Jesus Calls Himself a Shepherd, But Was He Really?

Often referred to as the good shepherd, along with many references to shepherds and sheep in his many parables. Raising the question, was Jesus a shepherd in his earlier career?

From our sources about Jesus’ life, he never worked as a shepherd or cared for sheep. He had much exposure to sheep and shepherds living in an agrarian society in Galilee, but his vocation was carpentry, not shepherding.

But there are statements and references in the gospels which may make someone think that Jesus was, in fact, a shepherd.

In fact, in the gospel of John, Jesus asserts that he is a shepherd but never claims to be a carpenter. Adding to the confusion of what really was Jesus’s career.

Before we look into these statements and why possibly one would question if Jesus was a shepherd, we need to define terms.

What Did a Shepherd Do in Jesus’ Culture?

Raising sheep was very common in Israel’s history and the times of Jesus. It would not be uncommon to see sheep wandering the countryside under the watchful eye of a shepherd.

A first-century Palestine Shepherd was tasked with caring for the sheep. They watched over them, protecting them from predators, both animals and humans. Along with ensuring they had enough to eat and were safe from danger. Shepherds also herded the sheep when it was time to move them from one place to another.

Unlike modern society with fences and enclosures, in Galilee of Jesus, time sheep freely grazed. The shepherd’s job was to help the sheep find good pastures and bring them to water when needed.

It was not uncommon for this job to fall to the youngest son, as young as 8. Freeing the older males of the family to perform more demanding work. For larger herds, shepherds would often work together to manage the flock. A wealthy individual would often hire someone to take care of his sheep.

It was not an esteemed job and was often distant from the community as the flock moved around the countryside in search of greener grass.   

Reference of Jesus as a Shepherd in the Gospels

An image not far from Jesus’ mind, Jesus references sheep 14 times in Matthew. Shepherds 4 times.

John records sheep 19 times. Fourteen times in Chapter 10 alone, the only place in John where he talks about Shepherds.

Mark and Luke mention sheep and shepherds far fewer times and only in parrel stories with Mathew.  

The parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt.18:10-14, Lk.15:1-7)

Slightly different contexts surrounding the telling of this story, but both tell of a shepherd who leaves 99 of his sheep to rescue the one lost one. Then with great rejoicing, celebrates the return of his sheep. Followed by how God does the same.

Jesus’ concern about the Lack of a Shepherd (Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34)

Jesus having compassion on a large crowd of people because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

In Mark, this leads to the feeding of the 5 000.

In Matthew, the lack of shepherds proceeds Jesus to send out the 12 to heal and preach.

With the sending out of the 12, in Luke 10:3, Jesus comments that they are like “lambs among wolves”. Not a pleasant image of being a sheep.

Jesus Predicting Dissertation of the Shepherd (Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27)

A short reference at the last supper where Jesus comments that just as the sheep scatter when the shepherd is attacked, so will his disciple (flock).

Feeding Jesus’ Sheep (Jn. 21:15-25)

A post-resurrection story where Jesus reinstates Peter by telling him to feed and take care of his sheep.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18)

The clearest statement of Jesus being a shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd”

Jesus (Jn.10:11,14)

Not only once but twice, Jesus states that he is a shepherd.

Taken out of context, it couldn’t get any clearer. Jesus never calls himself a carpenter. We only know this through 2 comments from people in his hometown.

But reading the entire context of John 10, it becomes clear that Jesus is using a word picture. Referencing the caring, protective relationship of the shepherd with his sheep. Then connecting the dots that he is that person. The one who cares for, knows, loves and ultimately gives his life for the sheep. Which from reading the full story, we see that even the sheep are not actual sheep but people.

Was Jesus an Actual Shepherd, Caring for Sheep?

With so many references to sheep and shepherds, I could see why someone would be wondering if Jesus was a shepherd.

But after looking through all our sources and analyzing what we know about the life of Jesus.

We must conclude that it was a figure and analogy that he loved, but he was not a shepherd. He may have played the figurative role in his ministry but never with the woolly creature wandering the countryside.

The little we know about Jesus’ job prior to his public ministry is found in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55. Where Jesus is both called a carpenter and a carpenter’s son. But even that, we must be careful not to jump to conclusions. Click the link for a fuller discussion of Jesus as a carpenter.   

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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