[UPDATE: Thanks to the help of the awesome Steve Ross over at Berean Grace Church, we made a correction to the timing of when Gabriel appeared to Mary, which was six months into Elisabeth’s pregnancy, not the sixth month of the Jewish calendar. Thank you, Steve! You’re the best!]
When was Jesus Born? The short and Biblical answer is that He was born and died at the perfect, appointed time of the Father (Gal. 4:1-4, Mark 1:14-15, Rom. 5:6).
“Seriously, Joel. In what month was Jesus born?”
Yeah. That’s a tad more complicated.
Turn to Luke 1 and get yourself a nice circular Jewish calendar that also compares itself to our modern calendars. Like this one.
Years ago, my grandfather revealed to me the secret to figuring out when Jesus was born. So if I learn that anything I’m sharing with you is wrong, I’m blaming grandpa.
Luk 1:5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. Luk 1:6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. Luk 1:7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
Luke 1:5 tells us the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, was a priest “of the course of Abia” (ab-ee-ah’). This is one of the 24 orders of priesthood listed in 1 Chron. 24, all of whom served 24 different functions in the temple. The course of Abia, which burned incense in the temple, was the 8th of the 24 courses (1 Chron. 24:10, written as “Abijah”). This basically means that over the course of 24 weeks, Zacharias showed up at the temple to burn incense on the 8th week. What this also means is that each order would serve for 7 days twice a year over the course of the Jewish 12-month calendar, which only has 30 days a month.
You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, Joel. 7 days of work for 24 orders is 168 days. Doing that twice a year would only come to 336 days and there’s 365 days a year.” Correct! They skipped a week 3 times a year for the 3 great Pilgrimage Festivals in Jerusalem (Exo. 34:23). They did this because ALL 24 priestly courses were on duty (2 Chron. 23:8) for all 3 of those festivals. They were on duty for the Passover (Exo. 12), as well as the Shavuot, which celebrates the “firstfruits of the wheat harvest” (Exo. 34:22), and also the Sukkot, which is “the feast of ingathering at the year’s end” (Exo. 34:22).
Still have your pretty Jewish calendar handy? The Passover was in the Hebrew month of Nisan. The Shavuot was in the Hebrew month of Sivan, and the Sukkot was in the Hebrew month of Tishri. See them on the calendar? Good. Keep those months in mind.
There’s more to consider.
Our calendar has 365 days. The Jewish calendar has 360 days. With a difference of 5 days every year, it won’t take long before you’ll have a discrepancy of about 30 days. How did they fix this? The Jews added a 13th month to their calendar approximately 7 times every 19 years, which is about every 3 years. This was an extra month added before the last Jewish month of Adar. The new month is called “Adar I”. The month that is usually called “Adar” is then called “Adar II” that year.
And yet, the work of the priests all had to be equal every year, because Deut. 18:8 commanded that, “They shall have like portions to eat, beside that which cometh of the sale of his patrimony.” In other words, they were to work equally, and they were to all have equal portions to eat.
Wait a minute.
How is this possible when they had a 13th month in those “pregnant years” on the Jewish calendar? The solution was to change nothing at all. They would simply have a continuous rotation every 7 days of 24 priestly orders. The math would work itself out every 3 years or so.
This means that the Jewish calendar I shared isn’t always correct. In fact, it’s correct only once every 3 years after the “pregnant year.” Broken clocks are more accurate. We mentioned that our calendar has 365 days. Their calendar has 360 days, and the Hebrews would add a 13th month every 3 years or so, right? Just imagine on that graph our calendar slowly rotating clockwise over the course of 3 years until we reach that “pregnant year” in which the 13th month is added and that resets everything.
This means that, for example, the first Jewish month of Nisan is for us, the last half of March and the first half of April. However, 3 years later, Nisan would be, for us, ALL of March. This also means that the months in which the priests would fulfill their duties would slowly change, moving back, on our calendar.
Is your head spinning yet? (Grab an aspirin. I’m not done.)
Here’s the million-dollar question: when did the 24 courses begin?
