jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/zechariahvision-300x204.jpgThe Gospel reading for December 19 contains the familiar story of Zechariah in the temple.
It is the occasion when the Angel Gabriel appears to him to announce the birth of John the Baptist.
Although the story is familiar, there are some fascinating details in this account, and their significance is not obvious.
Let’s take a look.
Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
1. When did this event take place?
Luke begins his narrative “in the days of Herod, king of Judea,” by which he means Herod the Great.
When precisely Herod the Great ruled is disputed. According to a theory introduced a little more than a century ago, Herod reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C.
This view is generally accepted today, but it has been vigorously challenged in favor of a more traditional dating, which would extend Herod’s reign to 1 B.C. (And also place the beginning of his reign in 39 B.C.).
Still, 39-1 B.C. is a long span, and we can narrow it down more precisely.
Once we clear away the error that Herod died in 4 B.C., it becomes clear that Jesus—in keeping with the traditional date given by the Church Fathers—was born in 3/2 B.C.
And since John the Baptist was around 6 months older than Jesus and was in the womb for 9 months, that would put this event around 15 months before the birth of Jesus–some time in 4 or 3 B.C. Most likely, it was in November of 4 B.C.
2. Why November of 4 B.C.?
Luke introduces the familiar figures of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who will become the parents of John the Baptist, and informs us that Zechariah is a priest belonging to “the division of Abijah.”
At the time, the Jewish priesthood was organized as twenty four divisions or “courses,” each of which went to serve at the temple twice a year for one week at a time.
The division of Abijah was the eighth of the twenty four courses.
Through a series of complex calculations and arguments that are too detailed to go into here, it is possible to estimate when the course of Abijah was on duty at the temple.
If you want to go into those arguments in all their geeky, chronological goodness, get a copy of Jack Finnegan’s outstanding Handbook of Biblical Chronology (see sections 467-473).
The upshot, though, is that Zechariah likely saw the vision when he was on duty with the rest of the course of Abijah between November 10 and 17 in 4 B.C.
That would put the birth of Jesus in the winter of 3/2 B.C., in keeping with the traditional date.
3. How did Zechariah’s vision come about?
Luke tells us:
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,*according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.*And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense [Luke 1:8-10].
You might wonder: Why was Zechariah chosen by lot to offer incense?
The answer is that there were, at this time, as many as 8,000 priests in total, and they could not all offer incense, even when their division was on duty.