The winter solstice of the Jewish year 3790, the Christian year 4000 (4 B.C.1), was the proper time. For centuries the Jews had wondered when their Messiah would arrive. He was finally en route. The time appointed of the Father (Galatians 4:2), the fullness of time,2 when God would send forth His Son, made of a woman, and made under the law (Galatians 4:4) had arrived. The pre-messianic period was over (cf. Ephesians 1:10). The last piece had fallen into place.
Years later, when Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He marked the completion of a long chain of events that had taken place according to divine guidance. His death, at that time, in that place, was not accidental nor incidental, but happened by God’s determinate counsel and foreknowledge (Acts 2:23).
Much preparation had gone into this great plan of redemption. Man was not privy to God’s master schedule, for “known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18), but we can see much of it in retrospect. From an early hint in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15), to the covenants made with the patriarchs (Genesis 17:1–21), to the types and shadows of the law (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1), to the overt prophecies of the prophets (e.g., Isaiah 7:14; Jeremiah 31:22; Luke 24:27, 44), God’s eternal plan gradually unfolded before man’s eyes (Ephesians 3:11).
By linking Jesus’ birth to the census decree of Caesar Augustus (cf. Luke 1:1–4; 2:1–2; 3:1–2), Luke provides a firm historical framework for Christianity. Unlike other religions, Christianity did not happen “once upon a time in a make-believe land far, far away.” It happened in the midst of the recorded history of mankind. Luke’s note of the Roman emperor also hints at the worldwide significance of seemingly trivial events in Judea.3
When did Jesus’ birth take place?
Jesus was born in the height of the fourth kingdom.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, once had a dream that troubled him (Daniel 2:1–13). God revealed its meaning to Daniel (2:14–23) who explained it to the king (2:24–45). The vision was a prophecy of coming world history illustrated by a great statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. At the close of the vision, the image was struck and destroyed by a stone, and that stone became a great mountain.
The image depicted four kingdoms which would rise and fall.
- The first, represented by the head of gold, was Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom, Babylon (Daniel 2:37–38).
- The second—the chest and arms of silver—was the Medo-Persian Empire (Daniel 2:39).Its great leader was Cyrus.
- The third—the belly and thighs of brass—was Alexander the Great’s Grecian Empire (Daniel 2:39).
- The fourth—the legs of iron, with feet mixed with iron and clay—was the Roman Empire (Daniel 2:40–43). Its greatest leaders included Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.
Thus, the statue’s feet represented the Roman government, and the stone represented God’s kingdom, the church. The Roman government had within it the seeds of its own destruction.
- Slavery was the basis of its industry. This system of degraded, forced labor, rendered free labor disgraceful and unprofitable.
- The extravagance of the emperors wasted its profits and required an oppressive system of taxation.
- These taxes caused many citizens to become slaves to debt and unprofitable burdens to society.4
During “the days of these kings”—the fourth monarchy—God promised to establish a kingdom that would never be destroyed, and which would destroy the fourth kingdom (Daniel 2:34–35, 44–45). For this to occur, God’s King had to first be born, which brings us to the New Testament. It was no coincidence, then, that the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary was in the days of the fourth empire (Luke 1:31–33).
It is no accident that we find the world so completely prepared for Christ. Each kingdom contributed something for God’s Son and His kingdom. In reverse order, consider:
- The Romans brought peace (Pax Romana) and an excellent road system which facilitated travel. Pirates were removed from the 6000 miles of Mediterranean coastline, also making sea travel relatively safe. Not until our own generation has travel been so easy or so frequent. The world opened to trade and commerce flourished. With common money, the world became more interconnected than it had ever been.
- The Greek civilization provided a commonly understood language and shared culture. The Jews retained a native Hebrew tongue called Aramaic, yet they used Koine (common) Greek in dealing with outsiders. This was the language in which the New Testament was written. This language was so uniformly understood across the land that the concepts of the gospel could be explained and fine distinctions of thought accurately understood. The language possessed tenses and moods that enabled an exactness of expression.
- The Medes and Persians added a respect for law: “The law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not” (Daniel 6:8).
- Babylon added synagogue worship.
- The Jews had proclaimed monotheism and the messianic hope in the synagogues of the Mediterranean world.5
God’s sovereign control over history is seen in that Caesar Augustus, emperor of the world, issued a decree that—unbeknownst to him—moved God’s plan forward. John would soon be preaching “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1–2).
