At the start of 7 BC, Mary and Joseph are newlyweds living in Nazareth of Galilee. Mary is four and a half months pregnant, but still a virgin. Joseph, who is naturally about ten or so years older than Mary, has a small carpentry business.
Early in the year, some visitors come into Nazareth.
Sentius Saturninus, governor of Syria, has sent his ambassadors out again with a new message for all the cities and rulers of Israel - the governor has decided how they are going to run the census.
The ambassadors explain that since this is the first census ever taken in Israel, the governor Saturninus wants to make absolutely sure that every man is counted. He does not want to find men skipping from town to town, staying three steps ahead of the census teams. Furthermore, Saturninus has learned how strongly the clanish Jews hold onto their family and heritage. Therefore, he feels, the best solution is to have every man return - at a set time - to the city of his fathers' family. The governor feels sure the old men in each city will know who is missing, if anyone tries to avoid them!
The ambassadors explain that this plan will require a very firm schedule. Each city in Israel has a set of dates for its registration, when it must prepare to host many visitors. And each man in Israel has a set of dates when he must travel to his ancestral home, to be registered. The census is set to begin at the start of spring, in March.
The ambassadors leave Nazareth and continue on through other cities of Galilee. (Many other messengers have been sent out at the same time, to Samaria, Judea, and Herod's other territories.)
The elders of Nazareth call a town meeting and explain the details to everyone. Every man in Nazareth (not descended from the Nazarenes) learns his travel dates. Joseph's family home is in Bethlehem (just south of Jerusalem). Joseph learns that the census in Bethlehem is set to begin in late May.
Mary talks to her midwife about her due date. The midwife says Mary is probably going to give birth in late May (late Iyyar).
It is still January. Mary has some time to decide what to do.
Meanwhile, the city of Nazareth begins planning to host a census team and the many visitors who may come to be registered, later in the year. The town scribe consults the records of the synagogue to make a list of all the families expected.
In Rome, on January 1st, Tiberius and Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso are consuls. (Tiberius, the step-son of Augustus Caesar, was already consul once before, in 13 BC.)
In the beginning of the year, Tiberius held feasts, dedicated buildings and celebrated a parade in his own honor for his actions in Germany (last year).
Soon after, Tiberius had to leave for Germany again because of some minor problems there. Augustus was returning from Germany at the same time, and Piso held a festival in honor of his return.
A few months into the year, Augustus held gladiator fights in honor of his old friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa - that is - to mark the fifth anniversary of Agrippa's death. Everyone who attended (except Augustus) was required to wear black, even Agrippa's sons.
This is a good place to mention Agrippa, briefly, because his sons are going to be very important, very soon.
Here is some background on Agrippa and his sons.
For over three decades after the death of Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa had been a great general and Augustus' own right hand man. Agrippa married Augustus' daughter, Julia - even though he was about her father's age - and Julia gave Agrippa three sons. They are called Gaius, Lucius and Postumus. Through Julia, these boys are Augustus' own grandsons.
In 17 BC, while Agrippa was still alive, Augustus legally adopted Gaius and Lucius (the younger was then a newborn). This made both boys his legal heirs and successors.
In 12 BC, Agrippa died. A year later, Augustus and his wife Livia arranged that Julia should get remarried - to Tiberius! (Tiberius was ordered to divorce his beloved wife Vipsania so he could marry Julia. He obeyed, for the good of Rome, but hated his mother Livia for making him do it.)
Now, just try to keep these family-ties straight! Tiberius is Livia's son and Augustus' step-son. Julia is Augustus' daughter by his first wife, Scribonia. And Julia's three sons by Agrippa are both Augustus' grandsons and his adpoted sons!
So that means that . . . Tiberius married his step-sister! He and his wife have the same father! And legally, the sons of Agrippa are brothers, sons and nephews (all three) of Tiberius!
But it's not really that funny. Tiberius' step-sons outrank him, both in line for the throne, and in Augustus' eyes, personally. Tiberius knows (and so does his mother) that Gaius, Lucius and Postumus would all have to die, before Tiberius could ever become Emperor! (Cue dramatic fore-shadowing music!)
But for now, in 7 BC, Agrippa's three boys are still very young. Gaius is 13, Lucius is 10, and little Postumus (born the year his father died) is only five years old.
