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One can make a credible case for January 6, 2 BC as the date of Jesus’ birth and December 25, 2 BC as the date of the visit of the Magi. It would make sense for the two dates to be switched on the church’s liturgical calendar so that the celebration of Jesus’ birth would come two weeks or so before the commemoration of the Magi’s visit rather than after.
The December 25 date, however, also has very old associations with the birth of Christ itself. It was popularized by Julius Africanus in his Chronicle (AD 221), so it must have been around by the end of the second century at the latest. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 236) also suggested the date of December 25. It is worth one last post to explore two additional reasons for the popularity of this date.
The Computation Hypothesis
One reason the church may have shifted its traditional date for the birth of Jesus from January 6 back to December 25 has to do with a Jewish ideal that the patriarchs and other biblical notables lived an integer number of years. Thus, the date of their death corresponds with the date of their birth or conception. Following this presupposition, some early Christians attempted to establish Jesus’ birthday by counting back from the calendar date of the crucifixion. Western fathers took this date to be March 25, which was then seen as the date of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary as well, with Jesus’ birth nine months later on December 25. In the East, however, the crucifixion was dated to April 6, resulting in a date for the nativity of January 6. The point is not whether the integer-age theory has any merit (it does not!). Rather, the point is that early Christians, who believed this theory, could have used it to arrive at a mid-winter date for the birth of Christ.
This “computation hypothesis” has recently been championed by Thomas J. Talley (The Origins of the Liturgical Year [Liturgical Press, 1991]). He notes the following.
- Augustine (fifth century) alludes to the fact that the Donatists, unlike the Catholics, had not adopted the celebration of Epiphany on 6 January, which seems to imply that they did celebrate 25 December, which in turn suggests that this date for Christmas must have already existed prior to the Donatist schism of 311.
- As early as the late second century, Clement of Alexandria believed that Jesus was born on January 6, 2 BC. By the computation hypothesis, this would place his crucifixion on April 6, which in Asia Minor was the solar equivalent of 14 Nisan, the date of Passover. The choice of January 6 as Jesus’ birth date could be dependent on that fact.
- The Canons of Athanasius (fourth century) has the focus of Epiphany clearly on the baptism of Jesus; the nativity is not mentioned; and a considerable point is made of Epiphany being the beginning of the year. Talley argued that, as a result of January 6 being regarded as the birth of Christ, it came to be treated as the beginning of the liturgical year in Egypt, just as 25 December seems to have been viewed in the Roman Chronograph of AD 354.
By now you may be wondering why I have not mentioned pagan influences as a factor in the adoption of December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. I have saved it for the end because, despite its popularity, it is a theory with very little documentary evidence to commend it.
There is, of course, the long-held theory that Christians adopted December 25 in order to compete with pagans who already associated this date with the worship of the “unconquered sun.” In AD 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 to be the birthday of the unconquered sun. According to this theory, the pagan celebration was a major factor in the rise of the Christian alternative.
William Tighe, however, has challenged this theory, asserting that there is in fact no evidence for a pagan observance of December 25 prior to emperor Aurelian’s decree. In Rome, the principal feasts in honor of the unconquered sun took place in August, and, as Hippolytus and Julius Africanus attest, Christians had already been celebrating the date as the birthday of Jesus for at least 50 years before Aurelian. December 25 as “the birthday of the sun” is definitely pagan, but there is no evidence it is pre-Christian.
According to Tighe,
In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin [who first proposed the pagan connection] that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.
There may well have been syncretistic borrowing involved in the creation of a December 25 holiday, but the direction of that borrowing is largely in the opposite direction from what is normally supposed.
But isn’t December 25 associated with the birth of Mithras? No, it is not. At least, Mithraic scholars seem not to be aware of this fact. The earliest existing record of the story of Mithras’ birth dates from the second century, perhaps a hundred years after the Gospel accounts were written. Christopher Butler has catalogued the supposed parallels between Jesus and Mithras and finds them all wanting. (In a similar vein, see here.) Nowhere in these myths is there explicit reference to December 25 as the birthday of Mithras. The assertion that December 25 was Mithras’ birthday relies on an identification of Mithras with the “unconquered sun” of Aurelian—which may or may not be a valid identification!
This doesn’t mean that pagan symbols and observances didn’t eventually get swallowed up into Christmas. The yule log, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree are obvious examples that this was in fact the case. The feasting, gift-giving, and visiting with friends associated with the Roman Saturnalia no doubt finds a parallel in traditions associated with Christmas. But as far as the actual date on which Jesus’ birth was first celebrated, pagan parallels do not actually seem to exist.
Update: GetReligion points to some recent articles on the pagan-influence hypothesis.
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.
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?
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—and if this week count was not interrupted by leap years—then 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
So far we have discussed the probable year of Jesus’ birth. Along the way, we have established some parameters for narrowing the date even further. The astronomical data point to a series of conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus between September 14, 3 BC and May 8, 2 BC that would have had deep implications for anyone (such as the Magi) schooled in astrological symbolism.
