But the date of his death may be more definitely fixed. Josephus relates1 that he executed the insurgents, Matthias and his companions, on the night of an eclipse of the moon. This eclipse took place, as has been ascertained by astronomical calculations,3 on the night of the 12th and 13th March, 750; yet he was dead before the 5th of April, for the Passover of that year fell upon the 12th April, and Josephus states1 that before this feast his son and successor Archelaus observed the usual seven days' mourning for the dead. His death must therefore be placed between the 13th March and 4th April, 750. We may take the 1st of April as an approximate date.2
i Antiq., 17. 8. 1. » Antiq., 17. 6, 4.
3 Ideler, Handbuch Chronologie, 2. 391. i Antiq., 17. 8. 4.
How long before Herod's death was the Lord born? The Evangelists Matthew and Luke relate certain events that occurred between His birth and Herod's death, His circumcision upon the eighth day, the presentation at the Temple on the fortieth, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the murder of the Innocents. Whatever view may be taken as to the order of these events, they can scarcely have occupied less than two months. This would bring His birth into January, or February at latest, 750.
Having thus reached a fixed period in one direction, and ascertained that His birth cannot be placed later than the beginning of 750, let us consider the data that limit the period upon the other side. And the first of these we find in the statement of Luke, (ii. 1-6,) that He was born after the edict of Augustus that all the world should be taxed. In obedience to this edict, his parents went to Bethlehem to be taxed, and there He was born. If, now, we can ascertain when this edict went into effect in Judea we have another fixed period.
It is known from Suetonius and from the Ancyranian monument, that Augustus three times instituted a census, in 726, 746, and 767.3 Of these the second only needs to be considered. But this seems to have been confined to the Italians or Romans, cives JRomani, and thus a census civium* and not to have extended to the provinces.5 It cannot, therefore, have been the taxing of Luke. That Augustus did at different times take a census of the provinces is well established, but we know not the exact periods. As we cannot, then, bring the taxing of Luke into any direct and positive connection with the census of 746, it affords us no certain chronological datum.
2 Almost all chronologists agree in putting Herod's death in 750. So Browne, Sepp, Wieseler, Amraer, Ewald, Winer, Hales, Meyer. Jarvis puts it in March, 749; G-reswell, April, 751; Clinton in 750 or 751.
3 Sepp, 1. 139.
* Usher, 10. 458; Greswell, 1. 536 and 4. 22.
5 This, however, is doubted by many. Browne, 45 j Friedlieb, 53; Sepp, 1.141. See Ewald, 5. 141.
Attempts have been made to reach a positive result in another way. According to Tertullian,1 the census at the birth of Christ was taken by Sentius Saturninus. Sed et census constat actos sub Augusto tunc in Judaea per Sent. Saturninum, apud quos genus ejus inquirere potestis. It is said that this necessarily implies that Saturninus was governor of Syria. We have then only to inquire when he was thus governor. He is often mentioned by Josephus.2 There is some difference of opinion as to the length of his administration. Greswell makes it to extend from 746-750, but most only to 748.3 If, then, this census was taken by Saturninus as governor of Syria, it must have been before 748, and consequently the Lord's birth must be placed as early as 747.4
Against this if may be said that Tertullian stands quite alone in this statement, and is at variance, not only with St. Luke, but with many of the early writers, and is not here to be credited.5 Or if it be admitted as correct, it by no means follows that Saturninus was governor of Syria at this time; he may have been a special commissioner for the purpose.6 The supposition of Browne, (47,) that the census began under him while governor, and so before 748, is not probable. Patritius, iii. 168, makes Saturninus to have been governor and Oyrenius legate extraordinary, and both to have assisted in the work; but this conflicts with Luke's statement that the latter was governor of Syria. In either case we fail to fix the time for the taxing through its connection with him.
We now turn to the statement of Luke (ii. 2) : " This taxing was first made when Oyrenius was governor of Syria." This language is susceptible of various constructions, which will be hereafter fully considered. We are concerned with it here only in its chronological bearing as connected with Oyrenius. If it be read " this taxing was before he was governor," or " this taxing first took effect when he was governor," it gives us no aid in our inquiry.
i Adv. Marc, 4. 19.
2 Antiq., 16.10. 8; 16. 11. 3; 17. 1. 1; 17. 2. 1; 17. S. 2. War., 1. 27, 2; 1. 29. 3.
3 Ideler, Zumpt, Sepp, Ammer, Browne.
* Patritius and many. 6 So Friedlieb, 54. e So Ammer, 18.
