Keep Site Running

Outlines Of New Testament History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.



              1. The Annunciation

              to Zachary: Conception and circumcision of the precursor.


                            to Mary: Place; Gabriel’s message; “the Word made Flesh.”





              2. The Visitation.

              Departure of Mary.


                            Scene on arrival (the Magnificat).





              3. The Marriage of Our Blessed Lady.

              Marriage Ceremonies in the East.


                            St. Joseph’s anxious misgivings removed.


                            The marriage itself.







              1. Not in Nazareth.

              The enrolment

              Nature and extent.


                                          Connection with Cyrinus.





                            The two genealogies (general features—theories).


                            Date of birth (approximative).





              2. But in Bethlehem.

              The town: situation and description.


                            The inn: An Eastern khan described.


                            The manger (cave, ox, and ass, etc.).





              3. The Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke 2:18–20).


§ 1. The Incarnation

1. The Annunciation. Herod was still living when the birth of the precursor of Christ was foretold (October, 6 B.C.; 748 U.C.). Elizabeth, his mother, and Zachary, his father, both of priestly race, after having long prayed for a son, had now lost all hope to see this, their most ardent desire, fulfilled; but their request, we are told by the sacred narrative, was finally granted.

When the days of the ministration of the priestly course of Abia, to which Zachary belonged, had come, he repaired to the Temple of Jerusalem to carry out whatever duties might be assigned to him by lot. To burn incense on the golden altar in the Holy Place was the most honorable of the functions of the simple priests, and this office now fell to Zachary. During this ceremony the people waited in the Court of Israel, praying in silence till the priest should reappear; and, as a rule, he never tarried in the Holy Place longer than was absolutely necessary. On that day the people waited long for Zachary, and when he came out he was speechless; hence, all understood that something extraordinary had happened. He had had a vision, which is recorded in St. Luke (1:11–20), and during which he was told by the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth should bear him a son whom he should call John, and who would be the holy precursor of the Messias.

The unbelief of Zachary at the voice of the angel had been punished by a temporary dumbness; and at the end of his week’s service he departed to his own house.

In due time a child was born to Elizabeth, and on the eighth day after his birth he underwent the rite of the circumcision, in which he received the name of John, as foretold by the angel. It was on the day of the circumcision of his son that Zachary recovered his power of speech, and uttered a beautiful canticle known as the “Benedictus,” from its first word in the Latin Vulgate. It is essentially a Messianic hymn, Hebraic in its language and conceptions. In the first part Zachary, speaking as a priest, praises God for the realization of all the Messianic hopes created by the prophets of the Old Testament; in the second part, speaking as a father, he addresses his son as destined to exercise a preparatory ministry to the Lord.

Six months after his appearance to Zachary, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to Nazareth, a humble village unknown and unnamed in the Old Testament, and hidden away among the hills of Galilee. It is there that, far from their ancestral seat, Joseph and Mary lived, who were both of the tribe of Juda and the house of David; and it is to Mary “a virgin espoused to Joseph,” that the angel was directed. The precise place where he visited her is not indicated in the Gospel; but the Latin tradition, which affirms that he found Mary in a grotto over which stood the house which was ultimately carried by angels into Italy, agrees with the expression used in the inspired record: “And the angel being come in.”|

What follows in the sacred narrative is as simple and unpretentious as a legend of Oriental imagination would have been gorgeous and hyperbolical. The angel appeared probably under the form of a man, and saluted Mary with these remarkable words: “Hail, full of grace,”—a translation objected to by Protestant writers, chiefly because of erroneous dogmatic views,—“the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.” At these words Mary was troubled; but after bidding her not to fear, Gabriel delivered his wonderful message, which summarized the principal Messianic predictions of the Old Testament, and by means of which Mary easily understood she was to be the mother of the Messias. Whereupon she humbly inquired, “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” The angel told her that by His omnipotence, the Lord would make of her the virgin-mother of the Son of God. To this he added a suitable sign: the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary then believed in the infinite power of God, and submitted humbly to His eternal designs in these simple words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word.” Then was it also that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” and became for us all a permanent source of grace and the Mediator of the new and eternal Covenant.

2. The Visitation (March–April, 749, 5 B.C.). From St. Luke’s statement (1:39) that “Mary went into the hill country with haste,” it may be inferred that she at once began her journey, even before she informed St. Joseph of the incomparable honor bestowed upon her. She wished to congratulate Elizabeth on her pregnancy revealed by the angel, and unite with her in praising God. It is beyond doubt that Joseph did not accompany Mary on her journey, but it is not unlikely that she was accompanied by some of her friends, or a body of neighbors going up to the Pasch, now near at hand.