The historical data provided by Josephus indicates that within this time frame, twelve to fifteen months before the death of Herod—that is, most likely between November 3 BC and February 2 BC—an enrollment of loyalty oaths was taking place in Israel that is a prime candidate for the census or registration recorded by Luke. Of course, the registration may have begun some time before the incident Josephus records, in which six thousand Pharisees refused to sign the oath. Additionally, since the purpose of the census was to record the people’s consent to the Senate granting Augustus the title Pater Patriae, the deadline for such a registration would have to be February 5, 2 BC, or actually a little before.
This suggests the first half of the time range is more likely than the second. A date between mid-September and mid-January seems most likely. Remarkably, this range can accommodate both of the most likely theories as to the date of Christ’s birth: during the fall festivals of Judaism or at the traditional date in late December or early January. For the period in question, the dates of the fall festivals are:
- Rosh Hashanah: Tishrei 1, AM 3759 = September 10, 3 BC.
- Yom Kippur: Tishrei 10, AM 3759 = September 19, 3 BC.
- Sukkot: Tishrei 16-22, AM 3759 = September 25-October 1, 3 BC.
The possible winter dates are of course
- December 25, 3 BC, the traditional date of “Christmas.”
- January 6, 2 BC, an earlier date for the Feast of the Nativity, still observed by the Armenian Orthodox Church.
It is sometimes objected that shepherds would not have been keeping their flocks outside in the middle of winter. In fact, the Mishnah (Shekalim 7:4) deals with the possibility of flocks being kept in the fields near Bethlehem, even in winter. This was the rainy season in Judea, when green grass was abundant. Although chilly, the nighttime lows would not be oppressively cold. Televised coverage of Christmas midnight mass from Bethlehem commonly shows worshipers in shirtsleeves. So, what documentary evidence can be mustered in favor of either of these two theories?
Claims of Eyewitnesses to Census Records
If my interpretation of the “census” is correct, the infant Jesus would not have been recorded at all at the registration in the year of his birth, since it pertained merely to soliciting oaths of allegiance to Augustus. Jesus would, of course, have been listed in Quirinius’ provincial census of AD 6 as well as Augustus’ third empire-wide census of AD 14.
Some ancient writers claim to have investigated the census records in Rome and found written proof that the date of Jesus’ birth was in fact December 25th. Numerous ancient writers claimed some familiarity with the Roman census records. Justin Martyr stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which fact could be ascertained from Roman tax records (First Apol. 1:34). Tertullian also spoke of the “census of Augustus” as a faithful witness to the Lord’s birth, kept in the Roman archives (Adv. Marc. 4:7). More specifically, by the fourth century several church Fathers were appealing to the census documents to determine Jesus’ birth date. Cyril of Jerusalem requested Julius, bishop of Rome, to determine the date of Jesus’ birth “from the census documents brought by Titus to Rome.” The date assigned was December 25th.
Today, however, these documents are no longer extant, and it is widely assumed that they were forgeries in the first place. Since at any rate the documents are no longer available to be consulted, the wiser course of action is to disallow them as evidence. We will have to look elsewhere for credible evidence of Jesus’ birthday.
Hints within the Biblical Narrative
Those who argue for a fall date base their conclusion on a number of details in the biblical text itself, namely:
- Luke 3:23 literally reads, “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years old.” This wording might suggest that his baptism and the start of his public ministry occurred around his birthday. Assuming that his ministry lasted approximately three and one half years, we can count back from his crucifixion in the spring to a beginning point in the fall of the year.
- Mary went with Joseph to be enrolled in the census. Why would Mary go along? If the enrollment came around the Feast of Tabernacles, Mary may well have accompanied Joseph to attend the feast, as was her custom at Passover (Lk 2:41). Furthermore, the fall of the year, after the end of harvest time, would have been a logical time for any kind of census to be taken.
- This would also explain why there “was no room at the inn.” During the three pilgrimage feasts, vast numbers of people would have filled not only Jerusalem but also surrounding villages like Bethlehem, only five miles away.
- A birth around the time of Tabernacles would perhaps shed additional light on John’s statement that “the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14, literal translation).
There are, however, some problems with this scenario:
- This reading requires Jesus’ ministry to have lasted precisely three and a half years, but this is nowhere stated in the Bible. The most we can say is that his ministry spanned three Passovers, on the last of which he was crucified.
- John 1:14 notwithstanding, no ancient Christian writer ever drew a connection between the birth of Christ and any of the fall festivals of Judaism. The New Testament writers and many others in the first few centuries made much of Jesus’ death occurring at Passover. Would these same writers have completely overlooked the possibilities for interpreting the symbolism of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot in terms of the birth of Christ?
Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that many people embrace a fall date because it feeds their previously existing anti-Christmas bias. The traditional date is seen as a pagan innovation only superficially Christianized; therefore, a more scripturally appropriate date is preferred. It should be noted, however, that if Jesus was born during the feast of Tabernacles, which began in late September 3 BC, then a likely date for his conception was in fact December 25 of 4 BC!
