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In What Year Was Jesus Born?

admin on January 9, 2015 - 11:44 am in Bible

Welcome to 2015 AD!  It has now been 2015 years since Jesus was born.  Or has it?  It turns out that the question of what year Jesus was actually born is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. 

One would assume Jesus was born in 1 AD, but this is almost certainly inaccurate.  Our present dating system was devised in 525 AD by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus, but no satisfying explanation of his system has survived.  All we know is that his new calendar was begun during “the consulship of Probus Junior” which he stated was 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1]  While various theories have been proposed as to his reasoning,[2] all that is certain is that there were some inaccuracies in his calculations.[3] Unfortunately, while his inaccuracies are well-known, calculating the accurate date for Jesus’ birth is not simply a matter of correcting Dionysius’ mistakes.

Why It’s Complicated

There are a number of reasons why calculating the exact year of Jesus’ birth is difficult, even if we had a precise statement from an ancient historian (e.g. “Jesus was born in the year 3760 as the Hebrews reckon it”) which we don’t.

First, we must remember that the various people of the Ancient Near East used a variety of dating schemes.  The Jews, for instance, used a scheme based on a Rabbinic calculation of the creation of the world.  The Romans, on the other hand, used a scheme based on the supposed date the city of Rome itself had been founded.  Meshing Jewish and Roman dating schemes is not always easy, especially since they started at different times of the year.

Second, the majority of dates given to us by ancient writers are in regnal schemes, meaning they are based on the time that a king assumed the throne.  An example of this in the Bible is Luke 3:1 which says “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…”  To make matters worse, it is not always clear how a particular writer determined which year was the king’s “first” year.  Think about this:  if a king came to power in November of 2014, should we call 2014 the first year of his reign even though he only reigned for less than 10% of it?  Or should we instead call 2015 the first year of his reign since that was the first full year of it?  You can make an argument for both options and there isn’t really a “right” answer.  Ancient historians faced this same problem and rarely tell us the rationale for their system.  Consequently, when two writers referred to something like the 12th year of so-and-so’s reign, they could easily be referring to two different years.  The difference isn’t huge, of course, but it shows you why one or even two year discrepancies can exist between accounts even without anybody making any actual mistakes.  It’s just a matter of how and when you start the counting.

These and other such considerations make it difficult to be absolutely certain about precise dates for events in the ancient world, even when the event is directly documented (i.e. when some ancient historian says “it happened in year X of so-and-so’s reign”).  In the case of events that are not so directly pinned to a year, things get more complicated still.

The Biblical Evidence

Here’s what we know from the Bible about the year of Jesus’ birth:

  • Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea (Mat 2:1-3, Luke 1:5); Herod ruled from 37 BC – 4 or 1 BC. The date of Herod’s death is the subject of considerable debate (see below).
  • Jesus was born when Augustus was Caesar over Rome (Luke 2:1); Augustus reigned from 27 BC – 14 AD.
  • Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor over Syria (Luke 2:2); This is difficult to date. Quirinius is known to have governed Syria from roughly 6 AD – 9 AD which cannot be reconciled with Luke’s mention here (since Herod was no longer alive), so either Luke was mistaken (which does not fit the evidence for his otherwise well-known precision in historical matters) or he is referring to an earlier “governorship” which history has forgotten.[4]  Liberal critics assume the former, of course, while Christians generally believe the latter.  In any event, there is not enough data to be precise.

The only other piece of numerical evidence from the Bible is the statement in Matthew 2:16:

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.

This could be taken to mean that Herod killed the infants two years old and under because the magi told him that the star had appeared two years previously, which would put Jesus’ birth in 6 BC (if Herod died in 4 BC) or in 3 BC (if Herod died in 1 BC).  However, Herod may simply have been being Herod.  He was prone to excessive measures when it came to protecting his power, so this may simply have been his way of making absolutely certain that his soldiers didn’t mistakenly miss the one child he really wanted dead.  Consequently it is difficult to know how precisely to use this bit of data from Matthew.

The Death of Herod

As you may have already guessed, the death of Herod is key to determining the year that Jesus was born.  If Herod died in 4 BC (the most commonly accepted date) then Jesus must have been born between 6 and 4 BC.  However, if Herod actually died in 1 BC (possible but less commonly accepted at the moment), then Jesus could have been born any time between 3 and 1 BC.

Unfortunately, the date of Herod’s death is not easily determined.  Since the late 1800’s, following a proposal by the German scholar Emil Schurer, scholarly consensus has generally favored the 4 BC date.  However, there have been a number of challenges to Schurer’s proposal in recent years.  Most notable of these challenges is Andrew Steinmann’s paper, “When Did Herod the Great Reign?” which appeared in the academic journal Novum Testamentum in 2009.[5]  Steinmann raises a number of issues which provide significant challenge to Schurer’s determination that Herod died in 4 BC.  Steinmann also develops a plausible argument in favor of a 1 BC date for Herod’s death.  However, in spite of internet writers who currently use language like “exceptionally weak”[6] to describe the arguments for the 4 BC date, often citing Steinmann’s work, the debate is not so easily settled.  Either proposed date has both strengths and weaknesses.

Why Can’t We Just Work Backwards from Jesus’ Death?

Trying to start with the date of Jesus’ death and work backwards is similarly fraught with difficulty.  First, while Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his ministry in “the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (which would be 27/28/29, depending on precisely how Luke was reckoning these years; see above), and Jesus began his own public ministry shortly thereafter, Luke only tells us that Jesus was “about thirty” (Luke 3:23) at this time.  If Jesus had been born in 6 BC, he would have been 32 or 33 in Tiberius’ 15th year, which fits, but if he had been born in 3 BC, he would have been 31 or 32, which fits as well. And little adjustments (such as proposing Jesus was born in 5 BC or 2 BC, etc.) all generate “about thirty” ages for Jesus when John the Baptist began his ministry as well.  Second, both the dates of 30 and 33 AD can be fit within the framework of other historical evidence for the date of Jesus’ crucifixion.  I personally tend to favor the 30 AD date, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, but I do not believe one can be dogmatic about either the 30 or the 33 date. 

Head spinning yet? 

The Bottom Line

Bottom line, all we can say with confidence is that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 1 BC.  Going earlier or later (at least by more than a few months) won’t fit the evidence we have of when Herod died.

So welcome to 2015!  Or…2020…or…2019…or…well, Happy New Year anyway!  And if you run into anyone who tells you they know exactly when Jesus is coming back based on calculations of time that has passed since his birth…well, you might want to think twice before jumping on their bandwagon.

[1] Nineteen year cycle of Dionysius, Introduction and First Argumentum.

[2] There is a helpful summary of the main theories on Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anno_Domini#cite_note-15

[3] Wikipedia also has a helpful summary of these inaccuracies:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysius_Exiguus

[4] It is worth noting that there is an inscription from Tivoli, found in 1764, which may give further evidence of the fact that Quirinius governed Syria during multiple periods.  The inscription, which is missing the actual name of the individual described, is the subject of intense debate; Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?: A Study on the Credibility of St. Luke (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1898), 228.

[5] Andrew Steinmann, “When Did Herod the Great Reign?” NT 51:1 (2009), 1-29.

[6] Cf. http://jimmyakin.com/2013/04/jesus-birth-and-when-herod-the-great-really-died.html

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