She went to the “house of Zachary,” in the hill country of Juda. As the name of the town where Zachary resided is not indicated in the sacred text, several places are mentioned as having possibly given birth to the holy precursor: (1) Hebron, a very ancient city situated in the hill country, and pointed out by a Jewish tradition as St. John’s birthplace; (2) Yuttah, a town about 4 or 5 miles south of Hebron, a priestly town also, but without tradition connecting it with the birth of St. John; (3) Ain Karin, 4 miles west of Jerusalem, which Greek and Latin traditions concur in marking as the home of Zachary.

As the distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem is about 80 miles, if Zachary lived at Hebron, about 20 miles farther south, the whole journey would take up four or five days.

The scene on Mary’s arrival is very beautiful. It bears the impress of the holiest joy: Mary salutes first her cousin Elizabeth, and at once the yet unborn John leaps for joy and is sanctified in the womb of his mother; while Elizabeth herself, filled with enthusiasm, proclaims blessed the mother of her Lord. All this is manifestly the result of the presence of Our Lord, unseen, but inspiring all. Again, there is a great contrast between the excited enthusiasm of Elizabeth, who “cried out with a loud voice,” and Mary’s canticle, which breathes a sentiment of deep and inward repose, in harmony with her more complete and more constant dependence on the Holy Spirit.

The Magnificat is made up of three stanzas, in the first of which Mary praises God for His benefits to her; in the second she praises Him for His judgments over the world; in the third she praises Him for His mercy towards Israel. Commentators justly observe that the expressions of the Magnificat being almost entirely borrowed from the Old Testament poetry, Mary could easily give vent to her feelings of gratitude in the poetical form under which they have come down to us.

3. The Marriage of Our Blessed Lady.| The marriage customs of the East have ever differed considerably from those in vogue among the Western nations.

After the selection of the bride, the espousals or betrothal took place, and were formal proceedings undertaken by a friend or legal representative on the part of the bridegroom, and by the parents on the part of the bride. The wedding itself was simply the removal of the bride from her father’s house to that of the bridegroom. But between the betrothal and the wedding an interval might elapse varying from a few days to a full year for virgins. During this period the communications between the bride and bridegroom were conveyed by “the friend of the bridegroom,” and the bride was considered as a wife, so that any unfaithfulness on her part was punishable with death, the husband having, however, the option of putting her away.

It is in the light of these Eastern customs that we should understand the marriage of our blessed Lady, as recorded by St. Matthew.

After an abode of about three months Mary left the house of Zachary to “RETURN TO HER OWN HOUSE.” This last expression seems to indicate that Mary, “betrothed” to St. Joseph, had not yet been taken to him, as we learn in a more explicit manner from the following words of the first gospel: “When His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child.”

After Mary’s return to her own house her pregnancy was now so advanced that it was very soon noticed either by her parents or by the friend of the bridegroom: “She was found with child,” i. e., she was recognized as such, and the fact, being ascertained, was made known to Joseph.

Great was the anxiety of Joseph, her husband, at this news, for he was considered as such after the betrothal, and as a “just man,” i.e., a faithful observer of the Law, he felt bound to repudiate Mary. This he might do in two ways. He could either summon her before the law-courts to be judicially condemned and punished,—this course would have “PUBLICLY EXPOSED HER,”—or he could choose a milder course: he could put her away by a bill of divorce written before witnesses, but without assigning the cause of the divorce; and to this latter course he inclined: “being not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.”| While thinking on those things, viz., how to put her away, the angel of the Lord appeared to him and, manifesting the innocence of Mary, directed him to take her unto himself, i.e., to bring her into his housed.

Joseph, obedient to the divine command, took Mary, his wife, unto himself, “and he knew her not till she brought forth her first-born Son.”

§ 2. The Nativity

1. Christ Not Born in Nazareth. It might naturally have been expected that Mary’s child would have been born in Nazareth, but an enrolment prescribed by Augustus made a distant village the birthplace of Jesus. This enrolment was most likely a registration of persons and property, a census which would serve as basis for future taxation; and, as St. Luke tells us, it extended throughout the whole Roman empire.