Tiberius, who is now 35, can see how all three of them are growing more and more into Caesar's favor as they get closer to manhood. Everyone in Rome knows that the boys are very close to their grandfather, and not very close to their step-father.
This is going to begin causing problems, as soon as next year.
One other thing, while we're in Rome.
This is the year Rome was famously re-organized into fourteen districts. It's worth listing them, just because they have interesting names! (And we will hear about some of them later.)
The 14 districts are called: (1) Capena Gate, (2) Coelian Hills, (3) Isis & Serapis (two famous temples to the Egyptian gods were there), (4) Temple of Peace, (5) Built-up Area, (6) High Semitic district, (7) Via Lata ('Via' means a great road), (8) Great Roman Forum, (9) Flaminius' Circus (a "circus" was a chariot stadium), (10) Palace, (11) Great Circus, (12) Public Pool, (13) Aventine Hill, and (14) Beyond Tiber (the west side, across the Tiber River).
Let's come back to Mary.
It is April in Galilee.
Passover comes late this year, because of the Jewish leap year. As always, Joseph attends the festival in Jerusalem (which most men are required to attend) but this year, Mary stays home because of her condition.
All over Israel, Saturninus has put the entire census on vacation for two weeks, because of the Passover. (Proving he had done his research well!) One group of cities finished their census in the month before Passover, and the schedule is set to resume with another group of cities, after Passover.
Returning from Passover in Jerusalem the 4th week of April, Joseph finds Mary's belly is getting really big! They are a month away from their time for going to Bethlehem. And Mary is about a month away from delivering her baby.
In late May, it is time for Joseph to go to Bethlehem. (Bethlehem is in the third group of cities being registered.) Mary is not required to go with Joseph, but they decide to travel together, anyway.
As they leave Nazareth, Mary is just about 39 weeks pregnant!
Bethlehem is almost 100 miles from Nazareth - at least a 5 day walk! Mary rides a donkey and Joseph walks by their side.
They pass by the west-side walls of Jerusalem about six miles before coming to Bethlehem.
Now, it's the last week of May, and Bethlehem is full of people coming in for the census. Every man in Israel whose forefathers came from Bethlehem is staying in the city, and so are the Roman officials from Syria. Every day, the Jewish men wait in line to be called and counted. Every night, the inns are overflowing with visitors. There is no room to spare, anywhere.
Joseph and Mary have just walked in to town. It is Tuesday, May 26th. Evening is approaching. Somehow, Joseph finds a man who lets him use a spare stall in his stable to sleep in. As they settle in, finding places in the straw, Mary goes into labor.
Mary labors late into the night. Finally, in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, May 27, Mary gives birth to a pefectly healthy baby boy!
Jesus Christ is born on the Earth!
At this moment, the Word
Who was in the beginning with God
Came into the world He'd created
And became part of all that He'd made
His human body, conceived by the spirit
Was born of a woman, and born of God
He was born of God's blood, God's desire
And born without sin, by God's own seed
Inside this little life
Was God's own Life and Spirit
To Heaven's eyes, He shined
With the Light of Mankind!
His Glory broke into the darkness
A Light to enlighten the world
That night, the world did not see Him
The world did not know the Glory of the one and only Son
Someone had to come see Him!
The Father desired the Glory of His Son... to be seen!
The moment He came, several thousand angels were nearby.
One of the angels flew to a nearby field where he saw some shepherds, awake, watching their sheep. The angel landed, became visible, and spoke to the shepherds. (As usual, the humans were terrified!)
The angel told the men not to fear. Then he told them the good news - that their Savior had just been born, there in Bethlehem. The angel didn't even ask the shepherds if they wanted to go see! He just told them where to go, and how to find the baby boy.
At first, the men didn't know how to react. But the angels knew what they wanted to do! Suddenly, the shepherds looked at several thousand angels, surrounding them, singing and shouting and praising the Lord! After shouting His praises, the angels rose high into the skies above the fields and turned invisible again.
And now the men knew what they wanted to do!
The shepherds ran to the city. They found Mary, Joseph and the baby in their stable. (Jesus was lying in a feed-stand, called a manger.)
The shepherds stood there a while, and just looked at God's Son.
