Saturninus prepares for a Census, Elizabeth and Mary get pregnant, and John the Baptist is born.
Before the end of 9 BC, Augustus Caesar had just sent a message overland to Sentius Saturninus, the Roman Governor of Syria. The message simply said, "Prepare to take a census of Herod's Kingdom." And Saturninus began to prepare.
But before we get to Saturninus, let's go back to Rome for a bit!
In Rome, Augustus Caesar begins the year outside the city. He is still mourning the death of his step-son Drusus, the great army General. While Caesar grieves, Syllaeus the Nabatean and Herod's friends are still waiting in Rome to speak with him again, about Herod's "invasion" of Nabatea.
Caesar returns in January. Some time later the waiting advisors all get in to see him, but it turns out they are not alone. Two other groups of advisors have arrived, coming urgently overland through the winter.
One group is Herod's chief advisor, a man named Nicolas of Damascus (with his aides). Herod sent Nicolas when he got Caesar's letter, at the end of last year (see 9 BC).
The second group came from the new King of Nabatea!
All at once, Augustus, Syllaeus, Herod's friends and Nicolas discover that King Odobas III has died during the winter! A new King, Aretas IV, has sent a team of men with presents for Augustus. Aretas' men want Augustus to allow and bless Aretas' claim to the Nabatean throne.
Caesar meets with them all. This time, the Emperor asks more than one question! Nicolas and the men from Aretas all testify that Syllaeus is lying in order to grab more power back home. The Nabateans also accuse Syllaeus of trying to poison Odobas to get his throne!
Nicolas takes his chance to explain the "invasion" of last year. Caesar listens, softens towards Herod, and makes some decisions.
Augustus announces that Syllaeus deserves death, but that he must go back and make ammends for his actions. Augustus commands Syllaeus to return in three years, having paid his debts, and performed other tasks.
Augustus tells Nicolas that Herod is forgiven, but that he has already given orders for a census in Israel, which is still going to happen.
Finally, Augustus is upset about how Aretas declared himself King in Nabatea, without waiting for his Imperial blessing. Briefly, Augustus considers deposing Aretas and giving all of Nabatea over to Herod!
But before he can decide, a fifth group of ambassadors arrives!
To understand this fifth group, we cut back to Israel for a moment...
Herod the Great was not having a very good year!
The Nabatean conflict still wasn't settled. His friendship with Caesar was basically over. Saturninus was coming down to take a measure of his Kingdom. And he was still waiting for his advisors to come back and report what else Caesar might decide.
On top of all this, he had to lock up two of his sons... for treason!
Herod's three oldest sons, in order, were called Antipater, Alexander and Aristobulus. Herod's last will (approved in Rome in 12 BC) said that these three would inherit and rule the Kingdom together, with the younger two as "sub-Kings" below Antipater. No one liked this idea, but Herod thought it would keep them from fighting each other. Instead, the opposite happened.
Antipater framed his younger brothers for planning to kill Herod and take the throne! Antipater did a good job, so it truly seemed they were guilty. Herod believed the fake evidence, and put his two best sons in chains.
Herod wanted to execute them right away, but he couldn't. They were still heirs in his will, which Caesar had approved. So he had to get Caesar's advice... and, of course, with everything else going on this year, the timing was terrible!
Herod asked a personal friend, named Olympus, to go to Syria and Rome with special instructions. Olympus carried a personal letter, written from Herod to Caesar, and Herod told him not to read the letter until the other trouble was cleared up.
Olympus first went to Antioch, in Syria. There, Olympus convinced Saturninus' chief military commander, Volumnius, to go to Rome with him. And the two men sailed from Selucia, Syria, as soon as the weather was good.
These two men are the fifth group of advisors, mentioned earlier.
So, now we go back to Rome!
Olympus and Volumnius arrive in late spring/early summer, when Augustus is trying to decide what to do with Nabatea. They can tell the "invasion" business is all cleared up, so Olympus and Volumnius show Herod's letter to Caesar, and ask for his advice about Alexander and Aristobulus.
Caesar considers things and suggests that Herod should have a trial, with the Governor of Syria and others present, and then decide himself what to do with the accused traitors.
But Caesar is disturbed that Herod's family is in so much conflict. He wanted to give Herod Nabatea, but Israel suddenly seems too unstable. [Herod was 65 and not far from death. Antipater, 37, had only one infant son.]
So Caesar calls the Nabatean advisors back and tells them that King Aretas may keep his throne, with Caesar's blessing. (Because of this, conflict between Israel and Nabatea will go on for many decades to come. We are going to see more of Aretas and Nabatea, in the future.)
With everything settled (for now), Augustus dismisses the advisors, and they all go home.
Then Augustus continued the business of running the empire.
