A Question of the Division of Abijah

levites-aaronic-blessingIn the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

Luke 1:5 (NASB)

I very recently wrote a blog post called Was He Born in a Sukkah and, based on a teaching by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) theologian and teacher D. Thomas Lancaster, I suggested that Jesus was not born either on Christmas or on Sukkot. I received some pushback as a result and some readers provided further evidence on how the Master was very probably born on Sukkot.

My original source was an article in Messiah Journal 111 (Fall 2012 issue) called “The Birth of Yeshua at Sukkot: Evidence from an Old Source” but I later listened to an audio CD of Lancaster teaching the same material. The audio contained more information that expanded upon Lancaster’s reasons as to why we can’t really know if Jesus was or wasn’t born on Sukkot.

I just found Lancaster’s sermon online at the Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship website. If you click that link, you’ll be taken to the Audio page specific to the material. To listen to the relevant recording, scroll down until you locate “Birth of Yeshua at Sukkot.” At about 8:29 on the audio, Lancaster introduces the information about Zacharias (father of John the Baptist) that I’m also going to summarize here.

The strongest evidence anyone has presented me about Yeshua (Jesus) being born on Sukkot has to do with the timing of Zacharias’ service in the Temple. But let’s take a step backward:

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.

Luke 1:26-36 (NASB)

Here we see the angel Gabriel announcing to Miriam (Mary) that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus, and popular opinion states that at this time Mary was already pregnant or would become pregnant very soon afterward. We also see that her cousin Elizabeth was six-months pregnant with her child, John the Baptist. The Priest Zacharias is John’s father.

Remember, Zacharias is a Priest in the division of Abijah and we know, based on 1 Chronicles 24, the order of the service of the Priestly divisions. We know that the division of Abijah, like the other divisions, served twice a year for a full week each time. If we could figure out when the course of Abijah was, we could figure out when Elizabeth became pregnant (since she became pregnant immediately after the end of Zacharias’ service in the Temple), count ahead six months and then nine months, and then figure out the birthdate of Jesus.

But Lancaster says it’s not that easy.

First of all, there were 24 courses which meant that each division cycled through the year twice making 48 week-long courses in a year. But in the solar calendar, there are 52 weeks in a year, so unless there was some way to compensate, each course would drift across the calendar making it very difficult to determine when a particular division was serving at any given year.

D.T. LancasterThe assumption though is that the Abijah division was serving in the spring or the fall. But Luke doesn’t tell us what season it was when describing Zacharias’ service, so we have no way of knowing if it was during springtime or autumn.

On top of that, one out of every three years in the Jewish religious calendar contains 13 months. Rabbinic sources don’t tell us how or if the priesthood compensated for an extra four weeks in their calendar every three years. We assume that they must have, but without knowing the exact method they used, we’re stuck as far as calculating the timing of the service of divisions.

And after all that, the entire priesthood was called to serve during each of the three pilgrim festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and Lancaster says we can’t rule out that it was during one of the festivals that Zacharias was serving.

The icing on the cake, so to speak, is that experts don’t agree on whether the priestly rotation began on Nisan 1 or Tishrei 1.

Add all this up, and it becomes impossible to calculate when Zacharias served in the Temple in the Luke 1 text, and thus the entire basis for calculating the birth of Messiah disintegrates like wet tissue paper.

Since this is just a summary, I encourage you to click on the link I provided above and listen to the entire recording for yourself. I can’t speak for Lancaster, but unless some additional data comes to light that modifies everything I just said, the information about Zacharias and the Abijah division of priests is a dead-end in terms of discovering the birthdate of the Master.

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7 thoughts on “A Question of the Division of Abijah”

  1. There are a lot of “coincidences” that cause me to lean toward a Sukkot birthday. I know there is not enough evidence to be dogmatic about it but short of having hard evidence against it and for lack of having a better time to celebrate it I see nothing wrong with holding Yeshua’s birthday during Sukkot.

    On a personal note I also like that it gives us precedent for week long birthday parties!

  2. I don’t see anything wrong with celebrating the Master’s birthday on Sukkot as a matter of tradition, but I agree, the evidence isn’t there to be dogmatic about it…and certainly I can’t find fault with someone not celebrating the birthdate on Sukkot, Christmas, or any other date. The fact that we commemorate any day as the day of Messiah’s birth is, in and of itself, a tradition, Andre.

  3. I agree. We may not possess certainty, but we do have evidence. But, keep in mind that the whole idea of celebrating birthdays was not part of ancient Jewish culture. Perhaps it had something to do with the superstition of “ayin harah,” the evil eye, that celebrating one’s birthday might be presumptuous and lead to nasty stuff coming down. I recall that some of my older relatives wouldn’t hold a baby shower until after the baby was born. I’ve heard some people celebrate the concept of Messiah at Hanukkah; for one, his conception was a miracle, and what better time than the festival of light would be there for the light to enter the world in human form? Jonathan Settel has an excellent short film about the incarnation, with its Hebraic connotation and vocabulary.

  4. I suppose it’s because Christmas is such a big deal in the Christian world that the issue of observing Messiah’s birth even comes up in the Messianic and Hebrew Roots worlds. As you say, Chaya, from a traditional Jewish perspective, I wouldn’t think such an event would even show up on radar.

  5. Our God is not a God of cinfusion, Read the Bible closely and you will see that He gives directions in detail about everything He wants us to do. Why do we constantly try to dictate the order of celebration of our God. why does man keep inventing dates or coming up with traditions and celebrations not directed by God. Why can’t we just accept the fact that God left the dates out because He does not want us to celebrate. Does God want to see people spend lavishly on gifts, parties, clothes, toys? Does He want to see people go deeply on credit card debt each year? admit it or not, all these man made festivals are money making scheme driven and fueled by the master of this world feeding the lust of man’s desires. God said “My way is not your way, and my thoughts are not your thoughts” celebrating Jesus birthday does not mean that you love Him, it is the obedience to His commands that matters to Him and loving God is an everyday obligation. we are but a dust of the earth we are not or ever will be in any position to dictate the manner in which to celebrate God. Honor God by celebrating Him on the day He wants to be celebrated.

  6. David, I decided to approve your comment, even though it seems designed mainly to drive traffic to your site (or a site you support). Readers can decide if the information presented there is sufficiently compelling or not. Cheers.

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