We learn from Josephus1 that after Archelaus was deposed, and Judea annexed to Syria, Cyrenius was sent by the Roman emperor as governor of this province, and then instituted a census. But this was not earlier than 758 or 760, and of course cannot he the taxing mentioned by Luke; for the Lord was horn, as we have seen, before Herod's death in 750. If, however, the right interpretation of the Evangelist's words is that which makes this taxing to have been the first as distinguished from a second, and both during his governorship ; or that he was governor when this very taxing took place, the question arises, was Cyrenius at any period earlier than 758, governor of Syria ? That he was twice governor was asserted by Baronius; " but in this," says Lardner, " he is deserted by all learned men." a Recently, however, the matter has been more thoroughly discussed by Zumpt in his essay de Syria Bomanonim provincial "We shall, therefore, give a brief outline of the point as it now lies in the light of this investigation. In Josephus the names of several persons who were governors of Syria about the iinie of the Lord's birth are mentioned, but they are mentioned only incidentally, nor is the list complete. Of S. Saturninus, whose administration ended in 747, we have already spoken. He was followed by P. Q Varus.* Varus was with Herod at the trial of his son Antipater, and afterward aided Archelaus against the insurgent Jews.5 He was therefore in office at least till the summer of 750. After this time Josephus makes no mention of him, nor does history give us any positive information how long he continued in office. Of what took place during the ten years' rule of Archelaus, Josephus says very little, nor does he mention the name of any other Syrian governor till Cyrenius, who began his administration after Archelaus had been deposed and Judea annexed to Syria.0 Archelaus was deposed in the tenth year of his reign,7 or in 759. That Varus did not act as governor during all this interval, is probable from the fact that it was a fixed rule with Augustus that no one should govern a province
i Antiq., 18. 1.1.
2 1. 336. For a full discussion of the grounds taken by Baronius, see Spanheim, Dubia Evangelica, Pars Secunda, Dubium v.
3 In the 2d vol. of his Comment. Fpigr. ad Antiq. Bom. pertinent. Berol, 1854.
4 Antiq., 17. 5. 2. 5 Antiq., 17.10. 9 and 10. « Antiq., 17.13. 5; 18.1. 1. 7 Antiq., 17. 13. 2.
more than five years.1 A coin of Antioch proves that in fact in 758 L. V. Saturninus was governor. But by whom was this office filled from 750-758?
It is at this point that the researches of Zumpt have for us special importance. In his list of Syrian governors, (ii. 149,) extending from B. c. 30 to A. D. 66, we find the interval from 748758 thus filled: P. Q. Yarus, 748-750 or 6-4 B, C. P. S. Qurinius (Oyrenius) 750-753 or 4-1 B. C. M. Lollius, 753-757 or 1 B. C. to 3 A. D. 0. M. Censorinus 757-758 or 3-4 A. D. After Censorinus follows L. V. Saturninus, already mentioned, from 758-760 or 4-6 A. D., who is succeeded by P. S. Qurinius for the second time. This second administration extends from 760-765 or 6-11 A. D. If Zumpt be right in this order, Cyrenius was twice governor of Syria, but we are now concerned only with his first administration, or that from 750-753. Upon what ground does this statement rest?
Our chief knowledge of Oyrenius is derived from Tacitus.2 He was of low origin, a bold soldier, and attained a consulship under Augustus in 742, and was afterward proconsul in the province of Africa. After this he conquered the Homonadenses, a rude people living in Oilicia, and obtained a triumph. He was subsequently made rector to Oaius Csesar when the latter was appointed governor of Armenia. At what time and in what capacity did he carry on the war against the Homonadenses ? The time is thus determined : He was consul in 742. As it was a rule with Augustus to send no one sooner than five years after his consulship as legate to a province, he could not have been in Africa earlier than 747. But he was made rector to O. Caesar in 753, after the war against the Homonadenses, so that this war was between 747 and 753. In what capacity did he carry it on ? Probably as governor of Syria. It is important to bear in mind that at this time there were two classes of provinces, the one under the immediate control of the Emperor, the other under the control of the Senate. The governors of the imperial provinces were called Legates or Propraetors, and continued in office during the pleasure of the Emperor; those of the Senatorial provinces, Proconsuls, whose authority lasted only for one year. Syria and Cilicia were both provinces of the former kind, and administered by propreators. The Homonadenses were a people living in Cilicia, but Cilicia belonged from 25 B. O. down to the time of Vespasian to the province of Syria. As Cyrenius had been proconsul in Africa, and as it was a rule that the same person should not be ruler over more than one of the consular or prsetorian provinces under the care of the Senate, he could not have been governor of any of the provinces immediately adjacent—Asia, Pontus, Bithynia, Galatia; he must then have been acting as governor of the province of Syria and as legate of the Emperor.
i Greswell, 1. 507. 2 Ann., 3. 48.
We cannot here enter into an investigation of the many intricate questions which belong to this point, and which are fully discussed by Zumpt.1 The result of all is that Cyrenius became governor of Syria as the successor of Varus toward the end of 750, and continued in office till 753.
It cannot be said that Zumpt demonstrates that Cyrenius was twice governor of Syria, but he certainly makes it highly probable.2 It is indeed possible that he was acting in the East at the time of the Lord's birth as legate extraordinary, or as head of the census commission for Syria and the East.3 As, however, Luke's language seems to mean that he did act as governor of Syria at this time, and as he is confirmed in this by many of the earliest Christian writers, the burden of proof lies upon those who dispute his accuracy. As the case now stands, we may assume that Cyrenius was so governor from the end of 750 till 753.
But the exact chronological value of this fact, in its bearing upon the date of the Lord's birth, still remains to be considered. If, as we have seen, Herod died in the spring of 750, and after Christ's birth, and Cyrenius was not governor till the autumn of that year, how can it be said that this taxing took place under him ?