That same summer, Augustus and his step-son Tiberius took some legions north into Germany.
Augustus stayed on the southern side of the boundary (the Rhine River) while Tiberius went across, fighting the Sugambri, and other tribes. That season, Augustus promoted Tiberius to Commanding General (his brother Drusus' old position) and gave him the title "Imperator".
Later in the summer, and back in Rome, Caesar gave Tiberius another parade and made him Consul for the next year.
Tiberius is becoming more important in Rome, but it's important to remember that he was still only the step-son of Caesar. He is not in line for Caesar's throne yet.
Another small event in Rome worth mentioning this year is the death of the poet Horace, still considered one of Rome's greatest, ever.
This is also the year when the Roman senate voted to rename the 8th month as "August", after the Emperor.
Back in Israel, around the end of summer, Nicolas of Damascus returns with Olympus and Herod's other friends. They tell Herod that Augustus forgave him, but the census is still on.
They also tell him that Caesar's advice about Alexander and Aristobulus is to have a trial with the Governor of Syria present. Caesar also advised Herod to invite Archelaus, King of Cappadocia (north of Syria), but Archelaus was Alexander's father-in-law, so Herod ignored that idea. (We will see Archelaus again, in 4 BC.) Still, Herod wisely decided to hold a trial, just to please Caesar.
So, sometime in Autumn, Herod sends a request to Syria to set up the trial. But the Governor of Syria is very busy at the time, and has to schedule the trial for next year.
Let's go back to Syria, now, and see why the Governor was so busy this year!
Let's go back to January again, and re-start this very long year from Syria's perspective.
It took Sentius Saturninus an entire year - all of 8 BC - just to get ready for the census of Israel! This isn't really surprising, when you think about what was involved.
Augustus wanted every man, animal, town, city, farm and field to be counted, recorded, and measured - in size and/or in value. That was a huge undertaking! Besides that, not only had no Roman officer ever taken a census in Israel before, but no Roman officer had ever taken even a general survey of Israel itself! They didn't even have a list of the towns and cities that were supposed to be part of Herod's lands, to begin with.
At least, not yet.
It was a lot to organize, but if the Romans were anything, they were good at getting organized. In fact, Romans famously prided themselves on careful planning, so that things could be performed well and quickly, when it was time. Moreso than anyone, the Romans are people who take time to plan!
So Saturninus spent all of 8 BC preparing for a census that he scheduled for 7 BC.
During the preparation year, Saturninus didn't only spy out the Kingdom and size up the task. He studied census-taking methods. He found soldiers and officers with census experience, and consulted them. And he began the selecting and training the hundreds of men he would need to take the census of an entire Kingdom in one single year.
Also during this preparation year, Saturninus sent ambassadors to Herod, and to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and to the city councils or village elders in all the other cities. The ambassadors themselves spent most of 8 BC letting everyone in Israel know what Caesar wanted, and what they all could expect. They put out the word that the census was set to be taken in the following spring, in 7 BC.
Truly, it would be very hard to over-estimate the size of this task!
So Saturninus spent the whole year just preparing for this census. He organized the whole thing through subordinates, from his headquarters in Antioch, Syria.
(By the way, this was the FIRST census that took place in Israel, years before the census of Quirinius that became so famous. For more on that, see the notes.)
But that STILL isn't ALL that happened in 8 BC! (This is one of our busiest years!)
One more time, let's re-start this year again. From January, again!
This time, we start from Judea in Israel. Remember, we left a mute, doubting priest in the hill country last year.
So then, it is January, and Zechariah has been home with Elizabeth, in the hill country, since November. Without a voice, he can't explain to his wife what it is they're supposed to be doing.
Being a priest, Zechariah actually knows how to write a few simple words, but he doesn't know how to spell the words he needs for this! Even if he'd known how to spell them, Elizabeth was not a priest, and so - like almost everyone alive in the ancient world - she doesn't know how to read!
So he can't speak to her. He can't write to her. And every time he tries using his hands to "talk" about the angel Gabriel, the people he's with wind up thinking he's crazy - including Elizabeth!
Now, Zechariah's been doubting things a bit himself, too. He didn't believe it before he was mute, and he still isn't sure he believes that the angel was from God. More to the point, he doesn't really believe that what the angel said can even come true.
So Zechariah has just spent a couple of months at home, doing nothing, feeling crazy, and doubting God.
And then, something happens.
Sometime in January, Elizabeth bleeds.
For the first time in her life, an old woman experiences her menstration. Naturally, both of them are terrified. Zechariah runs to get help from some women of their village. After a little while, they figure out that it's just her monthly cycle - which is scary and odd enough, for her, but at least it's a normal, healthy event.
Elizabeth calls it a miracle, and Zechariah finally believes.
