And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Luke 2.10-12 KJV.
What constitutes a sign? Something out of the ordinary, surely? Something we don’t normally see or even expect to see. “I’ll meet you in King’s Cross Station. How will you recognize me? I’ll be wearing a red carnation in my overcoat buttonhole.”
So have you spotted what’s so odd about the second part of the sign that is being provided for the shepherds—at least according to the KJV rendering of the verses above? That’s right—the baby will be wrapped in baby clothes. What is at all extraordinary or unusual about that? Absolutely nothing. Unless, of course, the King James Version has not got it quite right …
Let’s go back to the first part of the sign for a moment. The baby will be lying in a phatnē—a feeding trough for animals, a manger. Now that is extraordinary. But perhaps even more so than is usually depicted in our traditional nativity scenes, for a phatnē in Bethlehem would usually be found in a cave in the hillside below or near to people’s homes, not in a ground-level stable attached to a house or round the back of it. And that gives us the clue as to what was unusual about the second part of the sign, for, according to Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, the caves in Bethlehem had a secondary purpose: not only were they used to house livestock in inclement weather but some of them had a niche hollowed out of the wall and were also used to store burial cloths. When someone died in Bethlehem, the body was taken first to one such cave and wrapped in burial cloths before being carried in procession to one of the burial caves.
Is it not plausible that Mary and Joseph, faced with the birth of Mary’s child in these austere surroundings with no proper facilities to hand, should seize the nearest cloths available and wrap them around the newborn baby? And, if that is what happened, how extraordinary and unusual would that all be? A sign indeed: “You will find a baby wrapped in burial cloths and lying in a manger.”
So why does the KJV say “wrapped in swaddling cloths?” Because the translators made an assumption. A reasonable assumption, yes; but an assumption nonetheless. The word sparganoō simply means “to wrap in cloths.” It does not specify the particular kind of cloth; that is dictated by the circumstances. And the circumstances here are the birth of a child, so the cloths must be swaddling cloths; right? Well, no—probably wrong! Leave out the “swaddling.” As the NIV more accurately puts it: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
But if the conjecture about burial cloths is correct, how charged with significance would that be. Not only on the last day of his life, but on the first day of it too, the one who would die the most significant death in the history of the world was wrapped not in a shawl but in a shroud.