In the earliest patristic thought, the true miracle of Christmas was understood to be not the birth of Jesus as such, but the mystery of his incarnation. By displacing the birth of Christ to late September, those who believe Christmas is a gross capitulation to paganism have in fact placed the more significant miracle precisely on the date they despise.
A fall date cannot be dismissed out of hand, but neither can it be said that the biblical evidence is entirely compelling. Are there other means of calculating the most probable date of Jesus’ birth?
Early patristic sources suggest Jesus was born around 3 or 2 BC. Such a date is plausible if Herod died in 1 BC‚ a view that can be supported from a careful reading of Josephus‚ and if the “Christmas census” is interpreted as an empire-wide oath of allegiance on the occasion of Augustus’ jubilee year. If this is indeed the correct time frame, how might we interpret the star of Bethlehem? In this post I’ll suggest a relatively new interpretation of the astronomical data.
Interpreting the Star Astronomically
Assuming the star of Bethlehem was a natural occurrence that later acquired a spiritual significance (rather than being a miracle in its own right), many scholars equate this phenomenon with a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction of around 7 BC. Recently, however, Ernest Martin has proposed another option related to a series of astronomical events occurring between May of 3 BC and December of 2 BC. Two Jupiter-Venus conjunctions frame the time period under consideration:
- August 12, 3 BC: Jupiter-Venus conjunction in the morning, in the constellation Cancer (the concluding sign of the astrological year). This was the date of the heliacal rising of Jupiter (that is, rising in the morning at the same time the sun does) and on the first day of the new moon, Ellul 1, AM 3758. Note that the Magi claimed, “we have seen his star at its rising” (Mt 2:2).
- June 17, 2 BC: a Jupiter-Venus conjunction in the evening, in the constellation Leo (the beginning sign of the astrological year and the “royal constellation”), at the precise time of the full moon. In commonly understood astrological symbolism, these two conjunctions would have signified the close of one age of history and the beginning of another.
Between these two conjunctions, Jupiter came into conjunction three times with Regulus, the “royal star,” in the constellation Leo. This signified the royal planet in conjunction with the royal star within the royal constellation! These conjunctions occurred on the following dates:
- September 14, 3 BC.
- Feb 17, 2 BC: After stopping in its path on Dec 1, 3 BC and beginning its annual retrogression, Jupiter again moved into conjunction with Regulus on this date.
- May 8, 2 BC: After once again heading forward, Jupiter and Regulus came into conjunction on this date for the third time in eight months.
The three conjunctions together made it look like Jupiter has circled over and around Regulus, “highlighting” the king star by tracing a “crown” above it. Some additional astronomical events occurred in this time period:
- May 19, 3 BC: Saturn and Mercury in close conjunction.
- June 12, 3 BC: Saturn and Venus in close conjunction.
- Apr 30, 2 BC: Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury amassed in a close longitudinal relationship (once again in the constellation Leo), signifying a new beginning in historical affairs.
There is another aspect of this interpretation that I don’t believe Martin has noted. Nearly every astronomically significant date in this theory has some connection to the Jewish festival calendar:
- The September 14, 3 BC Jupiter-Regulus conjunction falls halfway between Rosh Hashanah (September 10/Tishrei 1, AM 3759) and Yom Kippur (September 19/Tishrei 10, AM 3759).
- The February 17, 2 BC Jupiter-Regulus conjunction coincides with the date of Purim (Adar 14, AM 3759).
- The May 8, 2 BC Jupiter-Regulus conjuction falls on the date of Shavuot (Sivan 6, AM 3759)
- The June 12, 2 BC Jupiter-Venus conjunction took place on the evening of Tammuz 17, AM 3759. In later times, this date ushered in a three-week period of fasting leading up to the 9th of Av.
I doubt there is much to be made of all this, but it is interesting even so.
A date between mid-May 3 BC and mid-June 2 BC would correspond with a notable series of astronomical events which may well have been interpreted by the Magi as signs of the birth of a king and the beginning of a new historical era. This date range is a very close fit with patristic testimony about the year of Jesus’ birth.
Is it possible, however, to narrow the time frame even more?
Tertullian states that censuses (plural) were conducted in Palestine around the time of Jesus’ birth. There are two viable candidates for the census described in Luke 2. One is the census of 8 BC (the second of three censuses ordered by Augustus during his 41-year reign), documented by an inscription found at the temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey.
The other option is a combination of census and oath of allegiance ordered to celebrate Augustus Caesar’s silver jubilee on February 5, 2 BC. This celebration marked the 25th anniversary of Augustus’ elevation to supreme power by the Senate and people of Rome. It was also the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. At this celebration, the Senate conferred upon him the title Pater Patriae (“Father of [his] Country”). The year before, Augustus sent out a decree requiring “the entire Roman people” throughout the empire to register their approval for the bestowal of this honor (T. Lewin, Fasti Sacri  135). This registration was required of all Roman citizens and others of distinguished rank among Rome’s client kingdoms such as Judea.
