New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
John Chrysostom was born in Antioch in about 345 CE and later became a preacher there. Chrysostom, or "golden mouthed," practiced asceticism in the nearby desert. In 398 he became bishop of Constantinople, but in 407 was banished to die in exile in Armenia. Of interest here, in 386 he delivered a sermon in Antioch on December 25, which he claimed as the day of the birth of Jesus.1 In his sermon Chrysostom gave support for that date by beginning with the burning of incense by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. He placed this event at the time of the Fast for the Day of Atonement and the following Feast of Tabernacles. He then worked forward six months to the conception of Jesus and then nine months to the birth of Jesus on December 25. Here that possibility will again be examined.
Chrysostom said that the Fast of Tishri 10 and the Feast of Tishri 15-21 fell in the later part of the month Gorpiaios. In the later version of the Syro-Macedonian calendar this month had become fixed according to the Julian calendar, and always began on September 1.2 Earlier in 386 CE the Feast of Tabernacles had begun on the evening of September 25. Chrysostom said this date marked the conception of John the Baptist, as announced to Zacharias by the angel Gabriel. He then counted forward six months to the conception of Jesus, naming the six intervening months, Hyperberetaios, Dios, Apellaios, Audynaios, Peritios and Dystros, to March 25. Chrysostom than counted forward nine months, naming the months Xanthikos, Artemisios, Daisios, Panemos, Loos, Gorpiaios, Hyperberetaios, Dios and Apellaios, which began December 1. The birth of Jesus he placed on the twenty-fifth of that month. A similar path can be followed in an attempt to demonstrate that Chrysostom was essentially correct.
Chrysostom had several problems with his approach, besides demonstrating that Zacharias' service was during the Feast of Tabernacles. In the year of John's conception the date of the beginning of the Feast may have varied several weeks from September 25. Also, the Annunciation to Mary of the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit occurred about five and a half months after the conception of John, not six full months.3 However, if the conception of John can be dated, then the approximate date of the conception and birth of Jesus can be established. John's conception can be closely tied to the priestly duties of his father, Zacharias.
Zacharias4 was a priest "of the division of Abijah." (Luke 1:5) While in Jerusalem, "performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him." (Luke 1:8-11) The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that his barren wife, Elizabeth, was to bear him a son, and his name was to be John. "And it came about, that when the days of his priestly service were ended, that he went back home. And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant." (Luke 1:23-24)
John was conceived shortly after Zacharias had finished serving at the Temple according to the order of the division of Abijah. When did Abijah serve? At the time of David a portion of the priesthood was divided up into twenty-four divisions to serve in the house of the Lord, and "the first lot came out for Jehoiarib, the second for Jedaiah . . . the eighth for Abijah. . . ." (1 Chron. 24:7,10) Josephus confirmed this division: "He divided them also into courses; and when he had separated the priests from them, he found of these priests twenty-four courses . . . and he ordained that one course should minister to God eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath. . . . And this partition hath remained to this day." (Ant. VII 14:7) But, the cycle begun by Solomon did not continue unbroken until the time of Josephus in the first century CE. When Hezekiah reinstituted the Passover in 715 BCE he also "appointed the divisions of the priests and the Levites to their divisions." (2 Chron. 31:2) The chain was broken.
With the Babylonian destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 BCE the priestly service ceased, and the cycle count with it. After the Babylonian captivity the Temple was rebuilt, "and this temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar; it was the sixth year of the reign of King Darius . . . Then they appointed the priests to their divisions and the Levites in their orders for the service of God in Jerusalem." (Ezra 6:15,18) This was March 12, 515 BCE. Josephus noted there were "four courses of the priests." (Against Apion 2:8) The Talmud also notes at that time many Levites were missing, and "Four mishmaroth (divisions) returned from the [Babylonian] exile, and they were Jedaiah, Harim, Pashhur and Immer. The prophets amongst them arose and divided them and increased them to twenty-four. [Lots were prepared] and mixed and placed in an urn. First came Jedaiah . . . and Jehoiarib should be subordinate [to him.]" (BT, Ta'anith 27a. See also `Arakin 12b and Ezra 2:36-39) The original divisions were reestablished from the four priestly families, and the cycle count began anew. From the Talmud it seems that Jedaiah was then first, with Jehoiarib last; this would have advanced Abijah to seventh, but still eighth in relation to Jehoiarib. With the "abomination of desolation" by Antiochus Epiphanes on December 8, 167 BCE, (1 Macc. 1:60; Ant. XII 5:4) the priestly service of the divisions again ceased.
