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Jesus Born in September?
By Gary F. Zeolla
Most authorities are agreed that Jesus most likely was not born on December 25th. This is based on Luke 2:8, where it is said, "And shepherds were in the same region staying in the fields and watching over their flock [during the] watches of the night." It is said that shepherds would not have their flocks out at night in the winter.
But then, when was Jesus actually born? At a church I attended some time ago, the pastor proclaimed that he had figured out that Jesus was actually born during the first half of September. He outlined his theory in his Sunday morning sermon. It went something like the following.
From the Division of Abijah to the Birth of Jesus
The pastor started with Luke chapter one and the passage about the conception of John the Baptist.
1:5 [There] was in the days of Herod the king of Judea a certain priest by name Zacharias, from [the] division of Abijah, and his wife [was] from the daughters of Aaron, and her name [was] Elizabeth.
1:6 Now they were both righteous before God, going in [fig., observing] all the commandments and regulations of the Lord blameless.
1:7 And no child was [born] to them, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in their days.
1:8 Now it happened, while he [was] serving as priest in the [appointed] order of his division before God,
1:9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to offer incense, having entered into the temple of the Lord.
1:10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.
1:11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, having stood on [the] right [side] of the altar of incense.
1:12 And having seen [him], Zacharias was disturbed, and fear fell upon him.
1:13 But the angel said to him, "Stop being afraid, Zacharias, for your petition was heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son to you, and you will call his name John.
What he observed was that Zacharias was of the "division of Abijah" and that it was while he was "serving as priest in the [appointed] order of his division" that the angel appeared to him.
He then went back to 1Chronicles chapter 24. This chapter contains a description of how King David divided the Levites into 24 divisions. The divisions would take turns serving in the temple, and a lot was used to determine the order in which the divisions would serve. The lot determined that the division of Abijah would be the eighth division to serve.
The Jewish calendar is divided into twelve months, so the pastor assumed each division would serve for half of a month. The first month of the Jewish calendar is Nisan (Exodus 12:2). Nisan corresponds with the second half of March and the first half of April of our calendar.
So the pastor reasoned that if the division of Abijah served in the eighth division, then this would be during the second half of the fourth month of the Jewish calendar. This would correspond with the first half of July in our calendar. So he proclaimed that John the Baptist was conceived between July 1-15.
Next he went back to the first chapter of Luke and the well-known passage about the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. In verses 26-35 Mary is informed that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus. But the verse he was most interested in was verse 36:
1:36 "And listen! Elizabeth your relative, _she_ also has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month to her, the one being called barren.
So Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel appeared to Mary. Now if Elizabeth conceived between July 1-15, then six months later would mean it was now January 1-15. And if you add nine months to this time, then Jesus had to have been born sometime between September 1-15.
Wow! The pastor had figured out something that no one else before had figured out. The congregation was in awe. And everyone was shaking their heads at how intelligent the pastor was and at how everyone had been so wrong about the birth of Jesus for so long. The pastor even proclaimed that the next year the church would start celebrating Christmas in September, and everyone seemed to think that this would a good idea in light of the Biblical evidence. I, however, was not so enthused.
Right off of the bat, I could see some potential problems with his theory. First off, he was assuming that Elizabeth conceived during the time period of when the division of Abijah was to be ministering in the temple. However, in the middle of his temple duties, did Zacharias really go home and have sex with his wife? And even if he did, the pastor was assuming that she conceived right way. Maybe she did, or maybe it took a few weeks. As I read further in the passage, it seemed the latter was most likely:
1:23 And it happened, when the days of his sacred service were completed, he departed to his house.
1:24 Now after those days, his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she kept herself in seclusion [for] five months, saying,
1:25 "In this way the Lord has done to me, in [the] days in which He took notice of [me] to take away my disgrace among people."
So Zacharias did not go to his house until after he was done ministering in the temple. And it wasn't until "after those days" that Elizabeth conceived. The text doesn't how long it was, but it would appear that it was at least after July 15.