Josephus substantiates that such an oath of allegiance was required in Judea at this time. In Antiquites 17 he mentions that at this time “all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar, and to the king’s government.” He further notes that there were six thousand Pharisees who refused to swear the oath. By this time, having already fallen out of favor with Rome, Herod was scrambling to stay alive politically. The refusal of a large contingent of Pharisees to pledge allegiance to Augustus would have been a major embarrassment for Herod. That may have been precisely the Pharisee’s calculation. It certainly would not have helped his mood should visitors from the east bring word of one “born king of the Jews” some time shortly thereafter.
A decree going out from Caesar Augustus in 3 BC fits nicely with the early patristic evidence. This date, plus Josephus’ mention that an enrollment was in fact being taken in Israel a year or more before Herod’s death, lends weight to the idea that the lunar eclipse before Herod’s death was the one that took place on Jan 9, 1 BC. If Herod died the following year after the Dec 29 eclipse, the census in Israel would have been far too late for Augustus’ jubilee. A late census is a possibility, bureaucracies being what they are, and Rome had every reason to be thorough about this in as volatile a region as Judea. The earlier date, however, yields a more plausible time line.
Obviously, the recording of oaths (where people ascribed their names) was a type of registration. That is what Luke said the census was: it was an enrollment of people. This enrollment would have included Joseph and Mary even though they were not Roman citizens. As “royal claimants” they would have both been especially singled out to pledge their loyalty to Augustus.
There are two problems, however. First, is it credible that the Romans would require people to be registered in their hometowns? Wouldn’t this create an even bigger bureaucratic nightmare? Perhaps it did, but there is archeological confirmation for the practice. A provincial census decree from Egypt dated AD 104 required absentees to return to their hometowns to be registered. The decree reads,
Gaius Vivius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.
There is no reason the Romans would not have followed a similar procedure a century or so earlier in Judea.
The second problem relates to the governorship of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius in Syria. According to Luke 2:2, the “Christmas census” seems to have taken place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. It is admitted by everyone, however, that Quirinius only became governor of Syria in AD 6. In the time frame in question, Saturninus was governor (proconsul) of Syria—as Tertullian admits. Saturninus left this post early in 2 BC to be replaced by Quinctilius.
There is in fact evidence that Quirinius may have been active in the government of Syria much earlier, perhaps as a special representative of the emperor, a procurator or legate. Some scholars appeal to this possibility in order to “rehabilitate” the text of Luke. By this theory, Luke’s Greek wording is taken be more generic: “while Quirinius was ruling Syria” (Lk 2:1). Quirinius was made consul in 12 BC, one of the two most powerful men in the empire behind the emperor himself. In this capacity, he served as supreme military commander of the eastern provinces in the last decade before Christ. He especially distinguished himself during a five-year war against the Homonadensian tribe of Cilicia, roughly dateable to 10–5 BC. According to Justin Martyr, at the time of Jesus’ birth Quirinus was procurator of Judea (a district within the larger province of Syria at the time). It is thus not impossible that Quirinius was in Palestine conducting the census while Saturninus was the actual governor of Syria. In fact, Tertullian states that the “Christmas census” took place while Saturninus was governor of Syria, and places it in 3/2 BC!
There is, however, a simpler solution to this chronological puzzle (for which BK has recently provided a concise summary at the CADRE Comments blog). The Greek text of Luke 2:2 is as follows: haute apographe prote egeneto egemoneuontos tes Syrias Kyreniou. It is generally translated something like, “This first census came about while Quirinius was governing Syria.” It is possible, however, to translate prote not “first” but “before” or “prior.” The same word is translated in the NT as “former” (Ac 1:1). Nigel Turner, a Greek scholar of the first magnitude, suggests that a better translation of Luke 2:2 would be, “This census was before the census taken when Quirinius was governor” (Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, 23-24). If this reading is adopted, it makes any attempt to locate Quirinius in Syria at the birth of Jesus irrelevant. Luke’s point was to differentiate this prior census from one perhaps more familiar to his readers.
The census of 8 BC is a fact of history. As a subject of Rome, it may well have required Joseph’s participation as a male and thus presumably a property-owner. This enrollment would not, however, have demanded Mary’s presence, and it is unlikely that Mary would have traveled with him in her ninth month of pregnancy if she did not have to. A better option for the “Christmas census” would be the census and oath of allegiance ordered in preparation of Augustus’ silver jubilee in February of 2 BC. This census is also a fact of history. If my reading of Josephus is correct, this registration was taking place in Israel 12-15 months prior to the death of Herod, most likely some time between November 3 BC and February 2 BC.
Next: The Star of Bethlehem
Modern estimates of the year of Jesus’ birth range from 7 to 4 BC. The writers of the second and third centuries, however, consistently dated the event to between 3 and 2 BC, with an outer range of from 4 to 1 BC. Within this range may be cited Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus of Rome, and Eusebius. In particular, three particular dates relative to the reign of Augustus poinpoint a date in 3 or 2 BC:
- According to Clement of Alexandria, Jesus was born in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus’ rule of Egypt. This has to be dated from the battle of Actium, September 2, 31 BC. The Egyptian custom was to count the inaugural year of a ruler’s reign as an accession year, with the next year being “year one.” The Egyptian new year after the battle of Actium fell on August 31, 30 BC. By this reckoning, Augustus’ 28th year as ruler of Egypt would have run from Thot 1 (August 24), 3 BC to Thot 1 (August 24), 2 BC.