1 Chronicles 24 doesn’t tell you.
Many online would make a case that the courses began in the first month of the Jewish calendar, which was Nisan. Okay. Gimme a Bible verse. There aren’t any. Or they might say that the commencement of the 24 courses was somehow connected to Passover. Except, there’s a problem. Not one verse in the Bible substantiates that idea. Or they’d say the commencement was after the last day of the great feast because of John 7:37. Except that verse says nothing about the 24 priestly courses. Another site said that the 24 courses commenced on the eighth and last day of the Feast of Tabernacles because of Lev. 23:39, which makes no sense. That verse and the context of the entire chapter has nothing to do with the order of the priesthood.
And again, how do you account for the 13th month in those “pregnant years?”
I’d suggest the answer is found elsewhere in the Bible.
The 24 courses was part of a string of new decrees David made right before his death (1 Chron. 24-29), most of which had the construction of the new temple in view. The 24 courses began after the temple was completed. Thus, Solomon initiated the 24 courses at the dedication of the new temple.
1 Ki. 6:38 “And in the eleventh year, in the month Bul, which is the eighth month, was the house finished throughout all the parts thereof, and according to all the fashion of it. So was he seven years in building it.” So the first temple was completed in the 8th month, which is Heshvan on our Jewish calendar.
Then they furnished the new temple (1 Kings 7:13-51). Then, the following year, they brought in the Ark of the Covenant in the Jewish month of Tishri, which is the 7th month (1 Kings 8:2). That moment when the Ark entered the temple was absolutely awe-inspiring. Check this out: “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kings 8:10-11). Isn’t that awesome? So it was not until they had the Ark of the Covenant inside the temple that the priests could begin their sacred work.
In that same month of Tishri in which they brought in the Ark, they also had a big dedication of the new temple. Solomon observed Sukkot or “the Feast of the Ingathering” (1 Kings 8:65, 2 Chron. 7:8-10, Exo. 34:22), which took place the 3rd week of Tishri. At this feast, Solomon offered burnt offerings (1 Kings 8:62-66, 2 Chron. 7:4-5). He commanded the observance of the 3 great Pilgrimage Festivals in the new temple in Jerusalem. Plus, he also “appointed, according to the order of David his father, the courses of the priests to their service” (2 Chron. 8:12-14). So the priests were appointed by Solomon during the celebration, and on the 1st Sabbath following the feast, the 24 priestly courses began. This would be the 4th week of Tishri. They labored continuously in the temple even during those “pregnant years.” The only thing that never changed were the dates of the 3 great Pilgrimage Festivals.
“But, wait a second, Joel. Solomon’s temple was destroyed.” Correct! How about that second temple? When was that built? This brings us to Ezra and King Darius.
The second temple was completed “on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king” (Ezra 6:15). Do you see Adar on our Jewish calendar? That’s the last month of the Hebrew year. And in that month of Adar in 516 B.C., Israel held a big dedication of the second temple. They made sacrifices, and they also “set the priests in their divisions, and the Levites in their courses, for the service of God, which is at Jerusalem; as it is written in the book of Moses” (Ezra 6:18). So when the second temple was dedicated, did they reset the 24 priestly courses to begin in the month of Adar? I don’t believe so. The verse says, “as it is written in the book of Moses”. This means they set the priests in their division and the Levites just as it had been previously written. They adhered to the traditions that began in the first temple. This means that the first course once again began in the 4th week of Tishri.
“Wait a second, Joel. What about Herod’s temple? Didn’t that change things up?”
Have you ever heard of Antiochus IV Epiphanes? He lived from 215-164 B.C. He plundered the temple in 169 B.C. and desecrated it in 167 B.C. by commanding sacrifices be made to Zeus on an altar built for him. This touched off a little thing called the Maccabean Revolt during which Judas Maccabeus reclaimed, cleansed, and rededicated the Temple in 164 B.C. This celebration is called Hanukkah, or The Festival of Lights, which is observed for 8 days on the 25th day of Chislev, which could be any time in November or the first half of December on our calendar.
So, after all that epic Maccabean drama, when the second temple got rededicated in 164 B.C., was the order of the 24 courses reset? There’s no reason to believe they ever abandoned the hundreds of years of tradition that began with the first temple.
What followed the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean Revolt was Herod’s reconstruction of the temple, which we know lasted 46 years (John 2:20). According to some books, during that period of reconstruction, nothing changed. They continued all their 24 priestly courses. When Herod’s temple was finally completed and rededicated, was the order of the 24 courses reset? They never stopped the function of the 24 priestly orders during the construction. The Jews also have a thing for tradition, and there’s no reason to believe they abandoned what began with the first temple.