Strong objection has been taken to the statement of the Evangelist that a universal census was carried into effect in Judæa before the death of Herod. In point of fact no explicit statement can be found in any contemporary writer concerning the taking of a universal census at this time. But many things make it probable that it was actually taken: (1) from his accession to the empire Augustus was anxious to have a uniform system of taxation applied to the provinces; (2) under him a census was certainly effected in provinces such as Gaul and Spain; (3) it is well established that he commenced, if he did not carry out, a complete geometrical survey of the empire; (4) several Latin writers refer to Augustus’s Breviarium Imperii, i.e., to a little book written out in the hand of the emperor himself, and treating of the number of his soldiers, of the taxes, imposts, etc., of the empire. Under Herod, Judæa was not yet, it is true, a Roman province, but its reduction to that condition sooner or later was already determined, and it is beyond question that if Augustus ever wished to have a census taken in Palestine during the lifetime of Herod, the obsequious king would not attempt to resist.

A still greater difficulty has been found in the statement of St. Luke that this enrolment took place when Cyrinus was governor of Syria, because it seems to conflict with the following data gathered from other sources: Cyrinus filled the governorship of that province some ten years later than this, and then took a census of Judæa. The actual governor of Syria at the time of the death of Herod—an event which is usually placed not long after Our Lord’s birth—was not Cyrinus, but Quintilius Varus. Nay, more, Tertullian, in his treatise against Marcion, affirms as a positive fact “that the census which could give official information regarding the family and descent of Christ had been taken in Judæa by Sentius Saturninus”—that is, by the immediate predecessor of Varus in the governorship of Syria.

It would be a long and tedious work even to enumerate all the theories which have been advanced to show how St. Luke’s statement harmonizes with the data which have just been mentioned, and the accuracy of which cannot well be denied. Suffice it to say (1) that recent investigations have proved that Cyrinus was twice governor of Syria, and (2) that it may be supposed that the census was begun by S. Saturninus, so that Tertullian could speak of it as taken by this officer, and that it was completed by Cyrinus during his first governorship: in this way St. Luke could no less accurately ascribe it to the latter.

In carrying out the imperial edict Herod was careful not to override the national customs of the Jews, according to which they should be enrolled at the place with which they were connected by the ties of tribe or family. This brought Joseph into Judæa, to the city of David, for, as we learn in detail from the two genealogies of Our Lord, Joseph was of the house and family of David.

Both genealogies manifestly profess to give the human pedigree of Our Lord, and yet they present several important differences. St. Matthew, writing for Jewish Christians, begins with Abraham; St. Luke, writing for Gentile Christians, goes back to Adam, the father of all men. In St. Matthew the genealogies are introduced by the word “begot”; in St. Luke, by the genitive with the ellipsis of the word “son.” St. Luke gives twenty-one names between David and Zorobabel, whilst St. Matthew gives only fifteen, and all the names, except that of Salathiel, are different. Again, St. Luke gives seventeen generations between Zorobabel and Joseph, whilst St. Matthew gives only nine, and all the names are different. Finally, while St. Matthew calls Joseph the son of Jacob, St. Luke calls him the son of Heli.

Two principal theories deserve notice in connection with Our Lord’s genealogies. The first maintains that St. Luke gives the genealogy of our blessed Lady, while St. Matthew gives that of St. Joseph. This solution would indeed do away with all the differences mentioned above; unfortunately it finds no basis in tradition, and seems opposed to the natural meaning of St. Luke (3:23). The second theory considers both genealogies as the genealogies of St. Joseph; but while St. Matthew shows that Our Lord is the son of David by legal succession, St. Luke shows that He is such by natural succession. In this latter view both genealogies should also be considered as genealogies of Mary, inasmuch as, Mary being either the niece or the first cousin of Joseph, the ancestors of Joseph—both legal and natural—are also her ancestors.

Whatever may be thought of these opinions the Davidic descent of Christ had been predicted as one of the essential marks of His Messiahship, and its realization in Our Lord’s person is put beyond question by the testimony of the New Testament writers and of tradition.

It is at the end of the journey of Joseph to the seat of his ancestors that Mary—who had accompanied him, because doubtless at this particular time she was unwilling to be left alone at Nazareth—gave birth to Jesus, “her first-born Son.” This leads us to speak of the exact date of Our Lord’s birth.

The precise YEAR in which Christ was born is still a matter of discussion among scholars. They agree generally that, when in the 6th century our received chronology was framed, an error—which has hitherto remained uncorrected—was made in the calculation of the year of Our Lord’s birth: but they are at variance in their estimate of the extent of this error. The most common view among them is that the date of Our Lord’s birth was five years earlier than is represented in our common chronology (749 instead of 753 U.C.); and we may remark that this view harmonizes well with our data regarding both the latest and the earliest year at which the birth of Christ can be put.