It must be admitted that the census began under Varus, 748750, and before Herod's death; but if in consequence of this death and of the popular disturbance that followed, it was for a time suspended and its execution was reserved to Cyrenius, it would very naturally be connected with his name. It is not improbable also that so long as Herod lived he appeared as the chief agent in its execution; and only after his death did the Roman governor take a prominent part.
1 An abstract of his argument may be found in Fairbairn, Her. Man., 507; in Friedlieb, Leben Jesu, 57; and a brief notice in Alford, vol. i., Proleg. p. 50.
2 Merivale, however, (Roman Hist., 4. 456,) calls it "the demonstration, as it seems to be."
3 See Ewald, 5.140, note; Browne, 45.
It is also not improbable that, as Herod's death materially changed the relations in which Judea stood to the empire, Justin Martyr's1 allusion to Oyrenius as first procurator of Judea may refer to his more active interference in Jewish affairs.2 "We conclude, then, that the taxing of Luke, and so the Lord's birth, was in the latter part of 749 or beginning of 750.3
The statement of St. Luke, (iii. 23,) " And Jesus himself began to be abont thirty years of age," is to be considered.* This passage may be variously interpreted.5 According to some it means, "Jesus was," at this time of His baptism, " beginning to be about thirty years of age," *". e., He was almost but not quite thirty.6 Greswell affirms that this was the universal interpretation of the words by the Greek fathers.7 According to most modern interpreters the meaning is, " Jesus was about thirty when He began His ministry." 8 We have, then, taking the latter as the right construction, to ask how great latitude is to be given to the expression " about thirty." According to some it is to be understood as a round or indefinite number, embracing any age between twentyfive and thirty-five. But when we consider how short was the Lord's ministry, this is in the highest degree improbable. According to others, it permits a latitude of two or three years.9 But even this latitude is hardly justified by Luke's use of language.10 The more natural construction is that the Lord was some months or parts of a year more or less than thirty. He was not just thirty, nor twenty-nine, nor thirty-one. Still it cannot be positively affirmed that the Evangelist does not use it in a larger sense.
1 Apol. 1, c. 34. 2 Friedlieb, Leben Jesu, 60.
3 So Merivale, 4.457. " It would appear from hence that our Lord's birth was 750, or 749 at the earliest."
4 The reading of Tischendorf, Kcu avros t\v o Iijffovs; apxo^vos axra, &c, does not materially affect the sense. See Wieseler, 123.
s See Jarvis, 524.
« So Lightfoot, 3. 35; Greswell, 1. 367; Bloomfield in loco. • r See, however, Patritius, iii. 388.
8 "So Meyer, Alford, Norton, De "Wette, Wieseler, Tischendorf, Robinson.
9 So Ammer, Alford.
io \e gjve for comparison all the passages where oxrci is used by him in connection with numerals: Gospel, i. 56; ix. 14; ix. 28; xxii. 59; xxiii. 44; Acts of Apostles, i. 15; ii. 41; ir. 4; v. 36; x. 3; xix. 7.
The argument that He was thirty at this time, because the priests at this age began their ministry,1 has little force. The law (Num. iv. 3) has reference only to Levites, and the age when the priests began to serve is not known.2 Besides, Jesus was not a priest, although the Baptist was.3
If we assume that the Lord was about thirty at the beginning of His ministry, we must, to make this datum useful in our present inquiry, ascertain in what year this ministry began. This, it is said, we are able to do through the words spoken by the Jews at Jerusalem in reply to His parable respecting the temple of His body, (John ii. 20.) " Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days ? " This building, or rather rebuilding, of the temple was begun by Herod in the eighteenth year of his reign, or during the year from Nisan 734 to Nisan 735/ The forty-sixth year following was from Nisan 780-781. It is admitted that the temple was not finished till 818.6 But from what point of time are the forty-six years to be reckoned backward ? The words may be rendered as by Lightfoot, " Forty and six years hath this temple been in building." 6 Up to this time, the Passover, when the words were spoken, the work had continued and was not yet ended. But is the fortysixth year to be taken as current, or as completed ? If the latter, the Passover was that of 781;7 if the former, it was that of 780.8 Some, however, understand the words, " In forty and six years was this temple," all that is yet finished, " built." Tholuck (in loco) observes, " We may suppose that at this time, probably after the completion of some main part of the edifice, a cessation in the building had taken place." 9 If this interpretation be right the passage loses all its chronological value, as it is impossible to tell how long the forty-six years had been completed.
All, therefore, that this passage gives us is a probability that the Lord's first Passover was that of 780 or 781. The former is to be preferred. If, then, he was about thirty at this time, but not a year more or less, his birth would be about 750. The Passover of 780 fell upon the 9th April. His baptism was a few weeks earlier than this, for there intervened the temptation of forty days, His return to Jordan, His visit to Cana and to Capernaum, and journey to Jerusalem, Allowing two or three months for all this, His baptism was in the last of 779, or beginning of 780.
* So Lightfoot, Jarvis. a Winer, 2. 269. 3 Gres., 1. 374.
* Josephus, Antiq., 15.11.1. 5 Josephus, Antiq., 20. 9, 7.