- Eusebius states that Jesus was born in the forty-second year of Octavian. (Octavian was only later proclaimed “Augustus” by the Roman Senate.) Octavian and Marc Antony ruled jointly beginning March 17, 44 BC. From this date, forty-two years brings us to a date between March 3 BC and March 2 BC.
- Tertullian and Origen state that Augustus ruled for another fifteen full years after Jesus’ birth. Augustus died August 19, AD 14, which brings us once again to 3–2 BC.
According to Luke 3:1, Jesus began his public ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. Luke also reports that “he was about thirty years old when he began his work” (Lk 3:23). Tiberius became joint-emperor with Augustus in AD 12 and sole emperor after the death of Augustus in AD 14. His fifteenth year would thus have begun in either AD 26 or AD 28. This would place the birth of Jesus around AD 4-1, with a bit of leeway in either direction to account for Luke’s “about.” In short, this bit of biblical evidence—the only bit of biblical evidence pertinent to the question at hand—is not precise enough help us decide in favor of either an earlier (modern) or a later (patristic) date.
Three main lines of evidence must be untangled to determine the correct year:
- The death of King Herod
- The census
- The star of Bethlehem
In the remainder of this post I’ll address the date of Herod’s death. In subsequent posts I’ll tackle the census and the star of Bethlehem.
The Death of King Herod
Scholars conventionally assume that Herod’s death took place in 4 BC, which thus furnishes the latest possible date for the birth of Jesus. Herod’s three successors seem to have started their reigns in 4 BC, implying that Herod died that year. Furthermore, according to Josephus, Herod died between a lunar eclipse and the Passover following. This eclipse is generally accepted to have occurred on March 13, 4 BC.
The evidence for this date for Herod’s death, however, is not as conclusive as is often assumed. It may, for example, have been that Herod did not die in 4 BC but rather suffered a serious political demotion. After declaring war against the Arabs without Roman permission (a bid to suppress robbers hiding in Arabia), Augustus Caesar condemned Herod and removed from him the title “Friend of Caesar” (amicus Caesaris). He was relegated to the lower status of “subject.” Upon his fall from favor, Herod named his son Antipater as coregent. This immediately creates a potential chronological problem since Herod’s and Antipater’s regnal years overlapped. In the Old Testament, this phenomenon leads to occasional apparent discrepancies as to how long certain kings reigned and when their successors succeeded them.
The closest biblical parallel may be with the reign of king Jotham. Jotham was replaced by his son Ahaz by a pro-Assyrian faction, which caused a number of irregularities in the calculation of their reign-lengths. Sometimes Jotham is granted a reign of 20 years (2 Ki 15:30), which would include the co-regency with Ahaz. At other times, his reign is said to have ended when Ahaz’s began, which cuts his reign-length to 16 (nonaccession) years (2 Ki 15:33). Furthermore, sometimes Ahaz’s reign is calculated from the beginning of his co-regency with Jotham and at other times from the beginning of his sole reign.
But back to Herod and Antipater. It may be that Herod’s reign effectively ended in 4 BC not by his death but his disgrace in the eyes of Rome. Shortly before his death, Herod executed Antipater, and others, in a show of loyalty to Caesar. But this created a problem in political bookkeeping: now the discredited Antipater’s regnal years were no longer valid, but Herod’s effective reign was also long over. His successors may well have later appropriated Antipater’s regnal years into their own reigns. Similar situations can be found in history.
As to the lunar eclipse that was observed shortly before Herod’s death: for centuries this event has been equated with a partial lunar eclipse occurring on March 13, 4 BC. Passover that year fell on April 13. But according to Josephus, there are many events that must have taken place in this 30-day span, including:
- Part of Herod’s body was putrefied and bred worms.
- He took a trip to warm baths 16 km away.
- He ordered all important men in all villages to come (120-130 km).
- His son Antipater is executed; Herod dies 5 days later.
- There is a magnificent funeral, and the body is carried 37 km.
- A seven-day period of mourning, followed by a funeral feast.
- Another mourning period is planned and executed for the patriots killed.
- Only then comes Passover.
It is much more likely that Josephus was referring one of the total eclipses that occurred in 1 BC, the first on January 9 and the second on December 29. Herod therefore must have died in either 1 BC or AD 1. Either of those dates would provide a good two to three months in which all of the recorded events could take place.
Additional lines of evidence tend to favor the eclipse of January 9 as the event connected to the death of Herod. According to Matthew, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt following a dream warning them to escape from Herod’s clutches. Only after the death of Herod did they return to Israel and settle in Nazareth. Although we do not know how soon before the death of Herod Jesus was born, there is no convincing reason to insist that it must have been prior to 4 BC. At any event, the return to Israel would most likely have occurred in the summer of 1 BC.
Conclusion: We have no way of knowing the time span between the birth of Jesus and the death of Herod. Therefore, the higher date range for Jesus’ birth cannot be dismissed solely on the evidence for Herod’s death date. Even so, neither can the lower date range favored by all early writers be dismissed as too late.
