Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Recently I blogged about the common apologetics claim that the dates of Christmas and the Annunciation were based on the idea that Jesus lived to an “integral age.”
In other words, that Jesus died on the anniversary of his birth or conception.
According to some authors, it was popularly believed among ancient Jews that prophets and other holy men died on their birthdays.
But my own research into the topic did not back this up.
I therefore asked if others could shed any light on the subject, and they did!
With the generous help of various individuals, mostly on Facebook, I’ve been able to get further information on this subject.
The origin of “integral age”
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
Tighe provides no documentation for the claim that the idea of integral age “seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ,” though he correctly notes that it is nowhere taught in the Bible.
Sorensen also pointed out that a variation of the argument was used by Louis Duschene in his book Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution. You can read his discussion of it here, starting on page 263.
Duschene admits that no text from the correct time period states that this is the way the dates of Christmas and the Annunication were determined, and so he says that his theory must be put forward as a hypothesis, although one he thinks can be defended.
It should be noted that Duschene is discussing early Christian sources, not Jewish ones, and so he is not claiming that Christians got this idea from Jews of the period.
His proposal is also picked up by the Catholic Encyclopedia, which attributes the idea to a “popular instinct, demanding an exact number of years in a Divine life” (source). Again, such an instinct would have been on the part of Christians. It is not claimed that this was picked up from Jewish individuals of their day.
A good day to die
One contact pointed to a statement in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which states “It is a good omen to die with a smile on the face, or to die on one's birthday” (source).
Unfortunately, the text is not clear on the origin of this claim (though it may be Tur Yoreh De'ah 353; I have not been able to locate an online source to check this).
The idea that it’s a good omen to die on one’s birthday, though, does not establish that it was an ancient Jewish belief that the prophets or other men of God typically did so.
Moses’ Birth/Death Day
Several contacts pointed to statements in the Babylonian Talmud that claim that Moses died on the his birthday.
This appears to be stated in at least three places (b. Rosh Hashanah 1 [1:1, VIII.3.X], b. Sotah 12b [1:8, III.38.Q], b. Kiddushin 39a [1:9, II:9:B])
The least informative of these is the reference in Sotah, which simply says that Moses was born and died on the seventh of the month of Adar but does not go into why.
The reference in Rosh Hashanah appears to say that Moses died on his hundred and twentieth birthday, and it may indicate that the same was true of the patriarch Abraham, though this is less clear.
Finally, an argument!
The clearest discussion is found in Kiddushin, where Moses is said to have was born on the seventh of Adar and that he died on his hundred and twentieth birthday.
This passage cites two texts in support of this. The first is a statement Moses makes when he is about to die:
And he said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I am no longer able to go out and come in. The LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan” [Deut. 31:2].
The Talmud argues that if Moses was merely in his hundred and twentieth year, he would not need to say that he was that old “this day,” and it tries to find additional meaning in this statement.
It then proposes another biblical passage, where God is promising blessings on those who obey him, as an explanation:
None shall cast her young or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days [Ex. 23:26].
The argument that the Talmud is making is not exegetically sound. The text in Deuteronomy need not be taken as Moses referring to his birthday. The “this day” in his statement that he is a hundred and twenty years old may just be a way of underscoring the impressive age he has achieved.
Even less plausible is the interpretation of the passage in Exodus to mean that those who obey God will live in whole year units. Understood naturally, it just means that those who obey him won’t die young but will live a full life (all things being equal).
What is significant for our purposes, though, is not whether the argument is exegetically sound. What matters is the fact that the Talmud uses the argument to support the idea that Moses died on his birthday.
This provides at least the kernel of something that could be applied more broadly.
Was Moses thought to be unique?
We have already noted that Rosh Hashanah may apply this reasoning to Abraham, however this is unclear. In more recent times, it has been applied to David and perhaps other figures. However, the only person that the Talmud clearly applies this reasoning to is Moses.
Further, while the Talmud dates the claim that Moses was born and died on the seventh of Adar to the period between A.D. 10 and 220 (b. Kiddushin 1:9, II.9.A-B), the argument involving those who obey God living in whole year units may date to a few centuries later.
As a result of all this, we should be careful in claiming that there was a widespread belief in ancient Judaism that prophets or other holy men died on their birthdays. The matter is too uncertain for that.
The most that can safely be claimed is that some Jewish sages from approximately this period in history had the idea that some holy men (at least Moses) lived in whole year units and this may or may not have played a role in the thinking of early Christians in fixing certain feast days.
I want to say a special thank you to all who provided assistance in this matter. It helped me carry the issue further than I was able to on my own!
I’ll post any further updates to this page to keep it current.
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