The Christmas Star

December 2008 began what appears to be an annual showing of The Christmas Star on television around Christmas time. There have been a number of emails regarding the timing of the Christmas events. Instead of copying every letter, here is some basic explanation from Barry:

The Timing of the Birth

The Calendar at the Time of the Romans

The Death of Herod

Roman-Parthian Wars

First, thank you all for your notes of appreciation. It is great to know that you enjoyed the programme.

Regarding the time that elapsed between the Birth and the coming of the Magoi. I believe that it was somewhat longer than some think [that the Magoi must have visited Jesus when He was just two or three months old]. There are several reasons for this. First look at the description of Jesus when the Shepherds saw Him. He had just been born. He was described as a "Babe lying in a manger". In Matthew 2 he is no longer a Babe or an "infant" but has grow up into a "young child". It is at this point that we need to understand the various Jewish terms used to describe children at their various stages of growth.

Alfred Edersheim, in Sketches of Jewish Social Life chapter 7 on the 'Upbringing of Jewish Children' lists the stages of growth as follows:

1. Newborn
2. Suckling baby
3. Suckling who also eats food
4. Weaned child (always under 3 years old)
5. Young Child - one who still clings to mother
6. Independent or free child
7. Boy or Girl (or Firm or Strong child) - adolescent or 'youth'.
8. Young warrier (someone who is capable of supporting a family) - young man
9. Man - 30 years or over.

Note that in Matthew 2 Jesus is described as in item 5 above - a young child - one who is probably weaned, but still stays close to his mother. This fits the description of Jesus as being something over a year old. This therefore means that Joseph and Mary had resided in Bethlehem for over a year when the Persian Magoi came to visit Him.

As for Luke's apparent omission of the wise-men and the flight to Egypt, allow me to insert here something which I wrote in response to another question on this topic.

You mention that you think that the Magoi might have seen Yeshua in Nazareth rather than in Bethlehem. You do this on the basis of Luke 2:39 rather than follow through on Matthew's account in Matthew 2:5-23. Luke states "And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth." However, Luke is giving a very brief overview at this point, while Matthew is giving us far more detail. Note that even in Matthew's account, Yeshua ends up in Nazareth, so they both agree on that point. Further, since Matthew was the one who had to give a written account to the Roman officials on matters of tax-gathering and related issues, it is like him to give an extended account of this part of the Birth that has occupied his attention. So I believe that Matthew is "telling it like it is" and that Yeshua was still in Bethlehem when the Magoi saw Him! However, I also believe that Luke is telling the absolute Truth, even though his is an abbreviated account of this segment of the story.

I believe that reconciliation between the two accounts may be made on the following grounds. Note that Luke stated in 2:39 that it was only AFTER ALL THINGS had been done to fulfill the Law that they went back to Nazareth. Now it is a frequent Jewish idiom to mean the whole Tenach when they say "the Law." In this case, Luke uses a very general word, (nomos, Strong's 3551) which has a wide variety of meanings which would include the whole body of Scripture. Therefore, we may translate Luke as saying that they went back to Nazareth after all things in Scripture relating to His Birth had been fulfilled.

In light of this, what does Matthew say? Mat. 2:6 says He had to be born in Bethlehem "for thus it is written by the prophet"; and Mat. 2:15 says he had to go down to Egypt and be called back again "which was spoken through the prophet," and that the children in the area around Bethlehem had to be killed because (Mat. 2:17) it had to be "fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet". Then, Finally, he returned to Nazareth "to fulfill which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene'." This latter reference is to Isaiah 11:1 where Messiah is a called the Branch (natsar, Strong's 5341). In other words, Matthew actually lists off for us all that the Law required to happen to Messiah before he could settle in Nazareth, while Luke simply alludes to the fact that these prophecies and other requirements of the Law were fulfilled before He went to Galilee.

There is another practical reason why they remained at Bethlehem. Mary had just had a horrific journey to get there, and then given Birth. It would be ridiculous to track back to Nazareth while she was still nursing her baby. It would be a severe test for both mother and Baby and would endanger the health of both. It made far more sense to stay with their relatives in Bethlehem who could accomodate them until a more convenient moment arrived for the infant to be transported. So from both a practical and a Scriptural viewpoint, it becomes apparent why their stay in Bethlehem was longer than a casual reading of Luke might suggest. Sometimes it is necessary to dig a bit deeper!

