Charts of Preistly Courses Explained

 

Following this brief introduction is a link to charts of the priestly courses. These charts unequivocally demonstrate that the Dec. 25th birth of Christ is both possible and consistent with the facts in our possession. The purpose of this introduction is to provide a brief background so readers can better understand and interpret the charts.

Although Solomon built the Jerusalem temple, its pattern and service were ordained by the hand of the Lord upon King David (I Chrn. 29:11-19). David divided the priests into 24 courses, which served at appointed times in the Jerusalem temple (I Chrn. 24:7-18; cf. 28:13). The courses were named after the family heads they represented from the sons of Aaron. The two courses that concern us here are Jehoiarib, the first, and Abijah, the eighth. Luke informs us that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a member of the course of Abijah, and was burning incense in execution of his priestly office when Gabriel appeared and announced that his wife would conceive a son (Luke 1:5-24). Based on statements in Luke, John was about six months older than our Lord (Lk. 1:36, 56). Therefore, if it can once be determined when Zachariah was serving and when John was conceived, it would be possible to identify the approximate time of Christ’s birth 15 months later.[1]

To do this we require a point of reference from which to begin. Happily, history has not left us without a witness. The Jerusalem Talmud records a saying of Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, which dates to about A.D. 150 - 80 years of the event - stating that the course of Jehoiarib was serving when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70: 

Whence do we know that the second Temple was also destroyed on the 9th of Ab? We have learned in a Boraitha: “A happy event is credited to the day on which another happy event happened, while a calamity is ascribed to the day when another calamity occurred;” and it was said that when the first Temple was destroyed it was on the eve preceding the 9th of Ab, which was also the night at the close of the Sabbath and also the close of the Sabbatical year. The watch at the time was that of Jehoiarib, and the Levites were chanting in their proper places, at that moment reciting the passage [Psalms, xciv. 23]: “And he will bring back upon them their own injustice, and in their own wickedness will he destroy them;” and they did not have time to end the passage, which concludes, “yea, he will destroy them--the Lord our God,” before the enemy entered and took possession of the Temple. This happened also at the destruction of the second Temple.[2]

That Jehoiarib is reputed to have been serving the 9th of Ab (August 4) when the temple was destroyed tells us the courses were not static and did not serve the same weeks and months year after year. Jehoiarib being the first course could not have served in Ab, the eleventh month, unless the courses somehow advanced calendrically in their ranks.[3] Although this tells us that the courses did in fact advance, it does not tell us how they advanced. Two basic models have emerged.  The “continuous succession” model supposes that each course followed its immediate predecessor through the 24 courses, at which point the first course began again, and so on ad infinitum. This model has been shown to produce results inconsistent with Jesus’ early winter birth, and therefore is not used here.[4] 

The approach adopted here is that the priestly rotations were framed within a 24-year cycle, originally set in motion by Solomon and renewed by Ezra, which commenced the Sabbath on or next before Tishri 1 (I Kings 8:2; II Chrn. 5:3; Ezra 7:1).[5] Each course served one week twice annually, plus such additional weeks necessary to fill out the year, coming in the evening of the Sabbath (Friday) and going out the evening of the Sabbath (Friday) following.[6] Assuming each course advanced annually to the next station or week in the calendar, the cycle of priestly ministration would be completed in 24 years, at which point it would begin anew.[7]

Rabbinic tradition placing Jehoiarib on service when the temple was destroyed allows us to identify the station in the twenty-four-year cycle. From there we can find when the cycle began. Then, by reckoning backward in twenty-four-year increments to the course preceding the conception of John the Baptist in 3 B.C., we can putatively identify the week and month Zachariah was serving. The number of steps from the first station of Jehoiarib’s second ministration (for the first does not reach so far) to the week of Ab 9 is twenty-one stations. Thus, A.D. 70 was the twenty-first year in the twenty-four-year cycle. To return to the beginning of the cycle we subtract twenty years from A.D. 70, which brings us to A.D. 50. Subtracting twenty-four more years brings us to A.D. 26; this course would therefore have consisted of the years A.D. 26-49. Twenty-four more years brings us to A.D. 2; this course would have consisted of the years A.D. 2-25. 24 years more bring us to 23 B.C. (there was no year zero). This course would have consisted of the years 23 B.C. to 1 A.D.

Counting forward from 23 B.C. to 3 B.C. when John was conceived shows that the course of Abijah would have been serving at its twenty-first station when Gabriel appeared to Zachariah (23 B.C. to 3 B.C. = 21). Assuming Zachariah’s course was in its second ministration, this would mean he was on duty approximately the week of Elul 27-Tishri 4 (Sept. 5-11). We do not know how long after Zachariah’s ministration his wife conceived. Human fertility cycles run about 28 days, during which a woman is fertile only about 7.  If we allow that Elizabeth conceived the second week after Zechariah returned home, this would place conception in the week of Tishri 12-18 (Sept. 19-25). Normal human gestation is 38 weeks. A 38-week gestation would place John's birth the week of Tammuz 20-26 (June 20-26), 2 B.C. Based on statements in Luke, John was six months older than our Lord (Lk. 1:36, 56). Six months is 26 weeks. Twenty-six weeks from John’s birth brings us to Tebet 26-Shebat 3, which answers to the week of December 21-27.

