The visitation of the shepherds at Jesus birth on December 25th, 5 BC speaks of a rural environment (Luke 2:8-20). The scene is a small village of no more than 100 buildings. The next events that occurred were the circumcision of Jesus eight days later on January 2nd, 4 BC and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple 41 days later on February 2nd.
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:21-24).
Note that rhere are three significant time gaps in Luke’s record in chapter 2.
Time Gap #1
Although verses 21 and 22 appear to speak of the same event, there is over a month separating the two. According to the law of Moses, a woman is unclean for seven days after the birth of a male child. On the eighth day the child is circumcised and the mother continues her purification for thirty-three additional days, or forty days total. On the forty-first day the child is to be presented at the Temple with a sin offering.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled’” (Leviticus 12:1-4).
Did Joseph and Mary travel back to Nazareth after the birth of Jesus only to return 33 days later? During Mary’s 40 days of ceremonial uncleanness, this would not have been likely. They would have stayed in Bethlehem. At this point, King Herod was not aware of the birth of a “King of the Jews” in Bethlehem. However, there were messianic prophecies given about Jesus in the Temple by Anna and Simeon (Luke 2:25-38). This occurred in a public setting and it is likely that the news of the birth of the messiah quickly spread. This was just a part of a larger atmosphere of expectation among the Jews that resulted in several messianic insurrections against King Herod and the Roman occupation of Judea during these early months of 4 BC, which are also recounted by the Jewish historian Josephus.
Time Gap #2
Then Luke has his second gap in the chronology. This time it is several months. If we read Luke’s account in isolation from Matthew, it is easy to get the impression that the family returned immediately to Nazareth.
So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. (Luke 2:39,40).
At this point, the Bible cynics see a contradiction in the accounts. The Gospel of Matthew has the family returning to Nazareth after the death of Herod. But nowhere does Luke say that the family returned immediately to Nazareth.
Time Gap #3
The structure of this passage has yet another gap right after this with an account unique to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is found after the Passover Feast in the Temple at age 12 (vv. 41-51). This would have been in 9 AD. Luke is not attempting to give a strict chronology of each event, but is concerned that his audience understands that the events he describes at Jesus’ birth occurred in accordance with the Law of Moses.
It may seem odd to modern readers to see Luke overly concerned that his mainly Gentile audience understand the nuances of Hebrew Law. However, Luke also understands the skepticism of the Greek mindset and culture, which incidently is similar to our skeptical culture of today. He understands that this is an audience who would want to hear from one who had investigated carefully in order to have “perfect understanding of all things from the very first … that you may know the certainty of those things” (Luke 1:3).
Luke therefore wanted his audience to believe and understand his account, not only because he had spoken to eyewitnesses, but also because Joseph and Mary were required to do these things in fulfillment of the Hebrew Law. Not only did Joseph and Mary do these things, but they absolutely must have done them. If we will investigate the Law further, we will see that Luke’s account is true.
According to the Law, a man could not work for an entire year after marriage. Jewish men were usually 30 years old by the time they had saved enough money to pay for this sabbatical. Understanding this, it becomes clear that after the marriage of Joseph and Mary in the summer of 5 BC, Joseph probably planned to spend six months to a year in Bethlehem, where both he and Mary likely had relatives. They would have used the savings to enjoy their first year of marriage among family and friends. They would have participated in the required feasts and returned home after Pentecost had they not been interrupted by a visit from several “wise men from the East.” In short, Joseph is on a one-year sabbatical and Passover is little more than two months away. Therefore, we can conclude that their stay in Bethlehem continued until the visit from the wise men or “magi.” This is borne out by Matthew 2:11.
And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Contrary to popular conception, this event took place several months after Jesus was born. Note that the passage says the wise men, or magi, came to a “house” and not a “manger.” Luke and Matthew are relating different events taking place several months apart.
If we were to pinpoint the exact date of the magi visitation, two astronomical events occurring in the winter and spring of 4 BC are notable. The first is a partial lunar eclipse that Joseph records in connection with Herod’s slaughter of some Jewish rebels who were burned alive.
But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon (Antiquities 17:6:4).
This is the only eclipse of the moon or sun recorded in all of Josephus’ writings. It is extremely useful because Josephus writes that the eclipse occurred shortly before Passover and Herod dies shortly after this time. It is also implied that this was a bad omen for Herod since his death occurs in the next chapter. In Hebrew cosmology, a comet, an eclipse of the sun or moon, falling of the stars from heaven, or the appearance of a new star in the heavens symbolizes the overthrow of a king or a kingdom. The partial lunar eclipse that preceded Herod’s death is thought to be the one that occurred on March 13th, 4 BC.
The “star” (Greek: aster) the magi saw was almost certainly not the lunar eclipse. However, ancient Chinese astronomers recorded that a supernova occurred later that month on March 25th. Some have suggested that this was the star seen by the magi. There are many different hypotheses about the “Star of Bethlehem” so named because according to Matthew 2:9:
… the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.
This movement to stand directly over the place where Jesus was seems to denote a supernatural element. I personally don’t think the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova, planetary conjunction or a comet. Those explanations satisfy the naturalistic investigator, but they violate the intent of the author, which is to point to a supernatural miracle. In any case, people will continue to speculate about this for years to come.
Matthew, unlike Luke, is writing to a Jewish audience. His primary concern is that they understand that Jesus’ birth is a miraculous event and that it fulfills several messianic prophecies from the Law, Prophets and Writings — or the Tanakh.
At some point after the magi arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in a dream to escape to Egypt. It is likely that this refers to the Sinai desert. It’s possible that the family stayed again in tents camping out once again for a few weeks or a month until the death of Herod.