That night, when they are finally alone, and recovering together from all of the shock, Zechariah finds a way to communicate with Elizabeth at last.
He points to her tummy, pretends to cradle a baby in his arms, and points to the sky. He waves his pointing finger back and forth between them both, cradles a baby again, and points to the sky. From the look in his eyes, Elizabeth finally understands. Then she asks him questions about Jerusalem, and he starts to nod.
This is how they were finally able to agree to start trying to get pregnant.
They have no idea what they're doing, and they're a little embarrassed to ask for help. They don't understand the fertility cycle, either. But, again, they don't ask anyone for help.
Still, in about six weeks, they manage to conceive. Sometime in early March, Elizabeth starts having morning sickness, and they go into seclusion.
In that same month, March, Zechariah is excused from Temple duty at Passover, because his muteness is considered a defect that makes him unfit - "ceremonially impure". He is excused again, for the same reason, at four other times during Elizabeth's pregnancy. (Pentecost, Tabernacles, and the duty-time for his family, Abijah, in May and November.)
Excused from all temple duty, Zechariah is able to stay in seclusion with Elizabeth, and take care of her during her entire pregnancy.
By the first week of August, Elizabeth has been pregnant for just over five months pregnant.
This August is her sixth month of pregnancy.
Now, still in August, we move from Judea to Galilee.
In the middle of the month, the angel Gabriel makes another appearance on Earth! (It's been nine full months since his last one!) This time, Gabriel appears to a young girl named Mary, a cousin of Elizabeth whose family was from Nazareth in Galilee.
Gabriel tells Mary that God's spirit is going to make a baby in her virgin-womb, that her child will be the Son of God, and that his kingdom will have no end! (Gabriel also told Mary about her cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy.)
That very night, the Holy Spirit entered Mary and she conceived a child.
The next day, Mary hurried into the Judean highlands to visit Elizabeth.
Mary went to see the proof of what Gabriel said, and also because she was suddenly in a very awkward spot, in Nazareth. Mary believed everything the angel said, but she was worried about the town's people, because she was already engaged to a young man there in Nazareth, named Joseph. She hoped she could buy a little time, by staying with her cousin for a while.
After travelling for four days (alone and relying on the kindness of strangers), Mary came to Zechariah's house. Mary and Elizabeth rejoiced, and so did the baby John, in Elizabeth's stomach! (When John leaped, his mother was actually filled with the Holy Spirit!)
They talked and shared the Lord together for a while. Then Mary, pregnant and quite naturally terrified, settled in to stay awhile.
Mary stayed in Judea with Elizabeth for about three months. Mary helped Zechariah care for Elizabeth, during their seclusion.
In mid-November, when the baby is about to arrive, Elizabeth, Zechariah and Mary decide that it's time for Mary to leave. (She's been gone about as long as possible.)
Mary isn't excited about leaving Judea, because now she's three months pregnant, and showing. She realizes everyone in Nazareth will know that she hasn't seen Joseph in about three months!
Again, Mary has about four days of traveling before she gets home.
Mary gets home to Nazareth, and breaks the news to Joseph, who is stunned. Joseph seriously thinks about calling off the wedding.
Joseph sees an angel of the Lord in a dream. The angel tells Joseph to keep Mary, that the baby is God's son, and to name the child Jesus.
Joseph wakes up, and obeys.
In order to lighten the cloud of scandal they're living under, Joseph agrees to an early wedding. Preparations for a small wedding begin quickly.
Back in Judea, in late November, Elizabeth gives birth.
Her neighbors and relatives are excited about the miracle. Many of them came around on the 8th day for the child's circumcision, and started calling the baby "little Zechariah". Elizabeth said, "That's not his name. We're calling him John."
At this, their guests all complained that John wasn't a family name. But Zechariah reached for a stick and a wax tablet, and carved out four simple words. "His name is John."
Everyone was shocked that Zechariah chose the name John. A moment later, they were even more shocked as he began to get his voice back.
Zechariah praised God with his new voice, but everyone else was afraid. They were all saying, "What kind of kid is this going to be?" But the Lord's favor was resting on baby John.
Zechariah prophesied about the Lord's greatness and mercy. Then he made blessings and predicted John's future paths. Zechariah said his infant son was going to be like God's sunrise, showing the path to the way of peace.
Meanwhile, The Way of Peace Himself was growing in a womb about 80 miles away.
Back in Nazareth of Galilee, Mary and Joseph have their wedding in December. (Mary is four months pregnant.) They begin living together, but Joseph keeps her as a virgin until the birth.
They settle into their new life together and wonder what God will do next.
So now, at the very end of 8 BC, two of Herod's sons await trial in chains, Zechariah's only son has just been born . . .
And God's only Son is growing in Mary's belly.
The central drama of all human history is about to begin.
Next Chapter: "7 BC"