Judas Maccabee recaptured the Temple three years later, and on Kislev 25, or December 14, 164 BCE, the altar had been rebuilt and purified (1 Macc. 4:52-54; Ant. XII 7:6). Sacrifices were again offered during a festival now known as Hanukkah. The priestly cycle began anew. The cycle was likely next broken during the period with no High Priest and possibly twice again during the rule of the Pharisees. However, the priestly cycle would have run uninterrupted from at least 67 BCE (Chart IV) until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The relationship of this last cycle to the cycles during Solomon's Temple or before the desecration of the Second Temple is unknown. However, the order of priests would likely have remained the same as originally given in Scripture.
Each division served from Sabbath to Sabbath, or eight days, with an overlap of the first and last day. The priests passed responsibility at midday on the Sabbath (Against Apion 2:8).5 The time for one complete rotation of the priestly order was 168 days, or seven days times twenty-four divisions. On the 169th day the cycle repeated, with no fixed starting point after the beginning of the first cycle.6 Abijah did not regularly serve during the eighth and thirty-second weeks of the year; this would leave no assigned division to serve after the forty-eighth week or during an intercalated Ve-adar. All the priests served during the required feasts of Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (Mishna, Sukkah 55b). Thus, each of the twenty-four courses served twice in their appointed order and at the three festivals, an average of five times a year. They served four times if their course coincided with one of the three feasts, and six if they began and ended a year with thirteen months. The starting point and first course was likely different before and after the Babylonian exile and desolation of Nehemiah's Temple. Can a date be identified during the later part of the Second Temple period when a particular division was known to serve? This will provide a reference point to date all other divisions during that period, including the division of Abijah near the time of John the Baptist's conception.
There is literary evidence for the destruction of both Solomon's Temple and the Second Temple. However, the Scriptures, Josephus and the Mishna with its commentary in the Babylonian Talmud seem to conflict on several details. One clear point is that the division of Jehoiarib was serving when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and dating that division will date all others. In seeking that dating most of the Scriptures, Josephus and the Mishna can be reconciled. The relevant texts follow:
"Now on the seventh day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth
year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan the captain of
the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he
burned the house of the Lord, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem;
even every great house he burned with fire."
"The holy house; but, as for that house, God had long ago doomed
it to the fire; and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution
of ages: it was the tenth day of the month Lous, [Ab] upon which it was
formerly burnt by the king of Babylon."
"On the ninth of Ab . . . the Temple was destroyed the first and
"It is said, The day on which the first Temple was destroyed was
the ninth of Ab, and it was at the going out of the Sabbath, and the end
of the seventh [Sabbatical] year. The [priestly] guard was that of Jehoiarib,
the priests and Levites were standing on their platform singing the song.
What song was it? `And He hath brought upon them their iniquity, and will
cut them off in their evil.' They had no time to complete `The Lord our
God will cut them off,' before the enemies came and overwhelmed them. The
same happened the second time."
The destruction of Solomon's Temple occurred in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar in the year beginning in the spring of 586 BCE. For the fifth month the new moon was first visible at Jerusalem at 3:27 AM on July 9. Saturday, July 18, 586 was Ab 10 by sunrise reckoning and Ab 9 by sunset reckoning. This seems to satisfy Jeremiah, Josephus and the Mishna.9 The division of Jehoiarib was on duty. On that day Solomon's Temple was burnt, late Saturday afternoon, "the going out of the Sabbath" according to `Arakin 11b.
This leaves, however, several problems. The writer of 2 Kings says this was on the seventh day of the month, not the tenth. Was this just a scribal error from a miscopy from Jeremiah as the original? Or is there more? That seventh day by sunrise reckoning was Wednesday, July 15. When the Temple was captured the song being sung was from Psalm 94, verse 23. Each day of the week a specific song was sung by the priests, and on Wednesday that song was always Psalm 94 (Mishna, Tamid 33b). This supports the capture and desecration of the Temple as occurring on that Wednesday, Ab 7, with the priestly duties ceasing then. Solomon's Temple was then not fired until the tenth of the month. Unlike the accidental firing of the Second Temple during the heat of battle, the destruction of Solomon's Temple was a deliberate act by the Babylonians several days after its capture. Josephus' later report that both Temples were torched on the tenth was probably based on his interpretation of Jeremiah's date.10 Using sunset reckoning, the rabbis explained that the Temple was desecrated on the seventh and eighth, burnt on the ninth, an "unlucky day," and the greatest fire was on the tenth (Ta'anith 29a). The writer of 2 Kings was referring to the capture and desecration of the Temple on the seventh. Jeremiah was referring to the burning of the Temple on the tenth. There is no scribal error or conflict between the Scriptures.
