New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
In the New Testament the few events which can be dated are those that can be ascertained from the mention of the Jewish festivals. One probable exception is the dating given by Luke when he described the Annunciation: "Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin . . . and the virgin's name was Mary." (Luke 1:26-27) The Annunciation occurred in a sixth calendar month.
To establish the usefulness of this reference to the sixth month requires a two step examination. First, it is necessary to establish that Luke intended the "sixth month" as a reference to a calendar month. Second, which calendar system did Luke use?
It is clear from Scripture that the Annunciation occurred during the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy with John the Baptist. Such is the usual interpretation of the "sixth month." Elizabeth became pregnant after Zacharias served with the division of Abijah, and "she kept herself in seclusion for five months." (Luke 1:24) Then, "in the sixth month the angel Gabriel" visited Mary (Luke 1:26). After explaining that her child would be the Son of God, Gabriel said, "your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month." (Luke 1:36) Immediately after Gabriel left, "at this time Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth, who said, `Blessed is the fruit of your womb!'" (Luke 1:39-40,42) "Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home." (Luke 1:56) After Mary left, "the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she brought forth a son." (Luke 1:57) Mary visited Elizabeth from about month five and a half to month eight and a half of her pregnancy. The timing was as follows:
The Conception of John and Jesus
A few points can be established from the forgoing sequence. The conception of Jesus happened almost immediately after Gabriel announced the event to Mary. Gabriel said that Elizabeth had "also conceived," thus saying Mary had already conceived. Also, she left immediately and hurried to greet Elizabeth, who blessed the fruit in Mary's womb, Jesus. Mary was already pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Scriptural repetition is usually to emphasize strongly a point. However, what is the point of double noting that the Annunciation took place in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy? It is possible to discern that fact even if it was not mentioned at the time of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26) and even if Gabriel did not repeat that note to Mary (Luke 1:36). That timing is found on Chart XIII with the noted five months in seclusion and the three months of Mary's visit after the fifth month and before the end of the ninth month. Why the additional two references?
One reason for noting the close relationship of the conception of John and Jesus is that by correctly aligning the beginning point with Zachariah's division of Abijah it is possible to establish the date of Jesus' conception. This will be described in the following chapter. Another would be the note that when Jesus was baptized He was about thirty years old (Luke 3:23). This would have been shortly after John the Baptist began his ministry; John was a Levite and would have likely become active when he became thirty. Is there another reason?
The note that the Annunciation took place in the sixth month is not repetitious, but redundant, if it was meant to refer to Elizabeth's sixth month of pregnancy. There is no spiritual message there, and the timing would be abundantly clear without that passage. The sixth month here must be something more than a reference to Elizabeth's condition. The "sixth month" can and should be interpreted as a reference to the sixth month of Luke's calendar.
What calendar system would be used by Luke? Luke was a Greek from Antioch, and he wrote his gospel to Theophilus, another Greek in Antioch. The calendar system in use there was the Syro-Macedonian calendar, introduced by Alexander the Great over three centuries earlier. This calendar was the basis of the Seleucid Era, the standard for dating throughout the Middle East for many centuries. This calendar was likely that used by the Herods and other Eastern rulers for one method of dating their reigns. This Syro-Macedonian calendar is the expected reference by Luke. In this calendar system the new year began in the fall month of Dios, and the sixth month was Xanthikos.
Some suggest that Theophilus was a Roman rather than a Greek, and that Luke would have used Roman dating from January. This is based solely on the term of address that Luke used once in his opening to Theophilus, "most excellent." (Luke 1:3) This wording was also used when Lysias wrote to the Roman governor Felix and when Paul addressed Felix and the later Roman governor, Festus (Acts 23:26, 24:3, 26:25). It is then implied that this term of address was only applicable when speaking to a Roman, that Theophilus must be a Roman and that Luke must be using Roman dating. However, this ignores Theophilus' Greek name, Greek city of Antioch and Greek friend, Luke. Also, it has not been demonstrated that Luke addressed a Roman as "most excellent." He was only reporting the words of the Roman citizens Lysias and Paul when they addressed Romans. "Most excellent" was likely a term of official respect and not an ethnic term reserved for Romans. The use of Roman dating by Luke is not supported by any other Scriptural reference.1
There is a high probability that the Annunciation in the sixth month is a reference to the sixth lunar month according to Luke's Syro-Macedonian calendar. In 5 BCE the sixth lunar month of Xanthikos was from March 10 to April 7. The middle of that month was about March 25, 5 BCE, the traditional date for the Annunciation. This was also the day of the Vernal Equinox.
The dates of the Vernal Equinox during this period occurred on March 22/23. See http://www.usno.navy.mil/USNO/astronomical-applications/data-services/spring-phenom. Jerusalem time is 2 hours and 13 minutes earlier.
If Luke was referring to the sixth calendar month, then that month would likely have been the sixth month of his Syro-Macedonian calendar. That month was Xanthikos, and the middle of that month in 5 BCE was March 25. This was also the first day of spring.
This is the first of three proofs leading to the same day. Next is
a reappraisal of an old solution using the division of Abijah. Then it
will seem no surprise that a nova appeared in the heavens on about March
25, 5 BCE, and remained visible for seventy days. This was the first Star
of the Magi.
1. The same question is considered in more detail in the chapter, "The Fifteenth Year of Tiberius."