Next: The Census
Jeanie Miley ponders Joseph’s role and what it means to be “just an earthly father.”
Because I believe that Jesus grew up as a human child in a human familiy, I wonder a lot about what it was like for Joseph, being the dad to Mary’s child.
What was it like for him to look into the eyes of the newborn child, remembering the angel’s appearance to him in a dream? Did Joseph ever walk the floor with the baby Jesus at night? Did he help him learn how to walk?
What was it like for Joseph when the toddler named Jesus was learning how to talk, to read, to play with other children? How much influence did Joseph have in Jesus’ daily life? Did it ever, by any chance, get tense between Mary and Joseph as they carried the responsibility of parenting together?
How did Joseph teach Jesus the things that fathers teach a boy? What did he tell him about the time he was born? Did the boy Jesus ever rebel against Joseph, and if he did, how did Joseph handle that?
I’m aware that parenting practices in the first century were vastly different from today’s, but still I wonder what it was like for Joseph and Jesus.
After Zerubbabel, Matthew and Luke once again diverge before they both end with Joseph. How are we to understand the biblical accounts of Jesus’ most immediate natural and legal ancestors?
The “Marian” Interpretation of Luke 3
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the divergence between Matthew and Luke’s record of Jesus’ immediate ancestors is the theory that Matthew reports Joseph’s bloodline and Luke reports Mary’s. Raymond Brown rejects this possibility outright:
What influences this suggestion is the centrality of Joseph in Matthew’s infancy narrative, as compared with the spotlighting of Mary in Luke’s. Even at first glance, however, this solution cannot be taken seriously: a genealogy traced through the mother is not normal in Judaism, and Luke makes it clear that he is tracing Jesus’ descent through Joseph. Moreover, Luke’s genealogy traces Davidic descent and despite later Christian speculation, we really do not know that Mary was a Davidid. (The Birth of the Messiah, rev. ed. [Anchor, 1999] 89)
It is questionable whether the New Testament writers would be quite so agnostic about Mary’s Davidic lineage (see Acts 2:30; Rom 1:3, etc.), and Augustine—and many other early church fathers—reasoned from the New Testament that Mary must have been a descendant of David. The first clear statement of the view that Luke’s genealogy is that of Mary is found in Hilary of Poitiers (4th cent.):
Many are of the opinion that the genealogy which Matthew lists is to be ascribed to Joseph and the genealogy listed by Luke is to be ascribed to Mary, in that, since the man is called the head of the woman, her generation is also named for the man. But this does not fit the rule or the question treated above, namely where the character of the genealogies is demonstrated and most truthfully solved.
Thus, Hilary disputes the “Marian” interpretation of the Luke 3 genealogy. Regrettably, the documentation of his evidence against it is lost. In On the Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus sees Mary’s ancestry in the Lukan genealogy—though not in a straightforward manner, as we shall see below.
The Line of Joseph
The popularity of the “Marian” theory is actually a relatively recent development, owing largely to Annius de Viterbo (1502). Most of the early Fathers claimed that the Bible was silent about Mary’s lineage and that both Matthew and Luke traced the ancestry of Joseph. This is certainly the most straightforward reading of the biblical text. If not for the contradictory report in Matthew 1, I suspect most readers would naturally assume that Luke 3 gives the genealogy of Joseph.
One creative theory to make sense of these divergent accounts is that of Julius Africanus (Epistle to Aristides, c. 200-225), who claimed to have received his information from descendants of James “the Lord’s brother.” By this account, a woman named Estha married Matthan, a descendant of Solomon (Mt 1) and became the mother of Jacob. After Matthan’s death Estha took Matthat, a descendant of Nathan as her second husband (Lk 3) and by him became the mother of Heli. Thus, Jacob and Heli were half-brothers, having the same mother. Heli later married, but died without offspring. His widow then became the levirate wife of Jacob and gave birth to Joseph. Joseph was thus the son of Jacob biologically, but the son of Heli legally—thus combining in his person two lineages of David’s descendants.
This is plausible generally, but there is a problem. In Jewish reckoning, the levirate son would presumably be listed in a genealogy as if he were the natural son of the deceased father and would not likely appear in the genealogy of his natural father. It is unlikely that someone as well-versed in Jewish thought as the author of the First Gospel would make the error of including Joseph in his genealogy if in fact he were in fact the levirate (legal) son of Heli. In other words, for this theory to work, Matthew would have to reproduce the genealogy in Luke. But there is no reason why the direction of the levirate relationships could not be reversed, i.e., that Joseph was the natural son of Heli and the levirate son of Jacob. If this is in fact the correct theory, then somehow the information must have become garbled, either in Julius’ understanding or in the subsequent textual tradition.
