Unlike all the great founders of religions, Jesus of Nazareth is unique in both life and death, and nature and character. Only superficial researchers can consider him to be just a popular sage, a great prophet, or a revolutionary moral genius. Jesus is different from everyone, even in His birth.
The reader will probably immediately think of the virginal conception, of the visit of the Magi and the shepherds; and they would be right. But these signs and wonders are limited in their possibility of validation. The virginal conception was a sign, but, in a sense, only for Mary. She alone knew this as fact; others, starting with her fiancé, Joseph, had to accept it, sooner or later, by faith.
The star was seen and understood only by the Magi. The angels were seen only by the shepherds. Simeon and Anna recognized the Child only because they were prophets. But the inhabitants of the village where Jesus grew up, and many of His contemporaries, saw in Him only a poor and wise young man. Jesus, with all His miracles, was seen by only a few hundred thousand people during his lifetime. There were hundreds of witnesses to His death, and at least one hundred nonbelievers were present at His resurrection, but they forgot everything after they were bribed. And after 65 years, all the witnesses had died.
The only thing that remains is the written testimony, the value of which goes beyond the experience of a single witness, whoever they may be. And, in addition to the unique testimony of the apostolic evangelists, we have a testimony of the divine foreknowledge—the Jewish prophecies—that had predicted the arrival of the Messiah many centuries before He was born.
There are many prophecies concerning the Messiah. Some people are impressed by messianic prophecies, others by different prophecies. Finally, there are willingly ignorant people who are not impressed by any prophecy. A careful foray into the prophecies about the place and time of the appearance of the Messiah may change their perspective.
Noel, Noel, 700 years ahead of time
Ancient prophecies about the Saviour foretold that He would be born of Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 22:18). Then Israel was mentioned (Numbers 24:17), from which the tribe of Judah was later indicated (Genesis 49:10) and, after several centuries, “the house of David” (2 Samuel 7:16; 23:3-5). Then came predominantly typological descriptions of messianic character and activity in the book of Psalms (Psalms 2; 22; 45; 110, etc.).
About 720 years before the birth of the Messiah, the prophet Micah foretold the place where the Great King would be born.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins  are from of old,
from ancient times.”
(Micah 5:2 NIV)
This prophecy is freely quoted by the rabbis who responded to King Herod (Matthew 2:6), indicating “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” as the equivalent of “Bethlehem, Ephrathah.” This specification of the prophecy concerning Bethlehem in Judea, is important, because there was still a Bethlehem in Galilee in the land of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15). The first of these was, in fact, the birthplace of Jesus (acc. Luke 2:4-15; John 7:41-42).
Bethlehem—among the tears, carols, and persecution
Today, the town (Bait Lahm) is in Palestinian territory. It was inhabited by Christians in the time of the Byzantines, then conquered in turn by the Samaritans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, the British, Jordanians, Israelis, and since 1995, it has been ceded to the Palestinians. The place today is of no real spiritual importance, the church and the “holy” objects there are much newer than the old stable, which certainly perished long before any believer noticed. But the place has a great economic importance, in terms of tourism, increased by the presence of the traditional tomb of Rachel.
Bethlehem, originally called Bit Lahmi (known since 1440 BC), then Beth Léhem, was rendered in the Greek Gospel in the form of Bethlehem, which was later pronounced Vithleem. The name of the city means “grain house” (barn) or “temple of Laham,” the Canaanite god. The name has no prophetic significance, as some believe.
What is of prophetic, typological importance is the fact that Bethlehem was the birthplace and childhood area of David, the little shepherd that was anointed king, who was hated and persecuted for many years before he was crowned. This fate would be shared by the Messiah, but to a much greater extent. That is why Jesus was born in Judea’s Bethlehem, as the gospel teaches. And those to whom the angels gave this news were the shepherds of Bethlehem.
Time of birth, shown 530 years before
There is no direct prophecy about the time of the Messiah’s birth. However, there is a spectacular prophecy in the book of Daniel about the time of His public appearance, when Jesus would be made known to the Jewish people. Knowing that, under Israeli law, one must be at least 30 years of age to hold office in the state or in the temple, and that Jesus fulfilled that condition (Luke 3:23), in order to know His approximate date of birth, 30 years must be deducted from the time provided for His public appearance.