There is another reason why there was an extended stay in Bethlehem. The Shepherds had told the whole town about the message from the angels, so all would know about the Birth of Messiah as well as his identity. The whole town would have encouraged them to stay as long as possible. For these reasons, Joseph would also have been welcomed into the community with his carpentry skills and earn sufficient to keep his young family going. Later, the gifts from the Magoi would have supplied the finance to keep them in Egypt until the angel told them to move back to Judea and then Nazareth. 

As far as the route that the Wise-men (Magoi) took there are several considerations.

1. The star was going basically directly Westward. They followed the star.
2. The usual route northward along the river, then down through Syria parallel to the Mediterranean coast was fraught with dangerous encounters with the Romans. That would have been avoided at all costs. The armed regiments would have sparked incidents which they would want to avoid.
3. If they had come via the river-Mediterranean route, Herod would have heard of their approach long before they arrived and would have had Roman forces out. As it was, Herod was taken completely by surprise.
4. This implies that they traveled the quickest and least frequented route.
5. These four considerations indicate the Magoi traveled almost due westward across the desert, and there were at least three routes available to them in that case.
6. These direct routes would take no more than 6 weeks by horse. They were on a mission, and so there would be no leisurely travel.
7. They returned to Persia via the more southerly of the three routes across the desert to keep as far away from Herod and the Romans as possible.


The Timing of the Birth of Jesus from an article by Hani Abu Dayyeh, reprinted here with his permission:

Shepherding in the Holy Land¬† (HANI -¬† 12-09) 

I have an interpretation based also on a very old way of life.

I would say the correct date will be more like Sept. Here is my reasoning drawn from own cultural heritage:

The shepherd's throughout history would be moving between The Jordan Valley in the winter where it is warm and they move out in the spring time as the Judean Hills begin to get green from the winter rains.

In March they would be at the lower side of the Judean Hills where it would get green earlier and they will keep moving up in search of the tufts of grass and greenery as the months progress into late spring and summer where it gets greener at the higher elevations. 

The harvest of the wheat in the Bethlehem region and certainly in the shepherd's fields will occur in August. The farmers will allow the shepherds to come into their fields after the harvest and after the poor people are allowed to go into the fields to glean the wheat ( Book of Ruth ).

This is practiced in our villages till to date ( The poor people after the harvest of the Olives would wait until the owners finish harvesting the olives and then they are allowed to go in to glean what is left. They are called in our language "Mitsayfin" - drawn from the word which means summer.

By our tradition we are told not to be too meticulous in picking all the olives. But to leave some for the  "Mitsayfin" as it brings blessing to our household and promises a better harvest next year.  

This whole process would be finished by the end of August beginning of September. The owners of the fields only then will allow the shepherd's to bring in their flocks in ot their fields as it does help the farmer.  The sheep will eat what is left of the wheat stalks and would fertilize the lands by the droppings as they are eating too.

If those shepherd's bring in their sheep in March when the wheat barely start popping out of the soil or where the animals can trample the well ploughed and sown soil, you will have a war on your hands. A war that has been fought throughout history - Cain and Able, The Bedouins and the farmers, the cowboys and the sod busters.  

Question from a reader

Dear Mr. Setterfield, I found your article 'The Christmas Star' on the web fascinating & very well researched. I am presently studying a manuscript supposedly written between 70 AD & 125 AD by Cement Bishop of Rome. In it he gives a date of Christ's birth as 'the 25th day, the 9th month' & Jesus' baptism 'the 6th day, the 10th month'. Could you tell me, from a perspective of a Roman citizen of that time, what calendar was Clement using & what dates would these be according to the calendar we use today?

Barry Setterfield: 

Thanks for your encouraging e-mail.