By switching places between Heli and Jacob, Jesus is legally established within the royal bloodline from Solomon. Luke, a non-Jew writing for a non-Jewish audience, may not have been as concerned about such matters. The point of the genealogy for Luke seems to be that Jesus was a descendant of Adam and thus identified with all of humanity. Luke therefore simply traced Joseph’s natural bloodline from Nathan. (Friedrich Schleiermacher suggested that Luke may have had access to the genealogy of Clopas, by tradition Joseph’s younger brother and the father of at least two of the apostles. Clopas would have been listed as a son of Heli in any genealogy, and Luke may not have known or cared about the technicalities of the levirate custom.)
The Line of Mary
Mary’s Paternal Line. The early church Fathers insisted that Mary was herself a descendant of David, and thus that Jesus was a “son of David” not just legally through adoption by Joseph, but naturally through Mary (see Rom 1:3). From 150 at the latest, tradition establishes the names of Mary’s parents as Joachim and Anna. According to a tradition known to John of Damascus (On the Orthodox Faith, c. 750), Mary’s great grandfather was named Panther (in one source called Levi; Panther or Panthera was a byname of Greek origin), a brother of Matthat (Lk 3). Her grandfather was bar-Panther, a cousin of Heli. Following the modified theory of Julius Africanus, her father Joachim was thus a cousin of Joseph, the (biological) son of Heli. (The text used by John, Julius Africanus, Irenaeus, Ambrose, and Gregory of Nazianzus has Melchi, not Matthat; the two generations separating Heli from Melchi being omitted. The correct name, however, would be Matthat.) It is difficult to have much confidence in such a late tradition, but it does not contradict any biblical data or any earlier line of tradition.
At any rate, this tradition presents Mary as descending from David through Nathan on her father’s side. Thus, Luke’s genealogy does represent a large portion of Mary’s ancestry after all.
Tradition further has it that Joachim was a shepherd from Nazareth who by custom gave away much of his flock every year to the Temple and to the poor. One tradition known to the Coptic Church has Mary born after Joachim and Anna had been married six years. The prevalent tradition, however, asserts that Joachim and Anna were quite old and had all but given up on ever having children. Mary was conceived in answer to their prayers for a child. If Joachim and Anna were in their fifties when Mary was born, their own birth dates would fall ca. 78–68 BC.
There is a much less reliable tradition that makes Joseph of Arimathea a paternal uncle of Mary. This would make him a son of bar-Panther and a brother of Joachim. According to this tradition, Joseph was an early missionary to the British Isles, where his daughter Enygeus (or Anna) married into a British royal family. As appealing as this theory might be especially for those with British roots, it is highly unlikely. In fact, I feel confident in flatly rejecting the very possibility. There is no attestation for this genealogy before the Dark Ages. And if, as tradition states, Joachim was an old man when Mary was born, even a younger brother would have been extremely old by the earliest years of the Christian movement.
Mary’s Maternal Line. The Protevangelium of James (ca. 150), a document granted great authority in the Eastern churches, names Mary’s mother Anna. Other early traditions depict Mary as of priestly lineage through her mother. The lines of David and Aaron occasionally intermarried even in biblical times. Jehosheba, a daughter of King Jehoram of Judah, married Jehoiada the high priest (2 Kgs 11:2-4). Their daughter, Jehoadda, married King Joash of Judah (2 Kgs 14:2). King Uzziah of Judah was married to Jerushah, daughter of High Priest Zadok II (2 Kgs 15:33).
In later Coptic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary’s grandfather was a priest named Nathan (or perhaps Matthan, but this may be the result of confusion with the Matthat in Luke’s genealogy). Nathan had three daughters: Mary, who became the mother of Salome (Mk 15:40; Jn 19:25), Soba (or Sovin, or Sophia, or Zoia), who became the mother of Elizabeth, and Anna who became the mother of Mary.
This tradition, if true, would explain how Mary’s relative Elizabeth can be a descendant of Aaron (Lk 1:5). Furthermore, if Salome (Mk 15:40) is equated with “[Jesus’] mother’s sister” (Jn 19:25), and “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:56), it provides an explanation for the curious fact that John, seemingly an obscure fisherman from Galilee, was “known to the high priest” (Jn 19:15): his mother came from a priestly family and his uncle was the priest Zechariah!
The Father of Zerubbabel
Matthew and Luke agree that Zerubbabel was the son of Shealtiel, 1 Chronicles 3:19, however, identifies Pedaiah as his father. Once again, appeal may be made to the Jewish customs of levirate marriage and Zelophehad adoption. Here, the simpler solution seems to be the correct one.
It should be noted that not only the Gospel genealogies but every Bible reference except 1 Chronicles 3:19 gives Shealtiel as the father of Zerubbabel (cf. Hag 1:1; Ezr 3:2). In fact, even the LXX version of 1 Chronicles 3:19 gives Shealtiel, not Pedaiah, as the father of Zerubbabel and his brother Shimei. Seder Olam also has Shealtiel as the father of Zerubbabel.
In the face of such evidence, I’m prepared to concede that the text of 1 Chronicles 3:19 has become corrupted at this point. Even so, some may choose to defend the reference based on theories of levirate marriage or the Zelophehad custom. At any rate, no one attempting to challenge Jesus’ pedigree in the first century would take exception to the claim that Zerubbabel’s father was Shealtiel. Whatever the true explanation of Pedaiah’s intrusion into the conversation, it can be safely disregarded for our purposes.