The time of Christ’s proclamation, of His revelation to the Jewish people, was the time of his baptism in the Jordan river, when John the Baptist presented Him to the assembled crowd. Daniel’s prophecy is, in fact, a revelation of Gabriel (Daniel 9:21)—the same angel of the Lord who would announce the birth of both John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:19, 26). It was written in the following words (Daniel 9:25 NIV): “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’  and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.”
The arithmetic of the prophecy
The text above harmonizes with the Septuagint and the Orthodox translations: “Seven sevens and sixty-two sevens.” This is a poetic way of saying “69 weeks.” At the same time, it contains a code of apocalyptic chronology, deciphered with the classical key of Scripture (Numbers 14:34; Ezra 4:6), which shows that, in the prophetic code, an apocalyptic day symbolizes a year. The expression from the prophecy emphasizes in fact that the whole period of the “70 weeks”, meaning 490 years (acc. v. 24), consists of jubilees (periods of 7 x 7 years), which in turn consist of septennials (weeks of years, acc. Leviticus 25).
Two important holidays for the Israelites are implicitly mentioned in the prophecy: the Sabbath year and the jubilee year. Every seventh year, called the sabbatical year, after the pattern of the week, the Israelite slaves had to be set free, and the fields left uncultivated, so that they could “rest,” in order to not get exhausted. The jubilee is celebrated once every 49 years, in the 50th year, which was also the first of the following period. This extraordinary feast provided for the free return to the first owners of all alien property (land and houses, Leviticus 25:23). The 49th year, being a sabbatical year, and the 50th being a jubilee, the effect of the idea of liberation and restoration is cumulative. But Daniel’s prophecy does not refer only to 7 years or 7 × 7 years, but to a period of 70 x 7 years, that is, a mega jubilee—the only one known in Scripture, representing the maximum symbolic number of occasions until which Jesus extended forgiveness (Matthew 18:22).
The prophecy was made in the first year after the conquest of Babylon by the Medes and Persians (Daniel 9:1; acc. 5:30-31), that is, in 538 BC. The angel says that the period mentioned by the prophecy must be calculated starting with the edict that would legalize the restitution and reconstruction of Jerusalem—in other words, the civil and political restoration of the Jews, after the Babylonian exile.
Four firmans, three shahanshahi, two restorations and a chronological start
The Bible tells of four Persian edicts concerning the rebuilding of Jerusalem: two concerning the Temple and the restoration of the Jewish cult (Cyrus II, 538-536 BC; Darius I, 519 BC), and two concerning the civil restoration and the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem (Artaxerxes I, 457 BC; Artaxerxes I, 444 BC). The first two edicts are not of interest here, because they did not mention or provoke the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Of the two remaining, Artaxerxes of 457 BC and 444 BC, the first is more comprehensive, and we have evidence that the Jews began rebuilding the wall before 444 BC (see Ezra 4). The edict of 444 was only permission, given later (Ezra 4:21), to resume work which had been stopped (Ezra 4:23). Part of the work had been destroyed by violent opposition from Israel’s neighbours (Nehemiah 1:1-4).
The last verse of the prophecy spoke of these troubles: The “judicial forum” mentioned in the prophecy refers to the court, or divan, of the ancient Jewish cities, which functioned in the widest part of the city, called the rehob, usually in the gate area, called agora (market) by the Greeks and forum (fair) by the Romans. In the Hebrew text, the expression is “rehob we-harutz”, meaning “market and….?”. “Harutz” is variously translated as “walls” (LXX), “defence ditches”, “canals”, “pits” (CNS), when in fact in this context it means “judgment”, as in Joel 4:14.
This translation is especially important, because of all the Persian decrees given in favour of the Jews, only the seventh year of Artaxerxes (457 BC) mentions the restoration of the Jewish judicial system (Ezra 7:25, 26). The same document mentions that the priest-scribe Ezra was commissioned to “seek the good of Judah and Jerusalem” (1 Ezra 7:14), by imperial decree, and he could use part of the money as he thought best for this project (Ezra 7:18), and all this work was tax-exempt (v. 24).
Although the rebuilding of the fortress is not explicitly mentioned, possibly for diplomatic reasons, these transparent and generous expressions are enough to understand that Ezra started the works by virtue of this imperial document. His enthusiasm is eloquent (Ezra 7:6b, 27:28).
