Nov
20
2009

When was Jesus born?

Detail from a stained glass window in Fabrica Art Gallery, Brighton, East Sussex. Photo by Dominic. CC-BY.

Detail from a stained glass window in Fabrica Art Gallery, Brighton, East Sussex. Photo by Dominic. CC-BY.

Although much of the world celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25 as the supposed birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, and our calendar is based on the assumption that year-counting began the year of his birth, the chances that he was born on Dec. 25, 1 BC (there was no year 0), are extremely remote. Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 primarily because it is near the winter solstice, and erroneous calculations were made in the numbering of our calendar.

So when was he born? There can be no definitive answer. The best information we have comes from the New Testament, but the two gospels that discuss his birth aren’t precise and were written by people interested more in promoting the faith rather than in providing an objective, researched account like a historian or journalist would do today. And early non-Biblical information we have about Jesus, which isn’t much, isn’t helpful in determining his birth date. The best that can be said is that he probably was born in the first few years BCE (it seems strange to be talking about Jesus being before in the years “before Christ,” so the abbreviation for “before the Common Era” will be used here).

A number of dates have been suggested. Among them:

  • The Gospel of Matthew (the one that includes the account of the magi or Wise Men) states that Jesus was born while Herod was King. Herod died around 4 BCE, placing the birth either that year or a year or two before then.
  • The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born during a census (used for tax purposes rather than to provide population data) when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That would place Jesus’ birth in 6 or 7 CE. However, that late of a birth date is problematic in order to reconcile dates that we do know of relating to early Christian church history. To reconcile the discrepancy, some have suggested that there was some earlier census that took place when Quirinius would have been a lower-level administrator (the Greek word Bibles translate as “governor” could also refer to a lower official). It is possible that an earlier census took place around 7 or 8 BCE, fairly close to the time implied by Matthew.
  • The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born while shepherds were outside watching their flocks at night. This would suggest a birth not in winter, when shepherds would more likely have kept the sheep in barns at night.
  • The Gospels record that Jesus was about 33 when he died, and that his crucifixion occurred when Pontius Pilate procurator of Judea. Since Pilate held his office from about 26 to 36 CE, Jesus’ birth would have had to have been in the first few years BCE or not later than 3 CE.
  • Iranaeus, an early Christian bishop, and Eusebius, an early church historian, tied Jesus’ birth to the reign of Augustus, placing the birth at 2 BCE, possibly in the autumn.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded on April 6, 1830, and according to its founding documents that was “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh.” Many church members have interpreted this literally, meaning that Jesus would have been born on April 6, 1 BCE.
  • Some popular accounts, most of them exaggerating the intensity of the astronomical phenomena involved, have linked the “star of Bethlehem” seen by the magi in Matthew’s account to an unusual planetary alignment involving Jupiter that took place in 3 and 2 BCE. Since Matthew says the magi came some time after Jesus’ birth (and, contrary to popular Christmas images, when he was no longer a newborn in Bethlehem), that would place the birth around 4 or 3 BCE.
  • Controversial lay Catholic theologian Ronald L. Conte Jr. has determined that Jesus was born on Feb. 25, 15 BCE.

Many others have suggested other dates based on obscure interpretations of the Bible, astronomical phenomena, astrology and what they say they were told in angelic visitations or even Jesus himself. However, historians give little credibility to such accounts (or even many of those listed above). Although 4 BCE looks like a logical guess, the exact year of Jesus’ birth remains a mystery.

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5 Comments

  • eiffel says:

    A very interesting post.

    Some people think that the “star of Bethlehem” was a comet, and there are candidate comets in 4 BCE, 5 BCE and 6 BCE.

    An outside runner is Halley’s comet, the brightest of them all, which was visible around 11 or 12 BCE.

  • Larry says:

    “…he was born on Dec. 25, 1 BC (there was no year 0),”

    Ah, but there was a “first year”, the year one, ending when Jesus, like any other child, had his first birthday. Think of his birth as zero on the X axis of a graph, forgetting that he is assumed to have been born a few days before January first.

    Hence the world was incorrect to celebrate the start of the new millenium on 1. 1. 2000, since the second millenium *ended* with the completion of the year 2000:
    http://staff-www.uni-marburg.de/~schittek/millenni.htm

    (That should be worth an argument here. :-)

    Larry

  • mvguy says:

    I remember the evening of Dec. 31, 2000, when I tried to get people to celebrate the new millennium with me. They thought I was crazy, even though I was right.

  • eiffel says:

    You may be technically right, but all the best parties were on Dec. 31, 1999.

    What people were celebrating wasn’t some precisely-defined calendrical concept. They were celebrating the end of years beginning with “19”.

  • Larry says:

    Hi Mvguy, and Eiffel

    I think I have been shooting myself in the foot on this. In a comment to Eiffel’s related topic, I think I explained it correctly:
    we are always living in the year following the number of our last birthday, and also living in the year following the number on the current calendar.
    So right now, we are in 2009.96, and at midnight 31. Dec, the year 2010 will have been completed, not start. The end of the so-called year 1999 was the completion of the 2000th year.
    We all get it right talking about centuries: we live in the 21st century.

    The big party-goers were right.

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