December 21, 2015

December 25th as the Actual Date of the Birth of Christ (3 of 4)

...continued from part two.

4. The Liturgical Relevance of the Censing of Zechariah

It appears therefore that the three elements of the narrative of Luke the Evangelist together advocate along the same direction: "The outer altar was for sacrifices and burnt offerings, while the inner one was for incense. From this it is is revealed to us why the people were outside waiting for him, for it is clear that [Zechariah] entered the Holy of Holies," according to Chrysostom.19

Having established that Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies, Chrysostom examines the Mosaic provisions of Leviticus regarding the Mosaic Tabernacle of Meeting to find what was the feast and religious relevance for Zechariah to offer the incense. The sacred text of Leviticus mentions that the High Priest rarely entered the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle of Meeting. "Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the veil in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die."20 The verses from Leviticus Chrysostom presents describe that of the feast of Atonement, although he incorrectly calls it the feast of Tabernacles.21 According to the biblical text, the feast of Atonement took place "on the tenth day of the seventh month."22 With the identification of the elements of the feast of Atonement with the narrative of Luke regarding Zechariah and the conception of John the Forerunner - which was six months before the conception of Christ - we can surmise that the feast of Tabernacles took place immediately after, at the end of September near October.

The assimilation of the feasts of Atonement (Yom Kippur) with Tabernacles (Sukkot) by St. John Chrysostom, is probably due to the fact that the two celebrations were regularly held one after another. The Atonement of Israel was "a most important autumn Jewish festival of public repentance and the forgiveness of sins,"23 while the Tabernacles "took place on the 15th day of Tishri (end of September-beginning of October), five days after that of the Atonement (which took place on the 10th of Tishri) and lasted seven days."24

Hebrew months were mobile, due to the lunar adjustment of the first Hebrew religious month of Nisan, so to identify the feast of Atonement we must resort to special panels that assimilate the Hebrew months of the past with the Roman months we now know of. The problem arises over the fact that we are not exactly sure which year Christ was born, due to an incomplete determination of the historian Dionysius Exiguus,25 thus making it difficult to find the Roman date of the Hebrew month for 1 BC, when John the Forerunner was conceived, fifteen months before the birth of Christ. However, a tentative exploration in the vicinity of the years on special tables26 shows, for example, that in the year 3 BC the feast of Atonement coincided with the 19th of September and that of Tabernacles on the 24th. This does not depart from the ecclesiastical celebration of the conception of the Forerunner on the 23rd of September.

5. Was Zechariah a Priest or High Priest According to Luke the Evangelist?

The reference in the Gospel of Luke that Zechariah was a priest who was called (Lk. 1:5) and not a High Priest, does not seem to bother Chrysostom. Because in addition to the obvious, that only a High Priest and not a simple priest could enter into the interior parts of the veil, where the altar of incense was, as we examined above, the term "priest" is used also for the High Priest, as was often done with the High Priest Aaron: "the sacred garments for Aaron the priest" (Ex. 35:19); "under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron, the priest" (Num. 4:33); "have given them to Aaron the priest" (Lev. 7:34).

The High Priestly identity of Zechariah is explained by St. John Chrysostom in other texts of his, when he explains why there are multiple High Priests mentioned in the Gospels. He says: "How then were there at that time many high priests? They were made so for a year. And this the evangelist declared, when he was speaking of Zechariah, saying, that he was of the course of Abia. Those therefore does he here call high priests, who had been high priests."27 Indeed, during the years of captivity "Herod the Great nominated no less than six high priests; Archelaus, two. The Roman legate Quirinius and his successors exercised the right of appointment, as did Agrippa I, Herod of Chalcis, and Agrippa II."28

In contrast, Panagiotis Trembelas, in his observations on the Gospel of Luke, cites the opinion of Alfred A. Plummer, who insists on the simple priestly identity of Zechariah and denies the narrative took place "on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies." He continues: "Luke would not have called him a high priest nor would he have said that he offered incense on the Day of Atonement."29 Clearly, if Zechariah was a priest, then the offering of incense by him could have been that which took place daily, and there is no need to determine the date. Trembelas goes on the explain, based on M.J. Lagrange: "In Exodus 30:7 Aaron offered incense. But this ritual function passed on to simple priests."30

However, the words in the Epistle to the Hebrews that refer to the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies "never without blood", does not detract that Zechariah could have been the High Priest, because on the feast of Atonement the High Priest first "is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover. He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it" (Lev. 16:12-15).32

Also, the Gospel of Luke informs us that Zechariah after his service returned to his house.33 This appears to indicate the feast of Tabernacles, which followed the entrance of the High Priest in the Sanctuary on the feast of Atonement, which is why the High Priest Zechariah delayed returning to his home.


19. PG 49, 357. "Τό γάρ θυσιαστήριον τό ἔξω θυσιῶν ἦν καί ὁλοκαυτωμάτων, τό δέ ἔσω θυμιάματος. Ὥστε καί ἀπό τούτου, καί ἀπό τοῦ ὀφθῆναι αὐτῷ μόνῳ, καί ἀπό τοῦ λέγεσθαι, ὅτι ἔξω ἦν ὁ λαός προσδεχόμενος αὐτόν, εὔδηλον ὅτι εἰς τά Ἅγια τῶν ἁγίων εἰσῆλθε."

20. Lev. 16:2, 17.

21. PG 49, 357. "Καί ἔσται τοῦτο ὑμῖν νόμιμον αἰώνιον, ἐξιλάσκεσθαι περί τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραήλ ἀπό πασῶν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. Ἅπαξ τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ ποιηθήσεται, καθάπερ συνέταξε Κύριος τῷ Μωϋσῇ. Περί τῆς Σκηνοπηγίας ἐνταῦθα διαλέγεται. Τότε γάρ ἅπαξ τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ ὁ ἀρχιερεύς εἰσῄει· ὅπερ οὖν καί αὐτός ἐδήλωσεν, εἰπών, ὅτι Ἄπαξ τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ τοῦτο ποιηθήσεται."

22. Lev. 16:29-34.

23. ΠΑΝ. Ι. ΜΠΡΑΤΣΙΩΤΗΣ, «Ἐξιλασμοῦ, ἡμέρα», ΘΗΕ 5 (1964) στ. 728.729.

24. Ι. ΚΑΡΑΒΙΔΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ, «Σκηνοπηγία», ΘΗΕ 11 (1967) στ. 224.

25. Π.Κ. ΧΡΗΣΤΟΥ, «Διονύσιος ὁ Μικρός», ΘΗΕ 5 (1964), στ. 58.

27. "On Matthew" 79, 3 PG 58, 720. "Πῶς οὖν τότε πολλοί ἀρχιερεῖς; Ἐνιαυσιαῖοι ὕστερον ἐγένοντο. Καί τοῦτο ἐδήλωσεν ὁ εὐαγγελιστής, ὅτε περί τοῦ Ζαχαρίου διελέγετο εἰπών ἐξ ἐφημερίας αὐτόν εἶναι Ἀβιᾶ."

28. "High Priest (Judaism)", Wikipedia (

29. "Ὑπόμνημα εἰς τό Κατά Λουκᾶν Εὐαγγέλιον", ἐκδ. Ὁ Σωτήρ, Ἀθῆναι 1972[2], σελ. 35.

30. Ibid., σελ. 39.

31. Heb. 9:7.

32. Π.Ν. ΤΡΕΜΠΕΛΑΣ, "Ὑπόμνημα εἰς τάς Ἐπιστολάς", ibid., σελ. 122.

33. Lk. 1:23.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.