CHRIST'S BIRTH:  THE DATE  


 

THE DATE OF CHRISTíS BIRTH

Dwight Pentecost provides a thorough analysis of this issue in his book, THE WORDS AND WORKS OF JESUS CHRIST (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981; pp.56-58), by quoting Harold Hoehner.

Since Luke was a careful historian, he recorded the time of Christ's birth. There are many difficulties associated with dating the birth of Christ. Hoehner writes concerning the time of Christ's birth:

In A.D 525 Pope John I asked Dionysius, a Scythian monk, to prepare a standard calendar for the Western Church. . . . The Commencement of the Christian era was January 1,754 A.U.C. (anno urbis conditae = from the foundation of the city [of Rome]) and Christ's birth was thought to have been on December 25th immediately preceding. So 754 A.U.C. became A.D. 1 in the calendar of Dionysius.

In the broadest terms Luke 2:1 states that Christ was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus (who reigned from March 15, 44 B.C to August 19, AD 14). Since this is so broad, one needs to narrow the limits. In the attempt to arrive at a more specific date, it is essential to establish two concrete limits, the termini a quo (the earliest limiting point in time) and ad quem (the final limiting point in time). With respect to this, the terminus ad quem is the death of Herod the Great, and the terminus a quo is the census of Quirinius (Cyrenius).

According to Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5, Christ's birth came before Herod's death. Herod was proclaimed king of the Jews by the Roman Senate in late 40 BC by nomination of Antony and Octavian and with the help of the Roman army he gained the possession of his domain in 37 B.C. He reigned for thirty-seven years from the time he was made king or thirty-four years from the time of his possession of the land.

According to Josephus, an eclipse of the moon occurred shortly before Herod's death. It is the only eclipse ever mentioned by Josephus and this occurred on March 12/13, 4 B.C. After his death there was the celebration of the Passover, the first day of which would have occurred sometime between March 12th and April l1th. Since the thirty-fourth year of his reign would have begun on Nisan 1, 4 BC (March 29, 4 BC), his death would have occurred sometime between March 29 and April, 4 B.C. Therefore, for these reasons, Christ could not have been born later than March/April of 4 B.C.

According to Luke 2:1-5 a census was taken just before Christ's birth. Thus, Christ could not have been born before the census. The purpose of a census was to provide statistical data for the levy of taxes in the provinces. . . . 'This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria'. Luke is not distinguishing an earlier census from one during the governorship of Quirinius, but is merely stating that the census at the time of the nativity took place some time before Quirinius held office. This gives good sense to the passage at hand. As stated above, Quirinius was governor of Syria in A.D 6-7 and possibly also, as Sherwin-White has argued, in 3-2 B.C. If this has reference to his governorship in A.D. 6-7 then this census is before the governorship when he had conducted the well-known census mentioned in Josephus and Luke. On the other hand, this also fits nicely if he were governor in 3-2 B.C; for Luke is then stating that just before Quirinius was governor in Syria in 3-2 B.C. there was a census in Herod's domains.
 
The exact date of the census cannot be determined with precision. However, it is reasonable to think that the census would have been after Herod came into disfavor with Augustus in 8/7 B.C. More specifically it was probably after Herod's execution of his sons Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 B.C. when there was an intense struggle for the throne by his other sons which resulted in Herod's changing his will three times before his death in the spring of 4 B.C. In 7 B.C Herod named Antipater as sole heir, and then in 5 B.C. a new will was drawn up, making Antipas the heir. Finally, five days before Herod's death Antipater was executed and a final will was drawn up, naming Archelaus as king of the whole realm. Furthermore, not only were there the intrigues within the household, but Herod's illness became more intense. His death was imminent. With such instability and such a bad state of health, it would have been an opportune time for Augustus to have had a census taken in order to assess the situation before Herod's death. It must also be noted that Augustus was well aware of the situation in Palestine, because each time Herod changed his will and each time he wanted to get rid of one of his sons, he had to ask the emperor's permission. Therefore, a census within the last year or two of Herod's reign would have been reasonable, and in fact, most probable.

