In the first chapter of Luke, before the story of Jesus’s conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the record of John the Baptist’s miraculous birth. He was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth.
Zacharias was a priest and he and is wife were unable to conceive. But that all changed when the Angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias, who was working in the temple, saying his wife would have a child in their old age (Luke 1:12-13).
And we know Elizabeth’s pregnancy is connected to Mary’s, because we are told around the six month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that Mary conceived Jesus (Luke 1:24-27).
But the passage provides a bit of information about Zachariah’s priestly service that may hint at what month Jesus was born:
5 In 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 ….. 8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. (Luke 1: 5, 8-9 NASV)
Luke tells us that Zacharias was part of the division of Abijah and was in the Temple doing his priestly service as part of his role in this division or order.
What in the world is the division of Abijah?
To understand that we need to go back to the time of King David.
The primary function of the priests, direct descendants of Israel’s first High Priest Aaron, was to work in the Tabernacle of Moses and later the Temple.
However, there were more men available than needed, so King David set up 24 divisions or orders of priests (1 Chronicles 24). These two dozen divisions would rotate through the year with each division taking turns serving one week. Based on the Jewish calendar, each division had two weeks of service annually. But in addition to this, all 24 divisions were brought into work during the major festivals.
We also have a rough idea of the order of service:
7 Now the first lot fell to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah, 8 the third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim, 9 the fifth to Malchijah, the sixth to Mijamin, 10 the seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah, (1 Chronicles 24:7-9 NKJ).
This means Abijah’s first service fell on the eighth time slot, not the eighth week, because there were weeks they all came together during festivals which did not count to this cycle. The cycle stopped before the major feasts and resumed after.
We also need to note that the Jewish calendar differs from our calendar in two important ways. First, the Jewish year started in what is our March and secondly their calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which resulted in an extra month being added every few years.
Once these differences are factored in, most scholars suspect that if this was Abijah’s first service of the year, then Zachariah was working in the temple sometime in late May or early June. If Elizabeth conceived shortly after that, and Jesus six months later, then that would put Christ’s birth sometime in September.
If this is a reference to Abijah’s second week of service, then Jesus was probably born in March which fits with other parts of the story that says the Shepherds were in the fields which they typically were during spring birthing (Luke 2:8).
So what were all those extra priests doing during the major festivals? The New Testament provides some clues.
Remember when Jesus cleansed the temple. There were money changers and people selling sacrificial animals in the temple. Those positions would have been filled by the priests from the 24 divisions brought in for service during the festivals.
It was a bit of a racket, because though people would sometimes bring animals to be sacrificed they had to be unblemished. Invariably those responsible for checking over the animals and birds would find a blemish, but fortunately there were some for sale in the temple, at a premium price of course.
The people were also using Roman currency during their everyday life. Because these coins often had images of Roman gods on them, the currency was unsuitable for use in Temple purchases. But fortunately the priests also had money changers on site to exchange the currency, at a premium of course.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, the Lord proclaimed that it was supposed to be a place of prayer not a den for thieves (Matthew 21:13). This action only added to the Lord’s growing popularity among the regular population.
We also see another reference to the priestly duties in Matthew 17:24-27. The priests had instituted an annual temple tax of two drachma (half a shekel). The best time for collecting the temple tax was also during the major feasts, which would be one of the responsibilities of additional priests brought in during the festivals.
But this wasn’t the only activity those from the priestly tribe (Levites) were involved in.
The Romans were not only efficient, but very clever in maintaining power. Rome’s tax system worked a bit differently than ours. In effect, the Romans awarded tax franchises to select people, the elites and political class, in each country they conquered.
It was almost a license to print money. The Romans expected a certain amount of revenue from each jurisdiction and the people receiving the franchise could keep anything collected above that amount. Thus anyone receiving a franchise benefited directly from the Roman occupation and because of that were more likely to support it.
Historical records tell us that at times the Romans awarded the tax franchise for Judea to the Temple High Priest. Of course, the High Priest didn’t collect the money himself, he handed the responsibility out to those in the priestly orders. Not surprisingly, one of Jesus’s first disciples was Matthew, who was not only a Levite, but also a tax collector (Luke 5:27).
Now it would be easy to conclude that all priests were bad. They weren’t. Zacharias clearly had a heart after God and so did Matthew who was simply doing what he thought was right. In fact, Acts 6:7, tells us that many of the Levite Priests became Christians during the early days of the Church.