On what day was Jesus really born? A New Testament Manuscript Expert Responds

A 1466 copy of Jewish historianFlavius Josephus‘ first century workAntiquities of the Jews, widely used to establish the chronology of Jesus. Photo from Wikipedia.

This is a study by Daniel B. Wallace , which you can read it in its entirety here-  http://bible.org/article/birth-jesus-christ

Daniel B. Wallace has taught Greek and New Testament courses on a graduate school level since 1979. He has a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and is currently professor of New Testament Studies at his alma mater.

His Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996) has become a standard textbook in colleges and seminaries. Dr. Wallace is also the Executive Director for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

Wallace – We must keep in mind that the Jesus we worship was truly born in time-space history. And that babe in the manger was truly crucified–and just as surely rose from the dead. The Bible is different from the sacred books of other religions because it invites historical investigation. And when it has met the test–as it surely always, inevitably does–it inculcates a greater devotion in the heart of the believer for the one we call the Son of God.

The Year Jesus Was Born

In the western hemisphere, we split time by the birth of Jesus Christ. But did he really even live? If so,when was he born?

Josephus records an eclipse of the moon just before Herod passed on. This occurred on March 12th or 13th in 4 B.C. Josephus also tells us that Herod expired just before Passover. This feast took place on April 11th, in the same year, 4 B.C. From other details supplied by Josephus, we can pinpoint Herod the Great’s demise as occurring between March 29th and April 4th in 4 B.C.

It might sound strange to suggest that Jesus Christ was born no later than 4 B.C. since B.C. means ‘before Christ.’ But our modern calendar which splits time between B.C. and A.D. was not invented until A.D. 525. At that time, Pope John the First asked a monk named Dionysius to prepare a standardized calendar for the western Church. Unfortunately, poor Dionysius missed the real B.C./A.D. division by at least four years!

Now Matthew tells us that Herod killed Bethlehem’s babies two years old and under. The earliest Jesus could have been born, therefore, is 6 B.C. Through a variety of other time indicators, we can be relatively confident that the one called Messiah was born in either late 5 or early 4 B.C.

My atheist friend scoffs at such flexibility. He says, „If you don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, how do you know that he really lived?” That is hardly a reasonable question! The other day I called my mother to wish her a happy birthday. „Mom, how many candles on this birthday cake?” I inquired. „I don’t know, son–I don’t keep track any more,” she sighed. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, we hung up.

Now, of course, I can’t be certain, but I do believe that that was my mother on the other end of the phone. She can’t remember how old she is (and she’s neither senile nor very old), but that doesn’t make her a figment of my imagination, does it? Because if she’s just a phantom, then for the last three minutes, you’ve been reading absolutely nothing!

The Day Jesus Was Born

This coming December 25th most parents will be lying to their children about old St. Nick. Some of us will be celebrating the birth of our Savior. But was he really born on this day?

Was Jesus really born on December 25th? Virtually every month on the calendar has been proposed by biblical scholars. So why do we celebrate his birth in December?

The tradition for December 25th is actually quite ancient. Hippolytus, in the second century A.D., argued that this was Christ’s birthday. Meanwhile, in the eastern Church, January 6th was the date followed.

But in the fourth century, John Chrysostom argued that December 25th was the correct date and from that day till now, the Church in the East, as well as the West, has observed the 25th of December as the official date of Christ’s birth.

In modern times, the traditional date has been challenged. Modern scholars point out that when Jesus was born, shepherds were watching their sheep in the hills around Bethlehem. Luke tells us that an angel appeared to „some shepherds staying out in the fields [who were] keeping watch over their flock by night” (2:8).

Some scholars feel that the sheep were usually brought under cover from November to March; as well, they were not normally in the field at night. But there is no hard evidence for this. In fact, early Jewish sources suggest that the sheep around Bethlehem were outside year-round. So you can see, December 25th fits both tradition and the biblical narrative well. There is no sound objection to it.

Now admittedly, the sheep around Bethlehem were the exception, not the rule. But these were no ordinary sheep. They were sacrificial lambs. In the early spring they would be slaughtered at the Passover.

And God first revealed the Messiah’s birth to these shepherds–shepherds who protected harmless lambs which would soon die on behalf of sinful men. Whey they saw the baby, could they have known? Might they have whispered in their hearts what John the Baptist later thundered, „Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Now, of course, we can’t be absolutely certain of the day of Christ’s birth. At least, not this side of heaven. But an early winter date seems as reasonable a guess as any. And December 25th has been the frontrunner for eighteen centuries. Without more evidence, there seems no good reason to change the celebration date now.

We can blame the ancient church for a large part of our uncertainty. You see, they did not celebrate Christ’s birth. At all. To them, it was insignificant. They were far more concerned with his death . . . and resurrection.

