September 19, 2017

A Chronology of Jesus’ Birth

Doug Wright

Most believers are aware that the typical Christmas pageant contains several inaccuracies – Mary was probably much younger than we picture, the manger was more likely a stone feeding trough, the three (we have no idea how many) “wise men” appearing at the “manger” (Scripture says they came to the “house”), etc. In spite of the inaccuracies, I do not object to the portrayal of these characters in the birth of our Lord. I trust, however, that it whets the appetite of believers to delve into the Scriptures for more details.

What is the chronology of the birth of our Lord? Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 contain several time stamps. The time stamps do not give us every detail, but allow us to list the events in an orderly fashion. Occasionally, we can identify down to the day when something took place, but often we just have an order of events. The following is a brief chronology of the Lord’s birth.

 

  • Gabriel visits Zacharias in the Temple and tells him that Elizabeth will have a son (Luke 1:5-25).
  • 6 months – In Elizabeth’s “sixth month” (Luke 1:26) Gabriel visits Mary to tell her she will conceive and bring forth a son to be named Jesus .

Mary leaves “in haste” to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39) – the text does not say whether she told Joseph about Gabriel’s visit and message. I tend to think that she did not.

 

  • 3 months – Mary stayed with Elizabeth for “three months” (Luke 1:56) and “returned to her own house.” I believe it was at this time that Mary told Joseph of Gabriel’s visit and she was able to confirm her pregnancy. As Joseph “thought on these things,” (Matt. 1:20) the “angel of the Lord” appeared to him in a dream telling him to proceed with his marriage.
  • 6 months – Six months later (assuming that the conception took place at or shortly after Gabriel’s appearance) Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. The “days were accomplished” and Mary gave birth shortly after their arrival in Bethlehem.

On the same night as Jesus’ birth the “angel of the Lord” and a “multitude of heavenly hosts” visit the shepherds. The shepherds visit Bethlehem and the “babe lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12 & 16) Thus, their visit was immediate – Jesus was still in the manger.

 

  • 8 days – “Eight days” later (Luke 2:21) Jesus was circumcised and officially received his name.
  • 33 days (41 days after Jesus’ birth) – “Thirty three” days after Jesus’ circumcision (Luke 2:22 “days of her purification” – see Lev. 12:2-6), Joseph and Mary presented Jesus to the Lord (Luke 2:22) and offered “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). Simeon and Anna prophesy (Luke 2: 25-38).
  • After Jesus’ birth? – “Now when [or after] Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:1) – either translation is of limited help to establish an exact time – the Greek tense is “having been born.” The “wise men” (Magi) arrived in Jerusalem looking for the one that was born “King of the Jews.” In Matt. 2:11 they “came into the house” and “saw the young child” (Jesus was not in the manger).
  • Immediately? – “When they [the magi] were departed,” the angel of the Lord instructed Joseph to flee to Egypt (Matt. 1:13). This seems to indicate a hasty departure.
  • Within a few days? – The wise men returned to their own country without heeding Herod’s desire for them to “bring me word again” (Matt. 1:8). This enraged the jealous king. He gave instructions that “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” were to be slain (Matt. 1:16). Jesus was no longer a baby in the manger, but he was well under the “two-year” mark.
  • Unknown, but not a long time? – “When Herod was dead” (Matt. 1:19) Joseph brought Jesus back from Egypt to Nazareth.
  • Unknown number of days? – Joseph and Mary returned “to Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.” (Luke 2:39)

You can see from this chronology that there is a lot of uncertainty. Did Mary tell Joseph of the dream and upcoming pregnancy before or after visiting Elizabeth? How long after Gabriel’s visit to Mary did conception take place? How long after Jesus birth did the Magi come? Although we can put an outside limit on it (2 years), we do not have any indicators to narrow it down. The result is that the chronology is interesting, but relatively unimportant. None of the gospel writers felt that we would need to know these details. The thrust of the passage is God’s divine intervention. The “fullness of time” had come (Gal. 4:4)!


Doug Wright is pastor of Keystone Baptist Church, Berryville, VA.


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