Sunday, 23 December 2007

Getting the facts of Christmas sorted

Given the season it may be a good time to summarise the chronology and other details of the incarnation.

Joseph was engaged to Mary and they both dwelt in Nazareth. Nazareth was a small town in Galilee. Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel when her cousin Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. Knowing when Elizabeth's husband Zechariah was serving in Jerusalem may give us some clues to the month of Jesus' conception and birth. Zechariah was a priest of the division of Abijah (compare Luke 1 with 1 Chronicles 24).

Joseph intended to divorce Mary when he learnt of her pregnancy; quietly so as not to shame her. Divorce is not the term we would use for breaking an engagement but a betrothal in Israel 2000 years ago was a strong commitment and divorce (apoluo) would be the single term used in both situations (unlike English which has more terms). This is not saying that betrothal is the same as marriage, sex was forbidden until after the wedding.

An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and informed him of the situation and Joseph then married Mary. He did not have sex with her until after Jesus was born. Mary had already conceived Jesus so the activity would not have made Joseph the biological father, but abstaining presumably honoured God in the situation. So Jesus was conceived when Mary was betrothed and born after Mary was married, but still a virgin.

The genealogy given in Matthew is that of Joseph. The genealogy in Luke is that of Mary. Heli was likely Mary's father. Luke 3 states:
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli,...
Some have considered Heli the adoptive father of Joseph if Heli had no sons of his own, though I believe the passage may be acceptably translated as:
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son, as it was supposed, of Joseph, but was actually the son of Heli,...
Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that a registration was to be performed. The time frame for this is uncertain. What is known is that Quirinius was governor of Syria. The registration is frequently referred to as a census, presumably for taxation purposes. However Luke does not say that it is a tax census, he specifies they were registered (apographo) for a registration (apographe). Dating Jesus birth has proven difficult, for several reasons, not the least historically identifying the tax census that occurred during Jesus birth. However if the registration was not for taxation then the range of possible dates is potentially expanded. Some have suggested in was a registration to make a proclamation about Caesar Augustus. Ernest Martin suggests that the title Pater Patriae (father of the Fatherland) was bestowed on Augustus about this time and the registration was for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire to swear an oath of obedience to the Emperor.

Joseph with his new bride went from Nazareth to Bethlehem because he was descended from David whose home town was Bethlehem. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels appeared to the shepherds that night and they visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus. There is some evidence to suggest that Jesus may have been born in autumn, perhaps in the month of Tishri which corresponds to about September. I think it likely that Jesus was born about 2 or 3 BC.

8 days later Jesus was circumcised according to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12). Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the temple at Jerusalem 40 days after he was born and a sacrifice of doves was offered. Leviticus states that a lamb is to be offered but a pigeon is acceptable for the poorer Israelites. Joseph and Mary were therefore poor.

Some time after this while Joseph and Mary were still in Bethlehem the Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem. We are not told the number who came. That 3 are depicted may relate to the number of gifts. The Magi were from the region of Persia and were interested in, amongst other things, astrology. They interpreted the skies as pointing to the birth of the king of the Jews. Much speculation has been made on what the star was. Matthew quotes the Magi saying,
Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.
and he further comments,
the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matthew 2)
It is likely that the star was a conjunction between planets or planets and stars. The best suggestion is that of Martin who mentions several astronomical events of significance including Jupiter stopping (at the time of its retrogression). The Magi had an audience with Herod in Jerusalem and were informed by the priests and scribes that the king was to be born in Bethlehem based on Micah's prophecy. When Jupiter stopped in the sky (for 6 days) its position was over Bethlehem as viewed from Jerusalem. The date was December 25, 2 BC. Jupiter was in the constellation of Virgo.

This was probably not the time of Jesus' birth sometime later. Jesus was a young child (paidion), though that word probably does not aid us as to exactly how old Jesus was. Herod ordered the massacre of children under the age of 2 in his attempt to kill Jesus. Herod choose this age in accordance with the time he ascertained from the wise men. If Jesus was born in 3 BC he would have been approximately 15 months old; if in 2 BC, 3 months. Joseph had previously been warned by an angel to depart and they were already in Egypt. On Herod's death an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream for the third time and Joseph returned with Mary and Jesus to his home town of Nazareth. Herod probably died in early 1 BC, only some weeks or months after the Magi's visit.

Flash presentation of astronomical events near the time of Jesus' birth.

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