Thursday, December 9, 2010

8 B.C.

Dating the Birth of Jesus 

Luke and Matthew in Chronology

Bert Gary © 2010

8 B.C. – LUKE

Historical Context

Luke records that Augustus was emperor of Rome when Jesus was born. Records show that the emperor ordered a census in 6 A.D. while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But this date is too late for Jesus’ birth as the Bible tells it. According to Matthew 2 and Luke 1:5, Herod the Great was still alive when Jesus was born. Herod died in 4 B.C., so Jesus had to have been born before 4 B.C. (The incorrect birth year of 1 A.D. was established in the 6th Century.)

Though the governorship of Quirinius and the 6 AD census date are too late for Jesus’ birth, Quirinius may have been governor twice. His first reign may have begun in 12 BC as co-legate during which he was ordered to do a census in 9 BC (It takes years to complete one, and it was done from 9-6 BC). This fits Luke’s and Matthew’s dating quite well, and puts Jesus’ birth at about 8 BC, within the reigns of Augustus, Quirinius, and Herod as Luke claims. (See the Res Gestae Inscription and the Aemilius Secundus Inscription. Some scholars claim that these confirm both the early census and the earlier co-reign of Quirinius. Other scholars contest this.)

Joseph and Mary

The Scriptures say that the people of Bethlehem were of King David’s lineage. (David was from Bethlehem.) Joseph and Mary are said to have traveled “home” to Bethlehem for the census. “All went to their own towns to be registered.” (Luke 2:3)  This quote suggests that though Joseph and Mary had relocated to Nazareth, or were in the process of doing so, they were originally from Bethlehem and had to go back home to be counted. The Scriptures strongly suggest that they had a house in Bethlehem. Matthew makes a point of saying that when Jesus was about 2 years old, the Magi bearing gifts visited them in “the house.” (Matthew 2:11—see below)

So why would Joseph and Mary relocate to Nazareth? Two reasons present themselves.

Nazareth spelled with a "tz" rather than a "z"
First, the name of the town was also the name of the people there. They were Nazareans. An inscription from Caesarea with the town name on it spells it not with a “z,” but with a “tz.” Netzerea. The name is no doubt a reference to Isaiah 11:1 where the messiah is prophesied as a branch (netzer) to spring forth from the old stump of Jesse, King David’s father. Matthew 2:23 then is referring to Isaiah 11:1: “He will be called a Nazorean.” Nazorean means people of the branch. Apparently the people of the tiny village of Nazareth were also of the lineage of David. Joseph and Mary would have kin there with messianic hopes. They would have felt at home.

Luke specifically says that “while they were there” in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor (Luke 2:6). Luke mentions no emergency labor, nothing of Mary in labor on a donkey, nothing of a desperate search of strange streets for emergency lodging. No donkey and no innkeeper are mentioned. Mary and Joseph were already at home in their hometown when labor began.

Second, Joseph was a builder (tekton), and the nearby city of Sepphoris was being constructed by Herod Antipas beginning in 4 B.C. as the capitol of Galilee. It was the largest construction project in the region. Builders flocked there for work. With Nazareth only 4 miles away, easy walking distance each day for pay, Joseph could have seen this as an opportunity for steady income for his new family, reason enough alone to consider relocation there.

Only One Verse in the Bible Describes Jesus’ Birth

  • Luke 2:7   and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place (topos in the original Greek) for them in the living-space (kataluma in the original Greek). {New Jerusalem Bible}
Sepphoris Jewish neighborhood
Kataluma in Luke 2:7 continues to be translated by many Bible publishers as "inn," even though the better translations are "guest chamber" or "living room." It is translated as such elsewhere in Scripture. For example, in Luke 22:11 Jesus instructed the disciples to follow a man carrying water into Jerusalem. They followed him to a house that had a large kataluma where they could all gather together for the Passover meal. Kataluma is translated in 22:11 in almost all English versions as guestroom or guest chamber. Verse 12 says it was a large upper room.

 Child in ancient Israel manger

What does Luke place at the manger? Joseph and Mary were there. Jesus was lying in the manger (animal feed trough) wrapped up in strips of cloth as was the practice in that day (They didn’t have Pampers.). They used a manger as a crib, probably in a downstairs cave of their Bethlehem home where animals were kept. Mary went down there to give birth because the living-space upstairs in a crowed home was no place (topos means place or space, not hotel room) for labor and delivery. Privacy and defilement issues sent them to a more private spot.

