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Away in a Sukkah?

November 7, 2006

Every year about this time you start to see articles debunking Christmas myths. Problem is these frequently introduce new falsehoods, which need debunking in turn. One fairly popular notion is that Jesus was actually born on the Feast of Tabernacles (or Feast of Booths, Heb. sukkoth), which typically falls sometime in October by our calendar. Different versions of this claim exist, with levels of certainty varying from an intriguing possibility to dead certainty. The idea has its attractions, especially for those who see a schema of Jesus’ life fulfilling the prophetic foreshadowings of the Jewish festivals.

That he died on Passover is clear, and he is called “our passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). He is also the “firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23), though his resurrection was not technically on the Celebration of Firstfruits, but a few days before. The Spirit was, of course, given at Pentecost (Acts 2). From here we enter speculation: could it be that the Second Coming (the last trumpet: 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) might occur on the Feast of Trumpets? Well, as for the feast of Tabernacles, doesn’t John 1:14 say that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” with the word dwelt being a verbal form of the Greek word skēnē “tent” or “tablernacle?”

It’s mighty tempting to take this ball and run with it. In fact the idea of a Tabernacles nativity is very popular among Messianic congregations, and with “Judaized” gentile Christians (you know, the kind who say “Yeshua haMashiah” instead of “Jesus Christ.”)

Or maybe the light of the world came to earth on the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, 25 Kislev, which in 5 BC fell on…December 25! Yeah, but…didn’t Herod die in 4 BC? Isn’t the December 25 date just a pagan thing? The situation is more complicated than first appears. For a treatment of some of the issues look here.

The following analysis is adapted from a paper I wrote a year ago in response to a friend’s enthusiastic assertion that Jesus was born on Tabernacles. He actually provided two sources to demonstrate how this is derived from the evidence in the Bible. Both sources did by somewhat involved calculation arrive at this shared conclusion. Now, the fact that they started at different points and calculated in different ways to arrive at the same Tabernacles date might give pause to suspicious types. Sometimes research is much more satisfying when you decide on the conclusion ahead of time.

The two sources I have labelled A and B. A was a recorded message and so is not accessible, though I will summarize the argument. B can be found here.

When referring to dates on the Hebrew calendar, I have notated them, for example, as 7/15 for the fifteenth day of the seventh month.

I will attempt to demonstrate that theory of a Tabernacles nativity is far from clearly indicated in the Bible. I am not claiming to disprove this theory, but I will show that the presentations of both A and B are seriously flawed by errors of fact, by misreading of scriptural texts, lack of exegetical rigor, and by lack of critical thinking. The texts simply do not contain sufficient detail to construct this kind of chronology. Here are the relevant passages:

Zechariah’s service in the temple.

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense…And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb…

And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:5, 8-9, 11-15, 23-25)

The divisions of the priests.

The first lot fell to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah, the third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim, the fifth to Malchijah, the sixth to Mijamin, the seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah, the ninth to Jeshua, the tenth to Shecaniah, 1the eleventh to Eliashib, the twelfth to Jakim, the thirteenth to Huppah, the fourteenth to Jeshebeab, the fifteenth to Bilgah, the sixteenth to Immer, the seventeenth to Hezir, the eighteenth to Happizzez, the nineteenth to Pethahiah, the twentieth to Jehezkel, the twenty-first to Jachin, the twenty-second to Gamul, the twenty-third to Delaiah, the twenty-fourth to Maaziah. (1 Chronicles 24:7-18)

The relationship of Mary to Elizabeth.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary… And 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 call his name Jesus… And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. (Luke 1:26-27, 30-31, 36)

A calculates as follows: He divides the Hebrew calendar year into 24 half-months, and with Abijah serving in the eighth division he places his service as from 4/15 to 4/30. For some reason he claims that in the underlying Greek for the phrase “And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home” (Luke 1:23), the word translated “time” here is literally the word “day,” in the singular. So he takes John to have been conceived on the first day of service, 4/15. Jesus was conceived six months later on 10/15, and so was born nine moths after that on 7/15, which is the Feast of Tabernacles.

B has Zechariah serving the 10th week, that is the second week of the 3rd month, using a different scenario, where each division serves a week at a time in two cycles per year. However he skips certain weeks in which feasts occur that would require all the priests to be present in Jerusalem. So John would be conceived shortly after the 3rd Sabbath of the 3rd month, and so would be born ten months later in the middle of the month of Nisan. Therefore he was born on Passover (1/15). Jesus was born six months later, on 7/15, the feast of Tabernacles.

So how do these stack up with the facts as we can determine them? Which is correct, if either? To verify these calculations we need to answer the following questions:

When did the division of Abijah serve?

