It’s Christmas time, and what better time than to look into the birth of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and what better subject to start of a Theology blog?
We are all familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, but what is fact, what is myth, and what has been lost in time? Let’s review the narrative brought to us through the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 2: Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now a there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, a for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
A note before we begin here, unless otherwise noted all Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Bible for consistency.
We are going to look into when and where Christ was born, and why what we think we believe probably isn’t right. I am not going to be concerned about the year of Christ’s birth, as much scholarly work has been done on the Biblical and secular references, and the best we can get is between 6-4BC. The purpose of this writing is to determine when in the year his birth occurred.
Now, Luke places the conception of John the Baptist very specifically:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
The days of service for the various divisions of the priesthood were fixed according to the Jewish calendar, as set in 1 Chronicle, Abijah was assigned to the 8th period out of 24. Each division served twice within the year (48 weeks), in addition there were three festival periods when the normal divisions were suspended, and all priests served in the temple (Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot). So, Zechariah would have served twice during the year, giving two possible dates for John’s conception – the 10th week of the temple year (Passover and Shavu’ot occurring during this first cycle), and the 34th week (26 weeks for the first cycle, plus 8 weeks into the second cycle).
Can we determine which of the two cycles the angel spoke to Zechariah? Only by deduction. In Luke 1:17 it is stated that John “and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah”, and in Matt 17:10 “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him”. By Jewish tradition Elijah was expected to come during Passover. So, working things out using the first cycle: 40 weeks pregnancy added to the announcement in the 10th week, gives us a birth for John around Nissan 15, or Passover.
Now, Jesus was conceived 6 months after John (according to the story of Mary’s visitation to her cousin). This would place his conception during Hanukah (festival of Lights), and his birth 6 months after that of John’s, or 15 Tishri, which is the festival of Sukkot (booths/tents), which is a fall harvest festival, and would be a time when Joseph would have travelled with Mary to Bethlehem, even if she were due soon.
Finally, consider that nowhere in the Gospels does it state that Jesus was born in a stable. This is a western idea that comes from the singular statement of there being no room in the “inn” and that Jesus was laid down in a manger. During Sukkot, even to this day, Jews, if possible, construct temporary shelters (booths, or tents) in remembrance of the time spent traveling during the Exodus. In Jesus’ time it was not unusual for people to live within the Sukkah (tent) during the festival. In all likelihood, this is where Jesus was born, and to be laid in a manger would fit with this type of temporary structure.
Had Jesus been born on the first day of Sukkot, then his circumcision would have occurred on Simchat Torah, the completion of the cycle of Torah readings, and his circumcision could be considered the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Yes, a stretch, but also fitting.
Now, this is all supposition, as there is no way to know for sure that the dates fall this neatly, but it is a possibility, and one has to ask if the dates fall neatly because they are contrived, or because they are destined.
It is possible that everything occurred based on the second cycle of priestly service, which would place John’s conception after the 34th week, Jesus’ conception just after Passover, and his birth around the 17th of Trevet, near December 25th.
Personally, I prefer the former cycle, as there would be no reason for Joseph to travel with a pregnant wife during the winter months, Hanukkah was not a festival that required / suggested Jews make a pilgrimage.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The Modern Theologian