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When Was Jesus Born? Zechariah’s Priestly Service

In theory, if one could pinpoint the day on which Zechariah and Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist, one could extrapolate an approximate date of Jesus’ birth. Elizabeth was “in her sixth month” of pregnancy when the angel Gabriel came to Mary. Therefore, approximately fifteen months after Elizabeth conceived, Jesus was born.

The Course of Abijah

The timing of John’s conception is tied to the annunciation to Zechariah while he was serving at the temple (Lk 1). Presumably, within a week or two of his return from Jerusalem, John was conceived. The key, therefore, is to narrow down the dates on which Zechariah would have been serving at the temple. This is a cottage industry among biblical chronologists, but unfortunately the results are more evocative than conclusive because the data are subject to varied interpretations.

What is known for sure is that the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, serving for one week at a time from Sabbath to Sabbath (2 Ch 23:8; 24:7-19; Josephus Ant. 7:14:7). In addition, there were three weeks of the year when all of the courses were on duty: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Dt 16:16). Twenty-four divisions each serving two weeks per year, plus the three additional weeks, makes up the fifty-one weeks of a standard Jewish year. (About every third year, an intercalary month was added to the Jewish year to bring it back into alignment with the solar year.) The questions are myriad:

  • Did the priests serve the same two weeks every year, perhaps counting from the start of the year? If so, did they calculate the beginning of the year from Nisan or from Tishrei?
  • Did the priestly rotation proceed strictly in accordance with the numbering of weeks, without reference to the calendar dates?
  • What happened in leap years? Did the priestly rotation simply continue apace, or was there some kind of special arrangement?
  • Did the rotation schedule change at any point or was it consistent across the decades and centuries?

Keeping these questions in mind, what are some possibilities? We know from Josephus that the first division, the division of Jehoiarib, was on duty when Jerusalem was besieged during the first week of April, AD 70 (Nisan 1-8, AM 3830). When then would the division of Abijah (the eighth division) have been serving ca. 4 BC? If the courses served in the same weeks of every year, this would have the Abijah division coming on duty

  • Passover week: beginning the second Sabbath in Nisan (March-April).
  • Pentecost week: beginning the first Sabbath in Sivan (May-June).
  • The tenth week of the year: beginning the second Sabbath in Sivan (May-June). (Abijah was the eighth course; the two pilgrimage festivals throws the rotation off by two weeks, resulting in the tenth week.)
  • The thirty-fourth week of the year: beginning the second Sabbath in Tishrei (September-October). (Twenty-four weeks later) This places the course of Abijah on duty on the Day of Atonement, Tishrei 10.
  • Tabernacles week: beginning the third Sabbath in Tishrei (September-October).

Assuming John was conceived within the week after Zechariah returned from his temple service, the May-June date would yield a date for the birth of Jesus in the fall; if the September-October date is preferred, the result is Jesus being born in winter. In other words, either of the prevailing theories can be supported by this method of calculation!

If, however, the divisions drifted through the year to keep strict time with the count of weeks‚Äîand if this week count was not interrupted by leap years‚Äîthen we can calculate backward from Jehoiarib’s service the first week of April in AD 70.

If we bracket out for the moment the three weeks of the year when all twenty-four courses were on duty, we find by this approach that the course of Abijah would have come on duty during only one week that would yield a Christmas date within our established parameters. A week of service for the course of Abijah would have begun on June 23, 4 BC (Sivan 27, AM 3757).

Assuming John was conceived around July 1-7, this gives a date of the Annunciation around December 30-January 5, 3 BC and a date for the birth of Christ around September 22-28, 3 BC, during the feast of Tabernacles. It should also be noted that the date of the Annunciation by this reckoning falls very close to January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which in ancient times may have marked the celebration not of the birth of Christ per se, but the fact of the incarnation.

The Day of Atonement?

Taking another approach, some early fathers such as John Chrysostom asserted that Zechariah heard the angelic annunciation on the Day of Atonement. This assertion is suspect from the outset because it seems to be based on an erroneous claim in Protevangelium of James that Zechariah was in fact the Jewish high priest! Even so, we have seen above that a date on or near the Day of Atonement is a possibility if the course rotation was tied to a fixed beginning point (i.e., the first of Nisan) every year. At any event, all the priestly courses would have been serving the following week during the feast of Tabernacles. With that in mind, let us proceed.

In 4 BC, the Day of Atonement (Tishrei 10) fell on Monday, October 1. The following week was Tabernacles, so Zechariah could not return home to Elizabeth for another two Sabbaths, leaving Jerusalem perhaps Sunday, October 14. This means that even if we cannot prove that Zechariah was serving during the first week of October of 4 BC, he definitely would have been serving—along with the other twenty-three courses—during the second week of October, and would not have gotten home until after that.

Let us assume that John was conceived within one week of Zechariah’s return. This would therefore have been October 14-20 (regardless of the precise date of the angelic visitation), with the Annunciation following some twenty-six weeks later around April 14-20, 3 BC. (The angel told Mary that Elizabeth was “in her sixth month.” There is therefore a couple week’s leeway to play with here.)