A couple of hours later, it was dawn.
That day, the shepherds told everyone they knew in Bethlehem what the angels said about the baby. Everyone they told was amazed! But no one could find them, because the stable was empty.
After dawn, Joseph had moved his small family to another place. (Joseph knew his job was to keep these two safe! He was a good man for the job, and he took it seriously.)
So nobody else in Bethlehem saw Jesus, or knew which baby in town was the one the shepherds had spoken of. (This simple fact is going to help save their lives, in a few months!)
One more thing, about the birth:
At the moment Jesus was born in Israel, it was two hours from sunrise. At the same moment, hundreds of miles away in Babylon, the sky was glowing with the soft light of before-dawn.
There in Babylon, some astrologers were standing on a rooftop, looking westward into the darkness. During those first rays of pre-dawn, they saw something that looked like a new star!
They knew it was just Jupiter and Saturn crossing paths, but it was happening inside the constellation Pisces! (Now, by itself, maybe this meant nothing - but they thought it was really something special!)
The Babylonians thought Pisces was a sign of the west, including Israel. Jupiter was a sign of good luck (and royalty). And Saturn was a sign of Chronus, the father of all gods (in Greek Mythology). Pagans figured that if Jews only worshiped one god, it must be Chronus/Saturn!
Right or wrong, this is just what the star gazers were thinking, as they looked up that morning. All put together, to them, it meant that a great King had been just born in Israel. (See note.)
The star-scholars (some called them magicians) were also very wise men. They were part of the famous Sippar School of Astrology. So they studied their star-charts and all the scrolls to learn more about this rare event. (As scholars, of course, they had to triple-check their conclusions!)
This "new star" (the rare crossing of Jupiter and Saturn) took first place in their studies for several months. Some time during the summer, they calculated that it was going to happen two more times this same year! This made the rare event even more remarkable!
They began to talk more and more about what they thought it all meant.
Now, Jesus was born on a Wednesday, before dawn. It was May 27th. (In the Hebrew calendar, it was Iyyar 28th.)
Jewish law said a newborn baby boy had to be circumcised on the eighth day. That is, exactly one week after his birth. So, on Wednesday, June 3rd (Sivan 6th), Joseph found a rabbi and a mohel to circumcise Jesus. (A 'mohel'
Exactly fifty days after the first day of Passover, Sivan 6th was the day given by the laws of Moses for the celebration called "Pentecost" - or, as Moses called it - the Feast of First Fruits.
So Jesus, the firstborn of a new race, was circumcised on the Feast of First Fruits.
Now, the "official" day of Pentecost was always Sunday, but the proper day was actually Sivan 6th. The difference was basically a political issue.
This difference was because of the Pharisees and Saducees.
There were two political gropus among the priests and rabbis - the Pharisees and the Saducees. The Pharisees were the strict interpreters of Moses' laws, and they celebrated Pentecost every year on Sivan 6th. Now, the Pharisees had the correct interpretaion, but (at the time) they had less power and influence than the Saduceees.
The Saducees were the conservative group - which means they had more influence over the wealthy, the powerful, the Temple services, and the official calendar. The Pharisees had more influence over the common people.
The common folk didn't care much about the Saducees, and the Saducees didn't care much about the common folk! On the other hand, the common folk didn't always like the Pharisees, either. But the common folk were definitely influenced by the Pharisees! (What else can you say? That's politics!)
Anyway, the Saducees felt it was more convienient to celebrate Pentecost on Sunday every year - since it was only a one-day festival. So they counted fifty days after the Saturday of Passover Week. It was good planning to keep the "official" day of Pentecost as the day after Sabbath. (A one-day festival could be stretched into two. And the city could make more money renting rooms and feeding travelers!)
So the Saducees were clever and shrewd, but the Pharisees were correct! (See note.) According to Moses, the Feast of First Fruits (Pentecost) was on a Wednesday this year.
At this point, 7 BC is only half-way done!
It is early June. Jesus Christ is eight days old.
A few more things are just about to happen.
Joseph found a better place to keep Jesus and Mary, where they rested while Joseph took care of the census. Jewish law said a new mother had to be kept isolated until she was fully clean, after giving birth. And the law said she wasn't "clean" until 40 days had passed.