But modern man has turned that around. A baby lying in a manger is harmless, non-threatening. But a man dying on a cross–a man who claims to be God–that man is a threat! He demands our allegiance! We cannot ignore him. We must either accept him or reject him. He leaves us no middle ground.

This Christmas season, take a close look at a nativity scene once again. Remove your rose-colored glasses–smell the foul air, see the cold, shivering animals. They represent the Old Testament sacrificial system. They are emblems of death. But they are mere shadows of the Babe in their midst. He was born to die . . . that all who believe in him might live.

The Visit of the Magi

When Jesus Christ was born, men–known as magi–came from the east to worship him. Were they wisemen . . . or astrologers?

Matthew begins his second chapter with these words: „Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, 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.'”

Who were these wise men from the east? Matthew tells us next to nothing about them–he doesn’t mention their names, nor how many there were–not even which country they came from. As mysteriously as they come on the scene, they disappear. . .

Though Matthew doesn’t tell us much, over-zealous Christians throughout church history have dogmatically filled in the blanks. By the 6th century A.D., these dark strangers were given thrones and names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar were the alleged names of these alleged kings. But this has nothing to do with the biblical story: we really have no idea what their names were–nor even their number. There could have been 3 or 300 as far as we know! But one thing we do know for sure: they were not royalty. The ancient magi were reilgious and political advisors to eastern kings–but there wasn’t a drop of blue blood among them.

But isn’t it true that the magi were astrologers? And didn’t God prescribe death to astrologers in the Old Testament? ‘Not always’ and ‘yes’ are the answers. In Deuteronomy 17, God commands his people to execute all astrologers by stoning. Jean Dixon wouldn’t stand a chance in such a theocracy! The fact that she–and others like her–are so comfortably tolerated–even well respected!–in modern America ought to show us that the U.S.A. is a post-Christian country–at best . . .

But what about these ancient magi? Were they astrologers? After all, they followed a star to Bethlehem.

We might answer this in three ways: First, not all magi were astrologers, for Daniel the prophet was the chief of the magi in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Through his influence, undoubtedly many of the magi carried on their religious and political duties as worshippers of the One true God.

Second, there are some biblical scholars who believe that Isaiah predicted that a star would appear when the Messiah was born. If this interpretation is correct, then the magi who worshipped the newborn king were clearly following in Daniel’s train, for he almost surely taught them from Isaiah.

Third, although a few believe that the ‘star’ they saw was a natural phenomenon–such as a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter–this cannot explain how the star stood right over Bethlehem. Clearly, the ‘star’ was completely of supernatural origin. If so, it probably had nothing to do with astrology.

Therefore, the magi most likely did not subscribe to such superstitious folly. If so, they were truly wisemen . . .

I saw a bumper sticker the other day, which read, „Wise men still seek him.” Actually, that’s not quite accurate. The Bible tells us that „no one seeks God, not even one.” But if he has led us to himself, then we have become wise. For it is true that „wise men still worship him.”

The Boys from Bethlehem

One of the most heinous atrocities in human history was the murder of Bethlehem’s babies by Herod the Great. But did it really happen?

In the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read that when Herod the Great heard of the Messiah’s birth, „he was troubled–and all Jerusalem with him.” Later, when the wise men did not report back to him, he became furious and ordered all the baby boys up to two years old in and around Bethlehem to be slaughtered!

Three questions come to mind as we consider this cruel incident: First, how many babies did Herod actually kill? Second, how old was Jesus when this happened? And finally, why does no other ancient historian record this outrage? In other words, did it really happen?

How many babies did Herod murder? Some scholars have suggested as many as 200! But most reject such a figure. Bethlehem was a small community–almost a suburb of Jerusalem. The village itself–and the surrounding countryside–would hardly have more than 30 male infants under two. Most scholars today place the number between 20 and 30.

But that’s if only the boy babies were killed. Actually, the Greek text of Matthew 2:16 could mean ‘babies’–not just ‘boy babies.’ And psychologically, Herod’s henchmen might not have bothered to check the gender of their victims. The number might be as high as 50 or 60.

Second, how old was Jesus when this occurred? According to the best chronological evidence, he could not have been more than three or four months old. He was more than likely born in the winter of 5 or 4 B.C.–Herod died in the early spring of 4 B.C. So why did Herod slay all children up to two years old? The answer to the third question might help to answer this one. . .

Third, why is this event not recorded outside the Bible? Specifically, why did Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, fail to mention it?

Josephus tells us much about Herod. The best word to describe his reign is ‘overkill.’ He murdered hisfavorite wife’s father, drowned her brother–and even killed her! He executed one of his most trusted friends, his barber, and 300 military leaders–all in a day’s work! Then he slew three of his sons, allegedly suspecting them of treason. Josephus tells us that „Herod inflicted such outrages upon (the Jews) as not even a beast could have done if it possessed the power to rule over men” (Antiquities of the Jews 17:310). Killing babies was not out of character for this cruel king. And killing them up to two years old–to make sure he got the baby Jesus lines up with his insane jealousy for power.