The exact year of this census, which would mark the terminus a quo of Christ's birth, is difficult to pinpoint but it was probably taken sometime between 6 and 4 B.C, preferably the latter part of this span of time. This fits well with both Matthew's and Luke's chronologies, which seem to indicate that the census and Christ's birth were shortly before Herod's death. . .

Conclusion. Having considered some of these chronological notes, it seems the evidence would lead one to conclude that Christ's birth occurred sometime in late 5 B.C. or early 4 B.C.

There have been lengthy discussions on the day of Christ's birth. . . . The traditional date for the birth of Christ from as early as Hippolytus (ca. A.D. 165-235) has been December 25th. In the Eastern Church January 6th was the date for not only Christ's birth, but also the arrival of the Magi on Christ's second birthday. . . . Chrysostom (AD. 345-407) in 386 stated that December 25th is the correct date and hence it became the official date for Christ's birth in the Eastern Church.

Although the exact date may not be pinpointed it seems that there is "a relatively old tradition of a midwinter birth, therefore a date in December or January is not in itself unlikely."

The one objection raised for the winter date is the fact of the shepherds attending their flock in the night (Luke 2:8). Usually, it is noted, the sheep were taken into enclosures from November until March and were not in the fields at night. However, this is not conclusive evidence against December being the time of Christ's birth for the following reasons. First, it could have been a mild winter and hence the shepherds would have been outside with their sheep. Second, it is not at all certain that sheep were brought under cover during the winter months. Third, it is true that during the winter months the sheep were brought in from the wilderness. The Lukan narrative states that the shepherds were around Bethlehem (rather than the wilderness), thus indicating that the nativity was in the winter months. Finally, the Mishnah implies that the sheep around Bethlehem were outside all year, and those that were worthy for the Passover offerings were in the fields thirty days before the feast-which could be as early as February-one of the coldest and rainiest months of the year. Therefore, a December date for the nativity is acceptable.

In conclusion, the exact date of the birth of Christ is difficult to know with finality. However, a midwinter date is most likely.

It is clear that Christ was born before Herod the Great's death and after the census. In looking at the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke one would need to conclude that Christ was born of Mary within a year or two of Herod's death. In looking to some of the other chronological notations in the Gospels, the evidence led to the conclusion that Christ was born in the winter of 5/4 B.C. Although the exact date of Christ's birth cannot be known, either December, 5 B.C or January, 4 B.C, is most reasonable (2).

(2)Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) pp. 11-13, 22-23, 25-27. This work is highly recommended for careful study.

 

J. W. Shepard
THE CHRIST OF THE GOSPELS, An Exegetical Study, pp. 29-30. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids (1939-1973).

CHAPTER III THE BIRTH AND INFANCY OF JESUS
1. The wondrous virgin birth. (Luke 2:1-7). It is difficult to fix with more than approximate accuracy the exact date of the birth of Jesus. That, after all, is not fundamentally important. It was providential that the date was concealed, such is the tendency to emphasize holy days and places. But modern research has corroborated the testimony of Luke as to the two enrollments by Quirinius: one in 6 A.D. (Acts
5:37) and the other in 8 B.C. The Roman Emperors were proud of their power which was coextensive with the known world. In this period of comparative peace, Augustus busied himself in the registration of the subject peoples, and issued an edict "that all the world should be taxed." A universal census was to be taken and Quirinius was to superintend this work under the legate in Syria. Herod was always ready to fall in with the plans of the Emperor, but was politic in seeking to please the Jews whenever it did not conflict with his own interests. The census which was scheduled for 746 A. U.C. or 8 B. C., was likely delayed a couple of years or more in Palestine. A census in Egypt is recorded in 6 B. C. and the one in Palestine must have taken place the following year. There are a number of evidences that Jesus was born in 5 B.C. The death of Herod occurred in 4 B.C., a short time after an eclipse of the moon, and Jesus was born while he was living (Matt. 2:1-6). This eclipse occurred on March 12, 750 A. U. C. (Jos. 17:6, 4). Furthermore, John began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius at the age of thirty, making his birth fall in the early Spring of 749 and that of Jesus in the Fall of the same year or 5 B.C. The date may also be computed from Herod's building of the Temple (Jno. 2:20) which was forty-six years in construction. He began to build in the eighteenth year of his reign (Schurer's Hist. of Jewish People: Dv I, Vol. I, p. 410). This would give us 26 A.D. as the beginning of Christ's ministry and 5 B.C. as the date of His birth. The month and day of the month are uncertain fortunately, though it most probably occurred between April, the Passover time, and October, the usual period for having the flocks in the open pasture. The 25th of December was the date of the Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia, when they gave themselves up to revelry and also debauchery, albeit a season of good will when it was not pious to engage in war, when no criminal was executed and friends gave gifts to one another. For a whole day slaves enjoyed their freedom. The Christians, many of whom belonged to the oppressed and lowly classes, seized upon this day to celebrate in holy festival of goodwill the birth of their Lord. Custom did the rest and Christendom continues to hold this Christmas Day.
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1. By the time of the Magiís arrival, the family had moved into a house.