Similarly, the pastor was assuming that Mary conceived very soon after the appearance of Gabriel to her. Maybe she did or maybe it was a few weeks later. The text simply does not say.
Moreover, he was assuming that Mary had a "normal" nine-month pregnancy. There's no reason to assume she did not, but then, there's no reason to assume she did. Maybe Jesus was born a couple of weeks early or maybe a couple of weeks late.
But most of all, he was assuming that the order of the divisions of the Levites that David had set up way back somewhere around 1000 BC was still being followed 1000 years later during the time of Christ. 1000 years is a long time, and a lot could have happened during this time period to disrupt this order. So that was a lot of questionable assumptions he was making that I thought of just while I was still sitting in church.
When I got home from church I pulled out a couple of reference works and did some studying. The first source I checked was The Ryrie Study Bible.
The study note for 1Chronicles 24:4 states:
Dividing the priests into 24 groups meant that each group would serve for two weeks out of the year. The way the Jewish year was divided meant that their service would gradually move around the calendar. This arrangement was reinstituted after the exile and continued into N.T. times (p.633).
So the Ryrie Study Bible was saying the each division did not serve for half a month as the pastor assumed but instead for two weeks. 2x24 is 48 weeks, not 52. So each year, the time period that a particular division would be serving would be moved up by four weeks. And if this was true, then it completely threw off the pastor's theory. But which was correct? Was it two weeks or half a month? I wasn't sure, but this was potentially a serious problem with the pastor's theory.
Now if it was two weeks, then maybe one could calculate year by year how the divisions would move up the calendar during the 1000-year time period from when the rotation was first set up and the time of the appearing of the angel to Zacharias. But this would take someone much better at math than myself. Moreover, it would necessitate knowing the exact year that the divisions were set up and the exact year that Zacharias was in the temple. But these facts simply are not known. And most off all, it would require that the rotation of the divisions occurred without interruption or change during the 1000-year period. However, this was not even close to being the case.
The Ryrie note mentions about the exile. The exile was the seventy-year period during which the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. The temple was destroyed at the beginning of this time period (1Chron 36:11-21). So during this period there was no temple service occurring. So there was a major disruption of the rotation of the divisions.
So it must be asked, after the seventy years were completed and the temple was re-built, did the rotation of the divisions start up again in the same manner as previously? Again, not even close. For this, I turned to The Expositor's Bible Commentary.
The comment for 1Chron 24:7 states in part:
With the passage of time, some of the Davidic courses died out or had to be consolidated, and new ones were formed to take their places. At the first return from exile in 537 B.C., only four courses were registered (Ezra 2:36-39, Neh 11:12)…. By 520 twenty-two were again operative (Neh 12:1-7), but only half of them were the courses as originally organized by David (Vol. 4, pp. 421,422).
The commentary then has a chart, summarizing the five different times in the Scriptures that the divisions are given. The first is from 1Chron 24:7-18, which is dated 1000 BC. This is the list of David's 24 divisions in which Abijah is listed eighth.
The second is from Ezra 2:36-39, dated 537 BC. Only five divisions are listed, and Abijah is not even included. The third is from Neh 12:1-7, dated 530 BC. 22 divisions are listed, with Abijah being twelfth. The fourth is from Neh 12:12-21, dated 500 BC. 21 divisions are listed, with Abijah being eleventh. The last is from Neh 10:2-8, dated 444 BC. Again, 21 divisions are listed, but with Abijah being seventeenth. So it would seem that the number of divisions and the order in which they ministered was rather fluid.
Moreover, it should be noted that there would have been another disruption of the temple services in the second century BC, during the time of the Maccabeans. The story of this period can be found in the apocryphal book of First Maccabees.
So by the time of the birth of Christ, there really is no way to determine exactly how many divisions there were and when they were ministering. So the whole theory of the pastor absolutely collapses. And we are left once again with really have no idea when Jesus was born.
One last point someone pointed out to me long after this article was written. Nine months from January 15 is October 15, not September 15. So the theory doesn't even count the months correctly.