An additional problem is that the first half of 586 BCE did not fall near a Sabbatical year. The first part of 70 CE did fall in the second half of a Sabbatical year, 69/70.11 Projecting back, Sabbatical years fell in 590/589 and 583/582 BCE.12 There was no Sabbatical year near 586 BCE.13 It seems that the rabbis projected back the events of the destruction of the Second Temple to the earlier destruction. Thus, the rabbis gave a mixed report of events from both destructions. A selection must be made to choose those that are specifically related to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Josephus said the Second Temple was fired on the tenth of the month. The rabbis reported that it was the ninth of the month, it was Sunday, Jehoiarib was serving, and it was a Sabbatical year.14 It is possible to exclude that the priests were singing Psalm 94 and that it was Saturday, these being references to the earlier destruction. In 70 CE the new moon for the fifth month was visible about 7:06 AM on July 27. The daylight portion of Ab 1 was on July 28 by sunset reckoning.15 Ab 9 fell on Sunday, August 5, and at that time the first division of Jehoiarib was serving. The beginning of the division of Jehoiarib can be dated to Saturday, August 4, 70 CE. This division had served in 168-day cycles back for over a hundred years to perhaps the rededication of the Second Temple by Judas Maccabee.16 From this later date the time any other division served can be calculated for this period.
It is now possible to calculate when the division of Abijah served during the period when John was conceived. Jesus was born before Herod died on November 27, 4 BCE. This was at least nine months plus five and a half months after Zacharias saw the angel while serving during the division of Abijah. The latest possible date for John's conception was in September of 5 BCE. The dates the division of Abijah served for the few years before that time are given here in Chart XIV.
Service of the Division of Abijah
These are possible dates for the week in which Gabriel confronted Zacharias.17 When this occurred, "the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside." (Luke 1:10) The "whole multitude" would only have been gathered at one of the three required feasts, at Passover, Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles. It would appear that just before John's conception that the "appointed order" of the division of Abijah coincided with one of these feasts. The only feast that overlapped any of the above dates is the Feast of Tabernacles in 6 BCE, which fell between September 29 and October 5. During these festivals the priests of the appointed order of the division offered the daily offerings (Sukkah 55b), and this was done by lots.18 If Zacharias burned incense during the first few days of his division, then the "whole multitude," would have still been at the festival. The week of October 3 to October 10 of 6 BCE is likely the division of Abijah after which John the Baptist was conceived.
Zacharias no doubt hurried home with excitement after sunset on October 10. He lived nearby in the "hill country, a city of Judah." (Luke 1:39) Since Elizabeth was previously barren, it is not necessary to consider a normal fertility cycle. Just as Mary was later immediately pregnant with Jesus after the Annunciation, it is also expected that the miracle of God was not here delayed. Elizabeth likely became pregnant with John the evening of October 10, 6 BCE.
Jesus was conceived during the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. After the conception of Jesus, Mary then came to Elizabeth, stayed three months and left before John was born. Jesus was thus conceived about five and a half months after John, as established in the last chapter. The sixth inclusive month of Elizabeth's pregnancy began about March 10, 5 BCE, and the middle of that lunar month was about March 25. This is the traditional day for the Annunciation, or conception of Jesus.
Nine months later was December 25, 5 BCE. This is back to Chrysostom's date for the birth of Jesus by also beginning with the priestly duties of Zacharias.
Based on the division of Jehoiarib having been on duty during the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, it is possible to establish the weeks in which the division of Abijah served during the time of Zacharias. When Zacharias burned incense the "whole multitude" were outside in prayer. It is expected that such a multitude would only be present at one of the three required feasts. In 6 BCE the Feast of Tabernacles overlapped the regular serving of the division of Abijah. It would be at this time that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias. If Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist shortly after Zacharias returned home, then John was conceived about October 10, 6 BCE. The Annunciation of the conception of Jesus followed about five and a half months later, or about March 25, 5 BCE. Jesus was then born nine month later, about December 25, 5 BCE.
Such dating is attractive, but not free of uncertainties. Can the
traditional Christmas date be independently verified without the use of
the division of Abijah? One more demonstration of His winter birth follows.
1. J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 256-258.
2. Finegan, Handbook, 69, table 25.
3. See the chapter on "The Sixth Month" and Chart XIII.
4. J. M. Ford, "Zealotism and the Lukan Infancy Narratives," NT 18, 4 (1976), suggests the that the family of John the Baptist were zealots. This was not likely an identifiable movement in 5 BCE and took shape only after the Roman occupation and taxation of 6 CE.
