Birth of Christ: The Silence is Broken after a 400 Year Intermission
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4).
The Old Testament closes around 400 B.C., with the Persians dominating the Middle East. Books like Ezra and Nehemiah, and prophets like Haggai and Malachi, are at the end of Old Testament history.
Yes, there are significant books (the Apocrypha) written in the intertestamental period (the period between the Old and New Testaments), but neither the Jewish canon nor the Protestant Bible consider these to be authoritative. They do, however, provide good information on Jewish history and thought during this time. Because no authoritative Scripture is written during the 400-year period, some consider these to be the “silent years,” awaiting God’s breaking of the silence and the fulfilling of His promises.
When the curtain opens back up after the 400-year intermission, Rome is the dominant force in the Middle East, North Africa, and throughout Central and Western Europe. One of the most significant figures in Western civilization appeared during the 400 years – Alexander the Great. Alexander’s conquests meant that the Greek language and culture were spread throughout this region, and even when Rome took over, these influences largely remained. It is for this reason that the New Testament is written in Greek, because it served as the common language in the first century AD, especially in the eastern half of the Roman Empire (even Latin speakers often understood Greek).
Throughout the years, Christians have speculated about why God chose this moment in history to send Jesus and break the silence. It’s been pointed out that there were certain characteristics of the Roman Empire that made it conducive for the spread of Christianity. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) meant that it was relatively safe to travel throughout much of the Empire. The well-established Roman roads encouraged travel as well. Greek as a common language facilitated communication across different cultures. And a cosmopolitan spirit arose that transcended national identity. All these, some have ventured, may explain the timing regarding the Savior of the world.
The Birth Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke remind us that this story is part of a climax to an earlier one. Matthew makes an overt connection by demonstrating in his genealogy that Jesus is, “The son of David [and] the son of Abraham” (see Matt. 1:1). After all, it is through Abraham’s seed that all peoples on earth will be blessed (see Gen. 12:2-3) and a son of David whose, “Throne will be established forever” (see 2 Sam. 7:12-16). But even in Luke’s account, which is more subtle because it is written primarily for a non-Jewish audience, we see many connections as well. For example, the birth of John the Baptist describes him as a forerunner in the spirit of Elijah, hearkening back to the end of our Old Testament, Malachi 4:4-6. And when Gabriel predicts Jesus’ birth, he tells Mary: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” A clear connection to the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7.
Finally, through the agency of the Empire’s most powerful figure – Caesar Augustus – a census is taken which requires Joseph to go to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7). Ultimately, God’s providence oversees these historical “accidents” to fulfill the promise that in Bethlehem will be born the Messiah, “Whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (see Micah 5:2).
Act 1 in the drama was awaiting a resolution. When the curtain finally rises in Act 2, we joyfully see the beginnings of the grand fulfillment of all that was hoped for and promised. Jesus the Messiah is born!