1 Chron. 24:10 lists Abijah as the eighth division of 24. Now, this verse does not specify the precise arrangement that this took, and certainly does not tell us what was being practiced in the first century B.C. However, A proceeds as if it did. He takes this to mean that 12 months of the year and 24 divisions means each division serves a half-month in order from the first of the year.

This is one logical possible schema, but there are many other imaginable possibilities. Any familiarity with Hebrew culture indicates that things are frequently not done as we would expect. What actually took place in real space and time? How can we know? Unless we have some record, in Scripture or history, we can only guess. And it sounds like A is just guessing. I am unaware of any evidence supporting his understanding of 15 day periods. It appears to be a product of the imagination.

B at least has some historical support. He tells us that what actually happened was each division took a week in order, from Sabbath to Sabbath, covering the first half of the year, and then similarly repeated the pattern for a second week later in the year. He cites a couple of verses which might also be relevant (2 Chron. 23:8 and 1 Chron 9:25).

He doesn’t mention the historical support behind this understanding, but it is found in Josephus’ Antiquities, Book VII, chapter xiv, verse 7:

But David, being desirous of ordaining his son king
of all the people, called together their rulers to Jerusalem, with the priests
and the Levites; and having first numbered the Levites, he found them to be
thirty-eight thousand, from thirty years old to fifty; out of which he appointed
twenty-three thousand to take care of the building of the temple, and out of the
same, six thousand to be judges of the people and scribes, four thousand for
porters to the house of God, and as many for singers, to sing to the instruments
which David had prepared, as we have said already. He divided them also into
courses: and when he had separated the priests from them, he found of these
priests twenty-four courses, sixteen of the house of Eleazar, and eight of that
of Ithamar; and he ordained that one course should minister to God eight days,
from sabbath to sabbath
. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the
presence of David, and Zadok and Abiathar the high priests, and of all the
rulers; and that course which came up first was written down as the first, and
accordingly the second, and so on to the twenty-fourth; and this partition hath
remained to this day. He also made twenty-four parts of the tribe of Levi; and
when they cast lots, they came up in the same manner for their courses of eight
days. He also honored the posterity of Moses, and made them the keepers of the
treasures of God, and of the donations which the kings dedicated. He also
ordained that all the tribe of Levi, as well as the priests, should serve God
night and day, as Moses had enjoined them.

B adds the additional detail that the sequence is interrupted at three points in the year by intervening feast weeks, when all the priests would need to be present, and that two of these would occur prior to the Abijah division. I am not sure of his source for this detail. It is true that on these occasions all Israelites are to come to Jerusalem. Once again, however, is this the actual practice or just a supposition? Do we have any supporting documentation? Josephus doesn’t mention this in the above passage, and I have not been able to find anything that specifically mentions the intervening festival weeks.

Also it is difficulty to see how this would work in reality. Consider, for example last year, 5765-5766, which conveniently begins the priest cycle on the latest possible day, 7 Nisan. We will assume for sake of discussion that B is correct that feast weeks displace priestly division weeks. It is not clear how the feast week displace the priests’ service weeks as the feast weeks are not Sabbath-to-Sabbath weeks generally. They would in fact impact on two different weeks. Again this is only a guess. This puts the end of the Abijah service on 3/17.

NIS (Sunday to Saturday)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Jehoiarib begins (1/7-13)
8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Skip: Unleavened Bread (1/15-21)
15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Jedaiah begins (1/21-27)
22 23 24 25 26 27 28 Harim begins (1/28-2/5)
29 30

– – 1 2 3 4 5 Seorim begins (2/5-11)
6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Malchijah begins (2/12-18)
13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Mijamin begins (2/19-25)
20 21 22 23 24 25 26 Hakkoz begins (2/26-3/3)
27 28 29

– – – 1 2 3 4 Pentecost (3/6)
5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Abijah begins (3/11-17)
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30

Now if we take the opposite example (below), where the year begins with a Sabbath, the Abijah service actually would take place before Pentecost, ending 3/4, prior to the first Sabbath in Sivan. This would hold true for a year beginning with Friday: the service would end on 3/5 and Pentecost begins on 3/6. So at least two out of seven years have a considerably earlier service week. What about a year starting on Thursday? Pentecost day would fall on the last day of service, but the following six days would impact the following division more. Which week is skipped? We simply have to know what was actually practiced.

– – – – – – 1 Jehoiarib begins (1/1-7)
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Jedaiah begins (1/8-14)
9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Skip: Unleavened Bread (1/15-21)
16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Harim begins (1/22-28)
23 24 25 26 27 28 29 Seorim begins (29-2/6)

– 1 2 3 4 5 6 Malchijah begins (2/6-12)
7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Mijamin begins (2/13-19)
14 15 16 17 18 19 20 Hakkoz begins (2/20-26)
21 22 23 24 25 26 27 Abijah begins (27-3/4)
28 29

– – 1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Pentecost (3/6)
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30

Now of course if B is wrong and the feast weeks are not skipped, then the weeks of Abijah service are even earlier: 2/20-26 at the earliest and 2/26-3/3 at the latest.

