Home > chronology, interpretation, nativity > >Getting the facts of Christmas sorted

>Getting the facts of Christmas sorted


Given the season it may be a good time to summarise the chronology and other details of the incarnation.

Joseph was engaged to Mary and they both dwelt in Nazareth. Nazareth was a small town in Galilee. Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel when her cousin Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. Knowing when Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah was serving in Jerusalem may give us some clues to the month of Jesus’ conception and birth. Zechariah was a priest of the division of Abijah (compare Luke 1 with 1 Chronicles 24).

Joseph intended to divorce Mary when he learnt of her pregnancy; quietly so as not to shame her. Divorce is not the term we would use for breaking an engagement but a betrothal in Israel 2000 years ago was a strong commitment and divorce (apoluo) would be the single term used in both situations (unlike English which has more terms). This is not saying that betrothal is the same as marriage, sex was forbidden until after the wedding.

An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and informed him of the situation and Joseph then married Mary. He did not have sex with her until after Jesus was born. Mary had already conceived Jesus so the activity would not have made Joseph the biological father, but abstaining presumably honoured God in the situation. So Jesus was conceived when Mary was betrothed and born after Mary was married, but still a virgin.

The genealogy given in Matthew is that of Joseph. The genealogy in Luke is that of Mary. Heli was likely Mary’s father. Luke 3 states:

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli,…

Some have considered Heli the adoptive father of Joseph if Heli had no sons of his own, though I believe the passage may be acceptably translated as:

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son, as it was supposed, of Joseph, but was actually the son of Heli,…

Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that a registration was to be performed. The time frame for this is uncertain. What is known is that Quirinius was governor of Syria. The registration is frequently referred to as a census, presumably for taxation purposes. However Luke does not say that it is a tax census, he specifies they were registered (apographo) for a registration (apographe). Dating Jesus birth has proven difficult, for several reasons, not the least historically identifying the tax census that occurred during Jesus birth. However if the registration was not for taxation then the range of possible dates is potentially expanded. Some have suggested in was a registration to make a proclamation about Caesar Augustus. Ernest Martin suggests that the title Pater Patriae (father of the Fatherland) was bestowed on Augustus about this time and the registration was for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire to swear an oath of obedience to the Emperor.

Joseph with his new bride went from Nazareth to Bethlehem because he was descended from David whose home town was Bethlehem. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels appeared to the shepherds that night and they visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus. There is some evidence to suggest that Jesus may have been born in autumn, perhaps in the month of Tishri which corresponds to about September. I think it likely that Jesus was born about 2 or 3 BC.

8 days later Jesus was circumcised according to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12). Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the temple at Jerusalem 40 days after he was born and a sacrifice of doves was offered. Leviticus states that a lamb is to be offered but a pigeon is acceptable for the poorer Israelites. Joseph and Mary were therefore poor.

Some time after this while Joseph and Mary were still in Bethlehem the Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem. We are not told the number who came. That 3 are depicted may relate to the number of gifts. The Magi were from the region of Persia and were interested in, amongst other things, astrology. They interpreted the skies as pointing to the birth of the king of the Jews. Much speculation has been made on what the star was. Matthew quotes the Magi saying,

Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.

and he further comments,

the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matthew 2)

It is likely that the star was a conjunction between planets or planets and stars. The best suggestion is that of Martin who mentions several astronomical events of significance including Jupiter stopping (at the time of its retrogression). The Magi had an audience with Herod in Jerusalem and were informed by the priests and scribes that the king was to be born in Bethlehem based on Micah’s prophecy. When Jupiter stopped in the sky (for 6 days) its position was over Bethlehem as viewed from Jerusalem. The date was December 25, 2 BC. Jupiter was in the constellation of Virgo.

This was not the time of Jesus’ birth as the Magi visited Jesus in a house not a stable. Jesus was a young child (paidion), though that word probably does not aid us as to exactly how old Jesus was. Herod ordered the massacre of children under the age of 2 in his attempt to kill Jesus. Herod choose this age in accordance with the time he ascertained from the wise men. If Jesus was born in 3 BC he would have been approximately 15 months old; if in 2 BC, 3 months. Joseph had previously been warned by an angel to depart and they were already in Egypt. On Herod’s death an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream for the third time and Joseph returned with Mary and Jesus to his home town of Nazareth. Herod probably died in early 1 BC, only some weeks or months after the Magi’s visit.

Flash presentation of astronomical events near the time of Jesus’ birth.

  1. 2007 December 29 at 22:26

    When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. – Matthew 2:9
    That is the part that I don’t understand.

  2. 2008 January 1 at 08:19

    There have probably been many suggestions. I have only briefly summarised the events around the nativity. Of what I have read, Martin’s material seems the most likely.
    Watch the flash presentation to get an idea of the conjunctions and retrogression.
    What Martin is saying is that it was the behaviour of several stars including planets (which means wandering star). They would have seen Jupiter as the planet representing the king.

    Jupiter was known astrologically as the Father of the Gods. The planet Jupiter symbolized this deity. And in early August 2 B.C.E. Jupiter had just left its vicinity near the Sun and conjoined with Venus. This could have been an indication of a coming birth. “Jupiter often was associated with the birth of kings and therefore called the King planet.” And here was the King planet in conjunction with Venus. To the Chaldeans and the Magi, Venus was Ishtar, the Mother, the Goddess of Fertility. Thus Jupiter (the Father) was now in conjunction with Venus (the Mother). Could this have signified to astrologers that the birth of a new king was imminent?