So Mary and Jesus waited in Bethlehem until July 5th (Tamuz 8th), when Jesus was 41 days old. By that time the Roman census team had finished in Bethlehem, and the spring festival season was all over in Jerusalem. In both cities, all the crowds had gone, and daily life had settled into normal mode for the summer.
During their 40 days of waiting, Mary and Joseph made one other decision. Joseph had kin there in Bethlehem, and Mary had been scandalized back home in Nazareth. After six weeks in town, they'd decided they both kind of liked Bethlehem - or at least, they liked it well enough to stay put!
Joseph and Mary found someone going north into Galilee, and asked them to deliver a letter to Nazareth. The letter told Mary's family that the baby was born, and they were all staying put.
On Friday, June 26th, during that 40 days of waiting, Joseph went to the rabbi again to fulfil another law of Moses. On the 31st day of life, a first-born male required a payment of silver to redeem the child, because the first born was sacred, and because the Jews believed the first (and the best) of all things belonged to God.
Joseph gave 5 silver shekels to the rabbi in town. The ritual was called pidyon-ha-ben, "Redemption of the Son".
In early July, Joseph and Mary took a day to go into Jerusalem and dedicate Jesus in the Temple. (With twelve miles of walking, there and back, this makes for one very long day!)
Joseph bought a pair of doves in the market to sacrifice at the Temple, and they began walking back to the east side of the city.
When they came into the Temple Court, a devout man named Simeon was waiting there. Simeon was an old man who had prayed to see the Lord's Messiah, and the Holy Spirit had led him into the Temple that day.
Simeon came up to Mary and took the baby out of her arms. (Joseph was still holding the two live birds.) Simeon stood there, amazed at the child. The look on his face made Mary and Joseph stop. And Simeon praised and thanked God out loud, saying now he could die in peace!
Joseph and Mary heard him call Jesus the Lord's salvation, a light to the Gentiles, and a glory to Israel. Even with all that had happened, they were still shocked!
While Simeon was still holding the child, an old woman named Anna came up to them.
Now, Anna was a female prophet whose age was an extreme miracle. Most people in the ancient world did not live to be 50 or 60. Kings and Emperors with the best of everything in life were doing well to make it to 70. But Anna was over a hundred years old.
Anna had married young, became a widow after seven years, and then lived there at the temple for 84 years as a widow! That means she was at least 104 years old! Anna lived at the temple, fasting and praying almost constantly.
So Anna, this amazing old woman, walks up to them without saying much. She looks at the child. And she, too, begins praising the Lord.
They all stood there together, for a while, until Joseph (still holding the two doves) excused themselves to carry on with business.
Before they left, Simeon blessed them both. As he handed the baby back to Mary, he warned her that the child would have enemies, which would be very difficult for her, but that it was destined to be so.
Joseph and Mary presented the birds to the priests, paid for the sacrifice, and got out of town as quickly as they could.
Now, Anna knew all the people in town who were really hoping for deliverance. (These people used to see her often in the Temple.) For the rest of that day, this very old woman went around Jerusalem talking to all of those people, telling them the Messiah was born. (She must have died soon after, from the strain of the task.)
But Joseph and Mary took Jesus straight back to Bethlehem. (See note.)
Meawhile, all summer long, in Israel, the census stays in full swing.
And far away in Syria, as summer grows longer, Saturninus is getting good reports that the census is going well.
By late summer, the Governor decides he finally has some time to deal with Herod's one-year-old request.
Remember, Herod's two boys, Alexander and Aristobulus were framed by his oldest son, Antipater (last year, in 8 BC). They have been kept in chains, now, for a whole year. Herod believes they were plotting to kill him and take over his Kingdom. And Caesar advised Herod to have a trial with the Governor present. Herod had put in his request for a trial last autumn, and Saturninus had put him off on a date for it, until the census could be taken care of. (All of that happened last year.)
And now, about early August of 7 BC, Saturninus can see that the census should wrap-up on time. This means he can finally schedule the trial.
The governor sends word to Herod with a time and a place: November, in Lebanon. They will meet half-way, at the city of Berytus (modern Beirut).
And Herod begins to prepare.
The rest of the summer and fall pass quietly.