8 So Greswell, Norton, Bloom. 7 So Meyer, Wieseler, Tisch., Lange. 8 So Lardner, Licht., Friedlieb. ° So OlshauseDj Ewald.
If we suppose Him to have been just thirty at His baptism, His birth must be placed in the last of 749, or beginning of 750. If, then, for reasons already given, we cannot interpret " about thirty " as a wholly indefinite expression, but must understand it as meaning that He was some months more or less than thirty, we cannot place His birth earlier than the middle of 749.
Still another datum is the visit of the Magi. This, as we learn from Matthew, (ch. ii.,) was before the death of Herod, and so before April, 750. How long an interval elapsed between their coming and his death is matter of inference. Their arrival at Jerusalem cannot, however, well be placed later than February, 750. At this time Herod was there, (Matt. ii. 1-7,) but at the eclipse of the moon,1 March 12-13, he was at Jericho, where he subsequently died. If, then, the Magi came in February, the Lord's birth must have taken place some time earlier, as early at least as the beginning of 750.
The cause of the coming of the Magi to Jerusalem was the appearing of a star, which in some way, whether by astrology, or tradition, or by direct divine revelation, they knew to indicate the birth of the King of the Jews. If this star were a real star, subject to the ordinary laws which rule the heavenly bodies, and the time of its appearing could be determined astronomically, we should find in it a most valuable chronological aid. But many regard it as wholly supernatural, a luminous body like a star specially prepared by God for this end; and others as a new star, that, after shining awhile in the heavens, totally disappeared; and others still, as a comet.3 If either of these suppositions be correct, it gives us no chronological datum. But a considerable number of modern commentators are inclined to regard it as a conjunction of planets, and its time thus capable of determination. This hypothesis was first advanced by Kepler, whose attention was turned to the matter by a similar conjunction at the close of 1603, A. D. In December of that year Saturn and Jupiter were in conjunction, and to them in the spring following Mars was added. In the autumn of 1604, a new star of distinguished brilliancy appeared, which, however, soon began to fade, and finally, at the end of 1605, vanished from sight. His attention thus aroused, Kepler found by computation that during the year 747 of Rome, the planets Jupiter and Saturn three times came into conjunction. These computations, as corrected by Ideler,1 show these conjunctions to have taken place on 20th May, 27th Oct., and 12th Nov. of that year, all in the sign of Pisces. At the first conjunction they were only one degree removed, in the two latter were so near that both planets appeared to a weak eye as one.3 In the spring of 748, to these conjunctions Mars was added, and from some Chinese astronomical records it has been affirmed that a comet was visible from February to April, 749, and again in April, 750.3
1 Josephus, Antiq., 17. 6. 4.
a Winer, 2. 523. Trench, Star of the Wise Men, 28. Spanheim, Dubia Evangelica, Pars Secunda.
Those who regard these planetary conjunctions as the star of Matthew, are by no means agreed as to their chronological bearing. Kepler placed the Lord's birth in 748, reckoning from the conjunction of the three planets in the spring of that year, or from the supposed appearance of a new star in the autumn, whilst the two planets were still in the immediate neighborhood of each other. Ideler, rejecting the new star of Kepler and looking only to the conjunctions, puts His birth in 747. Ebrard, though adopting the same date, supposes with Kepler that the star of Matthew was a new star which appeared at the same time. Wieseler makes it to have been the Chinese comet which appeared in 749 and 750, and therefore places His birth early in 750.
It is not consistent with our present purpose to enter into a discussion of the many questions connected with the star of the wise men. The fact that such conjunctions should have taken place so near the time when we know from other sources that the Lord was born, and in that sign Pisces, which, according to the Jewish Rabbi, Abarbanel, who wrote half a century before Kepler,4 was of special significance to the Jews, is in itself remarkable, but leads to no definite chronological results. It is at best doubtful whether any conjunction of planets could answer to the statements of Matthew respecting the star. Ideler's assertion that the two planets were so near together as to appear as one, is denied by Rev. 0. Pritchard.
i Handbuch Chronologie, 2. 406. 2 Ideler, 2. 407.
3 See Wieseler, 69. 4 Amsterdam, 1547.
1 " Mr. Pritchard finds, and his calculations have been verified and confirmed at Greenwich, that this conjunction occurred not on Nov. 12, but early on Dec. 5 ; that even with Ideler's somewhat strange postulate of an observer with weak eyes, the planets could never have appeared as one star, for they never approached each other within double the apparent diameter of the moon." Alford, on the other hand, assuming that, on the last two conjunctions, " the planets were so near that an ordinary eye would regard them as one star of surpassing brightness," proceeds to show how they may have guided the Magi on their journey. " Supposing the Magi to have seen the Jlrst of these conjunctions, they saw it actually * in the East,' for on the 20th May it would rise shortly before the sun. If they then took their journey, and arrived at Jerusalem in a little more than five months, (the journey from Babylon took Ezra four months,) if they performed the route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the evening, as is implied, the November conjunction, in 15° of Pisces, would be before them in the direction of Bethlehem, coming to the meridian about eight o'clock p. M. These circumstances would seem to form a remarkable coincidence with the history in our text." If these observations were well founded, the Lord's birth must be placed in T47. In this result Alexander agrees, (On Matt. ii. 2.) " The concurrence is in this case so remarkable, and the explanation recommended by such high scientific authority, that it would probably have been universally adopted but for the foregone conclusion in the minds of many that the birth of Christ took place in a different year. But that assumption is so doubtful, and the views of the best writers so discordant, that it can scarcely be allowed to decide the question now before us, but may rather be decided by it."