    Martin suggests that on December 25, 2 BC Jupiter went into retrogression. This means that from the earth’s perspective it seemed to stop in the sky relative to the other stars.
    Now Martin claims that at this time, the direction of Jupiter, as seen from Jerusalem, was toward Bethlehem. I am not quite certain what he means by this as the stars appear rotate in the sky, so while Jupiter was not moving compared to the stars, it was moving with the stars. Perhaps Jupiter was below the horizon and when it appeared above the horizon during the night the direction was toward Bethlehem (as seen from Jerusalem where they had met King Herod). Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem.
    Does that answer the question? Or are you suggesting that the star stood over the actual house, or moved ahead of them like the pillar of fire at the Exodus?

  3. 2008 January 2 at 20:34

    Or are you suggesting that the star stood over the actual house, or moved ahead of them like the pillar of fire at the Exodus?
    I only wish to suggest that it somehow “came and stood over where the young child was”, however it did so. But “How?” is my question.

  4. Starwind
    2008 January 4 at 06:30

    Bethyada:There is some evidence to suggest that Jesus may have been born in autumn, perhaps in the month of Tishri which corresponds to about September. I think it likely that Jesus was born about 2 or 3 BC.
    I think the evidence is quite solid that Jesus was born in the summer, either Av or Elul, based on Zecharias’ temple service. And I believe the best-fit year is 6 B.C. based on Jesus being “about 30” in the 15th year of Tiberius, demonstrated to be A.D. 26 ( http://star.wind.mystarband.net/bib/tiberius_timeline.html#15th ), all consistent with a crucifixion on April 3rd A.D. 30 ( http://star.wind.mystarband.net/bib/passion_week.html#crucifixion_dates ).
    I’ve updated my notes and put them online at Establishing the Date of Jesus’ Birth, and a new companion page Understanding Visible Phases of Lunar Eclipses as background to the issues of Herod’s eclipse.
    Any criticisms would be appreciated.

  5. Starwind
    2008 January 4 at 22:41

    Correcting a mistake, the best fit year of Jesus birth is 5 B.C., not 6.

  6. 2008 January 7 at 09:45

    I have read your lunar eclipse article. Good diagram, needs arrows showing direction as well. I will email you a couple of comments on some minor points I have picked up.
    I seriously think you should read Martin’s online book. It covers many of the points you think important in dating Jesus’ birth.
    I also found this site which may have some useful material: http://www.bethlehemstar.net/ though I haven’t reviewed it particularly.

  7. Starwind
    2008 January 8 at 03:19

    I have browsed both of those, and spot checked a couple of their factual points, and noted they both err in computation of Hebrew dates (an admittedly non-trivial task). Bethlehemstar cites Finegan (who in turn cites Fotheringham, both of whom I respect) but even their tables have errors.
    Getting Hebrew date conversion right takes a computer. I recommend http://www.lespenner.com/cal_hist_and_rules.htm for background on Hillel II postponement rules, and http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/calendar/ for conversion amongst Hebrew, Julian and Gregorian dates, including BC dates. Getting the dates of eclipses, new moons, equinoxes, etc right also takes the databases compiled by NASA.
    On these two points alone much of the scholarly work in biblical calendrics up to about 10 years ago even though usually right in theory, is often wrong in application and conclusion. We do live in a time when the light of accuracy (both computationally and archaeologically) can now be shed on what previously has been fraught with minor but consequential mistakes.
    I also note the Star of Bethlehem site endeavors to place the crucifixion on a Friday for which there is no biblical warrant, and which leads to no reconciliation of Jesus being 3 days & nights in the tomb.
    They both present useful “statement of the problem” and historical background, but I’ve not seriously studied either of them for solutions since they won’t be able to get the dates right.
    Even in my own work I have two unresolved date anomalies: one with Phlegon’s dating of the crucifixion to an Olymiad date that is two years off; and Josephus reporting Gratus’ appointment late in Tiberius 2nd year (almost too late for Gratus to strike Tiberius’ LΒ coins). I’m still researching both.
    If the history isn’t right, dates aren’t converted right, astronomical data not computed right, and bible passages not explicated right, the solutions won’t be right. It can all be quite daunting and subject to the most interminable nitpicking, but I don’t know any other way to get it right.

  8. 2008 January 8 at 18:46

    one with Phlegon’s dating of the crucifixion to an Olymiad date that is two years off
    Speaking of nitpicking, is that supposed to be Olympiad?

  9. Starwind
    2008 January 9 at 02:26

    Speaking of nitpicking, is that supposed to be Olympiad?
    lol – ’twas, though you’re a ways from interminable.

  10. 2008 January 9 at 10:02

    Starwind, I have flicked you an email with comments on your lunar eclipse page, let me know if it doesn’t arrive.
    I mentioned bethlehemstar because I found it recently, I haven’t thoughly reviewed it myself.
    But in terms of Martin’s book I think there is a lot more there than you realise and I would encourage you to read it fully at some stage. Because he relies on astronomical data many of the dates do not depend on Hebrew or Julian calendars. It is certainly food for thought and Martin’s writings did convince Jack Finegan to change his date for Christ’s birth in his revision of his book. (I know Finegan makes other mistakes).

  11. Jason
    2009 December 2 at 10:12

    Starwind, “three days and three nights” was used interchangeably with three days, and Jesus saying that he would be raised up on the third day. Obviously if he was in the earth three days and nights he’d be raised on the fourth day.
    Looking at the time stamps this is thread necromancy. Sorry.

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