The Feast of Tabernacles, Hanukkah, and…Christmas? (Part 6: Dating the Birth of Messiah)

As we’ve already seen, Christian scholars have attempted to give a date to the birth of the Messiah as early as the second century A.D.  Scripture is considered to be silent on this issue.  But there are some important clues in the Bible that can lead us to a very interesting conclusion.  These clues begin with the birth of the forerunner of Jesus: John the Baptist.

The Course of Abiah

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.

(Luke 1:5)

And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.

(Luke 1:8-9)

Again, no specific date is given to the birth of Jesus, or to the birth of John for that matter.  But the entire timeline of the events listed in Luke chapters 1 and 2 is based upon the conception of John. Therefore, it would stand to reason that if we can identify the general timing of that event, we can work from it to determine when Messiah was born.  The key is in verse 5, when Luke tells us that Zechariah, the father of John, was serving in the Temple according to the timing of the course of Abia.

Now the first lot came forth to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah, The third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim, The fifth to Malchijah, the sixth to Mijamin, The seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah, The ninth to Jeshuah, the tenth to Shecaniah, The eleventh to Eliashib, the twelfth to Jakim, The thirteenth to Huppah, the fourteenth to Jeshebeab, The fifteenth to Bilgah, the sixteenth to Immer, The seventeenth to Hezir, the eighteenth to Aphses, The nineteenth to Pethahiah, the twentieth to Jehezekel, The one and twentieth to Jachin, the two and twentieth to Gamul, The three and twentieth to Delaiah, the four and twentieth to Maaziah.  These were the orderings of them in their service to come into the house of the LORD, according to their manner, under Aaron their father, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded him.

1 Chronicles 24:7-19

But David, being desirous of ordaining his son king of all the people, called together their rulers to Jerusalem, with the priests and the Levites; and having first numbered the Levites, he found them to be thirty-eight thousand, from thirty years old to fifty; out of which he appointed twenty-three thousand to take care of the building of the temple, and out of the same, six thousand to be judges of the people and scribes, four thousand for porters to the house of God, and as many for singers, to sing to the instruments which David had prepared, as we have said already. He divided them also into courses: and when he had separated the priests from them, he found of these priests twenty-four courses, sixteen of the house of Eleazar, and eight of that of Ithamar; and he ordained that one course should minister to God eight days, from sabbath to sabbath. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the presence of David, and Zadok and Abiathar the high priests, and of all the rulers; and that course which came up first was written down as the first, and accordingly the second, and so on to the twenty-fourth; and this partition hath remained to this day.

— Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 7, Chapter 14, Paragraph 7.

According to the Biblical record, and the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, we learn that the priestly course of Abia that Zechariah was a part of, was the eighth out of twenty-four groups of priests that ministered in the Temple.  The Jewish religious calendar begins in the Spring.  So the first of the twenty-four divisions of priests would begin serving in the time before Passover, in the Jewish month of Nisan.  All of the priests would have been required to serve in the Temple during the Spring Feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits and Shavuot, as well as during the Fall Feast of Tabernacles.  Therefore, the time frame that Zechariah’s turn to serve in the Temple would have been in the period around May/June.  The below chart will help to clarify this.

1st Month 2nd Month 3rd Month
Abib – Nisan
(March – April)
Zif – Iyyar
(April – May)
Sivan
(May – June)
First
Week
Jehoiarib (1) Seorim (4) All Priests
(Pentecost)
Second
Week
Jedaiah (2) Malchijah (5) Abijah (8)
Third
Week
All Priests
(Feast of Unleavened Bread)
Mijamin (6) Jeshuah (9)
Fourth
Week
Harim (3) Hakkoz (7) Shecaniah (10)

This gives us a reasonable starting point to build off of when we begin to puzzle through the possible date of the birth of Jesus.

And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.

Luke 1:23-25

The next clue tells us that Zechariah completed the course of his service in the Temple, and returned home.  The Scriptures seem to indicate that Elizabeth conceived John at that time, and then hid herself for a period of five months.  If the time that Zechariah served in the Temple was in May/June, then that five month period leads us to October/November of the same year.

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.   And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.  And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.  And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

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.

Luke 1:26-33, 36

The context of verse 26 refers back to the fifth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in verse 25, and in verse 36 the angel confirms that this is the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  Therefore, we understand that Mary was visited by the angel, Gabriel, in the time frame of November/December of the same year that John was conceived by Elizabeth.

We move forward with Mary travelling to Judea to confer with her cousin, Elizabeth.  The Scriptures are clear in telling us how long Mary stayed with Zechariah and Elizabeth.

And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.

Luke 1:56

All we need now is to calculate some simple math.  Mary was visited by the angel when Elizabeth was six months pregnant.  She then traveled to her cousin and spent three months with her.  This means it’s possible that Mary was present at the very birth of John!  And we will see that John’s birth is something that every Jewish home reenacts at Passover each year.

Every year a special place is set at the Passover table.  It is for the prophet, Elijah.  At one point the children even open the door of the home to look for Elijah to arrive.  What is the purpose of this tradition?

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:  And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Malachi 4:5-6

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see [it] together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken [it].

Isaiah 40:1-5

Jewish tradition teaches that Elijah precedes the arrival of Messiah, declaring that He is coming.  It is also believed that this event will take place at Passover, resulting in the tradition of reserving a place at the Passover table for Elijah.

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.  And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.  For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.  And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.  And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke 1:13-17

And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?  And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.  But I say unto you, that Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.  Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:10-13

The angel, Gabriel, proclaimed that John the Baptist was the Elijah that would precede the arrival of Messiah.  Jesus confirmed that John the Baptist did this.  We know that John was born in February or March.  Passover often takes place in March.  Could John have been born on Passover itself, fulfilling the traditional Jewish belief that Elijah would arrive on Passover?

So let’s review.  Zechariah was serving in the Temple, in the months of May or June, when he’s visited by Gabriel and told his wife who is barren will finally have a son.  Elizabeth hides herself for five months.  Six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, around November or December, the same angel visits a virgin in the Galilee and tells her that she will bear the Son of God.  Mary, being a virgin, has reason to question how this can happen.  The angel gives her a sign, telling her that her cousin is six months pregnant.  Mary goes to see this for herself, and stays with her cousin for about three months, taking us to February or March.

Again, if we move forward six months from this date, we learn an approximate timing of the birth of Jesus: August or September.  This dating makes perfect sense, as the shepherds would still have been in the fields with their flocks in the late summer and early fall.

But this is only the beginning of the story.

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