Notwithstanding the weighty names that may be cited in support of this explanation, it must, we think, be admitted that the whole tenor of Matthew's narrative points strongly to some extraordinary luminous appearance in the form of a star, which, having served its purpose of guiding the Magi to Jesus, vanished forever. That the use of aa-rrjp rather than avrpov indicates a single star is apparent.2 But these conjunctions did not appear at any time as a single star, nor can we well apply to them the language which the Evangelist uses of the movements of his star, (ii. 9.)
i See Smith's Bible Diet., 1.1072. * See Meyer.
If this be the correct interpretation of the narrative, it does not, however, exclude the astrological value of these conjunctions. The Magi were students of the heavens, and such remarkable phenomena would naturally attract their observation. Precisely what significance they would ascribe to them we cannot say, but doubtless in their astrology they indicated some remarkable event. Perhaps, also, the meeting of the planets in Pisces turned their attention especially to Syria and Judea. We may thus at least suppose that through the planetary conjunctions their attention was arrested, and they prepared to watch the heavens with deep interest for further signs, and to note the new star so soon as it appeared. How they knew it to be the star of-" the King of the Jews,1' does not here concern us. All this still leaves undetermined the time of the appearing of the star, but indicates that it must have been after the conjunctions, or subsequent to Dec. 747. Yet it was some time before Herod's death in 750.
Many have found a more definite chronological datum in the statement of Matthew (ii. 16) that Herod, after the departure of the Magi, slew all the children of Bethlehem u from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men," (see v. 7.) It is said that the first appearing of the star marked the Saviour's birth; that the command to slay the children "from two years old and under," shows that more than a year had elapsed since its appearing; and that, consequently, He must have been at that time in His second year.1 But this is by no means conclusive. It is not certain that the appearing of the star marked the Saviour's birth. It may have preceded it and marked the Incarnation, which the early church connected with the Annunciation, not with the Nativity. If so, the star may have been seen in 747, yet His birth have been in 748; or the star in 748, and His birth in 749. Nor does the fact that Herod slew all the children from two years and under, give us any exact result. This expression is in itself remarkable, and indicates that two years was the extreme beyond which the king did not think it necessary to go, and that in all probability Jesus was much younger. " This does not imply that Jesus was just two years old at this time, but rather that He was not, as appears from the word under"2 He would be sure that the child should not escape, and therefore enlarged the time, taking in those of greater age than he had any reason to suppose Him to be.
1 So Meyer. * Alexander.
It is plain that he did not learn from the Magi the date of His birth, or any close approximation to it, for if He had just been born, why kill the children of two years, and if He were now more than a year, why kill all of a less age? Thus from this expression we may infer that Jesus was only recently born.1 This is confirmed by the scope of the narrative which implies that the Magi came soon after his birth. If we suppose that the star announcing the Incarnation appeared to the Magi early in 749, and place their visit in the beginning of 750, Herod, ignorant what relation the time of its appearing had to Christ's birth, might well have ordered that all the children of Bethlehem born in 749 and up to this time in 750, should be slain; and this would correspond to the " two years and under " of the Evangelist.
"Whilst, then, we cannot reach any precise chronological results from the visit of the Magi, we may perhaps say that the conjunct tions of the planets define the earliest period at which the Lord's birth can be placed. We thus gain the two termini between which He was born : the planetary conjunctions in 747, and the death of Herod in 750.
Still another datum on which some rely is the existence of general peace throughout the world at the Lord's birth. This peace is supposed to have been foretold by the prophets, and its realization announced by the angels in their song on the night of the nativity, (Luke ii. 14,) " Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." With this is joined the closing of the temple of Janus by Augustus, the sign of peace throughout the Roman Empire. It is known that this temple was twice closed by him, in 725, 729, and probably also a third time, though the year is not certainly determined. " We know no more concerning it than .this: that 744 sub fincm, it was intended to have taken place, but was delayed a little longer by some unimportant commotions among the Daci and Dalmatss."* In the absence of exact information, we can say no more than that there was a period of general tranquillity throughout the Roman world for five or six years, or probably from 746 to 752, during which period the Lord was born. We cannot, without building on conjecture, reach any more exact result.
1 Greswell, 2. 135, would understand by children of two years those of thirteen months only. All older than this were exempt. But this is cloubtr ful, and is unnecessary. Brownej Ordo Sseclorum, 52, explains Herod's order from the fact the star appeared two years before the nativity.