Josephus might have omitted the slaying of the babies for one of two reasons: first, he was no friend of Christianity and he left it out intentionally; or second, just before Herod died he locked up 3000 of the nation’s leading citizens and gave orders that they were to be executed at the hour of his death. He wanted to make sure that there would be mourning when he died. . . Israel was so preoccupied with this that the clandestine murder of a few babies might have gone unnoticed. . .

Herod thought that he had gained a victory over the king of the Jews. Yet this was a mere foreshadowing of the victory Satan thought he had when Jesus lay dead on a Roman cross. But the empty tomb proved that that dark Friday was Satan’s worst defeat!

Conclusion

We’ve been looking at several aspects of the birth of Jesus Christ in this short study. Now, we want to put it all together.

In the winter of 5 or 4 B.C., God invaded history by taking on the form of a man. He was born in a small town just south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem, which means ‘the house of bread,’ indeed became worthy of its name one lonely winter night. For there, in that town, was born the Bread of Life . . .

His mother placed the infant king in a manger–or feeding trough–because the guest room where they were to stay was occupied. The birth of this king was celebrated that night only by his mother, her husband, and a handful of shepherds. The shepherds had been in the fields around Bethlehem, guarding the lambs which would die at the next Passover. An angel appeared to them and gave them the birth announcement: „today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). In their simple faith, they rushed to see their newborn king.

Shortly after the birth of the Messiah, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem and inquired of king Herod where the real king of the Jews was to be born. The theologians of Herod’s court knew the Scriptures well–in ‘Bethlehem’ they recited. Ironically, though they knew the Scriptures, they did not believe them! They did not even bother to travel the five or six miles to Bethlehem to see their Messiah.

But Herod believed the Scriptures! That is why he sent a corps of butchers to Bethlehem to slaughter innocent children, in hopes of destroying this rival to his throne. But he was too late. The magi had come and gone and Jesus was by now safe in Egypt.

And the magi believed the Scriptures. They had traveled several hundred miles to worship this Babe. They were guided to Bethlehem by a supernatural celestial phenomenon–and by the Scriptures. Apparently, their ancestors had been instructed by Daniel the prophet about the coming Messiah. . . When they saw the child, they fell down and worshiped him. This was God in the flesh. They could do no other.

And they gave him gifts–gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This was an unusual present–by any standards. The gold, of course, we all can understand–but the frankincense and myrrh were odd. Perhaps they had read Isaiah’s prophecy that „nations will come to your light, and kings to your rising . . . They will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news. . . ” (Isa. 60:3, 6). This explains the frankincense, but not the myrrh.

Now myrrh, like frankincense, was a perfume. But unlike frankincense, myrrh smelled of death. In the ancient world, it was used to embalm a corpse. Jesus himself would be embalmed with this very perfume (cf.John 19:39).

If the magi were thinking of Jesus’ death when they brought the myrrh, they no doubt knew of it from Daniel’s prophecy (9:24-27). In the ninth chapter of Daniel we read that the ‘Messiah will be cut off’ and this ‘will make atonement for iniquity’ and ultimately ‘bring in everlasting righteousness’ (9:26, 24).

Even at the birth of our Savior, the shadow of the cross is already falling over his face. . .

The theologians of Herod’s court did not believe the Scriptures. They were fools. Herod believed, but disobeyed. He was a madman. The simple shepherds and the majestic magi believed in this infant Savior–and it was reckoned to them as righteousness. May we follow in their train.

The Jewish uprising against the Romans at Masada (Video)

Mysteries of the Bible reports on Jewish uprising against the Romans at Masada. (Biblical Mysteries EP05)

Masada (Hebrew מצדה, pronounced About this sound Metzada is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel, on top of an isolated rock plateau (akin to a mesa) on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE. The Siege of Masada by troops of the Roman Empire towards the end of the First Jewish–Roman War ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish rebels and their families holed up there. Masada is located 20 kilometres (12 mi) east of Arad.

Masada is Israel’s most popular paid tourist attraction.

The siege of Masada was among the final accords of the Great Jewish Revolt, occurring from 73 to 74 AD on a large hilltop in current-day Israel. The long siege by the troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels and resident Jewish families of the Masada fortress. The siege was chronicled by Flavius Josephus, (who did not witness the event), a Jewish rebel leader captured by the Romans, in whose service he became a historian. Masada has become a controversial event in Jewish history, on the one hand becoming a place of reverence, a site commemorating fallen ancestors and their heroic struggle against oppression, and on the other a stark warning against radicalism.

