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The Daniel 9:24-27 Project

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Know therefore and understand,
That
from the going forth of the command
To restore and build Jerusalem
Until Messiah the Prince,
There shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks;
The street shall be built again, and the wall,
Even in troublesome times.

– Daniel 9:25, NKJV

Scriptural Support for the Decree of Daniel 9:25

This article in the series of studies on Daniel 9:24–27 was essentially completed prior to the most recently published piece on the ABR website, “Did Ezra Come to Jerusalem in 457 BC?” (https://biblearchaeology.org/abr-projects-main/the-daniel-9-24-27-project-2/4549-did-ezra-come-to-jerusalem-in-457-bc). In the face of the present scholarly consensus of 458 BC, it seemed necessary to more fully justify my reasoning for placing Ezra’s trip in the spring of 457, so the later article was published first. With that done, the 457 BC date will be regarded as established. We will now move on to an examination of how the sabbatical year cycles tie in with how the Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9 should be interpreted.

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Identifying the Pattern of Post-exilic Sabbatical Year Cycles

In Part 1 of this article, we saw that the arrival of Ezra in 457 BC, when tied in with the public reading of the Law in 444 BC, is a strong indication that the starting point for counting sabbatical year cycles in the post-exilic period was Tishri 1, 457 BC. Further evidence that it is the correct one is seen in that it yields a sabbatical year cycle that precisely matches up with the scholarly consensus, first elucidated by Benedict Zuckermann and reaffirmed by numerous others over the years. We discussed this issue in detail in the earlier article, “The First Year of Herod the Great’s Reign,” so here we will examine just a few events connected with sabbatical years to confirm it.

The Siege of Beth-Zur

Pickle

Bob Pickle published two online articles, “When Were the Sabbatical Years?” (http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years.htm) and “Which Years Were the Sabbatical Years?” (http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm), where he takes the points deemed strongest for Wacholder’s case, compares them with how Zuckermann treats them, and concludes that Zuckermann’s approach carries the day. He writes about the siege of Beth-Zur at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years.htm#3:

only a 163 BC siege can be simultaneously dated in both the 149th and 150th years. 1 Maccabees’s [6:20] date of the 150th year therefore must use a Seleucid Era that begins in either the fall of 313 or the spring of 312, while 2 Maccabees’s [13:1] date of the 149th year must use a Seleucid Era that begins in either the fall of 312 or the spring of 311. We must conclude, therefore, that the only way to harmonize the two accounts as they read is to date the siege in 163 BC, which then supports Zuckermann’s sabbatical dates (brackets added; see also the further discussion at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#3.)

His conclusion is that the sabbatical year for the siege of Beth-Zur should be placed in 164/163 BC.

Goldstein

In the Notes following his Anchor Yale Bible Commentary section on 1 Maccabees 6:18–63, Jonathan A. Goldstein presented several reasons why Wacholder’s formulation of the sabbatical year cycles should not be accepted. The overall takeaway is this:

Ben Zion Wacholder has done well to assemble the evidence on the sabbatical cycle, but his study (“The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and the Early Rabbinic Period,” Hebrew Union College Annual 44 [1973], 153–96) is so full of errors that one cannot accept his conclusion, that the sabbatical years fell one year later than the dates we have assumed [those of Zuckermann; emphasis added].

Regarding the siege of Beth-Zur, he lays some groundwork by observing:

[Elias] Bickerman demonstrated that in First Maccabees all dates for royal Seleucid history, including accessions and deaths of kings and campaigns not involving Judea, fit the available data, provided we assume that those dates are according to the [Macedonian] Seleucid era which numbered the year from Dios, 312 B.C.E. (emphasis and brackets added).

From this Goldstein deduces that the 149 SE date given in 1 Maccabees 6:16 for the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes was based on the Macedonian Seleucid calendar, placing his death in November or early December of 164 BC. That brought his young son Antiochus V Eupator to the throne under the guardianship of Lysias early in 163 BC. Then he brings 1 Macc. 6:49 into the picture: “However, he [Eupator] made a truce with the defenders of Beth-Zur, so that they withdrew from the town, inasmuch as they had no store of food there for withstanding a siege because it was a sabbatical year when the land was left fallow” (emphasis and brackets added). In view of the date established for the death of Antiochus, he concludes that “the most probable date for the sabbatical year is from autumn, 164, to autumn, 163.”

Goldstein also observes in Note 20 under 1 Macc. 6:18–63:

At least two pieces of evidence support our probable date [for the Beth-Zur siege]. Every seventh year was sabbatical (Lev 25:1–4). Josephus (AJ [Antiquities] xiv 16.2.475, 4.487) implies that autumn, 38, to autumn, 37[BC], was a sabbatical year, and an early rabbinic tradition (Seder ʾolam rabbah 30, p. 147 Ratner; TB [Babylonian Talmud] Taʿanit 29a) states that the second temple was destroyed in the year after a sabbatical year [69/70 BC] (brackets added).

The sabbatical years indicated, 38/37 BC and 68/69 BC, fit into a “sevens” pattern matching Zuckermann’s that includes 164/163 BC and validates it. We further draw the reader’s attention to Goldstein’s willingness to accept the Herodian chronology of Josephus at face value, as discussed in my earlier article, and to read Seder ‘Olam 30 as the majority of translators have understood it, discussed further below. He finds the 1 Maccabees data incompatible with either an interpretation of Josephus that has Herod besieging Jerusalem in 36 BC (following W.E. Filmer), or a translation of SO 30 that makes the destruction of both the First and Second Temples take place in a sabbatical year. It is no coincidence that the modern minority views on these issues stand or fall together. One does not find Wacholder’s 37/36 BC sabbatical year, Filmer’s skeptical approach to Josephus’ data, or Guggenheimer’s rendering of SO 30, combined in any way with Zuckermann’s sabbatical year cycles that include 38/37 BC, Schürer’s approach to Josephus that accepts the Roman consular years as Josephus gave them (and requires Herod to have taken Jerusalem in the summer of 37 BC), or Ratner’s and Milikowsky’s corroborating translations of the SO. The two approaches are mutually exclusive. This is a theological divide in modern chronological studies that seems to be due, at least in part, to the willingness of some recent scholars to revisit and question the apparent straightforward sense of primary historical source materials which were long considered rock-solid reliable.

Blosser

We now turn our attention to the sabbatical year research of Donald Blosser, “The Sabbath Year Cycle in Josephus” (Hebrew Union College Annual 52 [1981], pp. 129–139, online at http://www.jstor.com/stable/23507728/). In my opinion he has done some excellent work in demonstrating the correspondence of historical events reported by Josephus with a specific pattern of sabbatical year cycles. He summarizes his ideas in the Abstract that heads up his article:

The Sabbath year cycle was an important part of Jewish religious history. It was observed with varying degrees of regularity over the centuries. Josephus frequently used the cycle in dating certain events between 175 B.C.E. and 75 C.E. But his use of this cycle has been criticized as unreliable and inconsistent. The difficulty focuses on how the year of hardship should be determined. Is it the 7th year (the fallow year when no crops are grown), or is it the 8th year (first year of the new cycle) before the new crops are harvested. The difference in calculation will directly affect the accuracy of the Josephus figures.

On pp. 130–131 he clarifies:

The people were expressing what appears to be a very legitimate concern. If we have no crop during the seventh year, what do we eat? Thus Josephus (reflecting the common assumption) refers to the seventh year as the year of hardship. But during the seventh year, the people are eating food derived from the crop harvested in the sixth year; just as in every year this year’s food comes from last year’s harvest. The critical food problem developed during the eighth year (or the first year of the new sabbath cycle) when there was no seventh year crop to be used for food. Thus it was during the eighth year and not the seventh that the people experienced real hardship.

Let us evaluate Blosser’s conclusions through the eyes of his principle critic, Wacholder. He issued a rejoinder, “The Calendar of Sabbath Years During the Second Temple Era: A Response,” in Hebrew Union College Annual Vol. 54 (1983), pp. 123–133. There he writes in the Abstract:

But Blosser's argument is not convincing. Josephus certainly knew the difference between the year of shemittah and the post-sabbatical year. Furthermore it is not correct to assume, as Blosser does, that famines occurred routinely during sabbatical cycles. After all, disasters are unpredictable events whereas the observance of shemittah was routine and therefore planned. Contemporary documents from Murabaʿat show that the references to the seventh year in Josephus are correct.

We can agree that famines did not occur routinely during sabbatical cycles. However, it does not appear Blosser made that assumption, but only pointed out that in certain instances when famines did occur, proximity to the sabbatical year played a part. Wacholder also made the valid point that “the observance of shemittah was routine and therefore planned.” Yet the fact remains that when disruptions to agriculture did occur near a sabbatical year, those disruptions wreaked havoc with the planning. By my reading, Blosser’s case is actually predicated on sabbatical years being planned for, on putting into storage an extra measure of crops from the sixth year’s harvest so it could be drawn upon for the entire seventh and through the growing season of the eighth year. It is in seeking out how such disruptions messed up the food supply despite planning that he tries to narrow down the possible dates for certain sabbatical years.

Something that can be critiqued about Blosser’s thinking is his statement that “in every year this year’s food comes from last year’s harvest.” Though it does not impact his case about the eighth year more likely being the true “year of hardship” rather than the seventh, this is overstating things a bit. Actually, in every year except the sabbatical year, only food for the first half of the year came from the previous year’s harvest: “You will eat the old supply and clear out the old because of the new” (Lev 26:10). A typical year would see the using up of the stored food as the new harvest came in. Each agricultural year began with the “early rains” of Tishri softening up the ground, followed by plowing and sowing around October/November, then the harvesting of the barley and wheat crops in the spring after the winter rainy season ended (cf. the chart at http://www.angelfire.com/pa2/passover/jewish-calendar-months.html). Then once the spring harvest was gathered in, people would begin eating that new crop, not stored food. It was just as the LORD had said:

You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove (Ex 23:10–11).

But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in (Lev 25:20–22).

Since there was no harvest in the seventh year, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year?” only makes sense if it was framed by the understanding that in years 1–6 of the cycle, people normally had just a half year’s worth of food in storage to cover the period between fall sowing and spring harvest in the next year. Thus, when Blosser writes that “the critical food problem developed during the eighth year,” he understands that normal sabbatical year planning was for enough food to be stored from year six to cover, God willing, the year and a half until harvest in the spring of year eight. If the people presumed on this normal plan and ate three square meals a day up to the fall that began year eight, then something—like a siege—occurred to prevent eighth year sowing, famine conditions could indeed have developed in the eighth year (the post-sabbatical year). And if the sixth year’s harvest was less than normal, rationing could well have been part of the plan for managing the stored supply from the outset, with little room for error. In short, it seems reasonable to expect sabbatical years were planned for, but that plan could have involved some belt-tightening based on how much was in storage. Although we may therefore say Blosser overstated some things, yet for Wacholder to claim Blosser assumes “that famines occurred routinely during sabbatical cycles,” and that he did not take sabbatical year planning into account, is to misrepresent him.

As for Wacholder’s comment that the Wadi Murabbaʿat papyri supported his views, Goldstein has pointed out (his Anchor Bible commentary on 1 Maccabees, in the Note under 1 Macc. 6:18–63) that the translation by Milik which Wacholder depends on throws his conclusions off:

`Wacholder (pp. 169–71) finds strong evidence for his theory in a papyrus from Wadi Murabbaʿat (Mur. 18, published by J. T. Milik in Les Grottes de Murabbaʿat, eds. P. Benoit, J. T. Milik, and R. de Vaux, DJD, II (1961), 100–4. The papyrus is dated in the second year of Nero Caesar, (55–56 C.E.), and line 7 was read by Milik, “wšnt šmṭh dh,” which Wacholder translates “in this year of release.” Thus, the sabbatical year (=year of release) would be 55–56 C.E. However, the papyrus is a scribbled tatter, extremely difficult to read. Whatever the context of line 7 may mean, Milik misread a crucial word, for the papyrus clearly has wšnt šmṭh hwh, “and it was [or would be] the year of release.” See R. Yaron’s review of Milik, in JJS 11 (1960), 158. Since the verb is either in the past tense or conditional, the context does not prove that 55–56 C.E. was a sabbatical year (emphasis added).

From these considerations we can say that Wacholder’s attempt to blunt the force of Blosser’s case is unsuccessful. It is also worth noting the respected chronologist Jack Finegan singled out Blosser’s analysis as strong evidence in favor of Zuckermann’s views on page 116 of his Handbook:

In 1979 Donald Wilford Blosser published a new study of Jubilee and Sabbatical years, with a calendar of Sabbatical years extending from 171/170 B.C. to A.D. 75/76, a tabulation which is contrary to Wacholder and in exact agreement with Zuckermann (“Jesus and the Jubilee: Luke 4:16–30, The Year of Jubilee and Its Significance in the Gospel of Luke” [Ph.D. diss., St. Mary’s College, The University of St. Andrews, Scotland, 1979], 113, emphasis added).

Finegan’s conclusion is to side with Zuckermann over Wacholder:

Since we have taken Yose ben Halafta as an early and dependable authority, we accept the date of 68/69 [as the sabbatical year before Titus took Jerusalem] and also use it as basic for the determination of several other Sabbatical years in what follows, all thus, in fact, in accordance with Zuckermann (and Blosser) (p. 122, §226, bracketed comment added).