The Point of All of This?
What is the point of going into all of these details on this failed theory of a single pastor? There are several points to it.
First off, the pastor proclaimed his theory with such confidence and pride that he had figured out something that no one else had figured out. But it was for this very reason that initially I was skeptical.
The Bible has been studied for 2000 years by millions if not billions of people, including some of the most godly and intelligent people that have ever lived. And I found it strange that after all of this time and research that no one had ever figured out something as simple as the time of the birth of Christ, if in fact it was as simple to figured out as the pastor made it out to be.
Similarly, anytime anyone proclaims that they have found something in the Bible that no one else has ever found, be skeptical, very skeptical. It simply is very doubtful that someone today will find something that no one else ever has found before.
Second, the ease at which many in the congregation accepted this theory bothered me. As I said, many were even ready to start celebrating Christmas in September. Fortunately, this never happened, although the pastor did continue to proclaim his theory every Christmas season thereafter that I attended that church.
But the point is, the Bible says we are to be, "every day examining the Scriptures [to see] if these things might be so" (Acts 17:11). So no one in the congregation should have accepted the pastor's theory until they had time to check it out like I did.
And finally, this episode demonstrates the benefit of having Bible reference works available. I was already skeptical about the theory before I got home. But it was the information in Ryrie's Study Bible and the Expositor's Commentary that really put the nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the pastor's theory.
Now maybe I could have discovered all of these problems through my own Bible study. But it would have taken me a lot longer to do so. Again, since so many great minds have been studying the Bible for so long, it only makes sense to make use of their research and knowledge. And many good reference works are available besides the above two.
Moreover, if the pastor had taken the time to check such reference works, then maybe he would have seen all of the holes in his theory and would never have proclaimed it. But as it was, I am sure there are still many who attended that service who still believe that Jesus was actually born in September.
Now the reader might be wondering why I didn't say something to the pastor. Well, at the time I was a new Christian. So I just didn't feel it was my place to "correct" the pastor. And frankly, I never felt that he was very "approachable," so I wasn't conformable with talking to him. But this episode did cause me to start questioning everything else he taught.
If he could so confidently proclaim a theory that had so many holes in it that even I, a brand new Christian, could discover the problems, then how many other things was he teaching that really were not correct? So I began to be very skeptical and to research out everything being taught. As a result, I came to disagree with many things being taught at the church. And I eventually left that church for that reason.
So the main point of this article is try to encourage a healthy skepticism in the reader and the desire to search the Scriptures for yourself before accepting anything that is taught by your pastor or any other church "authority." Again, you should be "every day examining the Scriptures [to see] if these things might be so."
Jesus was Born!
So when was Jesus born? That question really cannot be answered. And anyone who tries to answer it inevitably is going to be using a lot of conjecture. The Bible simply doesn't give us enough details to pin down when Jesus was or was not born. Even what I said at the beginning of this article about the shepherds not being in the fields in December just might not be true. Maybe it was an unusually balmy December night and the shepherds decided to take the sheep out for a change. The text simply doesn't say. So you really cannot rule out December, or any other month for that matter.
But whenever Jesus was born, the important point is that Jesus was born! And it is for that reason that we celebrate.
Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, "Stop being afraid! For listen! I bring to you* the Gospel of great joy, which will be to all people.
2:11 "Because a Savior was born to you* today in the city of David, who is Christ [the] Lord!
2:12 "And this [will be] the sign to you*: You* will find a Baby having been wrapped in long strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough."
2:13 And suddenly [there] was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army [or, host], praising God, and saying,
2:14 "Glory to God in [the] highest, and peace on earth, good will among people!"
Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. The Ryrie Study Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1978.
Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Volume 4. 1,2 Chronicles. J. Barton Payne. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1988.
All Scripture references are from The Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible. Copyright © 1999-2001 by Gary F. Zeolla.
"Jesus Born in September?" Copyright © 2003 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article first appeared in the Free Darkness to Light
It was posted on this site December 5, 2003.
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