So then the calculations become fairly easy. Still have your calendar handy? We have roughly 4 weeks for every Jewish month. You’re counting 24 weeks twice a year. You begin with the 4th week of Tishri. You count 4 weeks for every month. You skip the week of Passover in Nisan. You skip the week of Shavuot in Sivan. And you skip the week of Sukkot in the month of Tishri. Take note every time you arrive at week 8, because Zacharias “of the course of Abia” was in the temple on that 8th week.
Have you figured it out yet?
All of this means that Zacharias was usually in the temple in the second week of Tammuz, the 4th month on the Jewish calendar, which for us, is at the end of June or the beginning of July.
This is where I suspect much of the internet gets the birth of Jesus wrong, saying that Zacharias was usually in the temple in the 3rd month of Sivan, not the 4th month of Tammuz, because they failed to identify when the 24 priestly courses began and they failed to skip those 3 weeks for the 3 Pilgrimage Festivals while factoring when Zacharias’ order of Abia took place.
So if Zacharias had to appear in the temple twice a year, when were those two appearances? If the 24 courses began the last week of Tishri, then his 1st appearance would’ve been the 3rd week of Chislev, which for us would’ve been 1st week of December or last week of November depending upon the “pregnant year.” And the 2nd time he’d normally be working in the temple would’ve been the 2nd week of Tammuz, which is the end of June or the beginning of July.
So how do we know that Gabriel appeared to Zacharias during his second time in the temple and not the first? Because of the chronology of events in the book of Luke. When Luke tells us about Gabriel appearing to Mary in Luke 1:26, he writes, “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth…” You might think that Gabriel appeared in the month of Elul, which is the 6th month on the Jewish calendar, BUT Luke clarifies the 6th month in verse 36, in which Gabriel says, “And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.” This means that if Elisabeth had conceived in June or July, then Gabriel had to have appeared to Mary in December or January, and Mary conceived shortly thereafter.
We’re not done yet.
Luke writes in Luk. 1:8 that “it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course…” This means that what is about to happen took place during his appointed time in the temple, which happened to be the 2nd week of Tammuz. This is when Gabriel came to him in a vision.
Luk 1:10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. Luk 1:11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Luk 1:12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. Luk 1:13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
Let’s look at Luk. 1:23. Luke writes, “And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.” Luk 1:24 “And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months…“
Grandpa made the point that the phrase “as soon as” leaves no interval at all. He said, “Zacharias went home to Elisabeth immediately following his days of ministry in the temple. ‘And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived’. ‘After those days’ means that Elisabeth conceived right after Zacharias’ ministry in the temple when he immediately came home to her…” So her conception had to have been at the end of June or the beginning of July. You have to give yourself a window of 30 days for the possibility of a “pregnant year.”
Then grandpa said that “Such being the case the computing of the timeframe of Jesus’ birth is a simple matter from here on. Luke 1:57 tells us that John was not a premature baby. His mother carried him a full 9 months. Luke 1:26 and 36 tells us that Elisabeth conceived six months before Mary, which would make John six months older than Jesus. Luke 2:6 shows us that Jesus was a nine-month baby and was not premature.” Luke 2:6 says, And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. In other words, Jesus was born on time.
So you look at our pretty Jewish chart. Compare it to ours. Give yourself a window of at least 30 days because of the possibility of a “pregnant year.” We know that Elisabeth conceived 6 months before Mary, and Jesus was born 9 months later, which becomes simple math. 6 months plus 9 months equals 15 months from the time Elisabeth conceived until the time Jesus was born.
So counting 15 months from the time Elisabeth conceived brings you to either the end of September or the beginning of October. This would mean that Elisabeth conceived at the end of June or the beginning of July. Mary then had to have conceived at the end of December or the beginning of January. That’s 6 months later. Elisabeth would’ve given birth in March or April. And Mary had to have given birth to Jesus at the end of September or beginning of October that same year.
Interestingly, Bullinger, in appendix 179 of his Companion Bible, makes the case that Mary probably conceived around Dec. 25, and Jesus was born Sep 29.