You ask about the date of Christ's birth given by Clement of Rome and the calendar in use. Remember that Julius Caesar had reformed the calendar to have the twelve months that we have now and gave his name to July. Augustus, who followed him, also appended his name to the following month and gave us August. Christ was born after these events and Clement was writing of the calendar in use in these later times. Therefore, the 25th day of the 9th month was 25th September, which was the Feast of Tabernacles. It is apparent that Clement considered the Scriptural statement in John 1 that "The Word became flesh and TABERNACLED amongst us" to be the defining point for the Birth, even though that had probably occurred a few days earlier. However, the general time is quite correct, as all three Jewish Feasts of September are closely linked with the Nativity.

As for Jesus Baptism on the 6th day of the 10th month, that was October. In his comprehensive work "Explore the Book", Dr. Sidlow Baxter in the first lecture for John points out that from Jesus baptism to the beginning of His ministry in Galilee was about 4 to 5 months, and the first 5 chapters of John all fit in there. In those chapters we find in John 1:29 that Jesus returned after his wilderness temptation to the area where John was baptizing, and the Cana wedding was three days after that. Following that Jesus went down to Capernaum with His disciples and His mother "and they continued there not many days." Following this is the Passover in Jerusalem, which would be (early) April. If we back-track 40 days for the wilderness temptation, a few days to get to the wilderness after the Baptism and a further few days to return plus the extra three days to the Cana wedding and a few more for time in Capernaum and then the journey to Jerusalem we are looking at a total of about 60 days or two months from the Baptism to the Passover. This reasoning makes the Baptism sometime towards the end of January when the waters would be icy. This does not seem likely. Where have we gone wrong?

I believe that Dr. Baxter is on the right track but has forgotten an important point from Luke 4. There, in verse 14 we find that "Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit from Jordan into Galilee ... and taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all." He THEN came to Nazareth and was thrown out of the city, which prompted His move to Capernaum where he continued to teach (Luke 4:31). It is for that reason that Jesus went down to Capernaum with His disciples and His mother in the John account. They had already shifted their abode to Capernaum after the Nazareth rejection, and it is there that Jesus returns after the Cana wedding. Hitherto He had only TAUGHT. But now at Cana He performs His first miracle. He had hinted that miracles would come in Luke 4:25 and 27, but it is nowhere stated that He actually did any miracles prior to Luke 4:33 which verse begins a separate section. Indeed we are only told that He taught, and that His word was with authority.

Therefore, it seems very reasonable for an additional 4 months to be covered by these events, making the first Passover feast of Jesus ministry some 6 months after His Baptism. The Baptism date given by Clement of Rome as the 6th October is therefore likely to be accurate.

I trust that these comments are helpful.

Question from a viewer:

In your technical notes on the Christmas Star you say that according to Josephus a Jewish holiday celebrated Herod's death on 2 Shebat, which came just 15 days after the eclipse. You don't cite the specific reference in the works of Josephus and I wonder if you can provide it.

Barry Setterfield:

Many thanks for your e-mail with its question.

The answer is that Josephus provided half of the information needed for the conclusion reached in the notes, while another Jewish commentary provided the second half of the information. For the sake of brevity, Josephus was attributed alone.

Here are the details. Josephus mentions that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the Moon seen in that region. This is recorded in Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews" Book 17, Chapter 6 end of section 4 (or in segment 167, whichever your version has it). This was a full, not a partial eclipse as is usually assumed. This is the case since it was directly associated with the murder of Jewish nationals by Herod's command that same day. A blood red Moon is the usual association with such events and this requires a full, not a partial eclipse.

The second half of the information comes from the Jewish tractate Megillat Ta'anit or "Scroll of Fasting." This work lists the days when "any joyous event could not be celebrated" that is to say the days when fasting is appropriate. However, it includes two semi-festival days when no mourning is permitted. The first of these is Chislev 7 and the second is 2 Shebat. The Jewish commentator states that "On that day, Herod died." The only eclipse associated near those dates is the one on the 10th January 1 BC. Since that eclipse is after the 7th Chislev but is 18 days before 2 Shebat in that year, then from Josephius comment it follows that it must be the 2 Shebat that Herod died and his passing celebrated accordingly.

Some of this is mentioned in "Handbook of Biblical Chronology - Revised Edition" by Jack Finegan, chapter 5, paragraph 506 (Hendrickson Publishers 1999). But despite all this evidence, Finegan favors the traditional partial eclipse of the Moon in 4 BC and comes to conclusions on that basis.

I hope that gives you the information that you need.