Questions From Readers
● On the time of Elizabeth’s conception of John the Baptist, the book “Make Sure of All Things” (page 167, column 1, bottom paragraph) says: “1 Chron. 24:10, 18 [Regarding the courses of the priests]: ‘The seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah.’ [Of the 24 courses the second week of the eighth would fall in the latter part of the fourth Jewish month, or early part of July, our calendar.]” How is this calculated?—R. L., Mexico.
John the Baptist’s father, a “priest named Zechariah,” was “of the division [course] of Abijah,” the eighth course. (Luke 1:5, 8, 9, NW) Abijah was a priestly Israelite of King David’s time. Then, about 1050 B.C., Israel’s priests and the Levites, respectively, were first divided by David into 24 groups.* At Jerusalem’s original sanctuary (tabernacle or tent—1 Chron. 16:1) those 24 divisions first served by turns, separately one week at a time, not two weeks together. After David’s son Solomon had built and dedicated the typical temple for Jehovah’s name, each of the 24 groups in its turn twice a year served its “course” at the temple. (1 Chron. 24:1-19, 31; 2 Chron. 8:14; 31:2; 35:4; Ezra 3:10) Each week-long term of service of each course ran from sabbath to sabbath. (2 Ki. 11:5-7; 2 Chron. 23:8) Apparently the outgoing course took care of the sabbath morning sacrifice and the incoming course, the evening sacrifice; and thus both outgoing and incoming groups spent the sabbath in the sanctuary. Priests of other courses could enter the temple and perform priestly acts, so long as they did not interfere with the functions of priests officiating in their allotted course. “Each ‘course’ of priests and of Levites . . . came on duty for a week, from one Sabbath to another.”—Edersheim, The Temple, pp. 66, 158.
As of 537 B.C., upon the ending of the faithful Jewish remnant’s 70-year exile in Babylon, Abijah’s course is one of the more than twenty courses of priests named as having returned to Jerusalem with Governor Zerubbabel or later.—Ezra 2:36-39; Neh. 10:7, 8; 12:1-4.
Writing of King David’s division of the priests into 24 courses, Josephus adds: “And this partition has remained to this day.”—Antiquities of the Jews (writing finished about A.D. 93), Book 7, chap. 14, ¶7; see also McClintock and Strong Cylopædia, Vol. 8, pp. 576, 577; Imperial Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, p. 664, col. 2.
Now since each of the 24 courses served two turns a year (about six months apart), this adds up to 48 weeks’ service. However, the Jewish (lunar) year was about ten days shorter than our calendar (solar) year and so consisted of about 51 weeks. To fill out the year one adjustment, reasonably, was necessary every two or three years when an intercalary 13th month was added in the Jewish (lunar) calendar to harmonize it with solar time. Also other adjustments evidently occurred each year through having all the courses serve jointly during the three main annual festivals. (2 Chron. 5:11; The Mishnah, “Sukkah,” Sec. 5, ¶¶ 7, 8) Thrice yearly all Israel’s males, including priests and Levites, appeared before Jehovah, by his command, at the temple. The vast amount of work connected with the thousands* of animal sacrifices and related tasks required the co-operation of all the priests for a full week and more on each of those three principal festal occasions:
(2) Pentecost, 50 days later, was another of such festal events, linked with the “festival of weeks.”—Ex. 34:22, NW.
(3) Yom Kippur (“day of atonement”) occurred in the Jehovah-fixed seventh month Ethanim* (10th day) and was closely followed by the feast of tabernacles, the 15th to the 21st, with a special sabbath, “the great day of the feast,” on the 22nd.—John 7:37; Ex. 34:22-24 Lev. 16:29-31; 25:9, 10, NW.
Aside from those three main festal periods, during which priests of all courses served jointly, priests in each of the 24 courses would serve at all other times of the year exclusively by turn.
