John (Part 3): Prologue – Part 2 (Ch 1:1-18)
We have been talking about the Communication of God – the heading I’ve given for the first five verses of John’s prologue. In verse 1, we’ve seen the explicit message focusing on the second half of each of the three clauses, that Jesus, in his preincarnation, was in the beginning, with God, and actually God—as well as the implicit message focusing on the subject—the Word—that this message was the same one communicated from the beginning, coming from God himself, and revealing who God is. That revelation or expression provides the fundamental definition of love itself. Love is the expression of truth, goodness, and beauty for the desired benefit of t he one to whom those qualities are expressed.
John goes on in verse 2 to reemphasize the second clause of verse 1—that the Word was with God. He seems to repeat this in wondering awe at what God has done. But also by the statement he is solidifying the tie between the earthly life of Jesus and God’s initial and ongoing purpose. In verse 3, he insists that this revelation of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty has been infused into all creation, and in verse 4, he tells us that it was even infused into the life of God’s image bearers. In a play on words, John tells us that like the darkness that was separated from the light in creation, the darkness of sin and rebellion cannot overtake or comprehend the light of God’s revelation.
The next section of the prologue—verses 6 through 9—are the Testimony of God. Here we are introduced to John the Baptist. But John (the Apostle) doesn’t call him the Baptist because the emphasis here is not on John’s baptizing. Rather, the emphasis is on John’s testifying. John appears as a light (an intentional tie to the previous verse. But the author quickly explains that this John the Testifier is not the light, but rather testifying of the light. John the Baptist seems to be a light because this is the first prophet in over 400 years to take up the task of the continued revelation of God. He would also be the last prophet before that light—the ultimate and full revelation of God—began his ministry.
Before continuing with the passage, we need to pause to understand fully the timing that the Bible presents for the beginning of John’s ministry. That time schedule is presented first in Daniel 9:24-27. In this passage, Daniel is with the Jews in captivity in Babylon. Daniel has been reading Jeremiah’s prophecy that after 70 years, the Jews would be rescued from that captivity. Daniel, realizing that that time is approaching, prays to God, acknowledging the nation’s continued sin, but praying that God would return them to their homeland for God’s sake.
The angel Gabriel appears to Daniel and provides him with this timetable that we find in chapter 9 beginning in verse 24. Gabriel specifies a time of 70 weeks. Literally in Hebrew it is 70 sevens or 70 periods of seven. With the advantage of a backward look at history, we understand this to be 70 periods of 7 years, or 490 years total. Gabriel divides this 490 years into three sections: 7 periods of 7 (or 49 years), 62 weeks (or 434 years), and one final week (or 7 years). Much controversy envelopes the time of that last period of 7 years. Premillennialists split it off, equating it with a 7 year tribulation period and saying that it is still to come. Amillennialists and postmillennialists believe that 70th week immediately follows the first 69 weeks and encompasses Christ’s earthly ministry. But that is not the focus of our discussion right now. We are currently interested in the timing of the 69 weeks leading up to that 70th week. Daniel 9:25 gives us some direction as to when these 69 weeks will take place. The verse says that they begin when the decree is issued to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. The 69 weeks (the two sections of 7 weeks and 62 weeks) will end with Messiah the Prince. The calculation, then, seems simple. We find the year of the decree, add 483 years to it (69 “weeks” times 7 years each = 483 years), and we should arrive at the time Christ begins his earthly ministry.
In Isaiah 44:28, Isaiah prophecies, “[I am Yahweh] who says to Cyrus, ‘My shepherd, he will fulfill all My pleasure’ and says to Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Its foundation will be laid.’” Also, in Isaiah 45:13, we read, “He will rebuild My city, and set My exiles free.” So, the Bible is pretty clear that Cyrus, the Persian king, will be issuing the decree to free the Jews and send them home to rebuild Jerusalem. In fact, we have recorded in 2 Chronicles 36:23 and in Ezra 1:2-4 parts of the decree that Cyrus issues releasing the Jews and sending them back to build their temple.
But a problem arises in that the date given to this event is 538 BC. That date comes from a calendar created by Ptolemy, a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, of the early 2nd century AD. Ptolemy’s calendar has been accepted almost without question by every Bible scholar in the last 2000 years. It has been accepted, not because detailed studies have proven it to be correct, but rather simply because it was the established standard and no one else had produced a timetable of ancient dates that proved more reliable. But our problem is that if we add 483 years (the 69 weeks of Daniel) to the 538 BC date, we come to 55 BC, and that is way before Christ began his ministry in the AD 20s. Something has to give. Either the date is wrong or Cyrus’s decree is not the one Gabriel is speaking of. It is odd that even with the biblical evidence of Isaiah and Ezra, so many Bible scholars have chosen to place blind absolute trust in Ptolemy’s date of 538 BC than to hang on to what seems like clear indication from the Bible that Cyrus’s decree is the decree in focus. These scholars have abandoned Cyrus’s decree in favor of the letter that Artaxerxes gives to Nehemiah to provide him personal safe passage in Nehemiah 1:7-8. That letter, again based on Ptolemy’s calendar, is dated in the mid 400s BC, providing a better calculation when adding Daniel’s 69 weeks to it.