To sum up the results of our inquiries, we find that the birth of the Lord was not later than April, 750, and probably not later than January. The time in this direction is limited by the death of Herod in April of that year, and the events immediately preceding it. On the other hand, if we give to the conjunction of planets in 747, as connected with the visit of the Magi, any chronological value, we cannot put his birth earlier than that year. Again, if Cyrenius was governor of Syria from the autumn of 750-753, we must put it as near as possible to the beginning of his administration. And as He was about thirty years of age at the beginning of His ministry, and the date of His first Passover after its beginning was 780, we reach the year 749. "We have thus to choose between the years 747, 748, 749, and the beginning of 750. The probabilities are in favor of 749, and in our further examinations we shall assume this as the year of His birth.
We add the opinions of some of the leading chronologists and commentators.2 For the year 747, Sanclemente, Wurm, Ideler, Hunter, Sepp, Jarvis, Alford, Patritius, Ebrard; for 748, Kepler; Lardner hesitates between 748 and 749 ; for 749, Petavius, Usher, ISToris, Tillemont, Lichtenstein, Ammer, Friedlieb, Bucher, Browne; for 750, Lamy, Bengel, Wieseler, Greswell, Ellicott. Clinton finds the earliest possible date the autumn of 748, the latest that of 750. The years 751, 752, and 753 have also their supporters, but not among the more recent writers, with one or two exceptions.
We proceed to inquire in what part of the year the Lord was born. The only direct datum wrhich the Gospels give us, is found in the statement of Luke, (i. 5,) that Zacharias " was of the course of Abia." It is known that the priests were divided into twenty
1 Greswell, 1.469. See Patritius, iii. 165. According to Sepp and Browne, it was closed from 746-752; to Ammer and Greswell from 748 or 749-752 or 753; to Jarvis from 746-758. Wieseler makes the order to shut it to have issued in 743, but its execution to have been delayed till 752.
2 See Friedlieb, Leben Jesu, 91; Wieseler, 485.
four classes, each of which officiated at the temple in its turn for a week.1 This order, originally established by David, was broken up by the captivity. The four classes that returned from Babylon were divided anew by Ezra into twenty-four, to which the old names were given. Another interruption was made by the invasion of Antiochus, but the old order was restored by the Maccabees. Of these courses that of Jehoiarib was the first, that of Abia the eighth. We need therefore only to know a definite time at which any one of the courses was officiating to be able to trace the succession. Such a datum we find in the Talmudical statements, sup* ported by Josephus,2 that at the destruction of the temple by Titus on the 5th August, 823, the first class had just entered on its course. Its period of service was from the evening of the 4th August, which was the sabbath, to the evening of the following sabbath, on the 11th August. We can now easily compute "backward, and ascertain at what time in any given year each class was officiating.
If now we take the year 749 as the probable year of Christ's birth, the appearance of the angel to Zacharias announcing John's birth must be placed in 748. In this year we find by computation that the course of Abia, or the eighth course, officiated during the weeks from the 17-23 April and again from the 3-9 October.3 At each of these periods, therefore, was Zacharias at Jerusalem. If the annunciation of the angel was made to him during the former, the birth of John may be placed near the beginning of 749, and the Lord's birth about six months later, or near the middle of 749 ; if the annunciation was made during the latter, John's birth was near the middle of 749, and the Lord's birth near its end.
The fact that we do not know how soon after the completion of the ministry of Zacharias the conception of John is to be placed, prevents any very exact statement of dates. Luke (i. 24) uses only the general expression " after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived." Yet the tenor of the narrative leads us to believe that it was soon after his return to his home, and may be placed in either of the months April or October. Counting onward fifteen months we reach June and December, in one of which the Lord's birth is thus to be placed.
i 1 Chron., 24. 1-19; Lightfoot, 9. 44. a War, 6. 4. 5.
3 So Wieseler, 143; Licht., 76; Friedlieb, 80; Browne, 35. Greswell, I. 434, Sept. 30—Oct. 7.
In choosing between these periods, some weight is to be given to the statement of Luke (ii. 8) that in the night when the Lord was born, shepherds were in the field keeping watch over their flock. Does not this rather point to the summer, than to the winter, to June than to December ? To answer this we must make some inquiries respecting the climate of Judea. Travellers in Palestine differ widely in their meteorological accounts, nor is this to be wondered at, as the seasons vary greatly in different years, and each traveller can speak only of what falls under his own personal observation. Instead, therefore, of trying to reach some general conclusions from such isolated accounts, we shall take the statements of those who, having resided some time in Jerusalem, give ms the results of their observations for several successive years. And we select as authorities Schwartz1 and Barclay.3
The year is divided into two seasons, summer and winter, or the dry and the wet. The winter rains begin to fall in the latter part of October or beginning of [November. The most rainy month is February. During the months of December, January, February, and March, there is no entire cessation of rain for any long interval; " yet an interregnum of several weeks1 dry weather generally occurs between the middle of December and the middle of February, somewhat distinguishing the former rains of the season from the latter." 3 " The average monthly temperature during four years from 1851 was, for November, 63° 8'; December, 54° 5'; January, 49° 4' ; February, 54° 4'; March, 55° V."4 " The temperature of Palestine averages during the winter 50° to 53J°."5 Of the month of December, the following account is given : " The earth fully clothed with rich verdure. Wheat and barley still sown, also various kinds of pulse. Sugar-cane in market. Cauliflowers, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, lentiles, &c. Ploughing still continues at intervals." 6 " Temperature same as preceding month. The sowing of grain in the field has already commenced. Although the oranges and kindred fruit have been long since ripe, they continue to mature on the trees till toward April and May."7
1 Descriptive Geography of Palestine, 325-331.
* City of the Great King, 414-429.
