“they both were advanced in their days.” The Levites could only work from 20 to 50, but the priests could work as long as they were able. It is almost certain that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were over 60, and they may have both been over 70. According to the Mishna, 60 was the time a person was considered aged, an elder. Mishna, Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 5, paragraph 24: He used to say: At five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at 13 for the commandments, at 15 for the Talmud, at 18 for the bridechamber, at 20 for one’s life pursuit, at 30 for authority, at 40 for discernment, at 50 for counsel, at 60 to be an elder, at 70 for gray hairs, at 80 for special strength (Psalm 90:10), at 90 for decrepitude, and at a 100 a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world. (www.myjewishlearning.com/article/pirkei-avot-ethics-of-the-fathers-5/, paragraph 24. Note: the paragraphs of the Mishna differ from website to website). Their advanced age makes it quite certain that they both died before John started his ministry. In fact, it is likely that they both died while John was in his teen years or perhaps early 20s.
Zechariah’s advanced age would not have kept him from working in the Temple as a priest. The times of service differed for the priests and Levites. When the Levites first started their service under Moses, they were counted for their duty from age 30 to 50, a period of 20 years (Numbers 4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, and 4:47). However, Numbers 8:24-26, also written during the wilderness wanderings, says the Levites served from age 25 to 50. Although it is possible that the number 20 was very temporary and revised up to 25, it is more likely that the Levites started an apprenticeship before they took over the full responsibility of their duties. King David revised the ages, and the Levites started ministering at age 20 (1 Chron. 23:24-26; cp. 2 Chron. 31:17; Ezra 3:8).
However, priests differed from Levites. When it came to the priests, “There was not any fixed age for entering on the office of the high-priest, any more than on that of an ordinary priest.”a The High Priest, for example, started when the High Priest before him died, no matter how old he was, and ministered as High Priest until he died. The Law never specified when the priests started their office, but when the Talmud was written, it said age 20.
If Zechariah and Elizabeth were in their mid-60s when John was born (John’s birth was likely 2 or 3 BC), they would have seen a lot of turmoil in their days. They would have been born during the last days of the Hasmonean dynasty before the Roman army led by Pompeii conquered Israel in 63 BC. The Romans allowed the Hasmoneans to continue to rule Israel (the Hasmoneans were in power over parts of Israel from 164 BC to 37 BC), but only under the authority of the Roman governor of Syria. That was resented by the Jews and there were revolts against Rome that were never successful. Added to that was the fact that in 40 BC the Parthians from the east attacked Israel and sacked Jerusalem and were not ousted from Israel and Jerusalem until 38 BC by a combined force of Herod and the Romans. In 37 BC the Romans installed Herod the Great as king over Israel (he had been appointed king in 40 BC but did not control the country). Herod was a cruel ruler and was disliked by the religious Jews. In 20 BC he began the construction of the Temple, which was completed in 46 AD, long after his death (the year of Herod’s death is disputed and is dated by various historians as early as 5 BC and as late as 1 AD). In any case, much of Zechariah’s ministry as a priest would have occurred in troubled times and also in a work zone while the Temple was being built.
“barren.” In a culture in which children were considered the blessing of the Lord, and the death rate was so high that each couple had to have 5 children to keep the population number stable, being barren was considered a curse. In fact, the situation highlights the godly character of Zechariah, who was no doubt under pressure to divorce Elizabeth. There were people who considered it a religious duty to divorce a barren wife.b No wonder Elizabeth said she had “disgrace among people” (Luke 1:25).
For a wife to be barren was considered a curse. The reason for that was that in the Law of Moses one of the blessings for obedience was children (Exod. 23:26; Deut. 7:13-14; 28:4, 11), and one of the curses of the Law was a barren womb (Deut. 28:18). So if a woman did not have children, even if those who were close to her knew she was godly, the overall feeling about her among the people was that she was a sinner and was cursed. Also, culturally, the men were never suspected of contributing to a woman’s being barren; if she was, then the people thought there was something wrong with her.
Being barren was also economically challenging. Any older person knows how helpful it is to have youthful strength and energy in the home, and beyond that, in a time when there were no social services to help the aged, being older without family support was more than difficult, it could be a death sentence.