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:19-23).
This was probably in the summer of 4 BC at which time Joseph resumed work after his one year Sabbatical.
A Nativity Timeline
Here is the timeline for the nativity based on the historical data above:
Fall 6 BC — John the Baptist is conceived a few days after the Day of Atonement.
Spring 5 BC — Jesus is conceived six months later in Nazareth.
Spring to Summer of 5 BC — Mary, newly pregnant with Jesus, travels to the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth who is six months pregnant, and stays with her for three months.
Summer 5 BC — John the Baptist is born.
Summer 5 BC — Mary leaves Elizabeth and goes back to Nazareth.
Summer 5 BC — Mary is in Nazareth for at least two months; Joseph is told in a dream about Jesus and marries her.
September 10-29, 5 BC — Joseph and Mary are in Jerusalem for the autumn feasts — the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement — a requirement for all Jews.
Fall 5 BC — According to Josephus, various tumults against Herod occur among the sect of the Pharisees; the census for Augustus’ upcoming Silver Jubilee begins; over 6000 Pharisees refuse to swear the oath of allegiance to Augustus; insurrections against Herod continue into the spring of 4 BC.
Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to register in the census as required by law.
Late 5 or early 4 BC — Jesus is born in Bethlehem in a “manger.”
Early 5 BC — Jesus is presented in the Temple at Jerusalem 41 days after his birth as required by the Law of Moses.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Bethlehem this time staying at a “house.”
Herod hears the news of the birth of the messiah from the Magi.
The visitation of the Magi in Bethlehem.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape to Egypt.
The Massacre of the Innocents.
Spring 4 BC — Herod dies.
Quintilius Varus of Syria takes over the jurisdiction of Judea.
He quells an uprising around the time of the feast of Pentecost crucifying 2000 Jews in the process.
Quintilius Varus’ jurisdiction over Syria ends in 4 BC when he is recalled to Rome.
Herod Archaelus takes rulership of Judea.
Quirinius remains in the east as a military governor over Galatia, Cilicia, Syria.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Nazareth.
Fall 3 BC — Men in Spain, Paphlagonia, Armenia and other regions are required to swear an oath of allegiance to Augustus.
Former governors of Syria, Saturnius and Varus, are in Rome for the Jubilee in 3 BC.
February 5th, 2 BC — The Silver Jubilee ceremony honoring Augustus Caesar’s 25th year in office.
Thus the oath of allegiance is completed during the administration of Quirinius as Luke writes:
This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria (Luke 2:2).
Some skeptics doubt that Quirinius could have been a governor of Syria around the time of Jesus birth. There is the need to explain who was governing Syria during Augustus’ Jubilee since no historian except Luke records this. We know only that Qurinius was a military governor in Cilicia, the province next to Syria. Varus handled the Jewish revolt poorly. This makes it plausible that Quirinius assumed military jurisdiction of Syria as the only capable commander in the region after Varus was recalled to Rome.
We should also note that Luke does not write specifically that Jesus was born when Quirinius was governing Syria, but merely that the registration took place then. If the registration ended in 4 BC, then Luke may have chosen Quirinius over Varus as a time marker. Luke’s primary audience in Asia Minor would have known Quirinius as a famous military hero who put down revolts in the eastern provinces of Asia Minor in Cilicia, a region on the border of Syria. Varus was a comparitively minor figure among the Greeks of Asia Minor and therefore Luke chose not to mention him.
Logical Fallacies of the Cynics and Skeptics
The difference between a skeptic and a cynic is the ability to consider plausible answers to questions critically. A skeptic eventually draws conclusions with proofs based on likelihood and plausibility. However, a cynic continues to question all likelihood and plausibility attacking every case that can be made. All people, including Christians, ought to look at popular Bible interpretations critically and skeptically. But we should not fall prey to unyielding cynicism. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
The easiest short cut to becoming known as an intellectual is to question everything and appear to be an iconoclast. The problem is that cynics do little real thinking of their own and have little to offer true intellectual advancement. Further, they are often the most uncritical of thinkers, which is ironic because they assume that casting doubt on everything is the same thing as being a critical thinker.
There are many logical fallacies that Bible cynics often engage in. Apparently, they are blind to them. I list a few examples here for the benefit of those who are able to think critically. Hopefully, those with their eyes wide open will be able to identify these fallacies when they crop up:
1. The argument from silence – Assuming that if a biblical writer is the only historian to mention an event, then it could never have happened.
2. Prejudice favoring pagan history – Assuming that if a pagan historian contradicts a biblical writer, then the biblical writer is always wrong and the pagan is right.
3. Generalizing in modern terms – Assuming that ancient chronologies and histories are uniform with each other and with our modern calendar system.
4. The bandwagon fallacy – This fallacy is easily identifiable as beginning with the phrase, “Almost all modern scholars agree …” with something that contradicts the view of historic orthodox Christianity.
5. Prejudice against the simplest answer – Assuming the most difficult interpretation of a biblical text out of several possible solutions that would result the most egregious attack on the traditional Christian viewpoint.
6. Condescension and ad hominem – Assuming that the “uneducated” Christian simply needs to become as enlightened as the cynic who doubts everything.
Cynics have a difficulty with the chronology of Jesus birth. However, their difficulty is not with biblical texts contradicting each other. Rather it is a difficulty caused by their own logical fallacies. Luke’s account and Matthew’s account were most likely written independently, and yet one account can be harmonized with the other account filling in the gaps and answering questions of the modern reader. As we reconcile two Nativity Gospels with Old Testament Law requirement and other historical accounts, we find they have the credibility and realism of true historical accounts.