The Good Shepherd (Greek: ποιμήν ο καλός, poimḗn o kalós) is a pericope found in John 10:1-21 in which Jesus is depicted as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Similar imagery is used in Psalm 23. The Good Shepherd is revisited throughout the four Gospels in references to Jesus not letting himself lose any of his sheep.
The surrounding context of the allegorical story of the Good Shepherd (John 9:35-41 and John 10:22-30) shows that the people around Jesus realized that he was asserting that he was God. Biblical scholar Donald Guthrie maintains that the reaction of the Jews (picking up stones to stone him) shows that they understood that Jesus was asserting his own divinity. (Cf. Lev. 24:16)
Early Christian art
The image of the Good Shepherd is the most common of the symbolic representations of Christ found in Early Christian art in the Catacombs of Rome, before Christian imagery could be made explicit. The form of the image showing a young man carrying a lamb round his neck was directly borrowed from the much older pagan kriophoros (see below) and in the case of portable statuettes like the most famous one now in the Pio Cristiano Museum, Vatican City (right), it is impossible to say whether the image was originally created with the intention of having a Christian significance. The image continued to be used in the centuries after Christianity was legalized in 313. Initially it was probably not understood as a portrait of Jesus, but a symbol like others used in Early Christian art, and in some cases may also have represented the Shepherd of Hermas, a popular Christian literary work of the 2nd century. However by about the 5th century the figure more often took on the appearance of the conventional depiction of Christ, as it had developed by this time, and was given a halo and rich robes, as on the apse mosaic in the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome, or at Ravenna (right). Images of the Good Shepherd often include a sheep on his shoulders, as in the Lukan version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who doesn't own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees. The wolf snatches the sheep, and scatters them. The hired hand flees because he is a hired hand, and doesn't care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and I'm known by my own; even as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice. They will become one flock with one shepherd. Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.
Parable or metaphor?
Several authors such as Barbara Reid, Arland Hultgren or Donald Griggs comment that "parables are noticeably absent from the Gospel of John". According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Parables: "There are no parables in St. John's Gospel" and according to the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Gospel of St. John: "Here Jesus' teaching contains no parables and but three allegories, the Synoptists present it as parabolic through and through." These sources all suggest that the passage is better described as a metaphor than a parable.
In two-dimensional art, Hermes Kriophoros transformed into the Christ carrying a lamb and walking among his sheep: "Thus we find philosophers holding scrolls or a Hermes Kriophoros which can be turned into Christ giving the Law (Traditio Legis) and the Good Shepherd respectively". The Good Shepherd is a common motif from the Catacombs of Rome (Gardner, 10, fig 54) and in sarcophagus reliefs, where Christian and pagan symbolism are often combined, making secure identifications difficult.
At the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
Fourth century depiction at the Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome
20th century stained glass depiction, Australia
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- Eduard Syndicus; Early Christian Art; pp. 21-3, Burns & Oates, London, 1962
- The Two Faces of Jesus by Robin M. Jensen, Bible Review, 17.8, October 2002
- Understanding Early Christian Art by Robin M. Jensen, Routledge, 2000
- Syndicus, 130-131
- Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, Pantheon Books, 1947, ISBN 1-4067-5291-6, p. 69.
- "The figure (...) is an allegory of Christ as the shepherd" Andre Grabard, "Christian iconography, a study of its origins", ISBN 0-691-01830-8
- Barbara Reid, 2001 Parables for Preachers ISBN 0-8146-2550-9 page 3
- Arland J. Hultgren, 2002 The Parables of Jesus ISBN 0-8028-6077-X page 2
- Donald L. Griggs, 2003 The Bible from scratch ISBN 0-664-22577-2 page 52
- Peter and Linda Murray, The Oxford Companion to Classical Art and architecture, p. 475.
- Holman Bible Dictionary - "Shepherd" for other Biblical references.
- Online IMAGE Collection of the Good Shepherd.