The latest year to which Our Lord’s birth can be assigned would seem to be the year 750 U.C.; for on the one hand, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born during the lifetime of Herod the Great, and not long before his death; and on the other hand, Josephus relates facts which point to the conclusion that the death of the Jewish king took place between the 13th of March and the 4th of April, 750.

The earliest year at which Our Lord’s birth can be put would seem to be 749 U.C.; for (1) at His baptism a few months before the Pasch of 780 U.C., Jesus was “about” thirty years of age, and the word “about,” under St. Luke’s pen, hardly allows us to admit that Christ was then one full year more or less than thirty; (2) the universal enrolment which was carried out in Judæa, and occasioned Our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, must be put as near as possible to the beginning of the administration of Cyrinus, and Cyrinus was governor from the autumn of 750 to 753 U.C.

Thus, then, the choice remains possible between the latter part of 749 and the beginning of 750 U.C.; the probabilities are in favor of 749 U.C., or five years before the Christian vulgar era.

The month in which Our Lord was born may be determined in the following manner: From St. Luke| we gather that the conception of John the Baptist took place in either the month of April or of October, and counting onwards fifteen months—for six months intervened between the annunciation to Zachary and that to Mary, and nine months between this latter event and the birth of Jesus—we reach June and December, in one or other of which Christ’s birth is to be placed. Now when we bear in mind that in the night Our Lord was born the shepherds tended their flocks, we feel that the month of June cannot be thought of, because in this month the fields are absolutely parched around Bethlehem; in the month of December, on the contrary, the earth is clothed with rich verdure, so that this is most likely the month in which Jesus was born. In fact, an early tradition of the Church designates this month as the time of Our Lord’s birth.

The day itself on which Christ was born is believed to have been the 25th of December, through an immemorial tradition of the Western Church.

2. Birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It was, then, on this memorable day (25th of December, 749 U.C.), that the Incarnate Word of God was born in Bethlehem, the little city of David, according to the prophecy of Micheas (5:2).

The town, as it now stands, is situated about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, on a narrow ridge running pretty nearly east to west. The slopes of the ridge are in many parts covered by terraced gardens, shaded by rows of olives, with figs and vines. On the top of the hill lies the village in a kind of irregular triangle, at about 150 yards from the apex of which is the noble basilica of Justinian, now surrounded by three convents: Greek, Latin, and Armenian. The houses have flat roofs, and the streets are narrow and crooked; the population is about 8000 souls.

Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem by the northwest, and on their arrival they failed to find accommodation in the inn, crowded by earlier comers. Then, as now, an Eastern inn was simply an enclosed space surrounded by open recesses, of which the paved floor is raised above the ground. In the centre there is the courtyard and water for the cattle; behind is found the stable, which in that region consists sometimes of a cave of limestone; and when no place can be had in the inn, travellers must be satisfied with a corner in the courtyard or else in the stable. So was it with Joseph and Mary when they reached the inn of Bethlehem, for the manger spoken of by St. Luke suggests that they either withdrew to the stable of the inn itself, or to some neighboring cave used at the time for the purpose of a stable. The cave, now shown as the Grotto of the Nativity, is southeast from the town and covered by the Latin convent. It has been modified through ages, and is now 38 feet long by 11 wide, and 9 feet high. A silver star in a marble slab at the eastern end marks the precise spot where Our Lord was born. Here is the inscription: Hic de virgine Maria, Jesus Christus natus est. Fine silver lamps are always burning around. The manger was taken to Rome in 1486 by Pope Sixtus V., but a marble one has taken its place.

The tradition, however ancient, which speaks of an ass and an ox as standing over the crib, is probably without sufficient grounds.

3. The Adoration of the Shepherds. The first to worship the new-born Saviour were humble shepherds who, on the night of Our Lord’s birth, tended their flocks in the fields, or on the eastern hills near Bethlehem. A brilliant light suddenly dazzled their eyes, and an angelic voice broke upon their ears. Bidding them not to fear, it announced the birth of the Lord Christ, and gave them a sign whereby they would find Him in the city of David. Instantly a heavenly choir chanted the praises of God, saying:

Glory to God in the highest,

On earth peace,

Good will towards men!

Obedient to the heavenly message, the shepherds hastened to make proof of the mysterious sign and found the Babe in the manger.

Having offered their homage to the divine Infant, they withdrew praising the God of Israel and proclaiming all that they had seen and heard.

Copyright ©1999-2023 Wildfire Fellowship, Inc all rights reserved