With that background out of the way, let us return to the date of the siege of Beth-Zur. Here is how Blosser summarizes things (p. 132):

The date for the siege of Jerusalem by Lysias is given as 163 B.C.E. Both Josephus and I Maccabees identify this as being the seventh year, saying that the lack of food had a direct effect upon the fall of the city. Because of this form of counting, Josephus says that the city fell during the Sabbath year of 163/162 B.C.E.

It is accurate to say that the city fell in 163 B.C.E., but this does not mean that 163/162 B.C.E. has to be a sabbath year because the food supply was short. This represents an incorrect assumption by Josephus that the food supply was critically short during the seventh, or sabbath, year. If 163/162 B.C.E. had been a sabbath year, food from the sixth year harvest would have been in normal supply. But since the food situation was such a critical factor that it led to the defeat of the city, we can rightly assume that 164/163 B.C.E. was the sabbath year, and that 163/162 B.C.E. was the eighth year (or first year of the new cycle).

A proper chronology for the event is as follows: Antiochus died in 164 B.C.E. Israel was observing the sabbath year fallow period from Oct. 164 to Oct. 163 when Lysias set up his siege of Bethsura and Jerusalem. Because of the siege, the inhabitants of the cities did not have access to the spontaneous growth which normally supplemented their supply of grain which had been stored for the eighth year in obedience to the seventh year fallow laws. The inevitable result of this siege was that the stored grain was consumed more rapidly than usual (Ant. XII.379) and severe hunger had set in more quickly than usual.

This fact is supported by Ant. XII.380 which says that the invaders were also having food problems (there were no crops to pillage due to the seventh year fallow period, and the spontaneous growth was not sufficient to feed an army). This made the cost of the siege prohibitive for Lysias, and when the news of the threatened counterrevolt at home came through, he quickly withdrew from Jerusalem.

Thus we can conclude that 164/163 B.C.E. was the sabbath year referred to in both Ant. XII.378 and I Macc. 6:49, 53 (emphasis added).

Bringmann

Then there is Klaus Bringmann’s 1983 German work, Hellenistische Reform und Religionsverfolgung in Judäa: Eine Untersuchung zur jüdisch-hellenistischen Geschichte. In The Institution of the Hasmonean High Priesthood by Vasile Babota, he notes on p. 29:

Bringmann argues that a shortfall of food would occur at the end of the sabbatical year, and so the invasion of Lysias recounted in 1 Macc 6:28–54 took place in the summer of 163 B.C.E., that is, at the end of the sabbatical year that ran from fall 164 to fall 163 B.C.E. (emphasis added).

Bringmann thus joins other scholarly voices affirming the accuracy of Zuckermann’s determination of 164/163 BC as the sabbatical year of the siege of Beth-Zur.

Herod the Great’s Siege of Jerusalem

Pickle

Bob Pickle discusses the date when Herod besieged and took Jerusalem very briefly at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years.htm#5, concluding:

The 185th Olympiad began in July 40 BC and ended in June 36 BC. Agrippa and Gallus were consuls in 37 BC. Thus Jerusalem was besieged by Herod in the spring and summer of 37 BC. Since 38/37 BC was a sabbatical year according to Zuckermann, Zuckermann’s sabbatical dates must therefore be correct.

He goes into considerably greater depth in his discussion at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#5. There he explains why, although “some scholars other than Wacholder would like to have Herod conquer Jerusalem in 36 BC instead, yet this is not possible.” (I dealt with this issue previously as well, under the heading “The Sabbatical Years.”) He first notes what Josephus reported in Antiquities 14.16.2, 4:

they persisted in this war to the very last; and this they did while a mighty army lay round about them, and while they were distressed by famine and the want of necessaries, for this happened to be a Sabbatic year…. This destruction befell the city of Jerusalem when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls of Rome on the hundred eighty and fifth olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast, as if a periodical revolution of calamities had returned since that which befell the Jews under Pompey; for the Jews were taken by him on the same day, and this was after twenty-seven years' time (Ant. 14.16.4).

If we look up what any reputable historian has written about the year Agrippa and Gallus were consuls—such as Ronald Syme (The Augustan Aristocracy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986], pp. 455-458, list of consuls reproduced at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_consuls#1st_century_BC, or Christopher S. Mackay of the University of Alberta (“Consuls of the Roman Republic,” online at https://sites.ualberta.ca/~csmackay/Consuls.List.html)—we will find that they were consuls in 37 BC. This detail cannot be reconciled with making 36 BC out to being a sabbatical year (which is why, to rescue his theory, Filmer charged Josephus with double consular year errors in Antiquities). Pickle goes on to observe,

Some think that this conquest must be in 36 BC since 36 BC is 27 years later than Pompey's conquest in 63 BC. However, if we use inclusive reckoning, similar to what we must use for Herod's reign, 63 to 37 BC is indeed 27 years…. Josephus’ testimony excludes the possibility that the ‘fast’ was the Day of Atonement.

The only quibble I have with Pickle’s analysis is his identification of “the fast” in Antiquities 14.16.4 as Tammuz 17. As discussed in my article under the heading “On the Solemnity of the Fast,” Cassius Dio, who as a non-Jew may easily have misunderstood the no-work Sabbath as a “fast day,” called the day Pompey took the city 27 years earlier the “day of Saturn” (i.e., Saturday) in his Roman History (37.16.4). This makes it a sabbath day, with no implication it was the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Tishri 10. Modern scholars endeavoring to match up Josephus’ “fast” with Yom Kippur have overlooked this ancient insight from Dio. Moreover, since Wacholder’s sabbatical year pattern has 37/36 BC as a sabbatical year, it had to run from Tishri 1, 37 BC to Elul 29, 36 BC. Since the Day of Atonement in view would have been Tishri 10, 36 BC—ten days after Elul 29—Wacholder’s sabbatical year would actually have concluded ten days before that date. Thus, it is not possible to regard Tishri 10, 36 BC as the “fast” day when Herod took Jerusalem, and at the same time claim it was in a sabbatical year. Finally, Josephus wrote in Antiquities 15.1.2 that immediately after the end of the siege, while Herod was plundering Antigonus’ loyalists, “the sabbatick year…was still going on.” Taking Wacholder’s view means denying the truth of this plain statement from a primary historical source. Only if we accept Zuckermann’s pattern of sabbatical years do we extricate ourselves from these difficulties.

Blosser

Blosser also addresses the date Herod took Jerusalem with the same logic he applied to his discussion of the siege of Beth-Zur (p. 134–35):

Virtually all historians agree that 37 B.C.E. was the year of Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem…. The more difficult problem is dating the sabbath year which occurred at that time. Ant. XIV.476 [sic, 475] refers to “a sabbatical year which happened to fall at that time.” Since the sabbath year ran from Tishri to Tishri (Sept. to Sept.) and agreement is strong for a July collapse of the city, this implies a sabbath year of 38/37 B.C.E. However, in Ant. XV.7, Josephus describes the actions of Herod after taking the city, and in his description uses the following phrases: “on the other hand, the seventh year which came around at that time, forced them to leave the land unworked”.

This implies a sabbath year which began after the collapse of the city, and that would move the date back to 37/36 B.C.E.

The problem can be resolved by a careful construction of the chronology. Herod laid siege to the city during the spring of 37 B.C.E. and the city finally fell during the summer (June-July) of that year. After taking the city, Herod imposed heavy taxes upon the people (Ant. XV.7). Having just endured the horrible suffering of the Roman siege, the people also had to face the difficult eighth year with its critical food shortages. Josephus has incorrectly identified this year as the seventh year (Ant. XV.7) because of his own confusion over which year brought the food shortage. In actual fact, this should be seen as the eighth year. [Blosser’s footnote here states: “Wacholder (supra, n. 12, p. 167) notes the two Josephus references and says that both cannot be right. He then chooses 37/36 B.C.E. for the Sabbath year. The Loeb editors of Josephus acknowledge the problem at Ant. XIII.378 and at XIV.475, but explain it as a ‘slip in arithmetic’ or ‘inexact language.’”]

This means that Herod took the city near the end of the year 38/37 B.C.E., which was also a sabbath year. In the following year (37/36 B.C.E., the eighth year), he compounded the Jewish suffering by plundering their now meager food stores to feed his own occupation troops and then invoked harsh taxes to raise money (most likely to pay the high cost of having still more food shipped in for his army). Ant. XV.7 should be seen as an explanation of the severity of conditions in Jerusalem which were heightened by the previous years’ fallow fields. This harmonizes completely with the account in Ant. XIV.4 76 which placed the city’s collapse during a sabbath year. Thus we conclude that 38/37 B.C.E. was the sabbath year (emphasis and brackets added).

The Destruction of the Second Temple

Pickle

Bob Pickle discusses this in some detail in the section, “Was the Second Temple Destroyed in a Sabbatical or Post-Sabbatical Year?” at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#8. He begins by quoting something Wacholder wrote:

Finally, a passage in Josephus implies that the year 68/69 was not Sabbatical. According to B.J. [Wars] 4:529–37, “Simon the son of Gioras, the leader of the Zealots, invaded Idumaea in the winter of 68/69 and gained abundant booty and laid hands on vast supplies of corn.” This clearly indicates that it was not a part of a Sabbatical season, for surely the Idumeans by now appear to have been following the traditions of Jewish law. (p. 176)

What Josephus wrote was this:

Thus did Simon unexpectedly march into Idumea, without bloodshed, and made a sudden attack upon the city Hebron, and took it; wherein he got possession of a great deal of prey, and plundered it of a vast quantity of fruit. (Wars, bk. 4, ch. 9, sect. 7)

According to Zuckermann, the sabbatical year would have begun just prior to the winter of 68/69. Since we aren’t talking about a lengthy time period after the non-existent harvest of a sabbatical year, then surely there would be large stores of grain in existence. Indeed, we might expect the stores of grain to be larger during the winter of a sabbatical year than during the winter of a non-sabbatical year, for the supply of grain must last until the harvest of the post-sabbatical year.

Thus the fact that Simon found large stores of grain in Idumea, if it suggests anything at all, really suggests that the winter of 68/69 was during a sabbatical year. And that supports Zuckermann's sabbatical dates (emphasis and brackets added).

Goldstein

In the Notes under 1 Maccabees 6:20 of his 1 Maccabees commentary (p. 317), Jonathan Goldstein similarly remarks about the grain captured by Simon at Hebron:

Wacholder next (p. 176) exploits information in Josephus. Josephus reports that the forces of Simon son of Gioras in the winter of 68–69 C.E. captured vast supplies of grain in Hebron (BJ [Wars] iv 9.7.529) and that on a march through Idumaea Simon’s forces, short of provisions, stripped the vegetation (ibid., §§534–37) and so trampled the ground that the cultivated land became harder than barren soil (ibid., §537). Wacholder argues that therefore 68/9 C.E. could not have been a sabbatical year. But the grain captured in Hebron could have been stored grain. The shortage of supplies which made Simon’s troops strip the vegetation may have been due precisely to the sabbatical year. The reported hardening of the trampled ground may be literary hyperbole. In any case, even when left unplowed for a year, a field which has been regularly plowed can remain softer than barren soil. Finally, there is considerable doubt that the sabbatical year was observed in Idumaea. See M. Shebiʿit 6:1 (the exiles returning from Babylonia did not take possession of Idumaea) and To. Shebiʿit 4:11 with the commentary of S. Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fshuṭah, Zeraʿim, II, 534–38 (emphasis added).

Hence we see that Goldstein’s analysis agrees with that of Pickle, making AD 68–69 a sabbatical year that agrees with Zuckermann’s pattern.

Blosser

Now we have Blosser’s analysis of the sabbatical year near the time the forces of Titus destroyed the Temple in AD 70, taken from pp. 137–138:

The story of the fall of Jerusalem is told in great detail by Josephus, going from the collapse of the first wall on the 7th Artemisius (25 May), to the burning of the temple on 10th Lous (late July), to the ultimate defeat of the city on the 8th Gorpiaeus (26 Sept.) in 70 C.E. In his account he deals at length with the extreme sabbath year food shortage which confronted the people inside the city (War V.420-442). This coincides accurately with a statement in Seder ‘Olam Rabbah 30, 74a–75a which says that the Second Temple was destroyed in a post-sabbatical year [though not in the outlier translation of Heinrich Guggenheimer, see below]. Knowing that the temple fell in late July, this means that 68/69 CE was a sabbath year.

This sabbath year date of 68/69 C.E. can be documented further by reference to an event given in War IV.529. A young man named Simon had gathered a substantial army (20,000 men) and was gradually moving across the land. Through treachery on the part of an officer in the Idumaean army, Simon marched unopposed into Idumaea, and “captured the little town of Hebron, where he gained abundant booty and laid hands on vast supplies of corn. [In his endnote #24 here Blosser observes, “Wacholder (supra, n. 12, p. 176) attempts to use this incident to prove that 68/69 C.E. could not have been a sabbath year. His argument is that if it were, there would not have been any stores of corn at Hebron, for food would have been scarce during the sabbath year. Our reasoning shows him to be incorrect in his judgment.”] This event is dated by an earlier reference to the death of Nero (June 68 C.E.) shortly before the campaign of Simon (War IV.491). The vast supply of corn which Simon captured in Hebron was the grain which had been stored from the sixth year harvest in anticipation of the fallow seventh year, thus it was “abundant.” This means that 67/68 was the sixth year and 68/69 was sabbath year.