All this assuming it was the first go around for he divisions (more below).

When was John conceived?

At this stage both A and B engage in a bit of exegetical sleight of hand. A begins by asserting that Zechariah served from 4/15-4/30. Thereafter fourteen of these days just (poof) disappear and he begins to insist on the date of 4/15, the first day of the service. This date is crucial as he then simply jumps six months to put Jesus’ conception on 10/15 and nine months to put his birth on 7/15, Tabernacles.

In support he states that the word for “time” literally, “day” (hemera) in Luke 1:23 is singular. I’m not really sure how this would indicates that John was conceived on the first day of Zechariah’s service. At any rate, the word for “day” occurs once in v. 23 and once in v. 24 and both instances are in fact plural. A has made a simple factual blunder. This is not a particularly complicated point. It is one of the most common words in the New Testament, and the grammatical information involved is typically gained in about the first week of a Greek course.

Besides, A himself quotes the two verses:

And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days
his wife Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23-24)

From these we know that John was not conceived until after the last day of Zechariah’s service. What could be more clear?

As for B, he explains how the priestly divisions work, with what I think is more historical accuracy. But consider his second paragraph on page 2: “By this plan, when the 24th course was completed, the general cycle of courses would repeat.” And this is so. They served a second week roughly six months later. But what happens to the second cycle? It’s now you see it, now you don’t. So if we allow for the sake of discussion that the division of Abijah ministered in the tenth week of the year, it also ministerd in the 34th week of the year, or thereabouts. Which go around was it, the first in the year or the second? We have no way to tell. Right off the bat, B’s calculations drop to 50% probability.

In either case, we are limited to the actual information the text gives us. It says: “After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived” (Luke 1:24). Despite what we might be inclined to imagine, the text gives us only an indefinite period of time. Judging from Biblical history, prophecies don’t always arrive as fast as we would imagine or prefer. We know it happened, but we do not know whether or not she became pregnant the first time they tried. We are not told whether a fertility cycle is involved (on the nature of 28 days). The angel said his words would “be fulfilled in their time” (v. 20). In short, we are not safe in assuming an immediate conception of John. It might have happened that way, but we are not justified in inferring from the text that it did.

I’d like to point out an important principle here. We have to do here with real people and real events that occurred in the past, and we are given only the sketchiest narrative about these events. If you are reading Lord of the Rings, for example, for anything not explicitly told you, your imagination is as good as anything for filling in details. The Bible is not a novel, however, and while there are many information gaps for which we can imagine an answer, only the facts will do, and they are usually inaccessible.

When was Jesus conceived in relation to John?

Here again are the relevant texts:

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden…(v.24)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth…(v.26).

And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month…(v.36)

And here A and B make the same error. They are both correct in taking “the sixth month” to be the month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not the month of the year. However, observe what the text actually says: Elizabeth stayed in seclusion for five months, and then we hear about the sixth month of her pregnancy. Note, during the sixth month of a woman’s pregnancy she is five months pregnant. One day she completes five months of pregnancy, and on the next day her sixth month begins. If we take Jesus’s conception to be at the time of the Annunciation, then all we know for sure is that he is more than five months and less than six months younger than John.

Now, in point of fact, we are not actually told how soon Mary became pregnant after the Annunciation. We are not even explicitly told that she was pregnant when she arrived at Elizabeth’s house, though it does seem that we are to understand that she was, given fetus John’s reaction (did he spiritually perceive the presence of the son of God or was it Mary’s presence? I’m more inclined to understand the former).

So in either case we are not safe in adding 6 to the months as it could be anywhere from a few days more than five months or nearly six. We have up to, let’s say, a 25 day possible leeway or so.

Incidentally, B asserts that Mary stayed until the birth of John, adding 6 to 3 to get 9. However, the test states:

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (v. 56)
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. (v.57)

The text seems to indicate that Mary left before John’s birth. Remember too that when the text states that she stayed “about three months,” this can be considerably shorter than 90 days, even as short as 60 days or so, since parts of units such as months were frequently counted as wholes.

When was Jesus born, based on his conception date?

Interestingly A uses “nine months” and B uses “ten months” or “40 weeks” to arrive on 7/15, Tabernacles. Which was it? Unfortunately, both are sloppy at this point. Both of these figures are approximations, but each one uses it as if it were an exact figure to plug into a mathematical formula. Average human gestation is 266 days plus or minus 14.

So A is closer at 9 months (in fact allowing 29.5 days per lunar month 9×29.5 is in fact 265.5 days) so if his calculations weren’t so egregiously wrong elsewhere he might have a point here. However there is a 28 day variance in a normal pregnancy, as short as 252 days to as long as 280.

