Author: Joshua Meadowcroft
Discussing the issues surrounding the conception and birth of John the Baptist can be a lengthy matter. However, when it’s sorted though it serves as a great value and support to the overall picture of chronology with the conception of Jesus Christ. Determining John’s conception does not help determine Jesus’ conception and birth. It works the other way around; because we know Jesus’ birth and conception we can know more accurately John’s birth and conception. To start, let’s look at Luke 1:5. It says,
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.”
Verses 8-11 tell us that while Zachariah was performing his priestly duty “before God in the order of his course” the angel appeared to him to announcing John’s coming. This is significant. We read in 1 Chronicles 24:10 that Abijah’s division was of the 8th order.
The priestly courses were set in order by King David and Samuel (1 Chronicles 9:22). Each course of priests was identified from the sons of Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. Twenty-four courses were instituted in all (I Chronicles 24).
These 24 orders of priests continued their service to the temple until Judah was taken captive and the Temple destroyed by Babylon. When the Jews were permitted to return to Palestine, the rebuilding of the Temple was the priority. However, only 4 of the original 24 priests returned (Ezra 2:36-39). Under the authority of Ezra, a new set of 24 courses was established while keeping the returned 4 courses in their place and maintaining the original family names of the other 20 courses.
Each one of the 24 courses was to serve in the Temple for one week at a time. The Bible says each course was to “come in on the Sabbath” and “go out on the Sabbath (2 Chronicles 23:8; 2 Kings 11:50). Over the period of less then one year (48 weeks) each priestly course would serve twice in the Temple, according to the rotation. Each session would be separated by 6 months.
The Jewish calendar is a Lunar-Solar calendar that has 51 weeks. The question becomes, what happens during those 3 empty weeks if the priests only served a total of 48 weeks of the year? The answer is this. King David instituted that all regular priestly courses were to be temporarily suspended during Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost. These were times when Israel flooded Jerusalem to celebrate. 2 Chronicles 5:11 tells us during the Feast of Tabernacles the priests “did not wait by course”. All priests were required to serve during these seasons. Then regular course progression would continue after. In total each priestly order would serve five weeks yearly.
Luke gives us a clue in Luke 1:8 saying, “So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division”. So we know that Zechariah was not serving in the 8th order of Abijah during one of the three festivals because he WAS serving “in the order of his division”. The question then becomes, which half of the year was it?
To answer this question a handful of information needs to be balanced out. The time of Jesus’ birth would tell us the general time of His conception along with crucial information about the general time of John’s conception and birth because we know John was six months older then Jesus. All this combined will tell us what time of year it was.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread would have been in the 3rd week of Nisan. All priests would have been required to participate including Zachariah. The 1st through 6th week courses of priests would have followed uninterrupted. The 6th course would have fallen during the 1st week of Sivan.
The following week would be The Feast of Pentecost and all priests would have been required to participate. Accordingly, this would be been the 2nd week of Sivan. The 7th course of priests would have picked up afterwards during the 3rd week of Sivan and Zachariah’s course (the 8th) would have followed during through the 4th week of Sivan (mid-June). This tells us exactly when the angel appeared to Zachariah. Given the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth it would place the conception of John between the 4th week of Nisan (after Passover) and the 1st week of Iyar. This is the month of April.
Luke 1:26 is often thought to be associated with Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. The above outline would show Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy to be closer to the seventh month of the year. The ‘sixth month’ of this verse is referring to the beginning of the New Year at Passover and is associated with Mary and the conception of Jesus.