These four items (the fall of the city in 70 C.E.; the reference to the severe food shortage; the Seder ‘Olam statement; and the vast supplies of corn at Hebron) combine to support the following chronology for this event.

The sixth year of the sabbath cycle was 67/68 C.E. and corn was being stockpiled at Hebron for the coming sabbath year and eighth year. The sabbath year itself was 68/69 C.E. During the eighth year (69/70 C.E.) the city of Jerusalem was attacked and ultimately it collapsed. The food problem for this eighth year, which was critical even in the best of times, was made horrific by the Roman blockade of the city from May until Sept. of C.E. 70, when the city finally was destroyed. Thus we conclude that 68/69 C.E. was a sabbath year (pp. 137–38, brackets and emphasis added).

At the end of his article, p. 139, Blosser summarizes his analysis of multiple events dated by Josephus to sabbatical years and concludes, “Thus Josephus is shown to be a reliable resource for calculation of the Sabbath Year when one recognizes the assumptions which he had regarding that year. The cycle was observed with religious regularity, making it a crucial factor in the Jewish history of that period.”

Finegan

Finegan also comments on the year in which the Temple fell. In §226 of his Handbook he states:

For example, in regard to the very important historical event of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in the summer of AD 70 and the destruction of the Second Temple in the month of Ab (July/Aug), we have already (§201) followed Josephus’s description of the sequence of events and (§203) have quoted the statement of Rabbi Yose ben Halafta (AD c. 150) that the day-date was Ab 9 (= Aug 5, AD 70) and the time was “immediately after the Sabbatical year.” Reckoning years beginning on Tishri 1, the destruction was 69/70 and the preceding year was 68/69; thus 68/69 was a Sabbatical year, and this is the way it is shown in the table by Zuckermann (emphasis added).

These remarks from Finegan are yet another reason to reject Wacholder’s sabbatical year cycles. Some disagree with Milikowsky’s translation of Rabbi Yose’s statement in the Seder ‘Olam Rabbah which Finegan adopts, and would follow an alternative translation; we will address this below.

The Implication of These Determinations

On Bob Pickle’s website we are given a complete tabulation of sabbatical years as determined by Wacholder and Zuckermann. When we take the years 164/163 BC (the siege of Beth-Zur), 38/37 BC (Herod’s siege of Jerusalem), and 68/69 BC (the destruction of Jerusalem) that we examined above and compare them to those tables, we find they match a septennial pattern conforming perfectly with Zuckermann’s. Moreover, Zuckermann’s tabulation includes both 451/450 and 444/443 BC as sabbatical years, years we independently proposed based on Ezra’s beginning the counting of years for the initial post-exilic sabbatical year cycle as of the first Tishri after his arrival in 457 BC. Thus Zuckermann corroborates the dates we derived from considering the implications of Ezra’s summer 457 BC return to the Land. Wacholder’s scheme, in contrast, would have Ezra wait a whole year after his arrival before starting to count years in Tishri of 456 BC. We can see no reason why Ezra would have tolerated such a delay.

 

The Meaning of Motza'ei Shǝvi'it in the Seder ‘Olam Rabbah

It appears that the works examined above provide sufficient objective historical reasons to prefer the sabbatical year formulation of Zuckermann over that of Wacholder. There is another issue that remains to be addressed, however, a translation point discussed in Rodger Young’s article on the Seder ‘Olam at http://www.rcyoung.org/articles/sederpart1.pdf, and echoed in a Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita. Since Wacholder’s sabbatical years are one year later than those of Zuckermann, if the year in which an event occurred is fixed, then an event Zuckermann would place in a post-sabbatical year would be in a sabbatical year under Wacholder’s scheme. This provides motivation for those favoring Wacholder’s views to adopt Guggenheimer’s translation of the SO, and vice-versa. Young argues that motzaei cannot take the meaning “in a post-sabbatical year” that translators other than Guggenheimer have adopted:

We first look in the Scripture, where the word motsa occurs 27 times. In Psalm 19:7 (19:6, English Bible) it refers to the “going forth” of the sun [KJV; other translations “rising”]. In Psalm 107:33, 35 and II Kings 2:21 it is translated as “watersprings” or “spring of the waters.” All of the usages in Scripture can immediately be associated with the idea of going forth or going out. None can be associated with any idea of “after” or “the thing after” (p. 5 of the downloaded PDF; brackets added).

Let us examine this statement carefully. Standard exegetical reference works define motza' as a masculine noun having its own meaning distinct from the verb yatsa it is derived from. As explained in Strong’s (#4161), the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (מוֹצָא under #893), and Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains - Hebrew Old Testament (#4604), this noun refers to the starting place, source or origin from which the action of “going out” proceeds, not the destination of the “going out.” Since the object from which an action issues necessarily pre-exists the action it causes, in this sense we can say the action takes place after the object is manifested. For example, as the TWOT states concerning motza'ei, it is the “act or place of going out; hence, issue, source, such as a spring of water or mine (for silver)” (emphasis original). A mine is a place of “going-out,” a source, for silver (Job 28:1). Dawn and east are poetically places of “going-out,” or sources, of the sun (Ps 75:6). A gate or exit is a place of “going-out” for a person (Eze 42:11). A fountain or waterspring is a place of “going-out” for water, a source from which water issues (motza'ei mayim, Isa 41:18). In the same way, the expression motza'ei Shabbat (מוצאי שבת‎) conveys that the Sabbath is the origin of “going-out,” the source, of the first day of the week that follows it. To be scripturally consistent, we must thus understand the “going-out” of a sabbatical year to mean the source from which the next year arises; hence, the expression motza’ei Shǝvi’it (מוצאי שביעית, literally “the going-out of the seventh”) means “a post-sabbatical year” or “the year issuing from a sabbatical year.”

It is worth noting that even in our own day, the Jews understand motza'ei Shabbat as referring to the period immediately after the Sabbath comes to a close. At https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/56002/after-shabbat, it is observed that “religious Jews—Israeli or otherwise—understand the term to mean the part of Saturday evening that begins only after Shabbat ends.” It adds, “But Hebrew has no word for ‘Saturday,’ other than Shabbat. The universality of the word is reflected in a Hebrew axiom that has its roots in the military: ‘Every Shabbat has a motzei Shabbat,’ or post-Shabbat.” This modern usage also supports understanding the word in the SO as the source of what follows, in agreement with most, if not all, translators other than Guggenheimer; dismissing it as just a modern idiom does not hold up in the face of the biblical instances we have just cited. The same understanding is seen in the Complete Jewish Bible translation of 1 Corinthians 16:2 (Acts 20:7 is a similar passage), online at https://www.biblestudytools.com/cjb/1-corinthians/16-2.html. In the NASB it reads, “On the first day of every week…” The CJB renders it, “Every week, on Motza'ei-Shabbat…” Thus, the first day of the week is the day following the Sabbath. By the same token, the expression in the SO should be understood to mean “the year following the sabbatical year.” The desire to follow Wacholder’s sabbatical year pattern, for whatever reason, should not be allowed to influence one to favor Guggenheimer’s translation of SO 30. It is not consistent with the usage seen in multiple exegetical dictionaries of ancient Hebrew, other English translations, or modern spoken or written Hebrew.

For good measure I also contacted Dr. Chaim Milikowsky, who has spent many years researching the SO since his 1981 English translation, and asked his opinion whether Guggenheimer translated motza’ei shǝvi’it correctly in chapter 30. In an email to me dated 24 June 2019 he stated:

The term מוצאי שביעית [motza’ei shǝvi’it] appears some two dozen times in rabbinic literature, and very clearly means “the year after the sabbatical year”. However, as I write in my commentary (p. 555, note 276), a number of scholars have suggested that here its meaning is different, and though this is not an optimal solution, such a claim can be supported (emphasis and brackets added).

“Not an optimal solution,” as I understand it, is Milikowsky’s careful scholar’s way of saying that the odds are decidedly against it. Everything considered together, when motza’ei in SO chapter 30 is understood with the meaning “in a post-sabbatical year,” it is not being treated as an inappropriate modern idiom imposed on ancient records, but in its normal, customary, biblical sense of a noun meaning “the source of a going-out.” Although the individual context must supply the appropriate translation of motza’ei in each case, it is seen that understanding motza’ei Shabbat and motza’ei shǝvi’it in SO chapter 30 as referring to the first day of the week and a post-sabbatical year respectively, is entirely consistent with the use of the term in the Old Testament.

Were Both Temple Destructions in Sabbatical Years?

There is one last point to make before we wrap this up. In Part 1 of his Seder ‘Olam article Young observes:

At least one passage in the SO itself shows that SO 30 must be translated so as to place the fall of the First and Second Temples in Sabbatical years. In SO 25, Jehoiachin’s exile is said to begin in the fourth year of a Sabbatical cycle. The city fell ten years later, in his 11th year of captivity, which was also the 11th (non-accession) year of Zedekiah's reign. This was therefore 14 years after the Sabbatical year from which the beginning of Jehoiachin's captivity was measured. Consequently, that year, the year of the fall of Jerusalem, was also a Sabbatical year. This is perhaps the most definitive text that can be found that shows that motsae did not have any connotation of “after” to the people who wrote the SO, and so it cannot be translated that way in SO 30. The SO 30 passage must be interpreted to say that both destructions of Jerusalem occurred on a Sabbath day and in a Sabbatical year.

This analysis gives us insight into what the writers of the SO believed, but it does not address a question of more pressing interest: whether that belief was historically correct. Does the SO reflect accurate, objective history concerning the fall of the two Temples, or is it merely what Milikowsky terms a “rabbinic chronography,” an artificially constructed narrative designed to support the theological views of rabbis after the first century AD? Can we trust where it places sabbatical years in relation to Jehoiachin’s exile, the fall of the First Temple, and the fall of the Second Temple? If the SO was correct, its placement of the exile of Jehoiachin (generally acknowledged to have taken place in the spring of 597 BC) to the fourth year of a sabbatical cycle would make the sabbatical year immediately preceding Jehoiachin’s exile 602/601 BC, with 601/600 being the first year of the next cycle. It also, not coincidentally, places the 587 BC destruction of the First Temple in a sabbatical year, thus affirming rabbinic tradition. However, neither Zuckermann nor Wacholder adopt 602/601 as a sabbatical year, with the former choosing 605/604 while the latter opts for 604/603 BC (cf. Pickle’s table). Between them these two men have put in a tremendous amount of research on sabbatical year matters, so if neither agree with this claim of the SO, we are justified in viewing it with suspicion.

As for the Old Testament records, nowhere is it explicitly stated that a given year in the pre-exilic period corresponded with a sabbatical or Jubilee year. It is claimed on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita#Historical_Sabbatical_Years, apparently based largely on Young’s article “The Talmud’s Two Jubilees and Their Relevance to the Date of the Exodus” (Westminster Theological Journal 68 [2006], 71–83), that Ezekiel 40:1 unfolded during a Jubilee year. On page 71, Young analyzes this passage through the lens of ‘Arakin 12a in the Babylonian Talmud. In the William Davidson translation at https://www.sefaria.org/Arakhin.12a?lang=en this is rendered:

Rabbi Yosei says: A fortunate matter is brought about on an auspicious day, and a deleterious matter on an inauspicious day. As the Sages said: When the Temple was destroyed for the first time, that day was the Ninth of Av; and it was the conclusion of Shabbat; and it was the year after a Sabbatical Year. The Gemara asks: Can you find such a possibility, that when the Temple was destroyed for the first time it was in the year after a Sabbatical Year? But isn’t it written in a verse that Ezekiel experienced a prophecy “in the twenty-fifth year of our captivity, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was smitten” (Ezekiel 40:1)? Which is the year when the beginning of the year is on the tenth of the month? You must say that this is referring to the Jubilee, which begins on Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei.

From this Young concludes:

The argument the Talmud presents here is that the verse quoted (Ezek 40:1) gave the day as both “the beginning of the year” (Rosh HaShanah or New Year’s Day) and also as the tenth of the month. Only in a Jubilee year did Rosh HaShanah move from its customary place on the first of Tishri to the tenth of the month. Consequently this verse associates Ezekiel’s vision with the beginning of a Jubilee year.

We see that ‘Arakin 12a conflates Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year under the Tishri-based civil calendar. However, contrary to the rabbi who presumes to tell us what we “must say,” Ezekiel 40:1 actually says not a word about a Jubilee that year. The verse simply reads:

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile [that of Ezekiel and Jehoiachin in 597 BC], at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was taken [587 BC], on that same day the hand of the LORD was upon me and He brought me there (brackets added).

Notice that the name of the month is not given, though its order in the calendar is clearly stated. Jewish months were routinely given in terms of their calendar order according to God’s ordinance in Exodus 12:2, cf. “first month” (Lev 23:5, 2 Chr 35:1, Est 3:7), “third month” (2 Chr 31:7, Est 8:9, Eze 31:1) and “seventh month” (Lev 23:27, Ezr 3:6, Neh 8:14). If we assume for the moment that “the beginning of the year” corresponds to the month of Tishri according to the civil year (notwithstanding that Exodus 12:2 and Esther 3:7 identify the beginning of the year with Nisan), this verse must be read alongside Leviticus 25:8–10:

You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family (emphasis added).

