File this under fun and helpful rather than deep and heavy, and I hope you find it interesting. You have no doubt heard that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25, which is when most western Christians celebrate His birth (January 6 or 7 for Eastern Orthodox/Julian calendar).
Of course there is no record of first century believers celebrating His birth nor is it in the letters of the NT, so it is our choice and not something worth arguing about. There are many opinions, this is mine.
I’ll list the order of events according to Matthew 1 & 2 and Luke 1 & 2, and then pin down when Jesus may have been born. I’ll provide chapter and verse and historical and cultural information as we go.
Order of events:
1) Gabriel appears to Zacharias, John the Baptist’s dad, to tell him he will have a son and to name him John.
2) In his wife’s (Elizabeth) 6th month of pregnancy Gabriel visits Mary, she conceives Jesus shortly after.
3) Family travels to Bethlehem, housed in a stable, Jesus is born there.
4) Shepherds come to stable to worship Jesus.
5) Mary and Joseph move to a house in town.
6) They present 40 day old Jesus in the temple, the time of Mary’s purification; return home to Bethlehem.
7) Wise men come to Herod to ask about new King and are told to find Him and return to Herod with news.
8) Wise men see star over Bethlehem and find the family living in a house.
9) Wise men warned by God not to tell Herod they found the King, they go home another way.
10) Joseph is warned to go to Egypt because Herod will try to kill Jesus.
11) Herod upon not hearing from wise men, kills all similar aged children in Bethlehem.
12) Herod dies in September, 4 BC
13) Family returns after Herod’s death and settles in Nazareth
1) Start point – John the Baptist’s dad
Fortunately for us, Luke gives us a starting point though it is often overlooked. Luke 1:5 tells us John the Baptist’s father was a priest in the group of Abijah, and it was while serving as a priest that Gabriel* appeared to him and told him he was going to have a son, and to name him John. *Luke 1:8-23
In I Chronicles 24:1-19 we have the listing of the order of service for priests, and the order of Abijah is the 8th grouping (v10). David made it so that group 1 served in week 1 of the sacred calendar which started in spring, group 2 served week 2, and so on through all 24 groups and weeks, then they started all over again 1-24 with the 8th group serving in late November. We also know all 24 groups served at the 3 required festivals*, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles to complete the year. *Deuteronomy 16:16
For this discussion I’m talking about his second week of service, meaning Zacharias would have been serving in late November. I’ll explain why I chose the fall service rather than spring at the end.
2) Elizabeth’s pregnancy
When Zacharias got home from his week of service it would have been late November or early December before Elizabeth could have conceived. Luke 1:26-33 says of Elizabeth, John’s mother: “In the 6th month of her pregnancy the angel Gabriel was sent to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a young virgin name Mary, engaged to a man named Joseph…”
So if Elizabeth conceived in late November or early December, and 6 months into her pregnancy Gabriel was sent to Mary, it would be about mid-June when Gabriel told her she would give birth to Jesus. If she conceived shortly and going forward 9 months, it would make Jesus born in mid to late March at the earliest, as pregnancy is generally figured to about the end of the 9th month (40 weeks +/-).
3-4) Jesus is born, family housed in a stable, shepherds come to the new King
We are told in Luke 2:7-8 that shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks. They were only in the fields around Bethlehem in spring and fall; in spring to eat the spring plants before moving into the higher elevations for summer, or after harvest to glean the last of the plants before winter. So this fits the time line. Luke 2:16 tells us the shepherds found the baby lying in a manger – an animal food trough.
5-6) They move into a house in Bethlehem, they present Jesus in the temple
Luke 2:22 says, “When the days of her purification according to the law of Moses* were accomplished they came into the temple…” This presentation happened when male babies were 40 days old (about 6 weeks), coinciding with the law of purification. This would have been in late April or early May. *Leviticus 12:1-4
It is clear the Wise men had not yet arrived in Jerusalem before His presentation and that neither Herod nor the priests yet know of Jesus’ birth. Matthew 2:3 tells us when they came to Herod and told him there was a new King, he became very upset ‘and all Jerusalem with him’. The family is clearly not in fear for their lives when they come to the temple. Also note Simeon and then Anna freely prophesy over Him without fear of Herod. So the wise men came after the presentation in the temple at 40 days old.
I see great grace from the Father in that He provided time for Mary to get healed and the baby to be a bit older before they would have to flee for their lives.
7-9) Wise men arrive sometime after the presentation in the temple and ask Herod where is the new King, Herod tells them to find Him and return to tell him
Matthew 2:1-2, 3-11 says the wise men came after Jesus had been born. Herod and Jerusalem are troubled there is a new King.. He sends them on their way, asking when they find Him to return and tell him.
Verse 11: “And when they had come into the house they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him.” Verse 12 tells us they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home another way.
10-11) Herod, not hearing from the wise men is angry; decides to kill the children, family flees
Matthew 2:16 says, “And Herod, seeing he was mocked (Gk: tricked, deceived) by the wise men, was exceedingly angry…and had all the children killed in Bethlehem who were 2 years old and under.”
Today in the west we say after the child has lived a full year they are 1. But the Oriental counting from China to Israel counted birth as 1. So when Matthew tells us babies under 2 were murdered, by western figuring it was babies under age 1. He wasn’t looking for toddlers – he killed babies.
12-13) Herod dies in September 4 BC, the family returns and settles in Nazareth
Matthew 2:19-23 tells us they had fled to Egypt sometime after the wise men left but before Herod ordered the murder of the babies, and were there until Herod’s death, then they returned and settled in Nazareth.
The trip from Bethlehem to the Egyptian border was about 200 miles (322 km), and they most likely would have joined a caravan for the dangerous trip. This wasn’t a weekend getaway, that is 200 miles walking and riding with a baby for maybe 2 weeks, probably living off money received after selling the gifts the wise men brought them. (That is speculation on my part).
Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote a history of the Jewish people for the Romans, tells us Herod became sick when a lunar eclipse occurred in the spring after he sinned against the priests, and was sick for several months before he died. The eclipse was on March 13, 4 BC, and Herod’s death was in September.
The family returned to Israel shortly after Herod’s death, possibly in the autumn of 4 BC. Matthew 2:19-23
Here is the ‘if’. If Zacharias saw Gabriel in his spring week of service, it would have been mid-May, meaning John the Baptist wouldn’t have been conceived until June. That would mean Gabriel would have been sent to Mary in December, 6 month’s into Elizabeth’s pregnancy. That would make Jesus conceived in December or January, meaning He would have been born in August or September. With Herod dying that September, they could not have presented Jesus in the temple at 40 days old until October, a month after Herod’s death. That’s why I suggest He may have been born in the spring.
As I said, the early church didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus so this is not an issue to argue about, and I suppose one day we can ask Joseph, Mary, the shepherd and wise men, or the Lord about it ourselves!
New subject next week, blessings,