Year of Birth Jesus
Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on DECEMBER 25. A quick look at the biblical accounts of the Nativity, however, reveals the fact that neither story mentions the year or the date of JESUS’ birth (see also GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW; GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE; and GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF CHRISTMAS). Over the centuries many scholars have tried to match details given in the two Gospel accounts of the Nativity with known historical events in order to establish the year and date of Jesus’ birth. Although debate continues, most scholars now believe that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C.
The biblical accounts of Jesus’birth in BETHLEHEM provide only one clue as to the date of this event. Luke’s Nativity story mentions SHEPHERDS who were spending the night with their flocks in the fields. In those days shepherds might well have spent the night with their flocks during the spring lambing season in order to aid the newborn lambs and their mothers. Historians believe that it is much less likely that shepherds would be sleeping in the fields with their flocks during the winter. This detail from Luke’s account would seem to suggest that Jesus was born sometime in the spring. Nevertheless, the first celebrations of the Nativity took place in January. During the second and third centuries, a number of Christian communities began to commemorate Jesus’ birth on January 6 as part of their Epiphany celebrations. In the middle of the fourth century, Church officials in Rome established a separate festival to honor the Nativity. They chose to celebrate this festival on December 25, and successfully promoted it throughout the Christian world.
The scriptural accounts of the Nativity offer more, but somewhat conflicting, clues to those searching for the year of Jesus’ birth. They agree in one regard, though. Both Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity stories assert that Jesus was born during the reign of HEROD the Great, king of Judea (73 B.C.-4 B.C.). The Gospel of Matthew offers an additional clue, implying that Herod died not long after Jesus’birth. Most historians agree that Herod died in the year 4 B.C., since arche-ological evidence points to the fact that his successors began their reigns in that year. Taken together these indications suggest that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. Luke also mentions that Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D.). Augustus ruled the Roman Empire from around 42 B.C. to 14 A.D., so this information fits with the assumption that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, possibly near the time of Herod’s death.
A closer look at Luke’s account of the Nativity complicates matters, however. Luke declares that Jesus’ birth coincided with a Roman census called for by Emperor Augustus and administered locally by Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Historians know that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 A.D. Furthermore, they confirm that he conducted a census of Judea around 6-7 A.D. This information fits with the claim that Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus, but contradicts the claim that he was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who presumably died in 4 B.C.
Although scholars have put forward a number of ingenious proposals to reconcile the date of Quirinius’s census with the date of Herod’s death, most researchers agree that Luke must have erred when he wrote that Jesus was born during the time of the census. Some scholars suggest that Luke may have included the story of the census as a way of locating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, since Jewish scripture claimed that the Messiah would be born there. Historians who find Luke’s description of the Roman census somewhat unconvincing tend to support this view. They argue that a Roman census would not require people to return to their ancestral homeplaces, since the Romans were interested in where people lived, not where their ancestors came from.
The Gospel of Luke provides another clue to the year of Jesus’birth in a later passage describing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In chapter three Luke informs us that Jesus was about thirty years old in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D.; Luke 3:1, 23). The fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign occurred between the years 27 to 28 A.D. This data fits well with the proposal that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C., but conflicts with a birth date of 6 to 7 A.D.
The Gospel of Matthew offers one final bit of information some scholars have used to determine the year of Jesus’birth. According to Matthew, the rising of an unusual star heralded the birth of Jesus. Many ancient peoples studied the night skies and recorded any unusual occurrences. A number of scholars have studied these ancient records in an attempt to identify possible candidates for the Christmas star and so determine the year of Christ’s birth (see also STAR OF BETHLEHEM).
Most of these scholars identify the triple conjunction of 7 B.C. as the most likely candidate for the Christmas star, but recently some writers have switched their allegiance to the triple conjunction of 3-2 B.C.
In order to reconcile a Christmas star that appeared in 3-2 B.C. with the claim that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, they reject the idea that Herod died in 4 B.C. They argue instead that Herod died in 1 B.C. They point to the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus to back up their claim. According to Josephus, in the year Herod died a lunar eclipse preceded Passover. Josephus also recorded a number of events that took place between the eclipse and Herod’s death. In the year 4 B.C. ancient astronomers indeed recorded the occurrence of a partial lunar eclipse one month before the Jewish holiday of Passover. In the year 1 B.C., however, a full lunar eclipse occurred three months before Passover. Some scholars argue that Josephus was referring to this eclipse, reasoning that the full eclipse was the more dramatic event and therefore more likely to have impressed historians. Furthermore, because the 1 B.C. eclipse occurred approximately three months before Passover, there was time for all the events that Josephus claimed happened between the eclipse and Herod’s demise to play out. This line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that Jesus was born in the years 3 to 2 B.C.
To date scholars have not been able to reconcile every detail in Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories with known historical events in a way that everyone can agree on. Debates over the correct date and year of Jesus’ birth are nothing new. They can be traced as far back as the third century. In addition, some modern scholars now believe that Matthew and Luke intended their Nativity stories to serve as spiritually, rather than historically, accurate accounts of Jesus’ birth. If so, the attempt to correlate the details reported in these stories with historically documented events is somewhat unlikely to provide us with the correct year and date of Jesus’birth.
B.C. AND A.D.
Although scholars cannot agree on the year of Jesus’ birth, our calendar system assumes that Jesus was born in the year 1 B.C. It divides recorded history into two eras, labeled “B.C.” and “A.D.” B.C. stands for “before Christ” and A.D. stands for Anno Domini, a Latin phrase that means “in the year of the Lord.” This method of reckoning was devised in the early sixth century by a monk named Dionysus Exiguus (c. 500-c. 560). At that time people still relied upon the old Roman system for numbering years. This system reckoned the year in which Diocletian (c. 245-c. 313) was proclaimed emperor of Rome, 284 A.D., as year one. This methodology distressed Dionysus, who declared that Christians should no longer perpetuate a calendar system associated with Diocletian since he was a noted persecutor of Christians. Instead, he proposed that the birth of Jesus serve as the landmark event from which to date the dawn of a new era. Dionysus accepted the then-established date of Christmas, December 25, and the Roman date for the beginning of the new year, January 1. He calculated the year of Jesus’birth to the best of his abilities and declared that year to be 1 B.C. Dionysus then proclaimed that the new, Christian era began seven days later on January 1,1 A.D.
St. Bede (c. 672-735), a scholarly Anglo-Saxon monk, began the practice of dating historical events from the birth of Christ, and other writers followed his lead. This system of reckoning time gained near universal acceptance over the centuries. In recent years, however, people who object to the Christian bias implicit in this system have replaced the initials B.C. with “B.C.E.,” which stands for “before common era.” Accordingly, the initials A.D. are replaced with “C.E.,” which stands for “common era.”