The King James Version tells us that immediately after Jesus’ birth, Mary wrapped the baby in “swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7, 12), but more contemporary versions translate the verb as “wrapped in cloths” (e.g., New International Version). According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1981, 1166) the verb “swaddle” means “to swathe, envelope” and “swaddling clothes” describe “narrow strips of cloth wrapped around an infant to restrict movement.” The Greek verb translated by this English expression in this context, sparganoō, only occurs in the NT in these two verses of Luke’s Gospel. Although Matthew’s Gospel recounts various aspects of Jesus’ birth, he does not describe how Mary treated the infant Jesus. Luke’s narrative is unique in this respect.
The first action that Mary takes to care for the infant Jesus is to “wrap him in cloths” (Luke 1:7 esparganōsen). How she knew to do this, we are not told, but presumably this was a customary way that Jewish mothers cared for their new babies in the first century AD. The Lukan writer employs an aorist active tense form indicating a completed action in the past, as he recounts Mary’s action. She then “laid him in a manger” or “laid him down in a stable” (cf. its use in Luke 13:15 “untie your ox or donkey from the stall (phatnē)”). Luke’s readers would realize that a manger or stable (phatnē) would not normally be associated with a lodging place, but the writer makes sure his audience realizes that this means “there was no place for them in an inn.” Despite these unusual conditions, Mary makes sure that her new-born child received the appropriate care.
The second use of this verb occurs in the angel’s message to the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields (2:12). Having announced to them the birth of a “savior” (2:11) in the city of David, i.e., Bethlehem, the angel provides them with a “sign” by which to identify which infant in Bethlehem this might be. Two elements are featured in this “sign” and both are expressed by participles functioning as predicate adjectives and modifying the noun brephos (“infant”). The first participle is esparganōmenon, a perfect passive form that describes the infant’s current condition resulting from his mother’s previous action described in v. 7. Luke employs a present middle participle to describe the second feature, keimenon en phatnēi, i.e., “lying” in a stable or manger.” While the angel presents two indicators that identify this remarkable child, Luke seems to focus on the second as the more significant, according to 2:16 (“they found the infant lying in the stable/manger” keimenon en tēi phatnēi ). The article used with phatnēi in v. 16 is anaphoric, i.e., that manger/stable mentioned previously in v. 12.
Although the verb sparganoō only occurs twice in the NT, it does have a long history of usage in Greek literature. Hesiod (Theogonia 486; 7th cent. BC) describes how “Earth,” the parent of Rhea, saved her infant Zeus from death at the hands of Chronos. Earth hides the new born infant, and Rhea presents a stone “wrapped in swaddling clothes” to Chronos, thereby deceiving him. Euripedes Ion 956 describes how an infant is exposed after being “wrapped in robes/garments.” Plato Leges 789e mentions the custom followed in Athens by which infants up until two years of age are wrapped in swaddling clothes so that they are molded properly and do not damage its legs by standing too soon. Hippocrates De Fracturis 22.14 advises that dislocations of the hip be kept bound like a child is bound with swaddling clothes in the bed.
The translators of the Old Testament also found this verb useful in rendering certain Hebrew texts. In an oracle critical of Jerusalem, Ezekiel describes the city’s “birth” and indicates that the usual actions to care for a new-born infant were not applied to it, and this included “being wrapped in cloths” (16:4). In Job 38:9 the translator describes the mist enveloping the earth as “swaddling it.”
It appears that both Greek and Jewish society used this practice with newborn infants. Luke is aware of this practice and Greek terminology employed to describe it.