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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE TO CHAPTER II. THE YEAR OF CHRIST'S BIRTH.

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The Christian era commences on the 1st of January of the year 754 of the city of Rome. That our Lord was born about the time stated in the text may appear from the following considerations --

The visit of the wise men to Bethlehem must have taken place a very few days after the birth of Jesus, and before His presentation in the temple. Bethlehem was not the stated residence of Joseph and Mary, either before or after the birth of the child (Luke i.26, ii.4, 39; Matt. ii.2). They were obliged to repair to the place on account of the taxing, and immediately after the presentation in the temple, they returned to Nazareth and dwelt there (Luke ii.39). Had the visit of the wise men occurred, as some think, six, or twelve, or eighteen months after the birth, the question of Herod to |the chief priests and scribes of the people| where |Christ should be born| -- would have been quite vain, as the infant might have been removed long before to another part of the country. The wise men manifestly expected to see a newly born infant, and hence they asked -- |where is he that is born King of the Jews?| (Matt. ii.2.) The evangelist also states expressly that they came to Jerusalem |when Jesus was born| (Matt. ii.1). At a subsequent period they would have found the Holy Child, not at Bethlehem, but at Nazareth.

The only plausible objection to this view of the matter is derived from the statement that Herod |sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men| (Matt. ii.16). The king had ascertained from these sages |what time the star appeared| (Matt. ii.7), and they seem to have informed him that it had been visible a year before. A Jewish child was said to be two years old when it had entered on its second year (see Greswell's |Dissertations,| vol. ii.136); and, to make sure of his prey, Herod murdered all the infants in Bethlehem and the neighbourhood under the age of thirteen months. The wise men had not told him that the child was a year old -- it was obvious that they thought very differently -- but the tyrant butchered all who came, within the range of suspicion. It is highly probable that the star announced the appearance of the Messiah twelve months before he was born. Such an intimation was given of the birth of Isaac, who was a remarkable type of Christ (Gen. xvii.21). See also 2 Kings iv.16, and Dan. iv.29, 33.

The presentation of the infant in the temple occurred after the death of Herod. This follows as a corollary from what has been already advanced, for if the wise men visited Bethlehem immediately after the birth, and if the child was then hurried away to Egypt, the presentation could not have taken place earlier. The ceremony was performed forty days after the birth (Luke ii.22, and Lev. xii.2, 3, 4), and as the flight and the return might both have been accomplished in eight or ten days, there was ample time for a sojourn of at least two or three weeks in that part of Egypt which was nearest to Palestine. Herod died during this brief exile, and yet his demise happened so soon before the departure of the holy family on their way home, that the intelligence had not meanwhile reached Joseph by the voice of ordinary fame; and until his arrival in the land of Israel, he did not even know that Archelaus reigned in Judea (Matt. ii.22). He seems to have inferred from the dream that the dynasty of the Herodian family had been completely subverted, so that when he heard of the succession of Archelaus |he was afraid| to enter his territory; but, at this juncture, being |counselled of God| in another dream, he took courage, proceeded on his journey, and, after the presentation in the temple, |returned into the parts of Galilee.|

That the presentation in the temple took place after the death of Herod is further manifest from the fact that the babe remained uninjured, though his appearance in the sacred courts awakened uncommon interest, and though Anna |spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem| (Luke ii.38). Herod had his spies in all quarters, and had he been yet living, the intelligence of the presentation and of its extraordinary accompaniments, would have soon reached his ears, and he would have made some fresh attempt upon the life of the infant. But when the babe was actually brought to the temple, the tyrant was no more. Jerusalem was in a state of great political excitement, and Archelaus had, perhaps, already set sail for Rome to secure from the emperor the confirmation of his title to the kingdom (see Josephus' Antiq. xvii. c.9), so that it is not strange if the declarations of Simeon and Anna did not attract any notice on the part of the existing rulers.

Assuming, then, that Christ was born a very short time before the death of Herod, we have now to ascertain the date of the demise of that monarch. Josephus states (Antiq. xiv.14, Sec.5) that Herod was made king by the Roman Senate in the 184th Olympiad, when Calvinus and Pollio were consuls, that is, in the year of Rome 714; and that he reigned thirty-seven years (Antiq. xvii.8, Sec.1). We may infer, therefore, that his reign terminated in the year 751 of the city of Rome. He died shortly before the passover; his disease seems to have been of a very lingering character; and he appears to have languished under it upwards of a year (Josephus' Antiq. xvii.6, Sec.4, 5, and xvii.9, Sec.2, 3). The passover of 751 fell on the 31st of March (see Greswell's |Dissertations,| vol. i. p.331), and as our Lord was in all likelihood born early in the month, the Jewish king probably ended his days a week or two afterwards, or about the time of the vernal equinox. According to this computation the conception took place exactly at the feast of Pentecost, which fell, in 750, on the 31st of May.

This view is corroborated by Luke iii.1, where it is said that the word of God came to John the Baptist |in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.| John's ministry had continued only a short time when he was imprisoned, and then Jesus |began to be about thirty years of age| (Luke iii.23). Augustus died in August 767, and this year 767, according to a mode of reckoning then in use (see Hales' |Chronology,| i.49, 171, and Luke xxiv.21), was the first year of his successor Tiberius. The fifteenth year of Tiberius, according to the same mode of calculation, commenced on the 1st of January 781 of the city of Rome, and terminated on the 1st of January 782. If then our Lord was born about the 1st of March 751 of Rome, and if the Baptist was imprisoned early in 781, it could be said with perfect propriety that Jesus then |began to be about thirty years of age.| This view is further confirmed by the fact that Quirinius, or Cyrenius, mentioned Luke ii.2, was first governor of Syria from the close of the year 750 of Rome to 753. (See Merivale, iv. p.457, note.) Our Lord was born under his administration, and according to the date we have assigned to the nativity, the |taxing| at Bethlehem must have taken place a few months after Cyrenius entered into office.

This view of the date of the birth of Christ, which differs somewhat from that of any writer with whom I am acquainted, appears to meet all the difficulties connected with this much-disputed question. It is based partly upon the principle, so ingeniously advocated by Whiston in his |Chronology,| that the flight into Egypt took place before the presentation in the temple. I have never yet met with any antagonist of that hypothesis who was able to give a satisfactory explanation of the text on which it rests. Some other dates assigned for the birth of Christ are quite inadmissible. In Judea shepherds could not have been found |abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night| (Luke ii.8) in November, December, January, or, perhaps, February; but in March, and especially in a mild season, such a thing appears to have been quite common. (See Greswell's |Dissertations,| vol. i. p.391, and Robinson's |Biblical Researches,| vol ii. p.97, 98.) Hippolytus, one of the earliest Christian writers who touches on the subject, indicates that our Lord was born about the time of the passover. (See Greswell, i.461, 462.)

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