Finally, the birth of Jesus would come thirty-eight weeks after that or around January 5-11, 2 BC. (Normal human gestation period is considered to be 38 weeks from conception.) It should be noted that this is the only documentary evidence for the date of Zechariah’s service in the temple. All other possibilities are based purely on speculative back-counting. Chrysostom’s testimony, whatever its worth as factual history, conforms rather closely to early testimony for birth of Christ on January 6 (although Chrysostom himself argued for a December 25 nativity).

As tantalizing as this line of speculation is, without some firmer answers about how the courses were scheduled we are left with no strong conclusions. Some calculations favor a fall date for Jesus’ birth, others favor a winter date.

Next: Clement of Alexandria

technorati tags: abijah, annunciation, day of atonement, christmas, chronology, epiphany, jesus, zechariah

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3 Comments

  1. William Burnam says:

    Many claim Jesus was placed in a manger, therefore he must have been born in a stable. True, a manger is for food storage but any observant Jew keen on his history may also point out that mangers as food storage were commonly seen inside most sukkas that were erected during the feast of Sukkot.

    Many agree that Rome often would take a census during many of the Jewish feast weeks that brought many of the faithful Jews to travel to the town of their origin. The gospel of Luke even states this census was taken in this mannor for the first time at this perticular instance.

    I suppose you already see where I am going with this. Could Jesus have been born in a sukkah, which would have been very humbling for a young Jewish girl to give birth to her very first child in such a public setting with no privacy. I’m sure a room at the inn would’ve been preferred but being given one of the many sukkahs that were prepared for the feast week would be appreciated as the best that could’ve been done. Each Sukkah was supplied generously by the community with eight days of food for travelers coming for the feast. The manger used to store this food would have been the only furniture style item in the sukka to keep a child safely off the ground.

    Perhaps it makes sense as well that God would come to his people and “tabernacle” with them in community during the tabernacle feast week. I would like to speculate how fitting it would be that his birth happens to perhaps fall on one of only two eight day feasts which might be a real big deal to some who would find it fitting that He (the Lord of the Sabbath) would be born on the first day of the feast (considdered a Shabbat) and circumcised on the last day of the feast (also considdered a Shabbat). A male Jew is not considdered a full live birth until his bris (circumcision).

    Perhaps this may be considdered as more evidence to support his birth in the chronology conjuction of Zecharia’s service being during the Feast of Weeks (Pentacost) as you suggested as your second possibility.

    Thank you,
    William

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  2. William Burnam says:

    P.S.

    It is also interresting to note that if this is indeed the actual birth time for Jesus, then perhaps his conception is during Channukha (the dedication of the Temple celebration, a.k.a. the feast of lights) Coincidently in John Chapter 10 we see Jesus celebrating this event and also announcing that “I and my Father are one.”

    AND it would also be interresting to note that John the immerser could have possibly been born during Passover, the other eight day feast. All of these “coinsidences” are possible if Zecharia is serving in the Temple during Pentacost.

    Thanks again,
    William

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  3. Kent Jacob says:

    Let me first of all state that I am in full agreement that Jesus was not born in December. All Scriptural and traditional evidence suggests otherwise. Your article has indeed done well in identifiying this. This is not the only site that has postulated the Feast of Tabanacles as the period for Birth of the Massiah. I have been exploring this concept and having been looking for the Biblical evidence that supports this claim. While this site have sited several credible inferences, to attest to this, I am still having some difficulty in accepting this. Unfortuntely, I am unable to propose an opposing view on the actual time of Christ’s birth, but I can share some of my concerns with the position adopted. In fact it is just one major concern. The arguments expressed in this blog are basically identical to all others, that I have read, which hold this view of Christ birth being during the Feast of Tabnarcles. What is for sure, it seems that we all read the same Bible and recognise that there was no clear, unambiguous evidence to point to in this regard. And it is here that my concerns with the arguments exressed originate.
    The Feast of Tabanacles was a MAJOR feast within the the Jewish culture. It was one of the most important and one which was celebrated for 7 full days (this was highlighted in the text) with lots of pomp and splendor. I think it very strange that neither of the 2 Biblical narratives that expressly deals with the topic of the Birth of the “King of the Jews”, the Massiah (HaMashiach), thought it fit to mention that there was a major Feast in progress at the time. No mention was made either of Mary and Joseph, who were Jewish, recognising the Feast of Tabanacles or making preparations in any way for this. There is Biblical precidence in acknowledging Feasts even in the New Testament and the Gospel writings. With reference to Jesus, Luke’s conclusion of the Nativity story goes to Jesus at age twelve in the temple. At this time the Feast of Passover was celebrated and Luke did tell us this (Luke 2:41). Further, John recognizes the said Feast of Tabernacles in a seamingly insignificant way (Jn. 7:2), as well as the Feast of Dedication in John 10:22. The later also stated that it was winter and Jesus gives illustrations that expresses the sheep and the fold motif that the current in the thinking for that season. So the absence of any reference to this Feast, dispite the obvious logical inferences made by the calculations expressed herein, makes it difficult to accept that a national event of this nature was in progress. The only national events made mention of in the Scriptures, that occured during this period ,were the Census and the death of Herod (which preceeded the return of the family from Egypt).
    In conclusion let me borrow from the above text, “As tantalizing as this line of speculation is, without some firmer answers about how the courses were scheduled we are left with no strong conclusions. ” AMEN

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