If we do not read anything of later rabbinical origin into the Leviticus passage, we must admit the Word does not teach that in a Jubilee year the year began on the “tenth day of the seventh month.” All it tells us is that the Jubilee was declared by the blowing of horns on Tishri 10 every forty-ninth year (the fiftieth when counting inclusively, including the year counting started, just as in Leviticus 23:34–39 we are told the Feast of Booths lasts seven days, yet the last day is called the eighth). Every 49 years, the date Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—but not Rosh Hashanah—was observed was the tenth day of the month, just as in every other year. Only its significance was different in the year of Jubilee. Biblically, therefore, in the Year of Jubilee the seventh month (Tishri) had already begun on Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, nine days previously. The years under the agriculture-based civil calendar always began with Tishri 1, including in Jubilee years, when the day of Rosh Hashanah did not change to Tishri 10. The rabbinical assertion in ‘Arakin 12a does not agree with Scripture. With this Jack Finegan agrees as well, writing in §225 of his Handbook:

There are many references to the Sabbatical year in the rabbinical and Talmudic literature, which provide basis for calculations on dates of the observance. As quoted above (§164) the tractate Rosh Hashanah (1.1) in the Mishna states that the first of Tishri is New Year for release and Jubilee years; therefore, it may be concluded that the Sabbatical year (and the Jubilee year, too) began regularly on the first day of Tishri and ended on the last day of Elul (emphasis added).

The above analysis based upon Scripture casts strong doubt upon the rabbinical tradition seen in ‘Arakin 12a that moves Rosh Hashanah from Tishri 1 to Tishri 10 in a Jubilee year. But that does not exhaust the criticisms which can be brought to this view. There is an alternative to the above interpretation of “the beginning of the year” that makes better scriptural sense. In Ezekiel 45:18–21 we have an unambiguous reference to Ezekiel’s use of the month Nisan, not Tishri, as the start of the year:

Thus says the Lord GOD, “In the first month, on the first of the month, you shall take a young bull without blemish and cleanse the sanctuary. The priest shall take some of the blood from the sin offering and put it on the door posts of the house, on the four corners of the ledge of the altar and on the posts of the gate of the inner court. Thus you shall do on the seventh day of the month for everyone who goes astray or is naive; so you shall make atonement for the house. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall have the Passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten” (emphasis added).

Since this clear reference to Nisan as the “first month,” the beginning of the year, is made by Ezekiel only a few chapters after 40:1, what reason have we for supposing the “beginning of the year” in 40:1 was the month of Tishri? In The New International Bible Commentary on the Old Testament: Ezekiel 25–48 (Eerdmans, 1998), Daniel I. Block writes regarding Ezekiel 40:1a (p. 512):

The preamble to the temple vision opens with a complex date notice containing three distinct elements. First, the twenty-fifth year of our exile relates the vision to Ezekiel’s own deportation to Babylon in 597 B.C.…

Second, the vision came to Ezekiel on the tenth day of the month at the beginning of the year. Unlike other date notices in the book, which at this point identify the month by number [footnote: Cf. 1:1; 8:1; 20:1; 24:1; 29:1; 29:17; 30:20; 31:1; 32:1; 32:17; 33:21], here the time within the year is specified as bĕrōʾš haššānâ (lit. “at the head of the year”). This is the only occurrence of the expression in the OT, but it finds an Akkadian counterpart in re-eš šatti, presumably a reference to the first month. Appealing to Lev. 25:9, which prescribes that the ram’s horn proclaiming release to all slaves be blown on the tenth of Tishri, some have argued for an autumnal date, supposedly following the civil/royal Jerusalemite calendar. But Ezekiel’s priestly heritage and the overtly cultic nature of chs. 40–48 render adherence to a civil, rather than religious, calendar extremely unlikely. Furthermore, not only has Ezekiel consistently based his date notices on a Nisan New Year; the cultic rituals he prescribes in 45:18–25 presuppose the same. rōʾš haššānâ [Rosh Hashanah] should therefore be understood as the beginning of the year, which, according to the traditional Israelite calendar fell in the spring in the month of Nisan. The present vision may therefore be dated 10 Nisan, in the 25th year of the exile, which computes to April 28, 573 B.C. [footnote: So also Lang, Ezechiel, pp. 40–41; Thiele, Mysterious Numbers, pp. 186–191]…

Third, the prophecy is dated in the fourteenth year after the city had been conquered, that is, after the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadrezzar’s forces [587 BC]. This date agrees with the twenty-fifth year of exile and confirms 573 B.C. as the year in which this revelation occurred. The addition of “on that very day” underlines the importance of the event recorded in 2 Chr. 36:10: “At the turn of the year, King Nebuchadrezzar sent for him [Jehoiachin] and brought him to Babylon” (bold emphasis and brackets added).

“At the turn of the year” is the literal translation of the Hebrew term tĕshuwbah adopted by the NASB and NKJV, whereas the KJV renders it “when the year was expired.” The translation “spring,” used in the NIV and ESV, applies an imprecise idiomatic sense arising from the spring month of Nisan being the first month of the Jewish religious year. The term thus must refer to the changing of one year to the next, requiring the start of a new year. Since I agree with Young on dating the exile of Jehoiachin to the spring of 597 BC (When Did Jerusalem Fall?, p. 32), this can only be reconciled with a new year beginning in Nisan in the spring, not Tishri in the fall. With the above analysis Joseph Blenkinsopp agrees when he writes in his Ezekiel volume in Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching on Ezekiel 40:1 (John Knox Press, 1990, p. 199):

As in the initial vision of the chariot throne, there is a double date. The twenty-fifth year of the exile (of King Jehoiachin, 1:2) would be 573 B.C., two decades after Ezekiel’s call, and the latest date in the book, with the exception of the oracle predicting the Babylonian conquest of Egypt which is dated two years later (29:17–20). The second date, fourteen years after the fall of Jerusalem, agrees with the first. Assuming use of the priestly Babylonian calendar—as in Ezek. 45:18–25—the tenth day of the first month would correspond to the preparation for Passover, festival of freedom, a correspondence that can hardly be coincidental (cf. Exod. 12:2–3).

For these reasons derived from Scripture, we should not allow Jewish midrashic writings like the Seder ‘Olam and Talmud ‘Arakin to dictate our understanding of sabbatical year cycles. Those works reveal more about rabbinical tradition than they do about accurate dating of historical facts. It must not be overlooked that ‘Arakin, the very same Talmudic book that makes Tishri the start of the year in Ezekiel 40 and presumes to move the day of Rosh Hashanah to Tishri 10 in a Jubilee year, claims in 12b that the Second Temple fell after 420 rather than the generally accepted 585 years. As given by William Davidson at https://www.sefaria.org/Arakhin.12b.2?lang=en:

The Gemara continues its discussion of the baraita, which teaches: When the Temple was destroyed for the first time, that day was the Ninth of Av; and it was the conclusion of Shabbat; and it was the year after a Sabbatical Year; and likewise, the same happened when the Second Temple was destroyed.

The Gemara asks: Can you find such a possibility, that the Second Temple was destroyed in the year after a Sabbatical Year? Now, for how many years did the Second Temple stand? It stood for 420 years (emphasis added).

Thus we see that the rabbis, desiring to place the destructions of both Temples in sabbatical years, vaporized about 165 years from history; the Gemara comment above reflects an unwillingness to accept their received history, that the Second Temple fell in a post-sabbatical year, as fact (we can interpret “can you find such a possibility?” as “oy vey, it is inconceivable!”). The Seder ‘Olam chronology is a linchpin in this historical revisionism, for it claims that the book of Daniel teaches that 490 years would elapse from the destruction of the First Temple to that of the Second. The rabbis also conflate numerous individuals to pare down their timeline to that desired. At https://www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-02-missing-years there is an informative article—and from a Jewish perspective no less, so we do well to pay close attention to it—about the missing years problem and how different solutions have been proposed. The authors observe:

The rabbinic view raised a number of acute difficulties, including the biblical references to a variety of Jewish leaders and Persian monarchs who seemed to live in periods spanning more than 52 years. To resolve these dilemmas, in numerous instances the Talmud conflates seemingly distinct personalities. Malakhi was Ezra or Mordekhai (Megilla 15b). Zerubavel, a leader of the first wave of aliya, was Nechemia (Sanhedrin 38a). Cyrus, Artaxerxes and Darius were one and the same (Rosh Hashana 3b). While this pattern follows the larger midrashic tendency to conflate various biblical personalities, in regard to Shivat Tzion the trend is especially pronounced.

(One may remember that the conflation of Artaxerxes and Darius was previously discussed in the two articles about the “Seraiah Assumption.”) The authors conclude: “Throughout our treatment of Shivat Tzion [the “return to Zion” by Zerubbabel and later Ezra] we will be operating within the framework of the scholarly consensus. This view most easily accounts for the evidence and is endorsed by traditional thinkers such as Ba’al Ha-maor” (brackets added). What is this “scholarly consensus”? They explain:

Others take the opposite position, rejecting the rabbinic chronology in favor of the scholarly consensus. Perhaps the best-known advocate for this view is R. Zerachia Ha-levi, author of Ba’al Ha-maor (12th-century Provence). After citing and discussing the rabbinic viewpoint at length, the Ba’al Ha-maor concludes:

This is what emerges from the midrash and analyses of our rabbis. However, the correct interpretation according to the literal rendering is that… Cyrus, Artaxerxes and Darius were different kings. (Commentary to Rif, Rosh Hashana 1a)

The implication is clear. If the three monarchs were different people, it is implausible that the Persian kings ruled for a mere fifty-two years, in which case it is nearly impossible to maintain a 420-year period of duration for the Second Temple. Although Ba’al Ha-maor does not directly endorse the scholarly consensus—no such thing existed when he wrote in the twelfth century—he does reject the rabbinic view conflating the three kings, implicitly scuttling Seder Olam and the Talmud’s thirty-four years (emphasis added).

The point being made by this Jewish group is that neither the Seder ‘Olam nor Talmud ‘Arakin can be regarded as reliable sources for developing a historical chronology. This should be our conclusion as well. Those works reflect an overt intent by the rabbis after the first century AD to force the chronology of the Second Temple into an explicit sabbatical year cycle structure (420 years is divisible by seven), one that also eliminates the “dangerous” implication that the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 points to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Why should we try to cherry-pick chronological information from those sources when we have inerrant Scripture itself and generally theologically-neutral Roman histories to work with?

 

Conclusions

The decree of Cyrus set in motion God’s plans for bringing the Jews back to the Land after the Babylonian exile. This decree unfolded gradually, culminating in the decree in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I Longimanus, 457 BC, which permitted rebuilding of city infrastructure and defenses. The “weeks” of Daniel 9 were understood by the ancient Jews as referring to sabbatical year cycles, which, being tied to agriculture, were always counted from the month of Tishri. Sabbatical year observance only applied when people resided in the land of Judea, so the count had to be restarted after the exile. Since the restoring of Jerusalem had a necessary spiritual aspect, the work of Ezra was part of the fulfillment of Daniel 9:25, and the return from the exile was not finished until Ezra and his companions arrived. Given that Ezra did not depart for Judea until Nisan 1 in early spring of 457 BC, Artaxerxes’ decree was most likely issued during the winter of 457 BC. Thus, Tishri 1, 457 BC would have been the earliest time the observance of sabbatical year cycles could have been implemented after the exile.

This conclusion is corroborated by our detailed examination of the sabbatical year cycles. Defenses of Wacholder’s calendar cannot be divorced from Guggenheimer’s problematic English translation of SO 30, and ignore the practical difficulties pointed out by Pickle, Goldstein, Blosser and others of aligning various historical events with Wacholder’s pattern. In contrast, the septennate sabbatical year pattern proposed by Zuckermann eliminates all of those difficulties, and for these reasons must be preferred.

The first sabbatical cycle year counted after Ezra’s return was Tishri 457 BC through the end of Elul 456 BC, and the first sabbatical year of the post-exilic period was the seventh year after the counting began. When, then, was that first sabbatical year? The year spanning Tishri 1, 451 BC through Elul 29, 450 BC. This exactly fits the septennate pattern for sabbatical year cycles elucidated by Bernard Zuckermann. A clear implication follows from this: the “sevens” of Daniel 9:25 are properly understood as sabbatical year cycles, not simply arbitrary periods of seven years.

The conclusion, therefore, is that Tishri 1, 457 BC is when the count of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks began. This insight will be used in examining the rest of the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 in the near future.

There is one last observation we can make, a subjective one yet still interesting to mull over. The modern State of Israel has officially adopted the Zuckermann pattern of sabbatical years. If we believe in the superintending guidance of God in unfolding the events of the future Last Days before the return of Christ, including guiding the Jews to adopt Zuckermann’s pattern for sabbatical year observance, and we anticipate the sabbatical years will have renewed prophetic significance, then we have a practical, pragmatic reason for accepting Zuckermann’s approach to the sabbatical year cycles.

 

Appreciation is expressed to Dr. Dennis Wright (Dallas, TX) for reviewing this article. Any errors or oversights are my own.

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Introduction

In “The Seraiah Assumption and the Decree of Daniel 9:25” (https://biblearchaeology.org/the-daniel-9-24-27-project-list/4369-the-seraiah-assumption-and-the-decree-of-daniel-9-25) evidence was presented, based mainly on Ezra 6:14, that the edict issued in the seventh regnal year of Artaxerxes I Longimanus was the final phase in the gradual unfolding of a single decree initiated by Cyrus.

In that article under “Reckoning the Regnal Years,” we saw that the book by Siegfried H. Horn and Lynn H. Wood, The Chronology of Ezra 7 (1953, revised 1970), presented the case that the Tishri-based regnal year for Artaxerxes indicated by Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1 has Ezra depart for Jerusalem in the spring of 457 BC.