B gives the figure of 40 weeks (=280 days), but he really uses “about 10 lunar months”, which is more like 295 days. He is confused about human gestation times. 40 weeks is called the obstetrical gestation period, and is calculated from the first day of a woman’s last normal menstrual period, not from conception (a date which people do not generally know), a discrepancy of two weeks on average (taking us back to the first of Nisan, perhaps). Anyway as we said, 266 days is only an average. Reality is actually a range from 252-280.

In Mary’s case the low end is perhaps more likely, since traveling, as she presumably did, is more likely to induce an earlier labor (even premature), and the whole history of the “inn” may indicate that the birth happened a bit earlier than expected, earlier than convenient at any rate.

On top of the above considerations, both A and B assume that the year preceding Jesus’s birth was not a Jewish “leap year,” that is one with an added Adar. In order to regulate the solar and lunar cycles many years have an added 13th month, a second Adar. Actually the added month comes twelfth, with the regular Adar as the 13th month (

If this should be the case for this year the entire calculation is off by 30 days. However, we don’t know the year of Jesus’s birth, and I am not sure we can know whether the preceding year was one of these so called “leap years”. Since the fourth century this has followed a fixed calendar, but in New Testament times this was done by observation of the seasons.

Today these “leap years” occur in seven out to 19 years. To stay even with the solar year the would have had to occur with similar frequency prior to this, only not as predictable. So even if the earlier calculations are all correct, seven times out of nineteen you will not land on Tabernacles.

So in the case of B, who already has dropped to 50% probability, we do the math: 7/19 is about 37%, somewhat more than 1/3; 12/19 is about 63%, somewhat less than 2/3, and with 0.5 x 0.63 we arrive at 31% probability just accounting for those two factors.

One interesting note: a year with an added Adar, what I have been calling a “leap year” in Hebrew is known as a shanah me’uberet, literally a “pregnant year.” Do you suppose that both Mary and Elizabeth might have been with child in a “pregnant year?” (I don’t mean this seriously, but it has about as much validity as some of the other connections I find in some of presentations)

Some Secondary considerations:

Relevance of John 1:14

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:4)

This verse may be intended to suggest the Feast of Tabernacles, or at least the Tabernacle, since the verb for “dwelt” here is skenoo, related to skene, “tent.”

In English the word “tabernacle” is an uncommon word, that is strictly religious vocabulary. On the other hand Latin tabernaculum (taberna-culum) “a little hut” is a common word for a tent. In Greek skene is a common word for tent as well. Paul was a skenopoios or tent-maker, presumably not a maker of booths for the festival but for the common item. Incidentally, the word “scene” is just this word from the world of the theater, where the background enclosure was called a skene.

My point is, that to translate the verb as “he tabernacled among us,” unquestionably biases the English speaker toward a reference that may or may not be there. On the other hand, given John’s well-crafted use of language, there may be something there. At least we might be on safe ground to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles, since he is also our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7) and our atonement (1 John 2:2). John 1:14 might support the idea, though it is a long way from suggesting he was born then.

Interestingly, when B cites John 1:14, he states that the Hebrew word for “dwelt” here is sukkah. Now I suppose he is meaning to make a point about the word skenoo, which is the Greek word for “dwelt” here in this Greek verse from the Greek New Testament. To err is human of course, but this particular error does not really enhance the author’s credibility as one who knows his way around the Scriptural texts.

The manger and the feast of Tabernacles.

Both A and B naturally point to the supposed crowded situation in Bethlehem to assert that the traditional “stable” was in fact a sukkah, and in addition A makes much ado about the “manger” being in fact the bread bin associated with the booth. It is true we are not told Jesus was born in a stable. We are not really told that Bethlehem was crowded. It might not have taken much to fill the guest room.

Besides, wouldn’t the Feast of Tabernacles be the best time to find an empty guest room, given that everyone is otherwise required to camp out, and wouldn’t be staying in the house, much less occupying the guest room.

I do find it amazing, since Luke was intending to lay out the exact truth, that he would neglect to mention that the event was in fact the feast of Tabernacles, and that Mary and Joseph stayed in a sukkah. Instead he focuses on the census alone as the reason Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem. Yes, this is an argument from silence and thus of questionable force, but it does seem however to be a case of the dog who didn’t bark.

More significant is the simple fact that the word for “manger,” which A suggests is mistranslated through ignorance as “manger” or a feeding trough for animals, is phatne, a well-exemplified word for a feeding trough for animals. These are, of course, typically found in a stable. What would significantly help his case would be to show usage of this word by Jewish writers to refer to a bread bin in a sukkah. I do not think such an example exists, but I could be wrong. Otherwise, his assertion is sheer fantasy in the light of clear historical usage, and the evidence rather goes against his thesis.

In conclusion, while the variables allow for a possible Tabernacles nativity, they also allow for about 364 other days of the (Gregorian) calendar as well.

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