5. M. Avi-Yonah, "A List of Priestly Courses from Caesarea," IEJ 12 (1962), 137-139, notes the relating of the order of courses to the order of sabbaths goes back to at least the third to fourth century BCE.
6. R. T. Beckwith, "St. Luke, the Date of Christmas and the Priestly Courses at Qumran," RQ 9 (1977), concludes that the divisions at Qumran began anew each year with Jehoiarib always serving on the new year of Tishri 1.
7. `Arakin 11b states "The song of the day (should have been) was: `The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.'"(Psalm 24:1) This is the song for Sunday.
8. A division was known in Hebrew as a mishmar, and each was divided into seven beth-ab which served each day of the week.
9. The dating of the burning of the Solomon's Temple on Ab 9 by the rabbis, in contradiction to the "tenth day of the fifth month" by Jeremiah, indicates the tradition of using sunset reckoning may have been current by the sixth century BCE. However, this date may have been taken from Babylonian records.
10. When Josephus (Ant. X 8:5) previously related the events of the destruction of Solomon's Temple he said, "he set fire to the temple in the fifth month, the first day of the month, in the eleventh year of Zedekiah, and in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar."
11. Josephus and the rabbis certainly knew when the Sabbatical years fell during their days, but not necessarily during the time of Solomon's Temple. This is evidenced in the Talmud by discussions of the Jubilee and Sabbatical cycles, and whether there were 49 or 50 years in a set (`Arakin 12b, 13a). That 69/70 CE was a Sabbatical year is confirmed by the years 163/162 BCE (1 Macc. 6:20; Ant. XII Ch. 9), 135/134 BCE (Ant. XIII 8:1), and 37/36 BCE (Ant. XV 1:2). These fall in the same seven-year sequence as 69/70 CE. See pages 62-63 and page 77, note 15.
12. This presumes a Sabbatical-year cycle in the same sequence as after the Babylonian captivity. During the period of the Kings the seventy Sabbatical years may not have even been observed, which accounts for the seventy years of the servitude (2 Chron. 36:21).
13. In using the Sabbatical year cycle to date Biblical events E. W. Faulstich, History, Harmony & the Hebrew Kings (Spencer, Iowa: Chronology Books, 1986), 38-40 uses the rabbi's reference to the Sabbatical year and places the destruction of the first Temple in 588 BCE. Even if the rabbis had projected back from 69/70 CE in 50 year Jubilees the Sabbatical year would not fall in 586 or 588.
14. Ta'anith 29a is translated, "the year following the Sabbatical Year," which would place the Sabbatical year in 68/69 CE. The observance of Sabbatical years was discontinued by the sixth century; the cycle was observed again in the nineteenth century in a sequence that would follow 68/69. The one year shift may be accounted for by the difference between the reckoning of Scripture and the rabbis, the first reckoning the new year from Nisan and the later from Tishri. The discrepancy may be resolved by both here using a Nisan year with the rabbis saying the Sabbatical year began in the prior Nisan year.
15. Although the new moon is calculated to not have been visible until shortly after sunrise on July 27, the moon must have been visible a bit earlier or obscured by weather or battle, and Ab 1 according the sunrise calendar was begun that morning. This allows the destruction of the Temple during the afternoon of Sunday, August 5, which would then be Ab 10 by the sunrise reckoning of Josephus and Ab 9 by the sunset reckoning of the Talmud writers.
16. If the 168 day cycle is extended back to the destruction of Solomon's Temple, when Jehoiarib was also serving, the priestly cycle is off by about thirty days. Thus the priestly cycle was discontinued after the destruction by the Babylonians, a new starting point being used for the Second Temple, and again after its desecration.
17. E. W. Faulstich, "The Birth of Jesus," IAT (July 1986) gives dates for the division of Abijah based on calculations projected forward from 588 BCE (instead of 586), his date for the destruction of Solomon's Temple. For comparison, this places the division of Abijah July 30 to August 6, 6 BCE. P. L. Maier, "The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus' Life," CKC, 128-129, begins the division of Abijah on July 28, 6 BCE based on earlier data supplied by Faulstich.
18. "Those who are fresh to the incense come and draw lots." (Tamid 32b) The incense was supposed to bring prosperity, and the opportunity to burn it was offered only to priests who had not before performed this rite. Zacharias was "old" and close to retirement at 50 years old, and he had waited almost 20 years without success in the draw. His lot came up in the Lord's time.