Sunday, December 21, 2008

Celebrating Jesus' Birth

When Was Jesus Born?

There have been a number of theories about when Christ was actually born, but most of the evidence points to either 5 or 4 BC. The Bible records that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign, and Herod died in 4 BC. Consequently, Jesus could not have been born any later than 4 BC.

The scriptures also mention a Roman census at the time of Jesus birth. It is known that Herod the Great was a friend of Mark Antony. He, in turn, was on intimate terms with Caesar Augustus, who ordered this census. The census that most closely corresponds to the one mentioned in Luke is the Imperial Citizens Census decreed in 8 BC. Undoubtedly such an extensive census would have taken several years to complete and probably reached Palestine around 6 to 5 BC.

If Jesus was born in the winter of 6 BC, he would have been close to two years old when Herod ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed not long before he died a painful death in the spring of 4 BC. If Jesus was born in 5 BC, then he would still have been a baby when his parents secretly fled with him to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous designs.

Where Was Jesus Born?

Accounts of Jesus’ birth were documented early on. Origen (185-254 AD) wrote that he saw “the grotto with the manger where He [Jesus] was swaddled.” Stone feeding troughs contemporary to Jesus’ time have been excavated in stables in Bethlehem. The grotto that is the traditional birthplace has been saved from destruction several times. The first was because Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) tried to destroy the new Christian religion by building a temple to Adonis there. The result of his efforts was that the grotto was preserved, along with a record of its location and significance.

The first full account of a Christmas service at the grotto was written in the fourth century. Aetheria, a nun, described hangings of silk, decorations of gold and jewels, numerous lamps and candelabra, and the chanting of psalms during the sacrament of the Mass.

Who Were the Magi?

These unnamed wise men were likely Zoroastrians from Persia. Since they are known to have studied the stars, it would have been natural for them to investigate an astrological phenomenon like the one recorded as announcing Jesus’ birth. It is also very credible that the journey from Persia to Bethlehem could have taken up to two years.

What Was the Star?

There are two theories that may identify the star the Magi followed to Bethlehem .

First, in December of 7 BC there was a confluence of Jupiter and Saturn. By February of 6 BC Mars was in close proximity to the two planets. Astrologically, this is known as Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces. To the ancients, Jupiter represented the greatest of the gods, while the sign of Pisces (the fish) would indicate that a very important ruler was to be born.

The second possibility is a comet that appeared for about seventy days in the late winter or early spring of 5-4 BC. Another comet then appeared in March of 4 BC. The Greek term for star is aster, which can be interpreted as any astrological phenomenon. That makes either of these comets also a possibility for the star that announced Jesus’ birth, especially since they would have been visible from Persia and would have appeared to be traveling westward.

Paul L. Maier suggests that the configuration of Jupiter with Saturn in 7-6 BC alerted the Magi that a new ruler would soon be born. Then when the comet of 5 BC appeared with its brilliant light, it is very believable that they would have followed it. Maier also believes that when Herod questioned the Magi about when they first saw the star, they described the astrological sign they had observed two years earlier. This would explain why Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem less than two years old killed.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about how the church set the official date of Christ’s birth. Please join me!

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