Published on December 13th, 2014 | by Seth Campbell1
First Christmas: The When (Part 2)
This article is meant to be read after the first two in the series, so If you have not read them, STOP HERE. Don’t go any further. Go back and read them (Post 1 & Post 2). This one will wait right here.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8, KJV)
I prefer the KJV here because it uses the word “abides.” The shepherds were living in the fields. According to what we learned from the last post, when could this have happened? The window is from the beginning of the harvest, estimating around July 1 or earlier, until the early rains began and made the shepherds leave the fields, estimating around November 1 or later. If that’s the case, when is Christmas? July at the earliest. Possibly August, September, October. Maybe early November at the latest. December is far too late.
Now, I know you’re now asking two things. The first is, “Where did December 25th come from?” I’ll attempt to tackle that one in a later post. The second is, “Can we get any closer to the correct day?” I believe that there at least is a clue that can lead us in the right direction.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was large (around 40 acres), but the sanctuary that sat in the center was only about 90 ft. by 30 ft. During that period of history, there were 24,000 priests. They were overstaffed to say the least.
Around 400 B.C., the priests were divided according to the 24 priestly families listed in Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. Each division was then identified by the ancestral family name mentioned in Chronicles. Each one of those 24 divisions, about 1,000 priests each, served for two weeks, so a typical priest (as opposed to the chief priests) only served two weeks a year and the rest of the time had to go and earn a living some other way.
This much we know from both the Bible and Jewish history. However, stepping away from the Bible and looking at Jewish records, we discover the times of the year that each one of those divisions served. According to those records, the division of Abijah served from the end of May to the first of June.
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. … Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” (Luke 1:5, 8)
So if Jewish history is accurate, the angel appears to Zechariah in the Temple near the end of May or beginning of June. The angel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth is going to have a baby. Now this isn’t a Mary situation. Zechariah and Elizabeth actually participate in the miraculous birth of John the Baptizer. Luke tells us that after his service was ended, “at once” (in Greek) Elizabeth was pregnant. Let’s assume that Zechariah raced home to meet Elizabeth and didn’t stop for coffee on the way. That means John is conceived around the first June. If this is right, it would mean that John was born on Passover. If you’ve ever been to a full Jewish seder meal you know that they leave an empty chair for Elijah. Wouldn’t it be incredible if the promised second Elijah was born on the day all the Jews were anticipating and praying for him to come?
Then, the same angel appears to Mary and Luke tells us that Elizabeth was six months pregnant. So, if we’re right about John, the angel appeared to Mary in December. In late December, the Jews celebrated a holiday that wasn’t instituted by God. It was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Light of the World was conceived on the Feast of Lights?
Assuming all of this is correct, Jesus was born in late September maybe early October. Recall what occurs in this time. The gan harvest of grapes and olives along with Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Sukkot is a time to remember when the Israelites sojourned and lived in tents, or sukkah, as they came to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, the Old English translated sukkah as tabernacle which has caused us to think of it as a religious shrine, but it literally means “tent.” The children of Israel were living in sukkah in the desert so God asked them to build Him a sukkah too. Part of the feast day celebration is for everyone to leave their house and live in sukkah to remember how God brought us to the Promised Land. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if the one greater than Moses who came to deliver us and bring us to the better and truer Promised Land was born on Sukkot? Is there anything in the Bible that would suggest this as a possibility?
First. John 1:14, Young’s Literal Translation. “And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us…” The Word became flesh and pitched his sukkah, his tent, and camped among us. Why does John intentionally use this language? I think he’s clearly stating right from the start that Jesus is God. God “tabernacled” among his people and Jesus “tabernacled” among us. But could it also possibly be that he knew that Jesus was born on Sukkot?
Second. According to Jewish history, we know what song the Levites sang at the Temple on Sukkot. We’re not sure of the tune, but we do know the words. “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace among people of goodwill.” Why did the angels sing this song to the shepherds? Even if it wasn’t Sukkot, the shepherds knew the song and would have been singing along. It wasn’t a new song, so the question is, why pick that one? It is because it was Sukkot? I believe so, but at the very least, it begs the question.
Think about what we celebrate at Christmas. God initiating. God coming and rescuing us. God coming and leading us as we learn to trust him. God coming and teaching us a different and better way to live. The Jews celebrated this very thing at Sukkot, remembering when God saved them from Egypt and led from the desert to the Promised Land. But this New Covenant, this Christmas celebration, is different because it’s better (Hebrews 8:6-12). It isn’t better because we’re better, but because God divinely chose to tabernacle with us in a better way than He did with them. This time He became a human…a child…a baby. He actually moved into our neighborhood. He actually learned our language. He literally tabernacled with us.
This Christmas, wouldn’t you agree that Paul’s words carry even more weight and point much more clearly to God’s providence and sovereignty even in the smallest and most minute details.
“[W]hen the appropriate time had come, God sent his Son…” (Galatians 4:4, International Standard Version)
Amen and amen.
Next Wednesday’s Post: Where did the First Christmas occur and what’s with the innkeeper?