In Bethlehem, Joseph is starting a new carpentry business while Mary takes care of Jesus. Like most people in the ancient world, they are very poor and living with relatives.
All over Israel, the Roman officials finish their census.
By the way, none of the Jews liked having to sign Roman papers, but they were all too afraid of Herod to resist! Everyone knew that Herod was Caesar's friend. (Herod hadn't made Caesar's letter public in 9 BC, of course!) And everyone knew what Herod would do, if there was resistance.
By the end of Autumn, Herod watched the Roman officials leave with a silent defiance of his own. He was determined to show that his authority was still supreme in Israel. And his thoughts turned more fully towards his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus.
It was now just a month until the trial in Berytus.
On October 6th, in Babylon, the star-scholars were up on the roof again, before dawn. As they had predicted, Jupiter crossed Saturn's path for a second time!
The two planets overlapping each other slightly made them appear to be one, brighter, larger star. The second joining made this rare event twice as special, and the superstitious astrologers were twice as awed. They believed even moreso now that something truly impressive was happening.
What made them even more convinced, this time, was the date. This second joining happened to fall very near to the Jewish Day of Atonement! (They had predicted this, that it would fall on that date; but when it acutally happened it confirmed their calculations! THAT was when they got really excited!)
They now predicted that a third joining would happen in less than two months! Expecting a triple-version of an event that normally happens less than once per century made it the rarest of the rarest events... and that was the tipping point, for the pagan scholars. The timing of the second, and the expectation of the third appearance, made this "star" the most important thing these magi would ever experience.
Yes, it took just that much to push these bookish watchers into action!
The leaders of the Astrology school selected three men to make the journey, with some servants. The school leaders also decided to send some expensive gifts to the new king, as a sign of their respect, and because a mighty king would expect such favors.
So on this day, October 6, 7 BC, three astrologers from Babylon begin preparing for their trip to Israel.
Their plan is to arrive some time before the third appearance of the "star".
About a month later, the Magi are making their way across the desert towards Israel. Crossing through old Persia and Northern Arabia (Nabatea, the Kingdom of Aretas), the whole trip takes approximately ____ days, on horseback. They are heading to Jerusalem.
When they arrive, sometime in mid-November, Herod is way up north, at the trial in Berytus. He is not in Jerusalem.
The astrologers begin walking around Jerusalem, asking people, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose, and we've come here to bow before him."
(Clearly, these men were experts in astrology, not politics!)
Everyone in Jerusalem knew that Herod was not going to be happy to hear about these strangers and what they were saying. The whole city was worried about what he might do.
Herod himself had left for the trial sometime in October. It took his royal caravan about a week to make the journey, by horseback and chariot.
In Berytus, Saturninus was in charge of the trial. Herod prosecuted the case. And, basically, nobody ever really defended the two sons. In fact, Alexander and Aristobulus were not even allowed to attend!
The whole thing was really more of a small council, and not at all what the Romans would have properly called a "trial". Anyway, the meeting was held on time, in early November. A few important men and their advisors just discussed the situation.
Herod argued vigorously against his two sons. Saturninus thought they were guilty, but shouldn't be killed. Volumnius, the military commander under the Governor, argued for harsh penalties, and others agreed. The meeting was over.
The group made no official decision because Herod was free to do whatever he wanted to do, anyway! Caesar never said otherwise - he just said, 'have a trial'.
So Herod left Berytus and went to Caesarea-by-the-Sea, his political capital, where the princes were being kept. Herod's men took Alexander and Aristobulus to the city of Sebaste, in Samaria.
Herod ordered his men to strangle his sons there, in Sebaste. Alexander was about 31 years old, and Aristobulus was 29.
But Herod was still very upset by these recent threats to his authority.
One more thing happened in Berytus.
Saturninus reported to Herod that the census was over. Then the Governor reminded the King that Caesar wasn't planning to take over tax-collection just yet.
Saturninus told Herod he could keep collecting taxes, and sending tribute to Caesar.
Only now, because of the census, Caesar would finally know whether Herod was sending enough. Because now, Caesar really knew what Herod's kingdom was worth. To the man, to the field, to the ox, to the very last denarius.
And Saturninus told Herod he COULD keep collecting taxes. It was a permission and a command, all at once. It was a reminder to Herod that Caesar could take his kingdom whenever he wanted.
