddled by His mommy.
The babe's swaddling clothes have been a topic of speculation for over two millennia. Several theories have been set forth as to what these clothes were and what was their purpose. Keep reading for four viewpoints.
The entire account of the Messiah’s birth originally comes to us from the Holy Scriptures. The Bible’s New Testament book of Luke gives us the story of His coming. Click here to read the entire account.
"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:7 KJV
Tradition states that Jesus was born in a stable behind an inn with a No Vacancy sign. A stable, or cave, such as this would house traveler’s mules and horses, as well as the inn owner’s animals such as cows and goats, maybe even chickens. Now, I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened this way, but aren’t these types of stables smelly, dusty, and risky for newborns?
Perhaps this was to symbolize the humility of Jesus coming to our Earth from his place of glory. (A closer look at the Greek word used for "inn" suggests that it could have been a family's spare room, rented out for the occasion of the census.)
If so, then what about the swaddling clothes? According to ancient historical records, swaddling infants with strips of cloth was a common practice. Then why did the angels specifically tell the shepherds they would find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes as a sign to them of His identity? Of course, He would be swaddled, no news there. And in whose stable would they find the Child? Lots of people were in Bethlehem during the census. The angels never specified where to look other than in a manger.
Many people believe that the swaddling clothes represent the reason that Christ came in the first place, to die for our sins. At that time, the shroud of a dead person was also referred as “swaddling cloth,” even though the Greek word was different from the one used in Luke's gospel for the birth.
Apparently, travel in the Middle East at the time of Jesus’ birth was fraught with dangers and hardships. No guarantee existed that travelers would reach their destination. Religious law required a dead body to be buried immediately upon its demise. So, it is reported that travelers would prepare for their journey by wrapping a long strip of lightweight cloth around their body under their clothing in case somebody died. The corpse could be wrapped and buried.
If Mary had not the foresight to bring clean wrappings, the newborn Messiah might have been swaddled in the burial cloth that Joseph may have wrapped around himself for the trip, thus foreshadowing His ultimate purpose.
Catholicism.org shared a speculation that Mary may have been given priestly swaddling bands from her cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zachary, a priest in the temple. Apparently, when the priests were done serving their time in the holiest place, they cut their embroidered priestly garments into strips to be given as a gift to a newborn Davidic king. Wearing these swaddling clothes would have been a sign that the infant was indeed of the royal line of David.
Elizabeth knew without doubt that Mary was the mother of the Lord Immanuel and that he was fully deserving to wear the priestly swaddling bands because both Mary and Joseph were of the lineage of King David. While preparing for the census trip to Bethlehem, Mary would have packed these distinguishing bands precisely for the purpose of swaddling her newborn son.
Some say that Mary herself embroidered swaddling bands with symbols of the tribe of Judah, to be used to bind her hand with Joseph’s in the betrothal ceremony. Afterwards, these bands would be saved to swaddle their infant children, thus identifying them as being of their family. However, I could find no evidence in my internet search to support the use of such handfasting in Jewish wedding tradition.
John D. Keyser of hope-of-israel.org maintains that the act of using salt and swaddling clothes on the child proves that Joseph, not God’s Spirit, is the true and natural father of Jesus. He indicates that ancient middle eastern custom dictates that a child not salted and swaddled is an illegitimate child. Only those infants whose parents are known and accepted in the local community are salted and swaddled. Therefore, Joseph must be the true father of Jesus.
This position seems to disregard that the Scriptures state it takes two or three witnesses to settle a matter. This principle is mentioned several times in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. Mary knew Jesus was the Son of God. Joseph knew it because the angel told him, and Elizabeth knew it because it was revealed to her as well. These three agree that God is the Father of Jesus, therefore the swaddling bands could have been a sign of his legitimate birth as the Son of God.
The Scripture contains Old Testament references that are prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. It is through these that we get another, more in-depth view of the meaning of the swaddling clothes.
Alfred Edersheim, a minister and Biblical scholar in the 19th century, indicates that the special flocks that provided the lambs used for ritual sacrifices and for Passover in the Temple of Jerusalem (4 miles away) were raised in the hills around Bethlehem.
Migdal Eder was a watchtower built in/near Bethlehem to protect the temple flocks. Lambs that were destined to become ritual and ceremonial sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem were born in the birthing room below the "tower of the flock," (in Hebrew Migdal Eder). It was kept ceremonially clean according to strict rabbinical rules.
(Archeologists have not uncovered its actual location but the Old Testament narrows the location significantly. However, it may or may not be a cave under the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.)
During lambing season, the ewes were brought here to birth their young. Specially-trained shepherds would make judgments about which lambs qualified as worthy to be a sacrificial lamb. If they qualified by being without spot or blemish, they would be wrapped with “swaddling cloths” to protect them from harming themselves. Lambs are lively little creatures. Those that were not suitable were joined to the flock.
Cooper P. Abrams III cites much biblical and historical evidence that agrees with Edersheim. Read more here - http://bible-truth.org/BirthPlaceofJesus.html#3
The priestly shepherds of the Christmas Story knew exactly where the angels meant when they said, “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” English Bibles are typically translated from Greek. The Greek word for “manger” most commonly means “stall,” such as where animals are kept (It is translated as such in Luke 13:15). The birthing room below the tower of the flock, Migdal Eder, where the unblemished sacrificial lambs were born, is a birthplace that qualifies as a sign of the unblemished Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.
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Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, From the manger in Bethlehem to the baptism in Jordan, The nativity of Jesus the Messiah, Book 2, Chapter VI, Hindrickson Publishers: 1993, p131.