The Children of Zerubbabel
How are we to identify Rhesa and Abiud, whom Luke and Matthew identify as sons of Zerubbabel through whom Jesus’ lineage runs? Neither of these names appears in 1 Chronicles 3 as sons of Zerubbabel. Here there are a number of plausible solutions, but none that seems immediately and intuitively right.
First, as a general observation, we should note once again the possibility of gaps in the Gospel genealogies. This is especially the case in Matthew, who covers the time from Zerubbabel to Joseph—over 500 years—with only ten named ancestors! So Abiud need not be Zerubbabel’s son or even his grandson. All that is required is that he be a descendant of Zerubbabel. Having said this, let us consider the options available and some possible explanations.
Once again turning to the Loeb family tree, we find a Jewish tradition tracing five Davidic lines from Zerubbabel. Two of these lines derive from Zerubbabel’s foreign wives; the remaining three from the children of Zerubbabel and his Jewish wife:
- The line of Shazrezzar. Zerubbabel’s first wife was a Babylonian princess named Amytis. She was the mother of his firstborn son, Shazrezzar.
- The line of Reza. Zerubbabel’s second wife was a Persian princess named Rhodah. She was the mother of his second son, Reza.
- The line of Meshullam. Zerubbabel’s third wife was a Jewish princess named Esthra. Zerubbabel’s eldest son from this marriage was Meshullam. It is from this line that many of the post-exilic Nesi’im (“Princes”) of Israel are derived.
- The line of Hananiah. Hananiah was the second son of Zerubbabel and Esthra. His descendants became the post-exilic Exilarchs (rulers of the exiled community) of Babylonia.
- The line of Shelomith. Zerubbabel’s lone daughter also came from his union with Esthra. Shelomith married Elnathan, governor of Judea, and became the ancestor the Davidic line of Hillel the Great. Elnathan was himself a descendant of David through Shephatiah, a son by Abital, David’s sixth wife.
The idea that Zerubbabel even had foreign wives is extrabiblical, although apparently with some basis in rabbinic tradition. Daniel Loeb assumes that the lines of Shenazzar and Reza represent the ancestors of Joseph and Mary, respectively. This may or may not be the case, although it is worth considering the implications of such an arrangement. Assuming that the Evangelists intended their genealogies to be truthful statements of Jesus’ lineage, we must conclude that the Matthean and Lukan genealogies pass through one or two of these five lines, but which one(s)?
We must probably dismiss the line of Hananiah from consideration. This line is the most thoroughly documented, and in fact many Jews alive today trace descendancy from it. If either Matthew or Luke’s genealogy passes through Hananiah, it must be several generations down the line. Otherwise, there is no plausible way to identify the people named by either Matthew or Luke with known heirs of this lineage.
We can probably also disqualify the line of Shelomith and Elnathan. This line is also fairly well documented, at least as it applies to Hillel the Great. As with the line of Hananiah, there is little chance of harmonizing the known genealogy of this line with the names found in the New Testament.
The similarity of the names Reza and Rhesa (in Luke) immediately suggests the possibility that the line from Zerubbabel and princess Rhodah is in fact the lineage Luke described. (It is also possible, of course, that the tradition M. Loeb reports is the result of reverse-engineering a Davidic genealogy where none exists!) Rhesa is a plausible Hellenized form of the Persian name Reza. Given the strong stance of Ezra and Nehemiah against mixed marriages, it would not be surprising if any descendants of Zerubbabel from a non-Jewish mother would be omitted from a postexilic source like Chronicles.
This leaves three possibilities for the Matthean genealogy: (1) the line of Shazrezzar (if the rabbinic tradition of Zerubbabel’s foreign wives has historical validity!), (2) the line of Meshullam, (3) assuming gaps between Zerubbabel and Abiud, perhaps both Matthew and Luke are reporting divergent lines from the same source—either Reza (following rabbinic tradition) or even Hananiah. (For example, perhaps Matthew’s Abiud was the elder son of Luke’s Esli, while Luke’s Nahum was the younger son. Then the nine generations from Abiud to Jacob [Mt] would parallel the nine generations from Nahum to Heli [Lk].)
What little is known about these two lines leaves us in a quandary as to which to choose. If Matthew (and presumably God) agreed with Ezra about the impropriety of foreign wives, we are probably forced to find Abiud, Eliakim, and the rest somewhere down the line of Meshullam, with a gap of several generations between them and Zerubbabel.
Biblical history, however, itself suggests that having a foreign mother does not disqualify one from kingship of Israel. David himself had female ancestors who were Canaanite (Tamar, Rahab) and Moabite (Ruth). According to Deuteronomy 23:3, Moabites were to be excluded from the community of Israel “even to the tenth generation.” Since David was a fourth-generation descendant of the Moabite Ruth, his claim even to Jewish identity is remarkably flimsy! Thus a hypothetical non-Jewish wife (or two!) of Zerubbabel may plausibly have been a part of Jesus’ family tree.
Next: Joseph’s Two Fathers