Jesus was born when the fourth monarchy was in its height. Rome was, more than any of the three empires before it, a universal monarchy. The Roman Empire extended further when Jesus was born than ever before or since, including Parthia in one direction, and Britain in the other; so that it was called“The empire of the whole earth” (Terraram orbis imperium).6 Luke implies its greatness by saying that it had the power to tax “all the world” (Luke 2:1).7 There was scarcely any part of the civilized world that was not dependent on (and subservient to) Rome by this time.
Jesus was born in the sixty-fifth week (Daniel 9:24–27).
The angel Gabriel appeared to Daniel with another vision that predicted more specifically the chronology of the Messiah (Daniel 9:20–24). God determined:
- To finish the transgression;
- To make an end of sins;
- To make reconciliation for iniquity;
- To bring in everlasting righteousness;
- To seal up vision and prophecy;
- To anoint the most holy (Daniel 9:24).
This would occur “seventy weeks” after Ezra’s return in 457 b.c. As with many prophecies, seventy weeks do not refer to a literal 490 days, but each day stands for a year (cf. Ezekiel 4:4–5). So God was marking a date on the world’s calendar that was 490 years from the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.8
Why did God wait five more centuries to send Jesus? For that matter, why not send Jesus immediately after the fall in Eden? Why let the world sink for four thousand years deeper in ignorance and sin? God undoubtedly had reasons which we cannot see (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29), but it is safe to say that God saw the days of the Roman kings as the best time for Jesus’ incarnation. The revelation of “the mystery of Christ which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men” (Ephesians 3:4–5) had to wait for the preparation to be completed.
Still, even our limited perspective can see some reasons why this was the proper time.
- The prophecies related to Christ could not be fulfilled soon after their announcement lest men say they were contrived. No one living during the time when the prophecies were given was alive at the time of their fulfillment. One could perhaps make an educated guess of what will happen in twenty-five years, but no one can predict five hundred years ahead without God’s help.
- The Law of Moses was a “schoolmaster (tutor) to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). It takes time to receive an education. We do not hand out diplomas after the first grade. Students need time to learn, grasp, understand, grow, and mature. Four thousand years were sufficient to show to man that his own ability for righteousness was insufficient. He could not devise a plan of salvation to save himself. Since man’s attempts had all failed, the world was ready for the Son of God to come to reveal a better system.
- The world needed time to see its need for a Savior. Moses’ Law made sin appear exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13), but this took time. Humanity had come to see sin’s negative consequences repeated generation after generation. Roman social conditions—immorality, disregard for human life, debasement of women, frequent divorce and suicide—created a desire for a better world. People were more drawn to the purity of Christianity because of the corruption around them.
Daniel’s seventy weeks are divided into three segments—seven weeks, sixty-two weeks, and the “midst” of one week.
- Seven weeks (forty-nine years—457–408 b.c.) covers the period during which Jerusalem was rebuilt (Daniel 9:25).
- Sixty-two weeks (434 years), when added to the previous forty-nine, totals 483 years (9:25–26). Computed from 457 b.c., it terminates at a.d. 26, and coincides with the year of Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of His public ministry.
If Jesus began His ministry in the sixty-ninth week, then counting backward from age 29, He was born in the sixty-fifth week.
The “midst of the week” (three and one-half years) covers Jesus’ personal ministry. He was to be “cut off” (killed) in the midst of that week. That would be in a.d. 30.9 Three and a half years after His baptism He was crucified, bringing an end to the need for sacrifices. During the seventieth week the prince was cut off, but not for Himself. He confirmed a covenant with many (Daniel 9:27).
Daniel’s prophecy enabled the Jews to know when to look for their Messiah. It did not tell them exactly when He would be born, but it let them know in what generation to look for Him.
Jesus was born when Judah had the scepter.
The Messiah (Shiloh) was to be born, according to dying Jacob’s prophecy, before the scepter was departed from Judah (Genesis 49:10). Thus Judah would continue a distinct tribe till the Messiah came. Historically, long after the other tribes had lost individuality, Judah continued as a nation. It lasted for more than a thousand years (think of how few nations have lasted 1,500 years), even though her sister kingdom, Israel, was lost as a nation after the Assyrian Captivity. Judah survived the Babylonian Captivity, many invasions (including the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Greeks), and subjection to Rome.
Jerusalem had been taken by the Roman general Pompey about sixty years before Jesus’ birth. He granted the government of religious matters to the Jews under Hyrcanus, but decreed that the government of the state would be by Cyrenius, the Roman governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). By degrees Jewish freedom was reduced, until at last Judah (the civil government and the temple) was destroyed completely by General Titus in a.d. 70.