2. Herod's paranoia had the children under 2 years killed. But - his choice of how old was based on what the magi had told him, "according to the time which he had determined from the magi."

And of course, we don't know WHEN the star appeared to them. And there is no way of knowing whether it was at conception or at birth - or earlier, IN ANTICIPATION of arriving at a specific time in Bethlehem.

3. In 26 AD (Year 15 of Tiberius), JOHN was 30 Ĺ years old (6 months older than Jesus).
I accept the idea that "about 30" (Lk. 3:23) should not extend to 32.
However, it COULD refer to 29, 29 Ĺ , 30, 30 Ĺ and perhaps 31.
But letís just take it at its face value and use 30.

4. Jesus first Passover was in April 27 AD. John 2:13-20.
I believe the 2nd Passover of 28 AD is at John 5:1.

3rd Passover at John 6 in 29 AD.
4th Passover in 30 AD, the year of the crucifixion. John 11:55.

That is  3 years from John 2:20 (27 AD).
If we allow a few months of ministry prior to that first Passover, we get very close to a 3 Ĺ year ministry.

5. At Luke 3:1, we have already established that the 15th of Tiberius is 26 AD. BUT Ė we donít know exactly WHEN during that year, John began his ministry.
I think it is reasonable to think that Jesus met John very soon after John began.

The 15th of Tiberius began August 19th. That gives us approximately 8 months until April of 27 AD. This gives us several months of flexibility for the start of Jesusí ministry, but very easily 5 to 6 months before the Passover of 27 AD.

However, it is not very likely that John would be baptizing in the Jordan IN THE WINTER MONTHS.
That then gives us perhaps August, September, October of 26 AD. OR March and April of 27 AD.

6. So for the sake of the discussion, I shall choose September/October for the start of Christís ministry. So letís make September of 26 AD, the 30th  year of Christís life.

7. The reign of Tiberius would be measured from August 19 of 26 AD. Aug. 19th is the day from which the reign would be measured, since Augustus died on Aug. 19, 14 AD, and Tiberius began his SOLE reign at that time.

8. Herod died in the spring of 4 BC (on or before April 4). Let's just call it April.
From ďAprilĒ of 4 BC to 1 BC = 3 years. (we donít count year ď0Ē.)
From ďAprilĒ of 1 AD to ďAprilĒ of 26 AD = 26 years (inclusive).
From April to August/September is 4/5 months.

So from the death of Herod in April of 4 BC to the 15th of Tiberius in Aug/Sept of 26 AD is 29 years and 4/5 months.

9. If Jesus is about 30 years old in September of 26 AD, then in April of 4 BC, he is about 6 months old.

10. If we back up the month of Christ's birth to the previous FALL (winter is not likely), say September/October of 5 BC, then we have a birth date about 6 months before the death of Herod.  Or Ė a birth date about 1 year before his death. We add 6 months to the 29 years and 4/5 months of point 8 so Jesus would be about 29 years and 10/11 months old in September of 26 AD.

11. If we take it back 1 year more to Sept of 6 BC, then it would be 18 months before the death of Herod. That would make Jesus 30 and 10/11 months in September of 26 AD.
 

 
 

Questions and comments are always welcome

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