The Star of Prophecy and the Sun of Christianity
Another proof in favour of the election of 457 BC as a valid starting point for the prophecy, is the restoration of the Sabbath cycle (Nehemiah 10:31), which depended on the restoration of the teaching of the Law of Moses and the civil courts. Ancient documents mention the years 162, 135 and 37 BC, as well as 41/42, 47/48 and 55/56 AD as sabbatical years, which confirms that the year 34 (the end of the 70 weeks) was also a sabbatical year and, therefore, the entire period, divisible by seven, begins with the restoration of the laws governing socio-economic relations. Despite the reasoning that may seem complicated to the unaccustomed reader, and despite the need for approximation, such precision is brilliant.
But even more brilliant is the prediction of the rising sun of Christianity in the world. The period of 69 “weeks” (69 × 7) after the decree of civil restoration (457 BC) means 483 years, from which, subtracting the 457 before the Christian era, we reach the year 27 AD, when, according to the prophecy, the Messiah the Leader should have appeared in public. Counting back 30-31 years, the age of maturity and the beginning of Jesus’ mission, we reach the years 4 or 5 BC. There are current Eastern Orthodox and Protestant interpretations that are very close to this calculation.
We must not forget that in the time of Jesus, people had different systems for calculating time. Certainly no one thought then, seeing the Holy Infant in the manger, that the whole world would someday count the time after His birth. Four centuries after the birth of Christ, when the Christian era was invented by the Dobrogean monk, Dionisie Exiguus, the calculation was made incorrectly by at least 4 years. Therefore, Daniel’s prophecy requires the 27th year of the Christian era as the date of Jesus’ first public appearance, and His date of birth to be 30-31 years before.
History and the Bible
Luke (3:1, 23) shows that the date when Christ’s coming was proclaimed by John the Baptist was the 15th year of Tiberius, which, according to a rough calculation, would mean the year 28-29 (from autumn to autumn), very close to the year 27 AD—the year required by the prophecy. Further chronological and calendar studies can lead to more accurate results, but for a prediction that was centuries before the event, the slight inaccuracy of one year is negligible.
Tiberius began his rule in August 14 AD, and the years of his reign were calculated, even at that time, in the eastern provinces, which means that the first year of his reign began with his accession to the throne.  At the same time, the years of his reign were counted as whole years, the Jewish calendar year being from autumn to autumn, which is in line with the Syrian method of calculation that Luke must have used. This means that, according to Luke’s calculation, the first year of Tiberius consists of about 2 months until the beginning of the new year, in October 14, to which we add 13 full years (October 14 – October 27), totalling 14 years of his reign, until the autumn of 27. At the same time, in the new year of October 27 AD, the 15th year of Tiberius begins, according to Luke’s calculation. This is exactly the time of Jesus’ baptism, at the age of about 30.
There is another possible way to adjust the date. Some authors claim, on numismatic (relating to coins) grounds, that Tiberius may have been co-ruler with Augustus for about two years, which means that the 15th year of Luke 3 would be 26-27 and not 28-29.
The fulfilment of the prophecy is also supported by the date mentioned by John (2:20). At the first Passover after the baptism of Jesus, it had been 46 years since Herod the Great (19 BC) had begun the restoration of the Temple, which means that the Passover after the baptism probably took place in the spring of 28 AD. The date confirms the fulfilment of the prophecy.
A miracle for myself
In conclusion, Gabriel’s prophecy leads us directly to the year of Christ’s proclamation (27-28 AD), almost 31 years after His birth (5 BC), which is thus historically attested by the Gospels. We do not know the month and day of His birth. December 25 is the Roman holiday of the winter solstice (Birthday of the Victorious Sun), which Christians have transformed into the Birthday of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, making it an imperial, holy, and obligatory holiday.
We do not know the day and month of His birth, but we have the approximate year. Yet the prophecy is astonishingly accurate. About 720 years before, the exact place of His birth, Bethlehem, was foretold, although His parents were from Nazareth, in Galilee. About 530 years before, the time of His appearance (27 AD) and, implicitly, of His birth (5 BC), was predicted, although many are still waiting for a more convenient Saviour to come.
The Mind which foresaw the place and time of the Saviour’s birth also knew the place and time of our birth, as we await salvation. He Who is eternal, who has his life outside of space and time, looking simultaneously into the past, present, and future, has descended, in space and time, to the right place and time, to give us Himself. This is Jesus Christ, our only, living hope.
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.