What Luke does not place at the feeding trough: There is no donkey, they are not in a shed in a field, and no animals are mentioned being there. Matthew’s Magi did not come to the manger at Jesus’ birth, but to the family home two years later (see Matthew’s account below). At the manger in Luke’s Gospel, there is no star, no Magi, and no gifts. There are only shepherds.

The Shepherds

        Sheepfold cave near Bethlehem -
        Imagine a house built atop the cave
While Mary and Joseph were in town having a baby in their house, some shepherds were out in the fields outside of town. An angel greeted them with good news for all people: the birth of a savior. The shepherds went into Bethlehem to find the house with a newborn. They viewed the baby in an animal feed trough, probably from a safe distance because of defilement regulations.


Arab bedouin posing as a Magi
The Magi

Joseph was not present when the Magi arrived two years later (Matthew 2:11). He may have gone back to Nazareth to continue setting up his family’s new home. The Magi found the house where Mary and Jesus were living, and they gave them gifts: gold (for a king), frankincense (for a priest), and myrrh (for burial). Had Joseph been nearby, he would not have missed this.

How do we know these events took place two years later? According to Matthew, the Magi told Herod the Great when a special star first appeared in faraway Arabia announcing the birth of a Judean king. They traveled a long way and it took a while for them to get there. Herod wanted to know how old the child might be presently so he could kill him. The Magi, not perceiving Herod’s malice, informed him when the star had appeared. This gave Herod the approximate age of the newborn king, which is why Herod ordered every child under the age of three (two and under) in the tiny village to be killed (Matthew 2:16). So the child—his birth coinciding with the appearance of the star—would have been about a two-year-old toddler when the Magi arrived. So the year would have been about 6 B.C., just two years before King Herod’s death.

Matthew describes the events before Jesus birth (his conception) and the events involving the Magi two years later, but not the events of Jesus’ actual birth. Only Luke describes that. Matthew says nothing of labor and delivery, the manger, the baby, the strips of cloth, the shepherds, or the angels. Matthew’s story tells of Jesus’ conception and then skips to two years after his birth:

Matthew 1:18  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 2:1  After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi {Traditionally Wise Men} from the east came to Jerusalem (emphasis mine)

No camels are mentioned by Matthew in relation to the Magi. Nor does he mention that there were specifically three of them (guesses range from two to twelve). Magi were an ancient class of scholars who were experts in everything from medicine to magic to astrology. They are not specifically called “Wise Men” anywhere in scripture, though all Magi were certainly learned. Interestingly, Magi is the root of our English words magic and magician.

 Herod Antipas coin
The Magi were warned in a dream to flee Bethlehem, Joseph was also warned in a dream to flee, and so the family escaped Herod’s murder of the children in Bethlehem by taking their toddler into hiding in Egypt. When Herod died (4 B.C), they wanted to return to Judea, presumably to their home in Bethlehem, but Herod’s son Archelaus was on the Judean throne, and he was worse than his dad. Another son of Herod named Antipas, upon his father’s death, went to Sepphoris to start construction on his capital—more enticement for Joseph to relocate to nearby Nazareth. So they made their home there. By that time, Jesus may have been about six years of age, it was about 2 B.C., and Jesus was old enough for apprenticeship to his father as a tekton.


Ancient Roman period tektons

Tekton means "builder" (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). It’s the root word for tectonics, which is the study of the earth’s crust or the science of constructing sky scrapers. Obviously the earth’s crust and sky scrapers are not made of wood. Interestingly, in the Bible Jesus never spoke of carpentry once, but spoke often of building and stone, giving the picture of a "mason" instead of a "wood worker.” From archaeology we know that wood was scarce and expensive. A carpenter would find little work. But a tekton living near Sepphoris would have steady, well-paying employment.

For a look at what day Jesus was born see my blog "When Was Jesus Born?" For a deeper look at the biblical birth stories in comparison with Christmas plays, pageants, cantatas, and manger scenes see my blog "Are Kids' Christmas Plays Biblical?" Also see "A Brief Dictionary of Jesus' Birth".