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Daily Archives: December 19, 2006


Bible Timeline, Part Three

I got tired of not having the third installment of my biblical timeline posted, so I posted it. There is still some work to do, but at least it’s up there.

I’ll also be gathering together my recent posts on the date of Jesus’ birth before leaving for Christmas in Michigan.

technorati tags: chronology, old testament


William Willimon Has a Blog!

Check out his Christmas meditation.

Christians don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know that God is sovereign, noble, exalted, absolute, high and lifted up. We know that God is in the world, with us, for us, Immanuel. Jesus is a prophet, but prophets, even the most truthful and courageous of them, cannot save. When we see God next to us, stooped toward us, in the muck and mire with us in order to have us, that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s what we call sovereign, noble, and exalted.


(H/T: Faith and Theology)

Thanks to All the Little People Who Made This Possible

I’ve been named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year. (And so have you.) I’ll shortly be adding this completely unforeseen honor to my curriculum vitae. (And so should you.)

Helen: Dash… this is the third time this year you’ve been sent to the office. We need to find a better outlet. A more… constructive outlet.
Dash: Well maybe I could, if you let me go out for sports.
Helen: Honey, you know why we can’t do that.
Dash: But I promise I’ll slow up. I’ll only be the best by a tiny bit.
Helen: Dashiell Robert Parr, you are an incredibly competitive boy, and a bit of a show-off. The last thing you need is temptation.
Dash: You always say ‘Do your best’, but you don’t really mean it. Why can’t I do the best that I can do?
Helen: Because right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and fitting in means acting like everyone else.
Dash: But dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone’s special Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

On Cooking and Prayer

I have occasionally compared liturgical worship with ballroom dancing?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùuntil you’ve had a fair bit of practice, you feel awkward and self-conscious doing it. The Velveteen Rabbi introduces me to another great metaphor: cooking.

Tinkering with the liturgy can create amazing changes, or disastrous ones. A renewed and revived liturgy can open hearts and awaken dormant connection with community and with God — or it can turn people off in a major way. It’s like tinkering with recipes. A proficient cook knows what recipes she loves, what old favorites she never changes, and also where she likes to add curry powder even though it’s not called-for. The best cooks I know are innovative, not bound to what’s printed on the page — but they also have a firm grounding in the classics. Giving an old recipe a new twist is most meaningful if you know what the old recipe tasted like in the first place.

Now there’s food for thought! 🙂

technorati tags: liturgy, prayer

Tuesdays with Mary: Mary in the Magnificat 2

Alas, deadlines and holiday preparations impinge, so this week’s “Tuesdays with Mary” will be in the form of a brief nod to some recent posts on the Magnificat.

Scot McKnight wishes us a Magnificat kind of Christmas (part two; part three)

Dan Clendenin is pondering Mary’s Magnificat:

Mary was also a woman of prophetic pronouncement. Her “Magnificat” moves from the deeply personal to the explicitly political. God, Mary proclaims, “has been mindful of the humble state of His servant. . . the Mighty One has done great things for me.” This peasant girl who a few months later would bear the Son of God then praises God the Mighty One because He has “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:48-49, 52-53). I wonder what Herod or Tiberius thought when they heard her words.

The Anglobaptist (cool name!) is getting ready to preach on the Magnificat this Sunday:

These words from the first Christian echo in my heart. I feel as if these are words to live by…or into. I have yet to achieve such openness with God. Mary inspires me to try to live my life so that when an angel appears I not only recognize the moment for what it is…but can respond with something of her courage.

And here’s the text of a really cool sermon on the Magnificat from this past Sunday:

This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols.
It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world,
about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.

Here is yet another: “In his commentary on the Magnificat Luther says that there are two kinds of false spirits that cannot sing the Magnificat aright…”

When Was Jesus Born? Clement of Alexandria

The earliest known discussion of the calendar date of Jesus’ birth comes from Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1:21), who writes: “From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days.” Using the Roman calendar, this works out to November 18, 3 BC. But this is a highly doubtful conclusion, affirmed by no other ancient source. More likely, Clement was using the Egyptian calendar, which did not make provisions for leap years. By that calendar, counting backwards from emperor Commodus’ death on December 31, AD 192, an interval of 194 years (each exactly 365 days), one month (thirty days), and thirteen days yields a date of January 6, 2 BC. This works out to Shevat 1, AM 3759 on the Jewish calendar. Clement’s testimony thus harmonizes perfectly with a face-value calculation from Chrysostom’s dating of the annunciation to Zechariah.

