Christmas Timeline of the Biblical Account
by Bodie Hodge and Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S.
December 21, 2010
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When December hits, many familiar questions surrounding the birth of Christ come to mind. For example, some ask about making Christmas sermons relevant, the origin of Christmas and if it was pagan, the star of Bethlehem, the “inn” where Jesus was born, and many others. Of course, these are important topics, but it is also important to understand the timeline of events surrounding the birth of Jesus.
The Christmas timeline of the biblical account is called into question by many skeptics. They claim the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke do not line up, and therefore the accounts should be discarded. Sometimes they go so far as to say that few are even aware of the issues with the Christmas timeline.
But is this really a problem? When we take a closer look, this claim is simply reduced to dust. The following is a plausible Christmas timeline that makes sense and works well with the information given in the Bible,1 and it has stood up to charges of twisting the text or overlooking key verses.
Circa 4 BC: the Birth of Jesus
- Ussher believed Jesus was born at the onset of 4 BC, and this is consistent because the king, Herod the Great, died near the end of that year, and Jesus was born during his reign.2
- Because of the Roman census, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth. Contrary to the idea of Jesus being born in a stable, He was likely born in the lower room of a house where animals often stay and subsequently laid in a manger (Luke 1:26–27; 2:4–7).
- The shepherds visit following the angelic announcement (Luke 2:8–12, 20).
- The angels worship the Christ (Luke 2:13–14).
Eight Days Later
- Jesus was circumcised. This probably did not occur in Jerusalem but a local synagogue or perhaps a priest came to them, as was the case for John the Baptist (Luke 1:59; 2:21; Leviticus 12:3).
- Jesus was given His name (Luke 2:21).
At Least 41 Days After the Birth of Jesus
- The Law stipulated a woman wait 40 days following the birth of a son to finish her purification (Leviticus 12:1–8). So Mary and Joseph went to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice of two doves or pigeons, which signified they were poor (Luke 2:22–24). This suggests the magi had not visited yet to offer their expensive gifts; otherwise Joseph and Mary probably could have afforded the lamb and dove required by the Law for those with adequate means.
- At the Temple, Simeon held Jesus, blessed God and the family, and prophesied in the Holy Spirit about Jesus (Luke 2:25–35).
- Anna, a prophetess, saw the Christ at the Temple (Luke 2:36–38).
Soon After the 41st Day
- The family returned to Bethlehem—not Nazareth, as some have suggested. After all, they were still in Bethlehem when the wise men later visited, and they apparently planned to return there following the flight to Egypt.3 As such, it is unlikely they would have packed up everything to go to Jerusalem for offering sacrifices. So they would have returned to Bethlehem where they left their belongings (Matthew 2:5–9).
- They were now staying in a house (oikian)—perhaps the same one, but probably not in the stall area since the guest room (kataluma) may have been available at this time.
Within the Year
- Alerted by the so-called Christmas star, an unknown number of magi from the East (perhaps Persia4) made their way to Herod's palace in Jerusalem to inquire of the Christ child (Matthew 2:1–4).
- Contrary to popular opinion, the star was probably not a typical event in the heavens (e.g., supernova, planetary alignment, comet, etc.) Instead, it was truly a miraculous and special star (Matthew 2:2, 7, 9–11).
- Jewish chief priests and scribes informed Herod that, according to Micah 5:2, Bethlehem was to be the birthplace of the Messiah (Matthew 2:4–6).
Maybe Within the Year5
The Magi Arrive
- These magi followed the star, which moved ahead of them, bringing expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus—who was now a young child living in a house6 (Matthew 2:9–11).
- They worshipped the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11).
- Jesus is called a “young child” (paidion, Matthew 2) instead of babe (brephos, Luke 2:16) at the time that the magi arrived. Brephos specifically refers to a baby, whether born or unborn, while paidion refers to an immature child, possibly an infant (Matthew 2:11), so we should not be dogmatic about His age.
- The magi returned to their homeland via a different route after being divinely warned in a dream not to go back to Herod (Matthew 2:12).
