By S. Kent Brown
The Birth of John
Luke’s Gospel does not spell out how long Zacharias and Elisabeth wait for the birth of their son following the angel’s announcement. But hints exist that offer an approximate time of when he is born. The first hint is that Jesus is born in the late winter or early spring of the year. This observation arises from Luke’s note that “shepherds [were] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). The key lies in the phrase “by night” which is a clear pointer to the lambing season when the adults spend nights with the expectant ewes in their flock to assist with the births of new lambs. At other times of the year, the youthful children in the family are assigned to be with the sheep, as young David is (1 Samuel 16:11). A second indicator has to do with the relative ages of Jesus and his older cousin John. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, Elisabeth is about five and a half months pregnant. That is the meaning of “the sixth month” (Luke 1:36). In this light, John’s birth occurs the prior October or perhaps late September.
A third clue lies in Zacharias’s assignment at the temple. The question has to do with the makeup of the crowd that awaits his emergence from the sanctuary after lighting the incense. Are they regulars at the evening celebration which occurs about three o’clock in the afternoon or are they present for a large festival? Luke writes that “the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple” (Luke 1:21). Obviously, these people know the service and possess a sense of how long a priest typically takes to perform his duties inside the sanctuary. In this light, the answer must be that the gathered throng is present for the customary ceremony and not for a major celebration. Why? Because Zacharias is “of the course of Abia,” or Abijah, which fills its duties twice a year, once during the eighth week and once during the thirty-second week. Because the ancient Jewish year likely begins in the fall, as it does nowadays, the eighth week falls in November, too late for the Feast of Tabernacles and too early for the Hanukkah festival. On this view, Elisabeth does not become pregnant until January, a full two months after Zacharias returns home from his extraordinary experience at the temple. In this reckoning, Mary comes to visit Elisabeth in July, the hottest time to travel through the Jordan Valley from Nazareth to the area of Jerusalem where Zacharias and Elisabeth likely make their home.
It is reasonable to surmise that Mary reaches Elisabeth’s home a couple of weeks after the angel appears to her. During the next weeks, we are safe to think that Mary helps Elisabeth with normal tasks both inside and outside the home. Before John’s birth we read that “Mary abode with [Elisabeth] about three months, and returned to her own house.” At first glance, it appears that Mary returns to Nazareth just at the moment when Elisabeth needs her the most. But Luke’s note about Mary’s return likely fits his pattern of tying off one section of his story before going on to the next, in this case ending his focus on Mary before turning light onto John’s birth (Luke 1:56–57).
A lot happens on the eighth day after Elisabeth’s baby is born. According to custom, he is named and circumcised in the presence of relatives and friends. According to modern scripture, this tiny boy is also “ordained by the angel of God . . . to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews, and to make straight the way of the Lord” (D&C 84:28). As all readers know, a question arises about the naming of the infant. The guests expect that he will be named after his father. But Elisabeth knows that he is to be named John, not a family name (Luke 1:13, 59–61). To settle the issue, the guests bypass Elisabeth and “made signs to his father” who can neither hear nor talk (Luke 1:62).
At the instant that Zacharias writes “His name is John,” a stunning miracle occurs. We read that “his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake” (Luke 1:63–64). The passive verb “was opened” points to the unspoken subject, the One who acts, that is, God. A power outside of Zacharias repairs his speech and hearing. The formerly unbelieving priest, who represents other unbelieving temple officials, is now able to name his son, as the angel promises (Luke 1:13). In this moment, the spirit of prophecy fills him. In his home, we should emphasize. The expression “Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied” (Luke 1:67) indicates that the past year of spiritual preparation is complete, allowing him to bless his newborn son.
The birth, naming, and angelic ordaining of John mark a lofty point in the infant’s history, for now events become real. First, they point to the firm, almost concrete power of prophecy: John’s birth and naming are uttered beforehand in the words of the angel, and now he is physically here, safely inside his parents’ home (Luke 1:13). Second, they make tangible the warm, miraculous actions of God in this world in the form of a child’s unexpected birth to aging parents—completing their family—and in the sudden, public healing of Zacharias. Third, they embody God’s mercy inside an infant who is both to influence his fellow citizens and “to prepare [the Messiah’s] ways” (Luke 1:76; see D&C 84:28).
—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.
Part One: An Angel Comes to the Priest Zacharias