3 Barclay. 4 Barclay. s Schwartz. « Barclay. 7 Schwartz.
January is the coldest part of the year, and fires are used by the Frank population, though little by the natives, and snow and ice are occasionally seen.
These statements are confirmed in general by the highest authorities.1 Although they may have in part more special reference to Jerusalem, they apply equally well to Bethlehem, the climate of which is not unlike that of Jerusalem, though milder.2 There seems then, so far as climate is concerned, no good ground to affirm, that shepherds could not have been pasturing their flocks in the field during the month of December. As we have seen, Barclay states that in this month the earth is fully clothed with rich verdure, and that there is generally an interval of dry weather between the middle of December and the middle of February. Schubert3 says that the period about Christmas is often one of the loveliest periods of the whole year. Tobler says, the weather about Christmas is favorable to the feeding of flocks, and often most beautiful. " On the 27th December, 1845, we had very agreeable weather." 4 It is during this month that the wind begins to blow from the south or southwest, which, according to Schwartz, " brings rain and betokens warm weather," and thus hastens forward vegetation.
Unless, then, the climate of Judea has become in the lapse of years much warmer than of old, the flocks may have been feeding in the fields of Bethlehem in the month of December. But according to Arago,5 there has been no important change for the last three thousand three hundred years. Nor do the incidental notices of Scripture conflict with this. The Lord's words, " Pray that your flight be not in the winter," are easily understood when we remember that winter is the rainy season, and most unfavorable for journeying. That a fire was made at a much later period of the year, (John xviii. 18,) is- plainly an exceptional case, and for this reason mentioned. u Strong, and at times cold winds prevail in April." 6
There remains to be noticed a saying of the Talmudists, that the flocks were taken to the fields in March and brought home in November. But this had reference to those pastures that were found in the wilderness far away from the cities or villages, and were resorted to by the shepherds during the summer months. " The spring coming on, they drove their beasts into wildernesses, or champaign grounds, where they fed them the whole summer. The winter coming on, they betook themselves home again with the flocks and herds." l That the flock was near Bethlehem would therefore show, that this was a winter rather than a summer month; and the autumnal rains beginning to fall in November, there would soon be abundance of grass. The inference drawn by many2 that, the flock being kept through the night in the fields, it could not have been so late in the year as December, is without basis. How generally during the winter months the cattle were stalled,, we cannot tell, but doubtless in this the shepherds were governed by the peculiar character of the season.
i Winer, 2. 691; Rauiner, 77; Robinson, 2.428; Tobler, Denkbliitter, 3, &c.
*' Tobler, Bethlehem. 3 Quoted by Wieseler, 148.
* So Ritter, Theil 16. 480. * In Winer, 2. 692. « Schwartz.
If, then, we have to choose between the months of December and June, the balance of probabilities is in favor of the former. As the spring rains cease in April, the whole country soon becomes dry and barren. Of May, Barclay (423) remarks: " Vegetation having attained its maximum, now begins rapidly to decline for want of rain ; " and of June, " Herbage becoming parched, the nomad Arabs begin to move northward with their flocks."
As the early tradition of the Church designated this month as the time of the Lord's birth, it has been generally accepted, but not universally. Lightfoot makes it to have been in September, Kewcome in October, Paulus in March, Wieseler in February, Lichtenstein in June, Greswell in April, Clinton in spring, Lardner and Robinson in autumn, Strong in August.
If we accept the month of December, the day of the month still remains undetermined. If we place the ministry of Zacharias in Jerusalem from the 2d to 9th Oct. 748, and the conception of John soon after, the sixth month of Elisabeth (Luke i. 36) would extend from the middle of March to the middle of April. During this period was the annunciation to Mary, and the Lord's birth must then be placed between the middle of December, 749, and the middle of January, 750. A more definite result we cannot reach, except we receive the traditional date of the 25th of December. The origin and value of this tradition we proceed to consider.
1 Lightfoot on Luke ii. 8. 2 So A. Clarke, Greswell.
It is now generally granted that the day of the nativity was not observed as a feast in any part of the Church, east or west, till some time in the fourth century.1 If any day had been earlier fixed upon as the Lord's birthday, it was not commemorated by any religious rites, nor is it mentioned by any writers. The observance of the 25th December is ascribed to Julius, Bishop of Rome, A. D. 337-352. It is mentioned as observed under his successor Liberius, A. D. 352-366. In the Eastern Church till this time, the 6th January had been observed as the day of the Lord's baptism, and had been regarded also as the day of His birth, it being inferred from Luke iii. 23, that He was just thirty when baptized. It was only by degrees that a distinction began to be made between the date of His birth and that of His baptism, and that each began to be observed upon different days. Chrysostom2 states that it was only within ten years that the 25th December had been made known to them by the Western Church as the day of His nativity, but asserts that through the public records of the taxing (Luke ii. 1-4) preserved at Rome it had long been known to the Christians of that city. From this time, about the end of the fourth century, this day was commemorated as the birthdav both in the east and west.