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The Seraiah Assumption: Wrapping Up Some Loose Ends

In this article I want to share some observations in the aftermath of publishing my study on the Seraiah Assumption (https://biblearchaeology.org/research/the-daniel-9-24-27-project/4369-the-seraiah-assumption-and-the-decree-of-daniel-9-25). That article was prompted by a six-point challenge issued by William Struse (http://www.the13thenumeration.com/Blog13/category/artaxerxes-assumption-challenge/) to any who would defend what he calls the “Artaxerxes Assumption.” This he defines as the modern consensus that “Artaxerxes” in Ezra 4:7ff. and Ezra 6:14 refers to Artaxerxes I, known as Longimanus, a consensus which he insists misreads the Scriptures. I took up his challenge, put in many hours of research over a couple of months to weight the pros and cons on the subject, and presented what I felt was a carefully reasoned response to all six points, lest I be accused of deliberately ignoring the issues he and others of like mind have raised.

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And they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. – Ezra 6:14, NASB

Preface: An Apologetic for My Approach

As I’ve worked through The Daniel 9:24–27 Project over the past year, I’ve faced a number of challenges. One has been to get my facts as correct as possible, allowing the plain sense of the Bible, supplemented by the plain sense of extrabiblical historical sources, to form the foundation of my research. Only after this was first done have I evaluated what scholarly sources had to say, lest the latter take precedence over Scripture. One should always try to understand the Word of God primarily in dependence on the Holy Spirit, not the words of men, as the Scripture says: “I have more insight than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps 119:99).  

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In seeking the birth date of Christ, we must go with what is written in Scripture
and recorded in reliable history, rather than following the traditions of men.

Introduction

In an earlier article, “The First Year of Herod the Great’s Reign,” I wrote:

If Luke, arguably the most historically picky of the New Testament writers, did not pinpoint the year for us, nor did any of the other inspired apostles who knew Him (and His mother Mary) best, we have no objective criterion for dating Christ’s birth, only old theologians’ tales. We must conclude, therefore, that early Church tradition gives us no clear year for the Savior’s birth....

In the succeeding article, “When Did Herod the Great Die? Part 1," I made the similar remark:

Although we would love to be able to use the Scriptures to securely anchor the birth of Christ to a particular year, in God’s wisdom He has chosen to paint a picture with broad stokes only, leaving out many details scholars still endeavor to fill in. But for our purposes we only need to know one thing: Jesus was born sometime during the last few years of the reign of Herod the Great.

Having progressed further in my biblical chronology studies since writing those lines, I now find I need to amend my opinion somewhat. I still believe that Church tradition alone gives us “no clear year for the Savior’s birth,” and am still of the opinion that we cannot conclusively nail down the specific date from it. However, it seems to me that it is not true that all we have to go on for the date of His birth are “old theologians’ tales.” I have just recently realized that certain objective biblical criteria do exist for dating the birth of Christ, and can be used to restrict our options to a very narrow range of possibilities—perhaps even pinpointing a specfic date. See what you think, as I retrace my steps of exploration for you.

One last point before we get underway. Many believers are very sensitive to the fact that December 25 can be connected with the Roman worship of the Sun at the Saturnalia, and for that reason their consciences will not permit them to celebrate Christmas. We respect that. This study, though, is not focused on the question of whether the cultural holiday of Christmas should be celebrated or not, but whether the Scriptures present a God-inspired, internally consistent picture that allows us to draw defensible conclusions about the date of the Savior’s birth. We do not address here the broader question of whether Christmas should be observed at all:

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord… (Romans 14:4–6a, NASB, as are all other Scripture quotations in this paper).

The Implications of Herod’s Death

Let us first be reminded that this ongoing study, now running for about ten months, has made a solidly supported case for Herod's death taking place just after Nisan 1 in the spring, two weeks before Passover, in 4 BC. We will not rehash that evidence here; see the ABR website for those articles. Its significance for this particular study is that it restricts all possible dates for the birth of Christ to the years before 4 BC. And more narrowly yet, when the implications of the slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents two years old and under are accounted for, it points to the birth of Jesus taking place around 6 BC. Thus, the date of Herod’s death sets the stage for the workable options.

The Census of Quirinius

Since Luke 2:2 tells us that Mary and Joseph were forced to go to Bethlehem for a census at the time Jesus was born, knowing when that happened would be very helpful. However, determining when it took place is a complex matter defying an easy solution. My understanding has been influenced by the recent work of Daryn Graham (The Reformed Theological Review 73:3 [December, 2014], “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” online at https://www.academia.edu/attachments/56722230/download_file?st=MTU0NDU0MjAwNyw3NS44OC45NC4xMjYsMTI4OTg2MDU%3D&s=profile). He builds upon a number of earlier scholarly proposals, all of which aim to reconcile Luke 2:2 with the known historical reality that a controversial census took place in 6 AD, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The studies taken into account by Graham’s work include, amongst others, those of John H. Rhodes (“Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius,” JETS 54.1 [March 2011], 69–82); John M. Rist (“Luke 2:2: Making Sense of the Date of Jesus’ Birth,” JTS 56.2 [2005], 489–491); and William M. Ramsay (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915], 292–300, online at https://biblehub.com/library/ramsay/was_christ_born_in_bethlehem/chapter_11_quirinius_the_governor.htm). Jack Finegan also addressed the matter in his Handbook of Biblical Chronology, rev. ed., §519–526.

Of critical importance is that Tertullian had written in Adversus Marcion, 4.19.10, that Jesus was born when Saturninus was governor of Syria (9–6 BC per Finegan, Handbook, rev. ed., §519, which reflects his earlier—and we believe correct—opinion that Herod died in 4 BC): “Also it is well known that a census had just been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, and they might have inquired of his ancestry in those records.” Graham observes (cited footnotes and comments added in brackets):

This census began, according to the Roman historian, Cassius Dio [54.35], in 11 BC, when Augustus alone [on his own initiative] decreed that he and the Roman Senate were to register themselves. Then, as an extension of this decree, in 8 BC, Augustus, once again alone—just as Luke’s Gospel testifies regarding its census [Luke 2:1, "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus"]—went an extra step and decreed that all Roman citizens be registered. As Augustus’ own epitaph-cum-autobiography, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti [8], states:

With consular imperium I conducted a lustrum (census) alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls [i.e. 8 BC], in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens.

The fact that the 11 BC and this 8 BC happened to be closely related is made clear by the fact that in his Res Gestae, there is no mention made by the emperor of any other census that he decreed alone. They were the one enterprise.

Unlike the later 6 AD census, which was performed for taxation purposes (and resulted in civil unrest in Judea, so it was long remembered), this first census—or better, registration—headed up by Quirinius at Augustus’ behest, was performed to obtain head counts and, according to some scholars, administer oaths of loyalty to the emperor. Finegan (Handbook, rev. ed., §524) agrees that “there could have been other kinds of Roman ‘enrollment’ which were not subject to taxation.” It appears to have been implemented uneventfully, save for the inconvenience of forcing people to travel to their ancestral towns.

Since Luke’s precise expression in 2:2 says this first census took place while Quirinius was “governing” Syria—the word is the participle of hegemon, essentially meaning “leader,” and describes his actions rather than ascribing the title of “governor” to him—the likelihood is that at this time Quirinius was serving as Augustus’ authoritative personal representative in Syria, rather than as governor of the province. There were two distinct positions of authority in Syria at this time, the imperial representative—a procurator, such as Pontius Pilate was (Finegan, Handbook, rev. ed., §522, who cites Justin Martyr, Apology 1.34)—and the governor proper. Quirinius held both positions at different times.

A great deal more could be said, but for now I simply want to draw the reader’s attention to the time period which keeps coming up in relation to the first census headed by Quirinius: the years 8–6 BC. Keeping in mind that the Magi gave Herod information that prompted him to kill all the Bethlehem boys “from two years old and under” (Mt 2:16, probably meaning between the ages of one and two), plus they visited Herod at Jerusalem rather than at his winter quarters at Jericho, this visit probably took place in the summer or early fall of 5 BC (we have to allow for their travel time to and from Persia while avoiding the hardships of a winter journey). Add between one and two years to that, and early spring in 6 BC seems to be a good fit for Quirinius’ census.

Another insight derived from Glenn Kay’s website, http://messianicfellowship.50webs.com/yeshuabirth1.html, points to the same general time:

The Roman and Judean rulers knew that taking a census in winter would have been impractical and unpopular. Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel…Luke's account of the census argues strongly against a December date for Messiah's birth. For such an agrarian society, an autumn post-harvest census was much more likely.

Although the above article is trying to marshal arguments in favor of a fall date for Christ’s birth, and for that reason focuses on the harvest season, the very same logic can be applied to a spring pre-planting census. This consideration would likewise fit with Quirinius implementing his census in the early spring of 6 BC, near the end of Saturninus’ term as governor of Syria, but before the Nisan religious festivals began and created scheduling conflicts.

God’s “Appointed Times”

When I first planned on writing this article about two months ago, my best guess for when the Lord was born was around Hanukkah. My reasoning was that, despite an apparent connection with efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt the pagan celebration of the Saturnalia, December 25th not only had a long history of Church observance, it was also in very close proximity to Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights. That Jewish festival could readily be connected with the coming of the One who said, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12, 9:5). It was an appealing connotation.

At the same time, the idea that Christ could have been born on the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot, also called the Feast of Booths) likewise had considerable appeal. This is a particularly popular opinion amongst Messianic Jews; see, for example, http://messianicfellowship.50webs.com/yeshuabirth1.html. The connection is made with John 1:14, which literally says in the Greek, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” That imagery is also quite attractive to those who are partial to seeing analogies and symbolism between the life of Christ and the characteristics of Jewish holy days.

Nevertheless, it became clear that there was a fundamental difficulty in equating several such favored dates with the birth of Christ. It lay in the fact that the only possibilities where we can reasonably imagine God intended to make such connections, were with events He Himself had set up. In Leviticus 23, the Lord refers to such events as His “appointed times” (Heb. מוֹעֵד, mow`ed), and goes on to list several of them:

Shabbat—The Sabbath day (Lev. 23:3)
Pesach—Passover (Nisan 14, Lev. 23:5)
Feast of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15–21, Lev. 23:6)
Shavuot—Feast of Weeks/Pentecost/First Fruits (one varying day in Sivan, Lev. 23:10 ff)
Rosh Hashanah—Feast of Trumpets (Tishri 1, Lev. 23:24)
Yom Kippur—Day of Atonement (Tishri 10, Lev. 23:27)
Sukkot—Feast of Booths/Tabernacles (Tishri 15–21, Lev. 23:34)

Note that Hanukkah is not on the list. This should not surprise us, since it was a man-created celebration of the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees. There is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate God commanded Hanukkah to be memorialized due to having prophetic significance, so it is presumptuous to think He would have imbued it with a special type/antitype relationship with the life of the Messiah.

Likewise not on the Leviticus list is the first day of the Jewish religious calendar, Nisan 1, known as Rosh Chodashim, “the head of the months.” When God declared in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you,” He did not single out the first day of Nisan as warranting special observance as an “appointed time.” Nevertheless, God Himself chose it later as the date when the Tabernacle was first set up: “On the first day of the first month you shall set up the tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (Exodus 40:2). That passage comes to a climax at verse 34: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Nisan 1 was thus a truly significant date in Jewish history, the date when God first tabernacled with man.

The Pilgrimage Festivals

Deuteronomy 16:16 tells us,

Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed.

These three feasts are also known, respectively, as the Passover (the Feast of Unleavened Bread, observed on the Jewish dates of Nisan 15–21), the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot, early in the month of Sivan), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot, Tishri 15–21). We observe in this verse that these occasions, known as the three pilgrimage festivals, were to be observed specifically in Jerusalem (“the place which He chooses”). No other place would do. Therefore, it was not possible for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem during the Feast of Tabernacles, because Joseph, as an observant Jew, would have had to be in Jerusalem that week. It is as simple as that. Proposing that the Feast of Tabernacles corresponded with the birth of Jesus for reasons rooted in typology or analogy is a non-starter, because Joseph would not have gone to Bethlehem at that time, nor would the Romans have purposely riled up the Jews by forcing them to gather for a census when one of their major festivals took place.

There is another thing to realize about the Feast of Booths. It is a fall festival, variously taking place in September or October, with symbolism tied to the Second Coming of Christ, not His First Coming; the spring festivals symbolize the latter. Moreover, the true sense of God “tabernacling” with man is fulfilled not in the imagery of a sukkah tent—a temporary dwelling used by farmers during harvesting—but in the mishkan, the tabernacle tent that covered the Holy of Holies wherein the Shekinah glory of God dwelt. And this mishkan was completed on Nisan 1 in the spring (Exodus 40:2), not on Tishri 1 in the fall. The clear implication is that we should seek a fulfillment of the imagery of Christ tabernacling with us (John 1:14) in an event taking place in the spring month of Nisan. (I am indebted to Messianic Jewish rabbi Jonathan Cahn for this insight. A friend introduced me to Cahn’s ideas in a YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptlsXtTf6n0. Some of Cahn's observations can be faulted, but the video drove me to examine for myself whether the things he claimed were true. I discovered that many do hold up to scrutiny.)