Thus, assuming the model suggested herein is correct, rabbinic tradition regarding the priestly courses and destruction of Jerusalem tends to corroborate the received date of Christ's birth. The courses in our charts are separately colored to facilitate tracking their advancement through the calendar over the course of twenty-four years. All dates should be taken as merely approximate.

Link to pdf Charts of Priestly Courses

  Notes:


[1] As early as the second century, Christian writers proposed that Zachariah was High Priest officiating on the Day of Atonement when he received his vision. The Day of Atonement occurred six months before Passover, near the time of the autumnal equinox, which the Romans set at September 24th. This would place Jesus’ birth 15 months later about December 25th. However, this was purely gratuitous: Zachariah was not High Priest. The High Priest maintained a palace in Jerusalem (John 18:15); Zachariah was from the priestly city of Hebron in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39, 40; cf. Jos. 20:7; 21:11). Even so, the very fact that men proposed Zachariah was High Priest may reflect a tradition connecting the priestly duties of Zachariah with the early winter birth of Christ. Lacking technical knowledge how to reconstruct the priestly courses to determine when Zachariah actually served, men seem to have resorted to the expedient that Zachariah was High Priest officiating on the Day of Atonement instead.

[2] Seder ‘Olam Rabbah (30.86-97). Rabbi Yose ben Halafta is confirmed in part by Josephus who says that the first and second temples were destroyed upon the same day 556 years apart. Wars 6.4. 1, 5.

[3] That the courses were not static but advanced is also confirmed by the saying of Rabbi Abbahu (AD 300) in Jerusalem Talmud y. Sukka 5.7-8; cf., Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, revised edition 1998), 133, §242

[4] According to this model, the courses may be extrapolated backward in continuous succession from the 9th of Ab, A.D. 70, to the relevant year to determine where any particular course would have been serving. To do this, we multiply 365.25 days by the number of years covered, divide this by seven to obtain the number of weeks, and then divide this number by 24 to obtain the number of courses fulfilled in the period. In the present case, there were 72 years between the fall of Jerusalem Ab 9, A.D. 70 and Ab 9, 3 B.C., the year John would have been conceived. This equals 156 complete cycles of priestly courses, plus 13 additional weeks (365.25 x 72 = 26,298 ÷ 7 = 3,756.857 ÷ 24 = 156.53. 0.53 x 24 = 12.72). If we count thirteen weeks before the ninth of Ab, 3 BC, this would bring us to late April to early May. This is the point where the first course, Jehoiarib, would have been serving. Abijah is the eighth course, which would place it on duty eight weeks later toward the end of June or beginning of July. The birth of Christ 15 months later would thus occur in late September or early October. The courses served twice annually. Abijah would have served again six months later near December, but this would place Jesus’ birth toward the end of March. See also Seldon, Theanthropos (London, 1664), pp. 72-74.  

[5] Tishri (October) is the Jewish New Year for accession of kings, rotation of priests, and all things except the cycle of feasts, which took their start with Passover in the spring. Other sources (rabbinic, Qumran) show that the priestly courses took Tishri 1 as their regular beginning point, which would have no meaning under the continuous succession model.  For the rotations once set in motion, Tishri 1 could have no further significance to their progression. It is only under a system where the courses were static or advanced as herein proposed that recurring reference to Tishri 1 can have any meaning.  Finegan, p. 134, §§243, 246.

[6] Josephus relates that the priests served “eight days” from Sabbath to Sabbath. Josephus, Antiquities,7.14.7.

[7] Since there are 24 courses, if they served twice annually, this will fill up 48 weeks, leaving just less than 3 weeks remaining in the normal lunar year, but 7-8 weeks in a leap year. The approach taken in our tables of priestly courses is that the extra weeks in normal years were filled by the courses next in order (Jehoiarib, Jedaiah, and Harim), after which the cycle advanced anew, so that in effect, the first three courses served three times annually. Another possibility, which we reject, is that the courses were abated during the three great annual feasts when it was necessary that all the priests and Levites serve to assist with the great number of sacrifices. This occurred at the inaugural service when Solomon dedicated the temple and the priests “did not then wait by course” (II Chrn. 5:11). However, this appears to have been a one-time event; there is no evidence this became an established precedent for the annual feasts. Passover, the most important annual feast, was only one day (Nisan 14) it is difficult to see why the advancement of the courses should abate for the full week. To the contrary, we learn that under Josiah’s reforms, when Passover was kept in greater numbers than any other time from Samuel onward (II Chrn. 35:18), the priests and Levites were charged to serve according to their courses (II Chrn. 35:4-6; 10-11). The better view, therefore, is that the feasts did not affect the normal progression of the courses in their annual ministration and that the extra three weeks were made up as proposed herein or some other way. The assumption with leap years is that the courses whose lot it was to be on duty in Adar each served an extra week during the intercalated month of Adar II to allow for the unbroken progression of the courses.

 

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