At what time of year did the courses begin to count, or when did the first course start? Seemingly it was immediately after, or on the final (eighth) or “great day of the feast” of tabernacles (”festival of booths,” NW), which celebration closed the festive year. Jehovah commanded: “At the end of every seven years, in the appointed time of the year of the release, in the festival of booths, . . . you will read this law.” (Deut. 31:10, 11, NW) Incidentally, the festival of booths is the last of the three great feasts to find fulfillment in antitype; and “this feast closed the original festive calendar; . . . What the seventh day, or Sabbath, was in reference to the week, the seventh month seems to have been in reference to the year. It closed not only the sacred cycle, but also the agricultural or working year. It also marked the change of seasons, the approach of rain and of the winter equinox [properly, winter solstice, or autumnal equinox], and determined alike the commencement and the close of a sabbatical year.” (Edersheim, The Temple, pp. 234, 235; also see pp. 179, 265.) Significant, too, may be the fact that the dedication of the David-planned and Solomon-built temple was in the seventh month, priestly work officially beginning then at this uniquely magnificent edifice. (2 Chron. 7:10) Also at this time of the year, in 537 B.C., the Israelites who, as the typical faithful remnant, had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, again began orderly services at the site of that demolished magnificent temple.—Ezra 3:6.
Let us admit, for the purpose of this calculation, that the priestly courses began to count in the Jehovah-set seventh month (which, in our present calendar, began in late September or early October). If so, then the first round of 24 courses plus the eight courses of the annual second round (plus the mentioned joint-service period of two of the three festivals) would extend, generally, into the next Jewish year’s third month, perhaps possibly into its fourth month. This meant that the eighth course’s second round fell (on our calendar) in late June or early July.
Reasonably, then, Zechariah listened to the “good news” Jehovah’s angel Gabriel told him when that minister from heaven interrupted Zechariah’s altar service in the second round of the eighth course. Upon completing his priestly duties in that allotted course, Zechariah returned home to his wife Elizabeth and then their son John was conceived. (Luke 1:5, 19, 23, 24, NW) This would have been at least in late June or early July of the year 3 B.C. About six months later (namely, in our December) Jesus was conceived. Nine months after that Jesus’ birth as a perfect child would occur about October 1 in the year 2 B.C.*—Luke 1:26, 36; 2:6, 7.
Why do we say the “second round” of the eighth (or, Zechariah’s) course? Because the first round of the eighth course would come in late November or early December. This would inconsistently bring Jesus’ birth (occurring about fifteen months later) in March. In that case Jesus’ baptism at the age of thirty would also have been in March. (Luke 3:23) Neither would this spring-season date harmonize with Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27), which shows that the Messiah or Christ was to arrive at the end of 69 weeks of years, these weeks beginning in the fall of 455 B.C. and ending in the fall of A.D. 29. (It also contradicts this same prophecy that foretold that the resurrected Jesus would appear in heaven to pay over to Jehovah the merit of the sacrifice Jesus offered “in the midst of the week,” Daniel’s prophetic 70th week of years, hence in the spring.)
However, since it was actually in the spring of A.D. 33 that Jesus Christ ascended and appeared in heaven, then three and a half years (or, half of a seven-year week) would take us back to the beginning of the week in the autumn of A.D. 29, not the spring, for Messiah’s baptism.
So, then, the available evidence reasonably seems to favor the following calculation: Counting the commencement of the 24-course priestly service as beginning at the end of the festival of booths, Zechariah was in the second round of the eighth course, and his son John the Baptist was conceived by Elizabeth in late June or early July, about six months before Mary’s conception of Jesus.—Luke 1:26, 36.
Thus, from the foregoing, it is seen that the book “Make Sure of All Things” gives the approximate time for John’s conception, and that it is ascertained, in part, by calculating back from the time of Jesus’ birth about October 1.
“Originally, when the tabernacle was at Shiloh, there were altogether sixteen courses, equally divided between the descendants of Eleazar and Ithamar. Now that there were more chief men of Eleazar, David divided each of their eight courses into two, producing a total of sixteen, while the eight courses of Ithamar remained unchanged.”—Soncino Books of the Bible (1952, London, The Soncino Press), Vol. “Chronicles,” p. 130.
Josephus records that, at one Jewish Passover feast in the days of Roman emperor Nero, they found “the number of sacrifices was two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred; which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to two millions seven hundred thousand and two hundred persons that were pure and holy.”—Wars of the Jews, Book 6, chap. 9, ¶3.
Compare “New Heavens and a New Earth”, p. 368.