Therefore, with no need to debate the validity of their symbolic interpretations, we can immediately set aside both Hanukkah and the Feast of Tabernacles from further consideration (as well as the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Shavuot, the other two pilgrimage festivals). We turn instead to developing a chronology of Christ's birth based on several texts from Scripture and some extrabiblical sources that preserve important historical clues.

“There were Shepherds Staying Out in the Fields…”

Many have proposed the shepherds of Luke 2:8 were out in the fields at night because it was lambing season, with the implication that it was early spring. However, although in America a single spring lambing season is the norm, the same does not hold true in Israel. The flocks there stay out in the open all year round if weather permits, or are given shelter during the coldest months and driven into the fields in early spring to graze until fall.

H. Epstein, Professor Emeritus of Animal Breeding at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an unbiased expert on these matters, wrote a very informative article at http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/p8550e/P8550E01.htm about the Awassi, an outstanding breed of sheep found widely in the Near East:

Awassi sheepAwassi ewe and lamb (H. Epstein)

The Awassi is the most numerous and widespread breed of sheep in south-west Asia…The flocks of the Bedouin and of the majority of fellahin (peasant agricul­turists) are kept in the open, day and night, throughout the year…However, the hardiness of the Awassi may break down during a succession of rainy days during the cold season…Stationary Awassi flocks owned by fellahin are commonly grazed in the neighbourhood of the villages…In the Syrian Arab Republic, flocks belonging to fellahin are usually taken by shepherds to mountain pastures in the spring. They return to the villages for the winter when temperatures at high altitudes are very low and the mountains are covered with snow [which could happen in the Judean hill country]…Bedouin and fellahin shepherds know nothing of tent or house but live entirely in the open together with the flocks under their care. They are working 365 days a year, from 13 to 16 hours a day. Their work includes shepherding, watching at night…In Iraq, the principal lambing season of Awassi ewes is in November, and in Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic and Israel in December-January…(emphasis and brackets added).

It is therefore erroneous to attribute the shepherds’ nighttime vigil described by Luke as due to lambing season. Another website, http://messianicfellowship.50webs.com/yeshuabirth1.html, similarly reports:

Israeli meteorologists tracked December weather patterns for many years and concluded that the climate in Israel has been essentially constant for at least the last 2,000 years. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible states that, "broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climatic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today" (R.B.Y. Scott, Vol. 3, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1962, p. 625).

The temperature in the area of Bethlehem in December averages around 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) but can drop to well below freezing, especially at night. Describing the weather there, Sara Ruhin, chief of the Israeli weather service, noted in a 1990 press release that the area has three months of frost: December with 29 F. [minus 1.6 C.]; January with 30 F. [minus 1.1 C.] and February with 32 F. [0 C.].

Snow is common for two or three days in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem in December and January. These were the winter months of increased precipitation in Messiah's time, when the roads became practically unusable and people stayed mostly indoors.

This is important evidence to disprove a December date for Messiah's birth. Note that, at the time of Messiah's birth, the shepherds tended their flocks in the fields at night. “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields,” wrote one Gospel writer, “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them (emphasis added).

The Companion Bible, Appendix 179 says:

Shepherds and their flocks would not be found “abiding” (Gr. agrauleo) in the open fields at night in December (Tebeth), for the paramount reason that there would be no pasturage at that time. It was the custom then (as now) to withdraw the flocks during the month Marchesven (Oct.–Nov.) from the open districts and house them for the winter.

This information indicates the shepherds could have been out in the fields with the sheep at night by Nisan 1, from mid-March to early April (cf. https://www.hebcal.com/holidays/rosh-chodesh-nisan), but not earlier in the winter.

“…Keeping Watch Over Their Flock by Night…”

Not only were the flocks staying outside in the open fields after the spring warm-up began, the shepherds at this time were keeping active watch over them at night. This detail also is understood by many interpreters to imply lambing season, but it need not. As mentioned above, Epstein puts the lambing season in Israel from December to January, during the time when the highland sheep would probably not have been in open pasture. The flocks’ need for protection at night goes beyond lambing season, since they would need to be guarded from predators, perhaps even from thieves if they were quartered close to town. It may be that in the providence of God, He had Luke record the detail of nighttime watching so we might know that Jesus was born after sundown. Since the Jews reckoned their days as beginning in the evening at sunset, the Messiah was born shortly after a new calendar day had begun.

The Time of the Magi’s Star*

Now we turn our thoughts to the timing of the Star of Bethlehem. Let us first refresh our minds about the natal story as given by Matthew:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him”…Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared…and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was…And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way...Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi (Mt 2:1–16, abridged).

By far the most vigorously marketed theory of the Star is that put forth by Ernest L. Martin, published as The Star that Astonished the World. The Internet website version is at http://www.askelm.com/star/star001.htm. Since we have already presented a detailed critique of Martin’s 3/2 BC timetable for the birth of Christ elsewhere in The Daniel 9:24–27 Project series (see the ABR website), we consider his thesis fundamentally flawed. His 1 BC date for Herod’s death renders his birth year for Christ wrong, therefore his time for the Star must be wrong as well. Thus, we will not devote time to Martin’s ideas here.

What are the other options? Various websites have offered differing proposals for the type of astronomical phenomenon it was—a star, a planet, a conjunction of planets or stars, a comet, a meteor, and a supernova have all been suggested, as well as different years. How is one to narrow it down?

The crux of the matter was identified by Jonathan Cahn in a video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptlsXtTf6n0. It is this: How did the Magi come to identify the Star specifically with a king of the Jews (Mt 2:2)? Cahn apparently drew his information—but neglected to credit the source, at least in the video—from Michael R. Molnar, “The Magi’s Star from the Perspective of Ancient Astrological Practices” (QJRAS [1995] 36, 109–126, online at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-data_query?bibcode=1995QJRAS..36..109M&link_type=ARTICLE). The theme of Molnar’s paper is succinctly put on page 119: “The Magi’s Star had to be Jupiter drawn within Aries in an event that was dramatic from the perspective of an ancient astrologer.” In the Summary at the beginning of his paper (p. 109), he also states:

The Magi’s star is proposed to have been a pair of auspicious lunar occultations [hidings] of Jupiter that signified to ancient astrologers the birth of a king. These events occurred in the zodiacal sign of Aries that symbolized Herod’s kingdom during this era. The birth of Christ probably corresponded to the first lunar occultation on 6 BC March 20, that exhibited astrological attributes found in imperial [royal] horoscopes (emphasis and brackets added).

Molnar also discusses a second occultation several weeks later on April 17, after the Moon had passed around to the other side of the Earth, when the phenomenon changed from one taking place around dusk in the western sky, to one occurring after dawn in the east. We will only concern ourselves with the March 20 event, because Molnar apparently did not realize that the second occultation of Jupiter in 6 BC cannot be reconciled with the two-year delay between the Magi’s sighting and their report to Herod about it. Another reason to look closely at the March 20, 6 BC occultation is its rarity: in an email to the Cambridge Conference discussion list posted at http://defendgaia.org/bobk/ccc/cc120501.html, Mark Kidger wrote:

Molnar's theory is important in that the event that he describes is genuinely very rare. I have checked all lunar occultations of Jupiter from 200BC to 1BC, some 390 in all, finding to my considerable surprise that only in 136BC and in 6BC did occultations take place in Aries.

Before continuing, we pause to note Cahn’s comment in his video: “Now we know astrology is wrong, bad, have nothing to do with it, but God is sovereign, and back then astrology and astronomy were basically the same.” By considering Molnar’s research as offering a possibly valid insight, we are not for a moment excusing what we think of as astrology today—the idea that our fate is controlled by the stars, an idea anathema to our omnipotent God. We are only recognizing the potential that God Himself, in this case, was using something, though corrupted by evil, for good. After all, God did say in Genesis that He made "the two great lights"—the Sun and Moon—and also the stars, to function as signs (Genesis 1:14–16). We have to find some way to accommodate this biblical fact in our thinking about it.

Now, Jupiter was known as the planet that, in the astrological symbolism of the Magi, signified a king, while Aries was the constellation connected with the land of Judea. Molnar states (p. 111):

The connection between Aries and Herod’s realm is discussed in the Tetrabiblos of Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. AD 100–178). Astrologers had compiled lists of countries that were said to be controlled by certain zodiacal signs. According to Ptolemy, Aries ruled “Coele Syria, Palestine, Idumaea, and Judaea” which comprised Herod’s kingdom.

Hence, the Magi read in the heavens, a “king of the Jews.” And not just any king, but an exceptionally significant one due to the astrologically noteworthy occultation (a kind of conjunction) of Jupiter by the Moon as Jupiter entered the constellation Aries. Molnar observes on page 120:

On 6 BC March 20 (March 18 Gregorian Calendar) 1 min after sunset in Jerusalem the Moon occulted [had a conjunction with] Jupiter while in Aries. Mars was also present in Aries about 7½° above the Moon and Jupiter. The occultation ended half an hour later almost on the horizon. Although this significant astrological event was hidden by the bright sky, the evidence is that the astrologers had mathematical skills to indicate that there was an occultation (emphasis and brackets added).

DANIEL9 JupiterOcculted 181217

A possible issue with Molnar’s thesis is the idea that a bright sky would have prevented the March 20 occultation from being visible. He apparently drew this conclusion with Jerusalem in mind. Since the Magi’s homeland was in Persia further to the east, however, the sun would have set earlier there, so that brightness might not have been a problem. Could this be checked?

At http://www.astro.rug.nl/~vdkruit/jea3/homepage/Bethlehem.pdf, Dr. Piet van der Kruit published a slide show (in Dutch) that looked at numerous options for the identity of the Star. Slide 76, presented as part of his discussion of Molnar’s ideas, illustrates (reproduced at right) the position of Jupiter relative to the Moon as viewed from Jerusalem. This prompted me to contact Dr. van der Kruit to ask if the conjunction would have been visible to the Magi back home in Persia as well. He kindly answered me the same day (personal communication, 12/21/18):

Central Persia (or Iran) is essentially at the same geographic latitude as Jerusalem. So, in general terms the configurations would look the same at the same local time. Also setting of the Sun, Moon, planets and other celestial objects occurs at roughly the same local time. But in Persia, being to the east, the local time is ahead of that of Jerusalem, meaning that the setting of the Sun, Moon, planets and other celestial objects occurs earlier in real time. I estimate the distance some 2000 km, which at geographical latitude 30 degrees corresponds to a difference in real time of roughly 1.3 hours. This means that the occultation happened well after the Moon and Jupiter had set in Persia and were below the horizon and invisible.

It thus appears doubtful that the Magi would have seen the actual occultation take place in real time in Persia. But by the same token, Jupiter would have been a more visible evening star to them. Matthew 2:2 has the Magi saying, “we saw his star in the east,” and this they could have done. They could have seen Jupiter entering Aries and approaching a new or very thin crescent Moon before the conjunction, with the conjunction being predicted from the known position of the Moon relative to Jupiter rather than actually being seen. It would have been the fact of the conjunction, rather than the real-time sighting of it taking place, that would have imparted extraordinary astrological significance to the event.

Now, understanding that the Magi were from Persia (where they were heirs of the divinely revealed insights of Daniel), they were looking west to see Jupiter enter Aries after dusk. Doesn’t this conflict with “we have seen his star in the east”? The solution lies in also reading Matthew 2:1, to give a little more context. That verse tells us, “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” “From the east” thus refers to the homeland of the Magi which was east of Jerusalem, not the location of the star in the sky. If we apply this context-dependent understanding to 2:2, the Magi were saying: “We saw his star when we were back home in Persia east of here, and have come west to worship him.” They would have had opportunity to see this phenomenon around dusk as they looked to their west. Suggesting, as Molnar does, that the text is talking about the "heliacal rising" of Jupiter due east some time after the Sun was already shining in the sky, is to read technical astronomy into a non-astronomical text. “In the east” needs to be understood contextually as referring to the Magi’s homeland relative to Judea.

A summary of Molnar’s findings aimed at a popular audience can be found online at http://movies2.nytimes.com/library/national/science/122199sci-archaeo-jupiter.html. Also, in a February 1998 NASA Astrophysics Data System article (The Observatory, vol. 118, pp. 22-24, online at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-data_query?bibcode=1998Obs...118...22D&link_type=ARTICLE), M.M. Dworetsky and S.J. Fossey reported that they confirmed Molnar’s conclusions using Dance of the Planets and SkyMap software.

[Addendum, 12/22/18: I obtained a copy of the free astronomy program Stellarium. After getting a basic feel for it, I somewhat arbitrarily chose Persepolis, Iran, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire ruled by Cyrus, as a possible home base of the Magi. Then I set the date for dusk on March 20, 6 BC (strangely, the software includes a year 0, so the year had to be set to -5), and the view due west from Persepolis. I was able to confirm for myself that there was an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries after sunset. Here is a screen capture from Stellarium of that information. One can see Jupiter and the Moon almost meeting on the horizon.]

DANIEL9 AriesConstellation 181217

For the moment, we will just keep in the back of our minds this detail: Molnar says that the Star was an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries, which took place around dusk on March 20, 6 BC. Both the year and the early spring timing is consistent with the other data we have turned up.

The Significance of Abijah’s Division

The story of the events leading up to the birth of John the Baptist, as given in Luke 1, is critical to our analysis. Here is an abridged version of this passage:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense…And an angel of the Lord appeared to him…the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John”…When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant… (Luke 1:5–24, emphasis added).