Thus we have in favor of the 25th December, the fact that the Eastern Churches were induced to adopt it, and to transfer to it the feast which they had before observed upon the 6th of January. We can scarce think this done without some good chronological grounds, real or supposed. But we do not know what these grounds were. Some3 ascribe great importance to the statements of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Chrysostom, that in the public archives at Rome a registry existed of the census under Augustus, by which the Lord's birthday was conclusively established. Jarvis supposes Tertullian to give the very words of the enrolment as he found them in the Roman archives, in which Mary is mentioned as the mother of Jesus—Maria ex qua nascitur Christus. Thus the day being proved by the register at Kome, the knowledge of it gradually spread to the Eastern Churches. But most chronologists have regarded these statements as of little value.1
1 So Clinton. " Not only was the day unknown, but for 300 years after the ascension no day was set apart for the commemoration of the birth of Christ."
a Antioch, A. D. 386. 3 So Jarvis, 370 and 537.
The fact that the tradition, which placed the Lord's birth on the 25th December, also placed the birth of John Baptist on the 24th June preceding, the annunciation to the virgin on the 25th March, and day of Elisabeth's conception on the 24th September, or on the four cardinal points of the year, has led many to suppose that these periods were selected with reference to their astronomical significance, rather than as the real dates of these events. It strengthens this supposition that so many of the Christian festivals were placed upon days remarkable in the Julian calendar. Noting these facts, Sir Isaac Newton2 inferred that " these days were fixed in the first Christian calendars by mathematicians at pleasure, without regard to tradition, and that the Christians afterward took up what they found in the calendars." More probable is the supposition that these dates were in part selected as the times of Christian feasts, in order to serve as a counterpoise to the corresponding heathen festivals, and in part because of their typical meaning. It does not appear that the feast of the nativity can be directly connected with any heathen festival, for the connection between this day and the dies natalis solis invicti, cannot be proved; but as the winter solstice its bearings are often typically interpreted by the fathers.3 Thus the words of John Baptist spoken of Christ, (John iii. 30) " He must increase but I must decrease," are applied to the fact that, at John's birth in June 24th, or the summer solstice, the days began to decrease in length, but at Christ's birth, December 25th, the days began to increase. Thus Augustine4: Hodie natus est Johannes, quo incipiunt decrescere dies—eo die natns Christus, quo crescere.
"Whilst such typical applications naturally tend to beget doubts whether the dates so connected with the great astronomical epochs of the year have any historic foundation, yet on the other hand it should be borne in mind that if the 25th December were actually the Lord's birthday, the events preceding it, the conception of John, the annunciation to Mary, and the birth of John, must have taken place nearly at the times which tradition has assigned.
1 See Kingsley in New Englander, April, 1847, who says that they are not referred to by Baronius, or Pagi, or Causabon, or relied on by Usher or Newcome.
2 Observations upon Daniel and Apoc.
3 Sepp, 1. 200. 4 Homil.,3.
The strongest argument against the 25 th December, if the birth be put in 749, is that it leaves too little space for the events that occurred before Herod's death. This death was about the 1st of April, 750; we thus have a little more than three months. In this period were the visit of the Magi, the presentation at the Temple, the flight into Egypt, and sojourn there. If, according to general tradition, the Magi came on the 6th January or 13th day after the Lord's birth, and the presentation was on the 40th, or early in February, He went down into Egypt about two months before Herod's death. Those who put the flight into Egypt immediately after the coming of the Magi, on the 6th January, and, the presentation upon the return after Herod's death, gain another month. If, however, we follow the order of most modern harmonists, and put the visit of the Magi after the presentation on the 40th day, the time of the sojourn in Egypt up to Herod's death was a little less than two months.
Those Who put the Lord's birth in 748 or 747, make the period spent in Egypt much longer—some three years, some two, some one, some six months. Those who put the birth later than the 25th December, 749, and Herod's death in April, 750, make the sojourn but three to four weeks, or less; Wieseler and Ellicott only about a fortnight. There is nothing in Matthew's narration, or the circumstances of the case, that makes it probable He was there more than a few weeks. There does not, therefore, appear any good reason why all the events he narrates may not have taken place between the 25th December and the following 1st of April.
Our inquiries lead us, then, to these general results. We find it most probable that the Lord was born near the end of the year 749. At this period all the chronological statements of the Evangelists seem most readily to centre and harmonize. In favor of December, the last month of that year, as much may be said as in favor of any other, and this aside from the testimony of tradition. As to the day, little that is definite can be said. The 25th of this month lies open to the suspicion of being selected on other than historic grounds, yet it is not inconsistent with any data we have, and has the voice of tradition in its favor. Still, in regard to all these conclusions, it must be remembered that many elements of uncertainty enter into the computations, and that any positive statements are impossible. It is well said by Spanheim: Bed cum hac de re altum apud Evangelistas sit silentium, nee Apostolim Ecclesw ml sanctionem, vel praxin legamuSj causce nihil est, cur temere definiamus quod solide definiri non potest.