Egyptian Traditions

Before the church as a whole fixed the date of Christmas as December 25, the generally accepted date in the East (and possibly also in the West) was in fact January 6. Apart from Clement, the earliest sources affirming this date come from the fourth century or later, yet Clement’s testimony proves that the association of Jesus’ birth with January 6 was rooted in much older tradition and may well have been based on historical fact. In the Armenian Orthodox Church, the birth of Jesus is celebrated on January 6 (along with the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism) to this day.

Clement also provides early evidence that others determined the date Jesus’ birth to be the twenty-fifth day of some month, but which month remained unclear. He writes:

And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon.

If we reckon Augustus’ reign from the Battle of Actium, September 2, 31 BC, when he put down his last rival, Antony, and if we count the accession year according to Egyptian custom, Augustus’ twenty-eighth year on the Egyptian calendar lasted from August 24, 3 BC to August 24, 2 BC. The 25th day of Pachon in that year was May 20, 2 BC. Yet Clement also says that some remember Christ’s birth on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi: one month earlier than Pachon 25. The uncertainty as to the correct month leads us to doubt that any of these dates have a factual basis. Furthermore, there is no other documentary evidence that Jesus was born in the period from late April to late May. There seems to be a strong attraction to the twenty-fifth day, but a confusion of the month.

Is it possible that the date of Jesus’ birth—or some other important event surrounding his birth—corresponds to the twenty-fifth day in some calendar? Let us first observe that this fixation with the twenty-fifth day seems to have its origins in Egypt. Is there a key date in the early life of Jesus that corresponds to the 25th day of an Egyptian month? There is.

April 15, 3 BC likely fell during the week of the Annunciation to Mary, if not on the precise day. This date works out to Pharmuthi 25 on the Egyptian calendar. But there is more. April 7, AD 30 is commonly accepted as the date of Jesus’ crucifixion. Since there were no leap days in the Egyptian calendar, this date also works out to Pharmuthi 25 and perhaps lends support to the ancient theory that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception and that the incarnation thus lasted for an integer number of years.

It is possible that in some locales the celebration of the incarnation originally took precedence over the celebration of the date of Jesus’ birth as such, and Clement’s testimony may be early evidence for an Egyptian celebration of the incarnation that only later became associated with the birth of Christ. But how can we account for the association of the twenty-fifth with Jesus’ birth, and with the winter season?

Amazingly, one possible answer is that the visit of the Magi took place on December 25, 2 BC. On that date, Jupiter stopped in its path and began its yearly retrogression through the heavens. Remember: It was Jupiter that, in the previous year, highlighted the star Regulus by in effect tracing a crown above it, likely alerting the Magi to the birth of the King.

According to Matthew 2, when the Magi left Herod, the star they were following “stood still” over the place where Jesus was to be found (Mt 2:9). Astronomical calculations reveal that in the predawn hours of December 25, 2 BC, Jupiter indeed stood still in the sky. Observed from Jerusalem, it did this at 68 degrees above the southern horizon, directly over the city of Bethlehem.

This date may have been memorable even to those unfamiliar with the astronomical observations because, by Roman reckoning, it fell on the exact date of the winter solstice. (When Julius Caesar instituted the new Julian calendar in the first century BC, the winter solstice festival was celebrated on December 25. This date continued to be observed for many years.)


Although firm conclusions are unwarranted due to conflicting data, early documentary evidence points toward a date of January 6, 2 BC, for the birth of Christ. First, Clement of Alexandria’s testimony in Stromata points to this date if he was using the Egyptian calendar rather than the Roman. Second, the tradition remembered by John Chrysostom that the angel appeared to Zechariah on the Day of Atonement (which fell on Oct 1 in 4 BC), results in a date for Jesus’ birth in the first or second week of January.

The first recorded celebration of Christmas on December 25 comes from the Philocalian Calendar of AD 336, although there are some questionable references to a Roman celebration on December 25 in the second century. (Telesphorus [d. ca. 137] is said to have introduced the Christmas midnight mass on this date, but this is contested.) No one in the early church advocated a date in line with the Jewish fall festivals.

So we have tentatively established the birth of Jesus on January 6 and the visit of the Magi on December 25. Church tradition has reversed these two dates, and it is not difficult to understand why. Although historically accurate, it makes little sense to commemorate the visit of the Magi two weeks before the commemoration of Jesus’ birth. Perhaps influenced by the Egyptian tradition that Jesus was conceived on Pharmuthi 25, the feast of the Nativity was moved to December 25, with the feast of the Epiphany shifted forward to January 6 to retain both traditional dates and preserve a logical sequence in their celebration.

Next: Why December 25?

technorati tags: christmas, chronology, clement of alexandria, egyptian calendar, jesus, magi, new testament