Pay close attention to the fact that John’s father Zacharias served at the Temple during the division of Abjah, with the conception of John the Baptist following very soon after (though precisely how soon is not specified). When, exactly, was that time of service? There are unfortunately many analyses in the literature on how to understand the timing of Abijah’s division, with all depending on one’s prior assumptions about how the divisions served in sequence over time. We will return to discuss this in detail after a short digression to ruminate on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

The Travels of Mary

Luke goes on to provide information on the timing of the birth of Jesus relative to John’s conception and birth in verses 1:26–60:

Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her…“behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus…And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now [already] in her sixth month…” Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”…And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home. Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son…“he shall be called John” (brackets and emphasis added).

From Gabriel’s announcement we learn that Elizabeth had already entered her sixth month of pregnancy before the eternally pre-existent Messiah began forming His human body, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), within the virgin’s womb. Mary’s pregnancy was later revealed by the Holy Spirit to Elizabeth, who could not possibly have known beforehand about it. This passage thus lets us know, since Mary was in her third of nine months when she left Elizabeth, that John would be born six months before Jesus. It also clarifies that Elizabeth had entered her sixth month prior to Mary’s conception, but we do not know exactly what week of that sixth month it was. It could have been any time from Elizabeth’s 23rd to 27th week. So we need to allow for a little flexibility to cover this unknown when we propose a timeline.

When did Mary go to visit Elizabeth? Insights into the likely timing may be gleaned from the impact of the normal climate cycle on her journey. First, her apparently solitary visit would not be expected to have taken place in the chill, rain and possible snow of winter, particularly in the hill country (Luke 1:39), but during the dry summer months when travel was easiest. (If we suppose Jesus' birth to have taken place around the Feast of Tabernacles, this would have placed Mary's visit to Elizabeth in the middle of the coldest and wettest part of winter, an unlikely trip for a woman traveling alone in the Judean highlands.) So we may expect Mary’s visit to have occurred sometime between late March and late October. But then, the Jewish religious calendar, with its various festivals that required attendance at Jerusalem (by the men, yes—but let's be honest, whenever possible the women would likely accompany their men), would have had a practical impact as well. They would have narrowed the travel window further, so that Mary’s trip most likely took place during the gap between the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot (late May/early June—see https://www.hebcal.com/holidays/shavuot) and the Feast of Trumpets at the start of Tishri (mid-September/early October—see https://www.hebcal.com/holidays/rosh-hashana). This would probably place Mary’s visit, and thus Jesus’ conception, during a three-month period between June and September. So, as far as Mary’s travel considerations have any bearing on it, Jesus’ conception was most probably around late May to mid-June. Since for other reasons we are working with the hypothesis that Jesus was born in 6 BC, His conception would have taken place in 7 BC. We thus propose it occurred shortly after she presumably returned with Joseph from the one-day Shavuot celebration, which was on June 7 that year. We thus place Mary’s visit to Elizabeth a week later, say June 14. Tishri 1 was on September 24 that year, so we do have a three-month window between the festivals to accommodate Mary’s visit.

There is one other detail we can draw out from this story if we read it closely. Did you notice that Mary left Elizabeth just before John’s birth? If she had arrived during Elizabeth’s sixth month and departed after staying “about three months,” John was practically a full-term baby when Mary left. Why did she not extend her visit just a little longer to see John born? Given the natural affinity of women to be involved in the birth events of close friends and relatives, her departure time seems rather awkward, to say the least. Earlier, I had supposed that she wanted to get home before winter's rains arrived, but there is a better explanation: the impending arrival of the Feast of Trumpets on Tishri 1 (Rosh Hashanah). Mary would understandably have wished to be back home with Joseph for this significant holy day. Thus, I suggest she may have departed Elizabeth's a short time before Tishri 1. That being September 24, 7 BC, we propose she left Elizabeth’s about a week earlier, say September 17. All told, her three-month visit with Elizabeth spanned June 14 through September 17, 7 BC—a visit of “about three months.”

This raises the possibility that John could have been born on Tishri 1. We know that John was born six months before Jesus. If John was born on Tishri 1—the original Jewish New Year, before God changed the calendar to instead begin with Nisan 1—Jesus could have been born on Nisan 1, Rosh Chodashim, as was suggested by Jonathan Cahn.

Hmmm…it is a tantalizing idea. It remains to be seen if other details are consistent with it. Let’s keep this suggestion in mind as this study continues to unfold. These considerations have a bearing on narrowing down the precise week when Abijah’s division served in the period of 6-8 BC. We want the selected week to be free of any conflicts with Mary’s travel requirements, and if possible, to explain her unusual departure from Elizabeth right before the birth of John.

Figuring Out the Priestly Cycles

Now we come to the area which took by far the most effort in this study. If we can pinpoint the week when the division of Abijah was serving when Zacharias had his encounter with Gabriel, we would surmount a major hurdle in figuring out when the Savior was probably born. We first need to pull together some background information.

1 Chronicles 24: The 24 Divisions of Priests

We first turn to 1 Chronicles 24:1–18. That passage presents us with the order in which the priestly divisions served in the Temple, and is really stark in its simplicity:

Now the divisions of the descendants of Aaron…they were divided by lot…
Now the first lot came out for Jehoiarib, the second for Jedaiah,
the third for Harim, the fourth for Seorim,
the fifth for Malchijah, the sixth for Mijamin,
the seventh for Hakkoz, the eighth for Abijah,
the ninth for Jeshua, the tenth for Shecaniah,
the eleventh for Eliashib, the twelfth for Jakim,
the thirteenth for Huppah, the fourteenth for Jeshebeab,
the fifteenth for Bilgah, the sixteenth for Immer,
the seventeenth for Hezir, the eighteenth for Happizzez,
the nineteenth for Pethahiah, the twentieth for Jehezkel,
the twenty-first for Jachin, the twenty-second for Gamul,
the twenty-third for Delaiah, the twenty-fourth for Maaziah.

Here we have the biblically-sanctioned service sequence for the 24 divisions of priests. Two in particular, highlighted in bold, are noteworthy. The first in the sequence was Jehoiarib, while the eighth was Abijah. We know the latter’s division was on duty when Zacharias saw Gabriel in the Temple, but we also need to know when, exactly, at least one division served in order to place Abijah’s service to a timeline. Can such an anchor point be found?

Talmud Ta’anit 29a: Finding an Anchor Point

Thankfully, God does not leave us hanging, and the answer is yes! But it is not in Scripture that we find it, but in history recorded in the Talmud, in Ta’anit 29a:

The Sages said: When the Temple was destroyed for the first time [in 587 BC], that day was the Ninth of Av; and it was the conclusion of Shabbat; and it was the year after a Sabbatical Year; and it was the week of the priestly watch of Jehoiarib; and the Levites were singing the song and standing on their platform. And what song were they singing? They were singing the verse: “And He brought upon them their own iniquity, and He will cut them off in their own evil” (Psalms 94:23). And they did not manage to recite the end of the verse: “The Lord our God will cut them off,” before gentiles came and conquered them. And likewise, the same happened when the Second Temple was destroyed (https://www.sefaria.org/Taanit.29a, emphasis and brackets added).

For completeness we point out that there seem to be conflicts between the Scriptures, Josephus and the Mishnah on how to relate the ninth and tenth of Av to the start of the Temple’s burning. This issue is discussed at length by Kenneth Doig at http://www.nowoezone.com/NTC07.htm. Briefly we will just say here that, since we take Scripture as inerrant, we go with what Jeremiah 52:12–13 states about the intentional burning of the First Temple:

Now on the tenth day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard, who was in the service of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the LORD, the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every large house he burned with fire.

This fits with Josephus’ comment in Wars 6.4.5: “as for that house [the Second Temple], God had long ago doomed it to the fire; and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution of ages: it was the tenth day of the month Lous [Ab], upon which it was formerly burnt by the king of Babylon” (emphasis and brackets added).

Thus, Jeremiah and Josephus speak with one voice that both destructions are properly placed on Sunday, Av 10, in the week of Jehoiarib’s service. The rabbinical sages, being much closer in time to the AD 70 destruction, appear to have extrapolated the accurately-remembered start of the later destruction’s burning—an accident caused by the Roman soldiers on Av 9 as that Sabbath was coming to a close (not after it, but near its end, approaching sunset on Saturday)—to the similar event in 587 BC, which was actually done on Av 10.

Josephus: The Start and End of Each Priestly Cycle

Josephus also helps us in two other passages to understand how the Sabbath-to-Sabbath service of each priestly division was implemented:

But David…having first numbered the Levites…divided them also into courses: and when he had separated the Priests from them, he found of these Priests twenty four courses: sixteen of the house of Eleazar, and eight of that of Ithamar: and he ordained that one course should minister to God eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath (Ant. 7.14.7 [7.365 Loeb**], emphasis added).

To this we add information from Against Apion 2:8, indicating that the service specifically began after midday of the first Sabbath in the cycle, and ended before midday of the following Sabbath:

…yet do they [the priests] officiate on certain days only. And when those days are over, other priests succeed in the performance of their sacrifices; and assemble together at midday; and receive the keys of the temple…(emphasis added).

These passages tell us that Jehoiarib’s schedule in AD 70 would have him on duty, using Julian dating, from midday Saturday, August 4 (Av 9) until midday Saturday morning, August 11 (Av 16). This week is our anchor point for evaluating the chronology of the birth of John the Baptist.

Continuous Cycles or Annually Reset?

Another question that different interpreters have handled variously has to be addressed now: how were the cycles implemented? We have two basic options. One is that, once started on some unknown Nisan 1 with Jehoiarib, the priestly cycles operated continuously. This would result in Jehoiarib being displaced from the week of Nisan 1 in future years. Others suggest the priestly cycle reset every year, with Jehoiarib always serving the week of Nisan 1. Which is right?

The 1 Chronicles 24 passage given above is so straightforward, with one name following the next without missing a beat or adding any extra information, it seemingly demands that a regular, ongoing rotation of the 24 Levitical families is meant, without any resets or interruptions to its continual linear sequence. All that matters is the sequence of names. The text does not consider important exactly when in the year a division would serve, nor does it mention how often each would serve in a single year. (We know each division served at least twice each year, but the text does not even tell us that simple fact, leaving us to deduce that we are to tack on another 24-division sequence as soon as the earlier one has completed). The absence of even such basic guidance implies there were no restrictions on the cyclical continuity of the sequences. Cycle after cycle would repeat ad infinitum as long as political realities permitted. Whether any given week was part of a standard calendar month or an intercalary addition (like a leap year, to bring the calendar back into synchrony with the equinoxes and the growing season, see below) would make no difference. If there was a week to be filled by priestly service, the next division in the sequence would answer the call.

R.T. Beckwith, in “St. Luke, the Date of Christmas and the Priestly Courses at Qumran,” RQ 9 (1977), raises a dissenting voice against this apparently straightforward understanding of the division cycles. Beckwith concludes that the priestly divisions at Qumran began anew each year, with Jehoiarib always serving on the New Year of Tishri 1. However, this suggestion clashes with a fact that we have observed repeatedly in this ongoing study, that there is abundant evidence that the Jews used Nisan 1 as their New Year after the Babylonian exile, not Tishri 1. Jack Finegan (Handbook, rev. ed., §246) observes that at the start of one six-year priestly cycle, one papyrus fragment from the Qumran caves says the family of Gamul, not Jehoiarib, began that year’s cycle on Nisan 1. This actually supports the understanding, contra Beckwith, that the priestly rotations did not reset each year with Jehoiarib covering Nisan 1. That this single reference happens to place Jehoiarib’s service on Tishri 1 can be viewed as a coincidence of that particular year, not a prescription for Tishri 1 being the change point every year. In the end, which way one comes down on Beckwith depends on the prior assumptions one brings to his work. It is inconclusive—but, after all, it is talking about the idiosyncratic Qumran sect, not the Jerusalem-centered priestly courses we are concerned with. Thus, we regard it as an unhelpful rabbit-trail we will henceforth ignore.

Therefore, each year presents 52 weekly slots to be filled by a division. With 24 slots constituting one full priestly cycle, two cycles could be completely filled each year, totaling 48 weeks. This would leave four weeks remaining, to be filled according to the 1 Chronicles 24 sequence. After the first year, whenever it was, subsequent years would start with a priest other than Jehoiarib serving during the week containing Nisan 1, as the four extra weeks in the year had their offsetting effect on the sequence of priests.

Priestly Service on the Pilgrimage Festivals

An additional question is how to relate the priestly cycle to the combined service of all 24 divisions on the three pilgrimage festivals mentioned earlier. “On the three pilgrim festivals, all the 24 mishmarot [divisions] officiated together” (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mishmarot-ma-amadot, cf. Mishnah Sukkah 5:7–8). The question is, were these periods of combined service interruptions to the normal sequence given in 1 Chronicles 24, or did they merely involve reinforcements joining the regularly-scheduled division to handle the unusually large crowds at those times?

It appears the latter is the case, otherwise the 1 Chronicles 24 schedule is no longer the continuous linear sequence of service times it presents itself as. We agree with Finegan (Handbook, rev. ed., §241) that maintaining this regular sequence requires viewing the extra 23 divisions at the pilgrimage festivals as reinforcements to handle the larger crowds at Jerusalem, but the week the festival lands in is still reckoned as that of the normal sequence division. Thus, a complete priestly cycle remains as Scripture puts it, a cycle of 24 weeks. After all, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot, was only observed for a single day, not a week. We might look at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Tabernacles as whole-week festivals that could perhaps interrupt the order of 24 week-long divisions, but Shavuot cannot be viewed this way. It is the exception that proves the rule.