To Herod, it felt insulting and degrading. Even though it was privately, he'd been put in his place.
It made the king want to lash out at the people who feared his authority. And as the Romans all marched back to Syria, Herod felt free to do so.
The king's foul mood is going to mean big trouble for one small town... very soon.
That same month, a messenger from Herod's palace staff in Jerusalem found him in Caesarea. The messenger told Herod about the astrologers from Babylon, who were walking around Jerusalem asking people how to find the newborn King of the Jews.
Herod got really worried, really fast! He hurried down to Jerusalem to see the magi.
As soon as Herod got to his Jerusalem Palace, he called the priests and law teachers together and asked them, "Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?" They looked in the scroll of the prophet Micah and told Herod, "in Bethlehem of Judea".
Herod sent someone to find the three magi, who were still in Jerusalem.
On December 3rd, Herod's man found the astrologers, and snuck them into Herod's palace secretly. When Herod asked what they were doing there, they explained about the star.
Herod's only other question was, "What time did the star first appear?"
The magi told Herod it had been just over six months since they saw the star. They also told him this could mean the baby King might have been born at any time during that year. (The Jewish and Babylonian calendars each began in Autumn.) So, they expected, the child could be six months old, or there was a chance he could possibly be a year and three months.
In fact, Jesus was just over six months old. But they didn't know. They were guessing!
Herod told the astrologers to go to Bethlehem and then come back to him. Herod promised the magi that he, too, wanted to bow down before the newborn King.
The next morning before dawn, on December 4th, the magi found a rooftop in Jerusalem to stand on. They looked at the western sky again, and saw the "star" again! The third joining of Saturn and Jupiter was happening, just as they'd predicted. This time, the joining appeared more to the southern part of the sky - in the exact same direction as Bethlehem!
The magi followed the star, on horseback, to the place Herod had sent them.
Making the six miles in about an hour, the star was moving up in the sky, as the sun rose. At the last moment the star was still visible, it seemed to be directly over the house they had come to. So they knocked on the door.
Like most ancient workers usually did, Joseph and his male relatives had all gone to work before dawn. And on this day, the women of the house had all gone into the market for water or supplies. So the star-gazers found Mary alone with the baby.
They walked in without knocking! Mary was surprised, but even more surprised when they bowed low to the floor, and then offered rare, expensive gifts to the six-month old Jesus!
They stayed a short while, and then left. But they found a room there in Bethlehem for one night. They had accomplished what they'd set out to do, and it was over. Their task was done. Now they had to rest, and talk about it some more. This was the best their adventure was going to get. (Resting and talking was their scholarly way of celebrating their success!)
Mary hid the treasure until Joseph got home, and didn't show it to anyone else in the household. Late that night, Mary revealed the treasure to Joseph, who fell asleep more amazed than ever, wondering what on earth they would do with their new riches.
That night, the wise men were awakened by a dream. God told each man, seperately, in each of their dreams, not to return to Herod. They woke up, compared dreams, and left in the early morning. They went south through Judea and around the Dead Sea, to get home - just so they could avoid Jerusalem.
God also spoke in Joseph's dreams that same night. God told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt, because Herod was coming to kill the baby. (And Herod hadn't even decided this yet!)
Joseph woke up and knew what the treasure was for. It was going to be an expensive journey.
That same morning, before noon, Joseph, Mary and Jesus were heading south, out of Bethlehem, in the direction of Egypt!
Their long journey began on December 5th.
A day or two later, Herod realized the magi weren't coming back.
Infuriated, he ordered a group of his soldiers to go down into Bethlehem. He was determined to save his authority from this new threat without wasting any time. And he wasn't taking any chances.
Herod ordered the soldiers to kill all male babies less than two years old! This was based on the time the astrologers had told him, plus another few months for safe measure!
So Herod's soldiers massacred the innocents of Bethlehem in the same year he killed his own sons, who were also innocent. (Herod is going to find out who framed them. And that will cause new trouble... next year!)
Joseph and Mary are going to make a quick stop at Gaza, in mid December, on the way down to Egypt.
But it's been a long enough year!
We'll start with that brief story next year!
Next Chapter: "6 BC"