“Until Shiloh come” refers to Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who was of the lineal descendant of the royal line of David and of Judah, and was the Messiah. Jesus is the One who would bring peace to the world (Luke 2:14; Philippians 4:6). Since 27 B.C., the famous “Roman peace” (Pax Romana) had been in effect. At the conclusion of the civil wars, Augustus obtained through the senate autocratic power and restored peace to the Empire. This was felt as an immense boon by the populace. Augustus himself felt that security was more important than glory won by additional conquest. Such a period of peace was essential for the effective spread of the Gospel.
“Until Shiloh come” refers to Jesus who descended from the royal line of David and of Judah. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, brought peace to the world (Luke 2:14; Philippians 4:6-7).
Beginning in 27 B.C., the famous “Roman peace” (Pax Romana) had been in effect. At the conclusion of the civil wars, the Roman senate granted Augustus immense power and restored peace to the Empire. Augustus felt that security was more important than the glory of additional conquest. It was proper for the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6) to be born in days when swords should be beaten into ploughshares. This time of peace facilitated the rapid spread of the Gospel.
The temple of Janus had doors on both ends, and inside resided the statue of Janus, the two-faced god of boundaries. The Temple doors (the “Gates of Janus”) were closed in times of peace and opened in times of war. Augustus Caesar boasted in his autobiographical Res Gestae (paragraph 13) that he closed the Gates of Janus three times, which was more times than in all prior Roman history. From Cassius Dio 51.20 and 53.27, we are able to date the first two closures to 29 and 25 BC respectively.
Jesus was born when Bethlehem was a small city in Judah.
Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephratah (Micah 5:2). That city existed as a small village in Micah’s day, which was about five centuries before Jesus’ birth. Consider how few cities continue—and remain the same size—for five centuries. Think of the ghost towns scattered across the American Midwest. Think of how many small towns grew into large cities since the founding of America—which is not even half as long. God preserved Bethlehem for half a millennia even though it was invaded and occupied by enemies many times.There was another problem. Just because the town existed did not mean the Savior would be born there. The mother did not live in Bethlehem Ephratah—nor anywhere close to it. She was ninety miles away in her hometown of Nazareth and, by the time we join the story (Luke 1-2), was within perhaps two weeks of delivering the child. There seemed every probability that the birth would take place in Nazareth and Micah’s prophecy would fail.
There was another problem. Just because the town existed did not mean the Savior would be born there. The mother did not live in Bethlehem Ephratah—nor anywhere close to it. She was ninety miles away in her hometown of Nazareth and, by the time we join the story (Luke 1-2), was within perhaps two weeks of delivering the child. There seemed every probability that the birth would take place in Nazareth and Micah’s prophecy would fail.How would God get the mother to Bethlehem in time?
How would God get the mother to Bethlehem in time?He used the most powerful—and one of the most wicked—men on earth to make it happen. Caesar Augustus decided that the Roman Empire would be enrolled for a tax,
He used the most powerful—and one of the most wicked—men on earth to make it happen. Caesar Augustus decided that the Roman Empire would be enrolled for a tax,10 including the Jews. What moved him to take a census? Perhaps pride or greed—pride to know the vast number of his citizens (cf. 2 Samuel 24:9-10) or greed to tax them for more money.Whatever his reason, God had another plan in mind. Long before Augustus made his decree, God decreed that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). His integrity demanded that this prediction come to pass. So God arranged for events to be set in motion that would cause Mary to pack a bag, get on an animal, and brave the trek away from home at the most inconvenient of times.
Whatever his reason, God had another plan in mind. Long before Augustus made his decree, God decreed that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). His integrity demanded that this prediction come to pass. So God arranged for events to be set in motion that would cause Mary to pack a bag, get on an animal, and brave the trek away from home at the most inconvenient of times.11 Perhaps there were only a handful of people in the world with enough power to get her to do this. Imagine if her own father or father-in-law had asked her to make such a trip in the eighth or ninth month of her pregnancy. She doubtlessly would have politely declined. But one did not decline the command of such tyrants as Augustus Caesar or Herod the Great.History shows a little more why it happened at this time. Augustus (63 BC–14 AD) founded the Roman Empire and was its first Emperor, ruling from 27 BC until his death in 14 A.D. at age 75. He ruled under the façade of a senate, but he was really a dictator for life. As Maddox explains, a little before Mary’s visit by the angel, Herod, a little tyrant, had offended Augustus, the greater tyrant. Augustus told him that he would no longer treat him as a friend but as a vassal. Although Herod tried to make amends, askinghis friends in the Roman court to intercede, Augustus was not appeased. To show his displeasure, the Jewish people were among the first enrolled for the coming worldwide taxation, which was not completed until about ten years after.