Therefore, in what follows we will place every division in its biblically-sanctioned weekly slot in a continuous, uninterrupted sequence, and on the three pilgrimage festivals view the attendance of the other divisions as supplemental manpower to help the regularly assigned division deal with the overflowing crowds.

Accounting for the Added Intercalary Months

To construct a timeline of priestly cycles extending back from Jehoiarib in AD 70 to Abijah around 6 to 8 BC, we also must account for weeks added to the Jewish calendar when it was periodically corrected with intercalary months. These were required on a regular basis to prevent the agricultural seasons from getting out of sync with the calendar over time. This involved adding the extra month of Adar II (discussed in detail at https://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Rosh_Chodesh/Adar/adar.html) according to the so-called Metonic cycle. Even though, in the biblical period, the Jews used visual sighting of the first lunar crescent to set the start of months (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1) rather than a calculated calendar, it is not as if they were taken by surprise by the need to add an extra month to any particular year. They would have known there were extra weeks coming up well ahead of time and would have planned for them. The 19-year Metonic cycle of intercalations had been known since the Greek astronomer Meton devised it around 432 BC, and the Jewish people were familiar with it from the time of Alexander on. We may be confident that the sages would have had the foresight to account for such added weeks in determining when the priestly divisions would serve.

In our search for the course of Abijah during which Zacharias had his angelic encounter, we will use the calendars published at http://www.cgsf.org/dbeattie/calendar/?roman=70. They have already done the hard work of applying all the needed 19-year Metonic cycle intercalations to the Jewish calendar, and then synchronized it with the corresponding Julian dates. For the period we are interested in, from the fall of the Temple in AD 70 back to 8 BC, this strategy takes into account all of the weeks the Jews added to accommodate their intercalations. All we then must do is tie the weekly 1 Chronicles 24 priestly cycles into it. (Those who wish to delve further into the intricacies of calendar calculations are encouraged to investigate the information at https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Mathematics_of_the_Jewish_Calendar/The_recurrence_period_of_the_calendar.)

A major advantage to this approach is that it eliminates the need for us to sweat the details of how, exactly, intercalation was done by the Jews. Nor is there any reason to concern ourselves with the eye-glazing intricacies of intercalations for the Qumran calendar as Beckwith did, mentioned above. Although Jack Finegan (Handbook, rev. ed., §244-249) devotes some time to presenting Qumran calendar matters, we can ignore that material for our purposes, since our key date for tracking the priestly cycles—Jehoiarib's service beginning the evening of Av 9, 70 BC—is predicated on the calendar norms used by the priests at Jerusalem. Whatever the sect at Qumran might have done with their calendar is nothing more than a matter of scholarly curiosity. In writing this I am not disparaging the prodigious, detailed work various scholars have poured into their Qumran calendar studies, only pointing out that it does not apply to the task at hand.

We also acknowledge there were interruptions in the faithful observance of the priestly cycles at times in Jewish history (as pointed out by Doig at http://www.nowoezone.com/NTC07.htm), but these do not concern us either. Only the years from Herod the Great to Titus are pertinent, and they were a period of stability for Jewish religious practice at the Temple. There are no gaps to account for when the regular progression of the priestly cycles might have been interrupted during that period.

Pinpointing When Abijah’s Division Served

Having now finished laying the groundwork, without further ado we are ready to figure out when Abijah’s division served.

Jehoiarib’s division was on duty in AD 70 from August 4–11 (Av 9 [evening]–Av 16 [morning]). This being Division 1 of 24, it means the division that had served the previous week, July 28–August 4 (Av 2 [evening]–Av 9 [morning]), was Division 24, Maaziah. We continue to follow this pattern back in time, Delaiah > Gamul > Jachin > etc., week after week, in unvarying and predictable sequence. We take into account all intercalary months, plugging the priestly divisions into every added Adar II as needed, without disturbing their regular sequence. We add 23 divisions of reinforcements on each of the three pilgrimage festivals, while keeping the weeks of those festivals locked to the division whose sequence it was. It’s pretty straightforward, once all the research was done to find explicit justification for how to handle the priestly cycles. More often than not, the various attempts of various scholars to contribute “fresh, unique insights” did nothing but confuse the issue.

A great deal of time was spend keying into a spreadsheet the Sabbath dates (both Julian and Jewish), which were also division start dates, for every year from AD 70 down to 8 BC. The calendars at http://www.cgsf.org/dbeattie/calendar/?roman=70 were a tremendous help in accomplishing this. Then the proper division was applied to every week. Cycle numbers were also added, to more easily identify what block of 24 divisions was being referred to. If the cycle starting with Jehoiarib the week of Av 9 in AD 70 (August 4) is designated Cycle 1, then Cycle 2, again starting with Jehoiarib, would have started 24 weeks earlier on Shebet 18, AD 70 (February 17). Continuing blocks of 24 divisions back in time eventually brings us to the start of Cycle 168, where we find Jehoiarib serving the week of Tishri 6, 8 BC (October 11).

Now, since our interest is in finding a date for the division of Abijah that fits smoothly with all of the accumulated information laid out above, I flagged dates when Abijah’s division served between 8 and 6 BC. These included Heshvan 25, 8 BC (November 29); Iyar 17, 7 BC (May 16); Heshvan 8, 7 BC (October 31); Nisan 29, 6 BC (April 17); and Tishri 20, 6 BC (October 2). This gives us several candidates for Zacharias’ week of service. I then compared those candidates to other criteria looked at previously, especially the following events and the significance attached to them:

Slaughter of the innocents – over a year before fall of 5 BC, spring of 6 BC works
Quirinius census – while Saturninus was governor, early 6 BC
Mary visits Elizabeth – shortly after last spring festival, Shavuot
Mary leaves Elizabeth – just before John’s birth, due to Rosh Hashanah (Tishri 1)
Jesus born six months after John – consistent with Nisan 1
Tabernacle completed on Nisan 1 – Jesus born that date by “tabernacling” analogy
Star of Bethlehem – occultation of Jupiter in Aries on March 20, 6 BC
The shepherds in the fields – probably after mid-March in the highlands

Looking these over, we see that the spring/March/Nisan timeframe comes up repeatedly, plus there is the precise proposed Star of Bethlehem date, March 20, 6 BC. The astronomer, Molnar, nowhere says anything about Jewish dates, and seems not to have considered their significance. There’s not a whisper about Nisan, Tishri, or anything of the sort in his article. We should not be surprised at this, for after all, he is a scientist, not a theologian. But if we check that date against a Jewish calendar, what do we find? In 6 BC, March 20 landed on Nisan 1.

This is a rather stunning discovery, so our attention is immediately narrowed down to looking for a week compatible with it for Abijah’s service. If we provisionally take Nisan 1, 6 BC as the birth date of Jesus, counting back 40 weeks, a full-term pregnancy for Mary, takes us to Elizabeth’s sixth month. There is nothing in Scripture I am aware of that allows us to specify precisely when within that sixth month Mary showed up at Elizabeth’s door, so we allow for some ambiguity here. Let us be generous and say, since the sixth month of pregnancy is generally regarded as weeks 23–27, Mary’s conception could have taken place anytime during that sixth month, so we will count back an additional 27 weeks. This would bring us to the approximate date John was conceived. Then there is another unknown, the amount of time from when Zacharias’ service (Abijah’s division) began until John’s conception. The Jewish custom of niddah, ritual purity separation during menstruation, may come into the picture here as well, since Elizabeth would probably have (unexpectedly!) started menstruating again while Zacharias was away on duty. To accommodate this possibility, let us add another week.

All told, then, based on pregnancy considerations alone, we are looking at the passing of about 68 weeks between the birth of Christ and the week of Zacharias’ service. What week do we get if we suppose Jesus was born on Nisan 1, 6 BC, and go back 68 weeks? The week of Heshvan 25–Kislev 3, 8 BC (November 29–December 6), when Abijah’s division was on duty.

Let us further analyze this scenario from the perspective of Mary’s travels. We proposed that she did not leave for Elizabeth's until after the spring festival season had completed. (This would be consistent with the grace of God, for it would spare Mary the need to travel in the cold and wet of winter, which would have been the case if Jesus had been born during the Feast of Tabernacles.) After staying for three months with Elizabeth, she returned home without waiting to see John born because of the impending Feast of Trumpets, Rosh Hashanah, on Tishri 1. In 7 BC Shavuot, the pilgrimage Feast of Weeks, was on Sivan 10 (June 7), squarely in the middle of Elizabeth’s sixth month on the proposed chart that follows. So this works out just fine. And at the other end of her visit, we proposed that she left shortly before Tishri 1, just before John’s birth. In 7 BC, Rosh Hashanah just happened to take place during the 40th week of John’s conception! Yes, Mary’s travels fit this date, too. I do not think it would be a coincidence if God, thinking of type/antitype significance with His date choices, chose to have John born exactly on Tishri 1 as the forerunner for Jesus who was born on Nisan 1. This degree of precision is not provable from the records we have, though. Holding it is a matter of faith, but one I personally am comfortable with.

DANIEL9 ChristBirthChartSmall 181217

(The full version of this chart, with all priestly divisions given from AD 70 to 8 BC, can be seen HERE. Charts last updated 12/27/2018.)

Conclusions

In this study we have demonstrated very strong support for the idea that Jesus the Messiah was born on the Sabbath-opening evening of Nisan 1, 6 BC. It was a night when Persian astronomers could see the astrologically significant phenomenon of Jupiter, the “king” star, being occulted by the Moon as it entered Aries, the constellation signifying Judea. Nisan 1 was the date that God first tabernacled with the Israelites at Sinai, so it was a fitting day for Him to also “tabernacle” with mankind in the person of His Son. This early spring date would likewise accommodate Mary and Joseph’s travel to Bethlehem for a 6 BC census, without conflicting with required attendance at a pilgrimage festival. The weather was improving by that time, so the required journey from Nazareth was not a great hardship, and it was also possible for the shepherds to keep their flocks outside in the fields and watch over them by night. Six months earlier, John the Baptist would have been born, right after Mary had to leave Elizabeth, after going to visit her once Shavuot was out of the way. And finally, six months earlier yet, Zacharias was serving in the Temple as part of the regular service of the division of Abijah, between November 29 and December 6, 8 BC.

In the end, this researcher now feels quite satisfied that, against all expectations, it is possible to say with a great deal of assurance that we can identify when the Savior was born. The year was 6 BC, and it happened the Sabbath night of Nisan 1. The way all of the various factors fit together is a powerful indication that there is indeed an all-powerful God who involves Himself in human affairs, who loves us so much that He sent His Son into the world to die for sin on our behalf. It is also a testimony of the truth of the inspiration of Scripture. We can trust it as His very Word to men.

As far as The Daniel 9:24–27 Project is concerned, what we take away from this particular study is yet another confirmation that the timetable we have been developing is correct. Its support for a 6 BC date for the Lord’s birth reaffirms, once again, that Christ was born about two years before Herod the Great’s death in the spring of 4 BC. In turn, we can have confidence in our earlier analysis that places His Crucifixion on Passover, Nisan 14, AD 30. His baptism would have been in the fall of AD 27. We will later find this date to be of critical importance when we examine in detail the text of Daniel 9.

*This section updated 12/21/2018.   **Corrected citation and added Loeb edition reference 9/25/2019.

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Addressing Some Other Objections to Herod's Death in 4 BC

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at several historical evidences which indicate the death of Herod the Great took place shortly before Passover in 4 BC. They included the practical effects of closing the Mediterranean to sea traffic during the storm-prone winter months from November into early March; the vandalizing of Herod’s golden eagle over the Temple and the resulting trial at Jericho, closely followed by a lunar eclipse; and the fact that all the events involved in the closing weeks of Herod’s life that Josephus reports can be reasonably fit into the period between that eclipse and the Passover in 4 BC.

We now conclude this study of the death date of Herod by looking at a few additional ideas raised by a few commentators against the 4 BC theory: some points raised by Ernest L. Martin regarding the sheloshim mourning period observed by Archelaus in the aftermath of Herod’s death; perceived problems in accounting for the observation of Purim right after the trial at Jericho; and how the reigns of the sons of Herod impact how we view the date of Herod’s death.

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Introduction

In the most recent article in The Daniel 9:24–27 Project series (The First Year of Herod the Great's Reign) we looked in detail at when the reign of Herod the Great began. That study examined what two of the main advocates of a 39 BC start for Herod’s reign, W.E. Filmer and Andrew E. Steinmann, had written in defense of their position. After looking at several aspects of their case, we concluded that their approach required ignoring some details, interpreting others inconsistent with a straightforward reading, and proposing errors by Josephus even for events he dated by two mutually-corroborating methods. Particularly troubling was their refusal to regard Antigonus as the full-fledged king of the Jews preceding Herod, viewing him only as a high priest in order to defend their thesis. We concluded that only when we acknowledge that Herod did not truly become king of the Jews until King Antigonus died in the summer of 37 BC are we able to come to valid conclusions about his reign.

With a 37 BC date for the start of Herod’s reign thus set on a firm foundation, we will now look at some events connected with his death. Doing so will help us evaluate the arguments of those who advocate a 1 BC date for Herod’s death, with its ramifications for the dates of Christ’s birth and crucifixion.

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ABRT 28 | 8/1/2019