But rather than abandoning Cyrus’s decree, I would suggest that it is not a problem of which decree (the Bible seems to emphasize Cyrus’s), but rather a problem with the date. Martin Anstey is a scholar who wrote a two-volume work called The Romance of Bible Chronology. In it, Anstey creates a calendar based on the biblical record and finds that Ptolemy’s calendar is 82 years off. That date of 538 BC for Cyrus’s decree should, then, actually be 457 BC. Adding Daniel’s 69 weeks to that date (accounting for that year being the first and recognizing that there is no year 0), we arrive at the beginning of Christ’s ministry as AD 26. Backing up from this date for the about 30 years of age that Jesus was when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), we calculate that Jesus was born in 6 BC. (This calculation recognizes (1) a birth in December of 6 BC based on the star patterns as discussed in Matthew Part 3 on the TruthWhys website, (2) no year 0 in the calculation, and (3) a start of Christ’s ministry in September AD 26. Thus, Jesus would have been 30 years and 9 months old in September AD 26.) But does a birth of Christ in 6 BC correspond with the Bible’s references to the historical timeframe?
Luke helps us here. In chapter 2 of his Gospel Luke tells us that the birth of Christ occurred during the reign of the emperor Augustus. Augustus reigned as sole emperor of Rome from about 31 BC to AD 14. Luke also says that Augustus had decreed that all of the Roman world would be registered for tax purposes. And there was a 14-year registration that began about 20 BC and, therefore, would end sometime around 6 BC, which again fits with our 6 BC birth assumption.
We know from Matthew that Jesus was born toward the end of the reign of Herod, king in Palestine. Herod reigned as king from 37 BC to 4 BC. Josephus tells us that Herod passed from the world in about March-April of 4 BC just after a comet, visible to the earth, had passed through the skies in that month. So the historical record concerning Herod also fits with the 6 BC birth assumption.
But a problem arises when we continue with Luke’s account and read in 2:2 that this “first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” Although not always exactly accurate, historical records show that Quirinius was governor of Syria around AD 6 to AD 9 (or AD 11 depending on source). And there was, in fact, a registration/census taken in AD 6 when Quirinius became governor, but it was a census for only the region under his control which included Palestine. Our problem, of course, is that if Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until AD 6, we have a gap of about 9-10 years between the two. Yet, according to the plain reading of Matthew and Luke, both men were supposedly in their positions at the birth of Christ. Toward the end of Herod’s life, however, it was Sentius Saturninus who was governor of Syria, not Quirinius.
A few hypotheses have been submitted concerning this problem. We need to consider what exactly Luke means in 2:2 with regard to this being the “first” registration? Certainly the census of Quirinius’ time is not the first that Augustus ever decreed a registration. And there were not two censuses taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria of which this is the first. But there are two other possibilities. The first is that the governorship of Quirinius in AD 6 was the second time Quirinius was governor. We know that Quirinius was a general during the time of Sentius Saturninus in 9 to 3 BC. Perhaps at this time, since Sentius was a noted weak ruler, Augustus made Quirinius a sort of co-governor especially to ensure the completion of the census. While this idea would seem to solve the problem, there is absolutely no firm historical evidence that Quirinius ever was Syria’s ruler prior to AD 6. Insisting on it, as some scholars do, seems a rather weak idea.
A better answer is that the translation we have of Luke 2:2 is incorrect. The word translated “first” is the Greek protos. Checking with our lexicons, we will note that besides its other meanings as “first,” protos also means that which comes before. For example, in John 1:15 we read, “John testified concerning Him and exclaimed, ‘This One coming after me has surpassed me, because he existed before [protos] me.’” An even better example is John 15:18: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before [protos] it hated you.” Here we have even the same construct – where something occurred before the other. So Luke 2:2 could be better translated, “This [registration] was before the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
While this translation seems to answer the problem, we must consider why Luke would have made this statement. There does seem to some confusion that Luke wants his readers to avoid. The census of AD 6 when Quirinius was governor was a milestone event. Not only did it cost Palestine a great deal in tax, it was this census that established the temple tax. Most tax was assessed based upon property ownership. But the tax resulting from the AD 6 census had the additional design of assigning everyone a tax based on the temple. Many of the Jews thought this an abomination. An uprising did occur which had to be put down (see Acts 5:37 for Gamaliel’s mention of Judas and this revolt). And each year it grated the consciences of the Jews in having to pay this temple tax. Remember that it was about this tax that the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trip up Jesus with their questioning (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:19-26). Thus, when a census or initiation of a tax was mentioned, the minds of the Jews immediately went to this AD 6 registration overseen by Quirinius. That is why Luke has to make the statement in 2:2. In verse 1 he speaks of a census in relation to Christ’s birth. But in 2:2 he must clear any confusion by telling his readers that this was the census taken before the one that they were probably thinking about—before the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. With that understanding of Luke 2:2, we now have all the historical and biblical events lining up for Jesus’ birth to have occurred about 6 BC.
But one more clarification must be made in regard to the start of Christ’s ministry. Our Daniel 9 timeline brought us to AD 26 as Christ’s ministry start. We note, however, in Luke 3:1-2, that John the Baptist began his ministry in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Augustus died in AD 14, and Tiberius became sole princeps at that time. But 15 years counting AD 14 would put the start of John the Baptist’s ministry in AD 28. However, two years earlier (AD 12) when Tiberius returned from Germania, his victories were celebrated and his power was made equal with, rather than second to, Augustus. In other words, he became co-princeps in AD 12. Thus, the fifteenth year of his position of “first man” in Rome was AD 26, which again aligns with our timetable.
The point of this exercise was to establish the intricate and accurate accounting of the Bible in coalescing prophecy with history to realize God’s perfect plan for the culmination of his revelation. The burst of light in John’s prophetic testimony after 400 years of darkness rocked the Palestinian world. In prophesying of John’s coming, Malachi states, “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (4:6). This carries the idea that people would again look in hope toward covenant unity as they also looked back to God’s promises and progressive revelation of the past. John testified of the light. He was not the light. But “the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (1:9).