The Nativity of the Herodian Temple and the Nativity of Mary

The role of the Temple in the Bible is crucial, and for Christians the role of Jesus and  his Mother ties into this biblical theme. This essay will focus on a small aspect of the Temple, namely the timeline for the construction of the Herodian Temple. When we compare the testimony of Josephus and the author of the Infancy Gospel of James we can see some striking similarities. The building of the Herodian Temple and the life of Mary correspond very closely in time. Let’s look at the data.


The Infancy Gospel of James

This is an interesting early Christian document. No strong position will be taken on the authorship or dating of the text, nor will a very close reading be undertaken (for a brief introduction to the text and a quick read through it, see my series of posts here).

Instead, we will focus on the content of the PJ in regard to the early life of Mary, the Theotokos. Since the text has influenced (or was inspired by) Christian hymnography we will focus on the narrative of Mary’s birth being announced, her birth, her presentation in the Temple, her receiving the Annunciation, and her giving birth to Jesus.



The other half of our material is from Josephus. He gives testimony regarding the speech of Herod which announced that he was going to rebuild the Temple to the proper specifications and the glory that it deserved. Scholars have argued that based on seemingly conflicting testimony from Josephus, the actual building began 3 years later (this has been discussed by a number of scholars, here is an explanation of the evidence). Josephus also tells us that the Temple was “finished” 8 years after the building project started.



A Timeline

We will now construct a timeline of the pertinent events, with the caveat that all dates are open to revision within a year or two. It should also be kept in mind that some dates are dependent upon others, so a single change (or mistake) in our dating could throw off the dating of multiple events.

  • 22 – Conception of Mary Announced
  • 21 – Mary Born
  • 19 – Building of Temple Announced
  • 18 – Mary Brought to the Temple
  • 17 – Temple Construction Begins
  • 15 – Inner Court finished
  •   9 – Temple construction finished (possibly Mary leaves Temple at this point)
  •   6 – Mary leaves Temple
  •   5 – Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
  •   4 – Birth of Jesus
  •   4 – Death of Herod


The Narrative Suggested by the Timeline

Joachim and Anna are told that they will conceive a child, and they they dedicate the child to serve God at this time. The child is born and is miraculous when presented at the Temple. She lives at home in a Temple-like environment. Herod announces that he will rebuild the Temple. Mary is brought to the Temple to live there, when the preparations for building the Temple are still underway.

When the Temple construction begins, Mary is 5. It ends when she is 13, and she leaves the Temple 2 years later at the age of 15 (the PJ is usually interpreted as saying that Mary was 12 when she left the Temple, but I suggest that the text is better understood as indicating the time she was in the Temple as being 12 years). The following year the Annunciation occurs when she is 16, and Jesus is born when she is 17. That same year Herod dies.

Mary is in the Temple for the entire period of construction. The announcement of her future birth and the birth itself precede the same for the Temple by 3 years.

At no point in Josephus do we read of Mary, and although he does mention Jesus in one passage, it is contested among scholars as to whether the text is authentic. Even f it is authentic, there is no mention of Jesus’ early life or mother. At no point in the PJ do we hear about Temple construction or a mention of Herod building the Temple. So it appears that both texts are writing of the same period, from different perspectives, and yet when we compare their dates the correspondence is uncanny. It is as if the author of PJ is using the timeline of the Herodian Temple and applying it to Mary.

We can add to this that the building program of Herod the Great was not simply good economics or a display of megalomania. It was also spoken in he language of eschatology: Herod declared that he was going to rebuild the Temple according to its proper glory, a privilege that he felt was due to the Romans. The Jews were expecting an eschatological Temple built by God, and Herod gave them a physical Temple built by Rome and Edom. At the same time and in the same place God was preparing Mary as a “rival Temple,” built by God and not man (as is made explicit by the lack of human input in the conception of Jesus). This image of Mary as the Temple or Tabernacle is seen in the text of Luke, as Brodie so expertly pointed out in his 1979 article “A New Temple and a New Law: The Unity and Chronicler-based Nature of Luke 1:1-4:22a.”


Some of the irony lies in the Temple imagery of Mary being linked to the historical accounts of Josephus. Herod tries to improve the Temple, which was obviously flawed (see 1 Enoch, Tobit, Jubilees, etc.), by building a flashy Temple. God initiates the “building” of Mary and announces it to her parents. The building of Herod’s Temple and Mary occur within a year of each other. Both events are unprecedented in Jewish history.

The idea that there was a 3 year gap in the annunciation and construction of the Herodian Temple is striking, given that it is based on Josephus and historical probabilities rather than a “spiritual” exegesis of the New Testament or PJ. If we put Josephus and the PJ together, we see that Mary is taken to the Temple a year before the Temple begins to be built. Herod’s Temple was built from start to finish with Mary residing there. We can add to this that if she was indeed in the Holy of Holies (see the Nutzman article for historical plausibility) she lived in the only part of the Temple that Herod did not rebuild.

So what do we make of this correspondence?

Is the PJ inserting a theological timeframe into the story and patterning itself on the construction by Herod?

Is Josephus patterning the construction of the Temple on the timeline of Christian claims in the NT and/or the PJ? (even without the specific information of the PJ the timeline is much the same based on the NT evidence)

Or is the correspondence simply coincidental and happens to contrast the origins of the two rival Temples in the 1st century?

Or is there another explanation for the correspondence?



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