History shows a little more why it happened at this time. Augustus (63 BC–14 AD) founded the Roman Empire and was its first Emperor, ruling from 27 BC until his death in 14 A.D. at age 75. He ruled under the façade of a senate, but he was really a dictator for life. As Maddox explains, a little before Mary’s visit by the angel, Herod, a little tyrant, had offended Augustus, the greater tyrant. Augustus told him that he would no longer treat him as a friend but as a vassal. Although Herod tried to make amends, askinghis friends in the Roman court to intercede, Augustus was not appeased. To show his displeasure, the Jewish people were among the first enrolled for the coming worldwide taxation, which was not completed until about ten years after.
Jesus not only became a man (John 1:14), but also a Jew (Galatians 4:4). He was not only a Jewish citizen, but a Roman subject. Being born during the taxing, He would have been enrolled with His parents. Thus He became a subject of the Roman Empire as soon as He was born. He was made under Moses’ Law, and for good measure was made under Roman law too (Galatians 4:4; cf. Matthew 5:18).
- As a Jew He was subject to Hebrew civil, judicial, and ceremonial laws. He was circumcised the eighth day, kept the feasts, and obeyed the statutes. He kept it perfectly, fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17), and paid its curse (cf. Galatians 3:13).
- As a subject of Rome, He was additionally subject to its laws. He later paid tribute to the Roman government (Matthew 17:24-27). Instead of having kings being tributaries to Him as King of the world, He was a tributary to them.
More practically, how could a permanent, public recognition of the lineage of an obscure carpenter and an unknown maiden be procured for history? What interest would the keepers of registers take in such humble citizens? God made sure that His Son’s birth was registered and that the official stamp of the Roman Empire was affixed to His pedigree of His Son. He procured an unbiased witness to the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy regarding Bethlehem. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) and Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), two of the earliest advocates for the Christianity, appealed to these very Roman records as proof of Christ’s being born of the house of David. Thus Jesus is recognized officially as being descended from David by the fact that His mother came to Bethlehem as being of that lineage.12
From one way of looking at it, all the world had to be enrolled, only so Joseph and Mary would be.
2“The fulness of time” is a Hebraism meaning “the fulness of days,” or “when the days were fulfilled,” or when the time was up.
3Beginning with the birth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus, he wrote with the eye for detail of a historian (Luke 1:5, 36, 56, 59; 2:1–2, 7, 21– 22, 42; 3:23; 9:20, 27; 22:1, 7, 66; 23:44, 54; 24:1, 13, 29, 33). It is often said that Luke has the honor of being the first Christian historian (Luke 1:1–4). A sample of his thoroughness is seen in the way he dates the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry (Luke 3:1–2). Notice that he dates John’s ministry to no fewer than six contemporary events:
- The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar;
- Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea;
- Herod was tetrarch of Galilee;
- Herod’s brother Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and the regions of Trachonitus;
- Lysanias was the tetrarch of Abilene;
- Annas and Caiphas were the high priests.
4Adapted from F. W. Maddox, God’s Eternal Kingdom.
5Adapted from Maddox and other sources.
7Oikoumene literally means “the inhabited world” and is used here of the Roman Empire—civilization as perceived through Roman eyes.
8Actually, the chronology is divided into three segments, the total of which represents 486½ years. This would be the span between the command to restore Jerusalem, and the Messiah’s death.
9These are corrected chronology and correspond to a.d. 29–33 in the accepted chronology.
10Censuses were common in the Roman Empire and were used as registration for tax purposes. “Taxed” here means enrolled—they were to give their names to the proper officers and to be registered by families. Taxation was secondary at this point and would come later. Although we have no written evidence of such a single worldwide census during this time, Augustus reorganized the administration of the empire and conducted numerous local censuses. Luke may be referring to an otherwise unknown census, or he may be treating a local Palestinian census as part of the emperor’s administrative policy.
11Though the Romans did not generally require citizens to return to ancestral homes during a census, they did allow client states to conduct affairs according to local customs. In Judea this involved ancestral tribal divisions. Some think that it also may have involved land ownership, and that Joseph might have owned property in Bethlehem. There is evidence that in Egypt property owners had to return to the district where they owned land.
12F. W. Maddox’s book, The Eternal Kingdom, provided much of the historical information referred to here. One interested in further study should consult this excellent work.