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Scripture Studies

The Timing of Jesus' Birth

thenativity-sceneWe are again in this time of the year when majority of the world keeps a very special time they believe commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ.

While this celebration is inescapable for most of us, this season can be a real struggle, especially when our difference piques the curiosity of some as they think it sad that we are removing ourselves from the most meaningful time of the year, or is it?

Was Jesus Christ really born on December 25th? If he was not born on that date, can we know for certain when his birth possibly took place? A careful study of the surrounding events leading to the birth of Christ will actually show some vital facts.

On the other hand, plethora of information is just a click away over the internet that will show us undeniable information as to the questionable origin of Christmas celebration. Many people are now beginning to see how the “winter-time” merry-making of December 25 actually predated the birth of Christ—that these were derived from an ancient cultic celebration of the re-birth of the Roman pagan sun-god on the day of the winter solstice or Saturnalia.

History also attested to the fact that the Catholic church heavily borrowed from this celebration in order to entice the heathens (pagans) to embrace a new religion. While this method was successful in preserving “Christmas” as it survived today, the Bible is actually explicit in forewarning us and discouraging such borrowed and sanitized pagan practices.

God’s overriding admonitions in Deuteronomy 12, are very instructive in helping us know how God views all these things:

“When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” Deuteronomy 12:29-32 ESV(see also Jeremiah 10:2-5, Ezekiel 23:37-39, Zephaniah 1:5, 2 Cor. 6:14-18)

But what information do we have surrounding the birth of Christ?

On the surface, the gospels’ accounts of Matthew and Luke revealed little about the time of Jesus' birth. But a careful study of the narratives will clearly indicate two things:

First, that the December 25 date is very untenable and unlikely date for Jesus to be born.

Second, the chronology of the events and familiarity with the Biblical customs pointed to a different but meaningful period.

As a well-regarded historian, Luke, provided a sound and orderly account of the events that removes any doubt as to the time of the birth.

As an overview, Luke introduced us to event leading for Jesus’ parents coming to Jerusalem (Bethlehem). And this was due to a Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus compelling everyone to return to their hometown (Luke 2:1-4). Both historical fact and logic dictate that such censuses cannot be taken in winter, when temperatures were often below freezing and travelling can be very arduous due to roads’ poor condition. It would be self-defeating for such census to be enforced.

Another least understood factor was the influx of many travelers in and around Jerusalem during this period that made it difficult for Joseph and Mary find a decent "inn" (Luke 2:7). Looking at the historical context, the only possible reason was the fact that it was a pilgrimage-feast (harvest) season (Exo 23:16, Deut 16:16), making it even more an opportune time for Roman census and collect taxes.    

Moreover, Luke in his account about the timing of birth, also noted the presence of shepherds in the fields watching their flocks “by night”. (Luke 2:8). For shepherds to be in the fields at night with their flocks in the bleak of mid-winter December in Israel is unnatural and topographically untenable even when it is only a mild winter. Thus The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary says this passage argues “against the birth [of Jesus] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted” shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night. Other references suggest based on this account that, “Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night” (Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays p. 309).

If it is not possible for Jesus to be born on December 25, does the Bible indicate when He was born?

To unlock this and using the same sequence of events in Luke Chapter 1:5 through 2:8, two overlooked key factors will give us answers.

The Key Events

Luke Chapter 1 begins by telling the story of a childless couple named Zacharias, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth. While Zacharias was in the Temple administering his priestly duties under the “division of Abijah”, he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that his prayers had been answered and that his wife Elizabeth will finally bear a son. He would name his son “John”( Luke 1:5-13).

Because of their advancing age, Zacharias doubted that this would happen. So Gabriel told him that he would be “mute” and not be able to speak until the birth his son. It was after receiving this vision and as soon as his priestly service in the Temple was completed, that Zacharias departed to his own house. Elizabeth soon conceived but kept it secret for five months. (Luke1:19-25)

It was in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, when Gabriel visited Mary (her cousin) and informed her about her own unique pregnancy, telling her "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus". Soon after, Mary visited Elizabeth and stayed with her until the latter's ninth month, leaving just prior to John's birth. Thus, making Jesus Christ birth approximately six (6) months after John the Baptist. (Luke 1:26-56)

Summing up at this point, there are four (4) key indicators that will help us know the events leading to Jesus’ birth:

§  Zacharias was serving as priest in the Temple according to the division or “course” of Abijah. –Luke 1:5

§  Elizabeth conceived after Zacharias completed his service. –Luke 1:23

§  Mary conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy.—Luke 1:26

§  John was born approximately six months before Jesus. –Luke 1:57

The Course of Abijah

To know the timeframe of Jesus’ birth, a starting point must be established, and Luke supplied the key link in Luke 1:5, 8-9. Zacharias was serving in the Temple “according to the order of his division.” By genealogy, Zacharias was a priest-descendant of Abijah entitling him to serve in the temple under this “course”.      

The question is, can we know when the “course of Abijah” fell during the year, and how for how long it served?

The answer to this is found in 1 Chronicles 24. King David, on God's instructions (1 Chr 28: 11-13) had divided the sons of Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron, into 24 groups (1 Chr 24: 1-4). It lists the courses, divisions or shifts of the priesthood that will serve throughout the year. Verse 1 states, "These are the divisions of the sons of Aaron." Among the sons of Eleazar were sixteen heads of their father's house, while among the sons of Ithamar were eight additional heads of house, making twenty-four courses (verse 4). After the 24 groups of priests were established, lots were drawn to determine the sequence in which each group would serve in the Temple. (1 Chr 24: 7-19). See table sequence below.

24 Priestly Courses

Beginning with the first month, Nisan, in the spring (corresponding to March-April), these courses rotated throughout the year, each one of the 24 "courses" of priests would begin and end their service in the Temple on the Sabbath, a tour of duty being for one week (2 Chr 23:8, 1 Chr 9:25). The course of Abijah, the course during which Zacharias was responsible to work, was the eighth shift (verse 10 see above table).

Both the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15-21) and Pentecost (Sivan 6-7) would have occurred before his scheduled duty. This places Zacharias' administration in the Temple on the Sabbath of the third month, Sivan (May-June).

The information regarding John is important, because according to Luke, Jesus was conceived in the sixth month following Elisabeth's pregnancy.

Luke 1:26-27 “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.”

Luke 1:36 “And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.”

Based on a conception shortly after the third Sabbath of the month of Sivan, projecting forward an average term of about 10 lunar months (40 weeks), we arrive at the month of Nisan. It would appear that John the Baptist may have been born in the middle of the month, which would coincide with Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Since Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptist, and we have established a likely date for John's birth, we need only move six months farther down the Jewish calendar to arrive at a likely date for the birth of Jesus. From the 15th day of the 1st month, Nisan, we go to the seventh (7th) month, or  Tishri. And what do we find on that date? Two Biblically significant fall feasts occurring on this month, the Feast of Trumpets (symbolically announces the coming of new king) and the Feast of Tabernacles! (Leviticus 23: 23-33).

The chronology of these events may be presented in the following chart:

JC-JBBirth Chart2

Thus, carefully studying Luke’s chronology, applying logic, and customs, a strong case based on Biblical evidence can be presented that Jesus Christ was born on the seventh (7th) month of Tishri, (either on the Feast of Trumpets or on the Feast of Tabernacles) which corresponds to the September-October based on our present calendar. This is more meaningful and momentous than the traditional Christmas story we've been wrongly told.

Luke 2:10-11 “ Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’”

John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [‘tabernacled’ -KJV] among us and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

 

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