Legacy

The siege of Masada is often revered in modern Israel as „a symbol of Jewish heroism”. According to Klara Palotai, „Masada became a symbol for a heroic ‘last stand’ for the State of Israel and played a major role for Israel in forging national identity”. To Israel, it symbolized the courage of the warriors of Masada, the strength they showed when they were able to hold of Masada for almost three years, and their choice of death over slavery in their struggle against an aggressive empire. Masada had become „the performance space of national heritage”, the site of military ceremonies. Palotai states how Masada „developed a special ‘love affair’ with archeology” because the site had drawn people from all around the world to help locate the remnants of the fortress and the battle that occurred there.

VIDEO by DiscoveryHaven

The 3.5 Year Siege of Masada (70 – 73 A.D.) (Video)

VIDEO by MissionDisciple

Great Battles: The Siege and Fall of Masada (Video lecture) University of Pennsylvania Museum

A lecture from Dr. Jodi Magness, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC Chapel Hill, who co-directed the 1995 excavations at Masada.

„Great Battles” Evening Lecture
The Siege and Fall of Masada
In the 1st century BCE, King Herod the Great fortified the mountain of Masada, located near the southwest shore of the Dead Sea. Seventy years after Herod’s death, Jewish rebels occupied Masada during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans, holding out even after the fall of Jerusalem. In this illustrated lecture, Dr. Jodi Magness, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC Chapel Hill, examines the archaeological and literary evidence for the Roman siege of Masada, including information from the 1995 excavations that she co-directed. VIDEO by pennmuseum

some Church history…Jesus and the first century historian Titus Flavius Josephus

A Roman portrait bust said to be of Josephus. (Wikipedia)

Josephus (37 – c.100 AD/CE), also Yoseph Ben Mattithyahu in Biblical Hebrew (Joseph son of Matthias) and Titus Flavius Josephus was a 1st-century Romano-Jewish historian and hagiographer of priestly and royal ancestry who recorded 1st century Jewish history, such as the First Jewish–Roman War which resulted in the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He has been credited by many as recording some of the earliest history of Jesus Christ outside of the gospels, this being an item of contention among historians.

Josephus was a law-observant Jew who believed in the compatibility of Judaism and Graeco-Roman thought, commonly referred to as Hellenistic Judaism. His most important works were The Jewish War (c. 75 AD/CE) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD/CE). The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation (66–70). Antiquities of the Jews recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for a Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into 1st century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity. (source)

The earliest description of Jesus outside of the Gospels is found in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. Yet for centuries scholars have doubted that a Jewish writer could have written an account that contains basic tenets of Christian belief. This conflict is resolved by understanding the source of Josephus’ composition

There are no surviving Roman records of the First Century that refer to, nor are there any Jewish records that support the accounts in the Christian gospels – except one.      In Rome, in the year 93, Josephus published his lengthy history of the Jews. While discussing the period in which the Jews of Judaea were governed by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, Josephus included the following account:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

– Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63
(Based on the translation of Louis H. Feldman, The Loeb Classical Library.)

To read more on Josephus Flavius visit Josephus.org.

The Works of Josephus

The Galilee, site of Josephus' governorship, in late antiquity.(source Wikipedia)The Jewish War (460 KB)

Antiquities of the Jews (1,030 KB)
The Life (60 KB)
Against Apion (90 KB)

The Works of Josephus
The Whiston translation online (external link).

The Works of Josephus in Greek
The Greek text of B. Niese at the Perseus Project.

Brill Translations with Commentary

Here are 4 short videos regarding Josephus’ first century writings and references to Jesus:

Donald A. Hagner, George Eldon Ladd Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Senior Professor of New Testament,School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary:

Doubts about Jesus and the New Testament from CPX on Vimeo.

Professor John Barclay was appointed Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in 2003, succeeding Professor James Dunn. He is a prolific New Testament scholar who has been widely published in journals and books. He has special expertise on the apostle Paul and Second Temple Judaism. His publications include Obeying the Truth (1986), Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (1996), a guide on Colossians and Philemon (1997), and a commentary on Josephus’ Against Apion (2000).

He is currently engaged in writing a book on Paul’s understanding of grace. A gifted and popular speaker, Professor Barclay brings great historical and theological insight into how divine grace transformed the first-century world.

Josephus: the man and the myths. Part I from CPX on Vimeo.

Part II

Josephus: the man and the myths. Part II from CPX on Vimeo.

Jesus and Josephus, a forgery? Dr Chris Forbes is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, and Deputy Chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity. His fields of research and teaching focus on New Testament history, Alexander the Great and Hellenistic history, Graeco-Roman History of Ideas and the intersection of early Christianity and Graeco-Roman culture. His current research is in the field of the relationship between religion and philosophy in Graeco-Roman thought. Dr. Forbes teaches at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia where he is senior lecturer since 2001. He is also a member of the Society for Biblical Literature and the Tyndale Fellowship.

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