What do we know about “the sixth month” in the Infancy story?

by S. Kent Brown

Luke 1:26 says that in “the sixth month” Gabriel visits Mary, and this time, presumably, is also the time of Mary’s conception. On the face of it, this interval would place Jesus’ birth six or so months after John’s. The sixth month might refer to the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. But does this “sixth month” instead refer to the Jewish sixth month, the month of Adar? Might Luke be introducing a date from the world of Jewish calendrical reckoning? For help, let’s look at three aspects of Luke’s Gospel.

1. The first has to do with the prologue, Luke 1:1–4. It is thoroughly Greek, not Jewish. Often termed the best Greek of Luke’s two-volume work, this passage arguably imitates the historical style of Thucydides and other notable Greek writers. A number of studies have explored Luke’s prologue in light of roughly contemporaneous Greek and Latin works, including historical, medical, rhetorical, and mathematical treatises and handbooks (Loveday Alexander, David Aune, Richard Bauckham, et al.). In the light of these studies, it becomes apparent that Luke breathes the air of the Greek world and that the first daubs of paint on his two-volume work aim it at a Greek-reading audience in the wider Greco-Roman world. The reverse side of this observation says that this work does not aim at a Jewish audience except insofar as that audience may be Greek-speaking and educated in the Greek manner.

2. Knowing that Luke is aiming for a Greek-centric audience, we can understand why Luke makes simple mistakes about Jewish matters. One of the places in his gospel that is most saturated with Jewish custom, of course, is his report of the Last Supper. Even though some hold that the Last Supper is a pre-Passover occasion (e.g., Leon Morris), it seems plain that Jesus is referring to the roasted passover lamb that rests on the table in front of him when he says, “I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). Now comes the mistake that a Jewish author, or one schooled in Jewish matters, would never make. When introducing the Last Supper, Luke writes, “Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed” (Luke 22:7). Luke, or his source, evidently conflates two separate events. The day of preparation when “the passover must be killed” is on the 14th of the month of Nisan, whereas the first day of the feast of unleavened bread falls on the 15th of Nisan, a calendrical nicety that a Gentile author might miss. And no one but Greek-reading  Jews in his audience will know the difference. 3. The third element has to do with the Greek name Theophilus (Luke 1:3). Why? Because within five years or so of Jesus’ death, a Jew named Theophilus was appointed High Priest by Vitellius, who was Prefect of Judaea from AD 35 to 39 (Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. ed., 2:230). Nevertheless, in light of the thoroughly Greek cast of Luke’s Gospel and book of Acts, it is safe to see the Theophilus whom Luke addresses as an educated Roman official (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). This observation is made more secure by the fact that the term translated “most excellent” in Luke 1:3 is applied to ranking Roman officials in more or less august situations in Acts 23:26, 24:3, and 26:25. In a different vein, in my opinion, it will not do to argue that the name Theophilus simply bears the meaning “friend of God” or the like, thus shedding it of any tie to the world of living Roman officials. An addition in the Joseph Smith Translation seemingly stands against this sort of reading of the name, making the name very personal in an interesting add-on to the text (see JST Luke 3:19).

In conclusion, “the sixth month” (Luke 1:26, 36) represents the length of time that Elisabeth has been pregnant before the angel’s visit to Mary rather than a link to the Jewish calendar. In fact, this note meshes nicely with the prior notice that Elisabeth “hid herself five months” (Luke 1:24).