When Jesus Was Born, A Talk by Dr. James Patrick
Viewed from within divine revelation, the answer to this question is given in Hebrews and Galatians 4:4. The answer is: in the fullness of time, when God had willed the coming of the Messiah. To answer it fully and precisely in the simple historical sense would require more knowledge than we now have.
It was Dionysius (470–554), a Scythian monk called Exiguus, “the humble”, who in his work Anni Domini nostril Jesu Christi 532–627 gave the Christian world a calendar that for the first time counted years from the birth of Christ, a task Dionysius undertook because he “preferred to count and denote the years from the Incarnation of our Lord, in order to make the foundation of our hope better known and the cause of the redemption of man more conspicuous.” The first surviving use of the BC/AD convention was by the Carthaginian bishop Victor of Tuning (died AD 570).
The date of Jesus’ birth has been set by modern scholarship at BC 4 or 6 because he must have been born when Herod, who died in BC 6 still reigned in Judea.
The political background of these movements, which qualified what might be called official Judaism, was the Augustan peace, which resulted from the settlement of the revolution inaugurated by the assassination of Julius Caesar in BC 44. In 27 Octavian, known as Augustus, attained sole power and remade the Roman republic, transforming it into a dictatorship while maintaining the theoretical authority of the Senate. For the first time in a century the world was at peace, the roads were safe.
The political religion of the Jews, with its long history and its books was running down. The Maccabean rebellion against the Seleucid empire and its religion in 168 had been successful, and henceforth the authority in Jerusalem was the high priest, whose establishment Jesus treated with respect. Judas Maccabaeus, who in BC 163 stormed Jerusalem, imprisoned the Syrian troops, and purified the Temple, was the hero of the movement (1 Mc 4:34–46). In 142 his successor Simon obtained from Rome a decree granting Jews throughout the empire freedom to worship the God of their fathers. Simon was appointed “leader and High Priest forever, that is with hereditary rights, until a trustworthy prophet should arise.” This decision was posted on a bronze tablet “in the precincts of the sanctuary” (1 Mc 14:48).This expectation of the appearance of a great prophet is behind the question of John 1:21: “Are you the prophet”
We do know that there had been development in the thoughts of many regarding the meaning of history and its end. Many Jews had come to believe in the resurrection and in the appearing of the Messiah. This is evident in the canonical book of Daniel and such extracanonical works as IV Ezra. The religion of the Temple was in crisis. During the Maccabean period, BC 168-63AD and earlier, many Jews, the Pharisees in particular had come to believe in the resurrection, as Martha said to Jesus in John 11:22, “I know that he (Lazarus) will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
The apocalyptic themes of Isaiah and Daniel served as background for a new apocalyptic of IV Ezra and the prophet John’s revelation. The most religious among the Jews were in dissent. Just how pious Jews in Galilee felt about Jerusalem and the Temple crowd is evident in John’s Gospel, in which the Jews, that is the Judeans of Jerusalem, are viewed with implicit contempt. Reform movements were everywhere. The Pharisees were an in-house reform movement, teaching strict adherence to the law. Others—we really do not know how many˗˗had taken to the desert, forming communities such as those discovered at Qumran, near which the manuscripts containing many of the canonical books of the Old Testament were discovered. These may have been communities of the Essenes. As far as we know these were end-time communities who lived in expectation of the appearance of the righteous teacher on the last day. John the Baptist, wearing rough camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey looks like the representative of the prophetic movement.
So as far as Judaism was concerned, the theme was expectation that the Messiah would come, although there remained the question: would his coming at once restore the kingdom, or would the Messiah suffer, being the means to a spiritual renewal that would found the kingdom of the new heart. This was a question to which Judaism had no answer. Jesus answered it at the moment of his ascension. When the apostles assembled asked, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or season which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” Christ’s kingdom would be the kingdom of the new heart which looked forward to his return bringing with him the new creation; he might come as thief in the night or he might delay so that many would be saved.
So while one answer to our question “When was Jesus born?” will be: “in the fullness of time.” Another answer will be: when he is expected. And the case can be made that the Romans shared something of that expectation. The Roman view that while the gods should be worshipped, while they brought good fortune and might answer specific requests, they did not make the worshippers better or more just, was giving way to an interest in the mystery religions, Mithra, Dionysius, Isis. There was in the midst of the new-found Augustan order an expectant longing that neither Dionysius nor Mithra could fulfill. In the age of the Maccabean, in Alexandria the revivant voice prophesied in the name of the ancient Sibyl:
But when Rome shall o'er Egypt also rule,
Governing always, then there shall there appear
The greatest kingdom of the immortal King Over men. And a holy Lord shall come
To hold the scepter over every land
Unto all ages of fast-hastening time.
A century later Virgil in the fourth Eclogue foresaw the birth of a child:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise. . . .
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself be seen of them, And with his father’s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace. . . .
Jerusalem looked forward to the advent of the “trustworthy prophet” foreseen by the bronze tablet posed in the temple precincts. Now the city was alert for the appearing of “that prophet” (Jn 6:14), whom eight centuries earlier Isaiah had prophesied (9:6–7).
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
And the government will be upon his shoulder,
And his name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God
Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
And of the increase of his government
And of peace there will be no end.
Text and Talk With Dr Patrick 19 December 2020