Herod and the Flight to Egypt
- Soon after the wise men left, Herod realized that they were not going to return and he ordered the killing of all boys in and around the region of Bethlehem who were two years of age and under (Matthew 2:16). Herod knew the approximate timing of the star’s appearance (Matthew 2:7), which may be the time that Christ was born. With this information, Herod, who was paranoid about the crown and did not want anyone taking over, would have made sure to kill the child. So he may have at least doubled the time from when the star first appeared to the wise men, thinking this would guarantee that the child would be killed, even if the information was off.
- An angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt to protect his family. This trip would ultimately fulfill a prophecy (Hosea 11:1). Perhaps the new gifts helped finance that trip (Matthew 2:13–15).
- Baby boys two years and under in Bethlehem and surrounding region were slaughtered (Matthew 2:16).
Late 4 BC to Early 3 BC
- Herod died in 4 BC in Jericho and was buried in Herodion approximately 25 miles away. Reports are that the procession travelled with the body one mile per day. So it was likely 3 BC when he was buried.6 Herod’s son Archelaus succeeded him (Matthew 2:22).
Early 3 BC
- An angel informed Joseph that they could move back since Herod had died (Matthew 2:15, 19).
- Since Joseph and Mary had completed the laws and commands (Greek nomos) of the Lord, they returned to the land of Israel from Egypt and settled in Nazareth of Galilee, which became the hometown of Jesus and was where Joseph and Mary lived prior to going to Bethlehem for the census.7 (Matthew 2:22; Luke 2:39).
- Jesus would be called a Nazarene, fulfilling a spoken prophecy (Matthew 2:23).
The Christmas timeline of the biblical account makes sense when Luke and Matthew are carefully analyzed. Any alleged contradiction of the timeline at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth simply vanishes in light of the chronology given. When it comes to the Bible, it can be trusted. Sometimes we just need to take some time to carefully study God’s Word.
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- We should not be dogmatic about the specific details of the Christmas timeline. This article is designed to show that the details of the biblical account are not contradictory but entirely consistent.
- James Ussher, translated by Larry and Marion Pierce, The Annals of the World, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2003), 779.
- Some respected chronologists place the visit of the magi, the flight to Egypt, Herod’s death, and the return from Egypt prior to Mary’s sacrifices on the 40th day at the Temple. See Dr. Floyd Jones, Chronology of the Old Testament, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2005), 214–216. Though this is possible, there are some problems. For example, Matthew 2:21–22 states, “
Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.” Why would Joseph take Mary and Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem when they feared Archelaus (Herod’s son) who was ruling in Jerusalem? Why would they go to Judea after being instructed to go to Galilee?
- Ussher places the visit of the magi prior to the 40th day (page 779). Some churches celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 (12 days after Christmas) in honor of the visit of the magi. This is the origin of the “12 days of Christmas” tradition. However, in light of the poor offering at the Temple, it makes more sense that Joseph and Mary were still poor and had not yet received the rather valuable gifts from the magi. Furthermore, they were likely still living with relatives during the census period and potentially in the same animal-housing portion of the place where Jesus was born and laid in a manger. It was not until later that they were living in a house when the wise men visited.
- The magi may have been familiar with the promises of the coming Messiah due to Daniel’s influence or the Jewish holdovers from the Babylonian captivity. The Hebrew scrolls (e.g., Numbers 24:17) would have been highly revered among magi. Keep in mind that magi and wise men were together among the elite in Babylon in those days. Daniel 2:48 states that Daniel was elevated above all of them.
- Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, Book 17, Chapter 8 [Herod’s death—his last will—burial. 4, 3 BC] and Wars of the Jews Book 1, Chapter 33 [The golden eagle cut to pieces—Herod’s barbarity—attempts to kill himself—commands Antipater to be slain—survives him by five days. 4 BC] The Revised Works of Josephus), See also Ussher, page 781.
- Luke 2:39 indicates that when they had completed all that was required of them by the Lord, they returned and settled in Galilee where they had originally came from. This would have been upon their return from Egypt to complete what had been stated by the Lord through the angels. They had completed the Temple rituals given by Moses, and they had now just completed the instructions as given by an angel to leave and return. Their decision to go to Galilee was prompted by an angel due to Herod’s son Archelaus taking the reign in Judea because Galilee was out of his jurisdiction (Matthew 2:22).