Year when Jesus Was Born
3 or 2 BC
The dominant view in days past was that Jesus was born no later than 4 BC, generally viewed as the year terminating the reign of Herod the Great. But in recent years, several scholars—including W. E. Filmer, Ernest L. Martin, and Ormond Edwards—have argued that the date usually assigned to Herod's death is much too early (1). Josephus places Herod's death between a lunar eclipse and the Feast of Passover (2). The traditional death date assumes that Josephus is referring to the partial eclipse on 13 March 4 BC, about a month before the beginning of Passover on 11 April. Filmer and his followers believe, however, that they can better accommodate the available evidence by supposing that Josephus intends the spectacular total eclipse on 9/10 January 1 BC, about three months before the beginning of Passover on 8 April.
The case for the later date rests primarily on two arguments.
1. Josephus recounts a complex chain of events between the eclipse and the Passover that bracketed Herod's death. All these events seemingly could not have happened within the scope of a single month. Yet although these events make a tight fit in 4 BC, they do not quite burst the seams. Douglas Johnson has demonstrated that Martin, for one, has greatly exaggerated the compression (3). Martin imagines that Herod's funeral procession took 25 days to carry his body from Jericho to Herodeion, a distance of 23 miles (4). Yet, as Johnson shows, the body must have been transported to its burial place within a single day (5).
Martin admits that apart from Herod's funeral, the remaining events could have occurred within 33 days (6). If 33, why not 30? It is impossible from our perspective to set dogmatic lower limits. For example, Martin maintains that to assemble all the Jewish leaders in Jericho required at least eight days (7). Yet we may suppose that many of these leaders arrived during the five days between Antipater's death and Herod's death (8).
2. Placement of Herod's death in 1 BC allows us to accept the ancient tradition that Jesus was born in 3 or 2 BC. The four earliest Christian writers who report the date of Jesus' birth are Irenaeus (late second century), Clement of Alexandria (about AD 200), Tertullian (early third century), and Africanus (early third century) (9). Africanus specifies the date in terms that can be understood as 3/2 BC (10). Both Irenaeus and Tertullian assign Jesus' birth to the forty-first year of Augustus. If this date presumes that the reign of Augustus began when he was elevated to consulship in August 43 BC, the year intended is 2 BC. Tertullian conveniently confirms this conclusion by adding that Christ's birth was 28 years after the death of Cleopatra and fifteen years before the death of Augustus. Cleopatra died in August 30 BC, and Augustus died in August AD 14 (11). Konradin Ferrari d'Occhieppo has demonstrated that the date which Clement of Alexandria furnishes for the birth of Jesus is equivalent to 6 January 2 BC (12).
It must be recognized, however, that ancient tradition has doubtful authority to tell us the year when Jesus was born. The consensus among writers of the late second and early third centuries that He was born in 2 BC probably rested not on historical fact but on their understanding of the Gospels. The easy but simplistic interpretation of Luke 3:1 and Luke 3:23 is that Jesus turned age thirty in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 29). Hence, many early Christians deduced by calculation that He was born in 2 BC.
The great difficulty for theories setting Herod's death in 1 BC is the strong evidence that all three of his successors—his sons Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip—dated their reigns from about 4 BC. (13). Attempts to show that Antipater became coregent with his father in this year have not been convincing. Therefore, although not entirely free of uncertainties, the date of Herod’s death was probably 4 BC, as most scholars have believed. Therefore, placement of Jesus’ birth in 3 or 2 BC is untenable.
6 BC or earlier
Among those who accept 4 BC as the date of Herod’s death, many place Jesus’ birth at least two years before, in 6 BC or earlier (14). The primary grounds for their choice is that when Herod sent out his men to slay the male children in Bethlehem and its environs, he specified all boys “from two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). The age limit derived from his previous interview with the magi who came to Judea looking for a newborn king. They said that the coming of this king was announced by a star. Alarmed, Herod asked when the star appeared. Scripture does not preserve the magi's exact response, but assures us that it was the basis of Herod's decision to rid Bethlehem of all baby boys less than three years old.
However, to infer from Herod's decree of slaughter that Jesus was already two years old when the magi visited Him requires three assumptions:
- The magi told the truth about when the star appeared.
- The star’s appearance marked Jesus’ birth.
- Herod set the age limit equal to the time elapsed since its appearance.
The first assumption is not discordant with the facts as related by Matthew, especially with the need for an angelic messenger to warn the wise men about Herod. But the second is dubious and the third unreasonable.
2. The miracle of the ages calling for celebration in the sky was not the actual birth of Jesus, but His incarnation, when God became flesh. The star probably marked Jesus' conception.
3. Herod’s response to the news of the Messiah’s birth was to order a massacre broad in scope. He was taking no chances. How many died was of no concern to him. He only wanted to be sure that he extinguished the threat. So, he killed the babies not just in Bethlehem, but also in the surrounding countryside. Also, he extended the death sentence to all baby boys, not restricting it to any who seemed like a potential king. Furthermore, he set the age limit at two to make sure the little prince would not escape if the soldiers supposed him older than he was. The soldiers did not have written records to consult, and Herod had no reason to trust their ability to judge a baby boy’s age by his appearance. So, his choice of two years as the age limit is evidence that the actual time given by the wise men was shorter than two years, perhaps only a year or less (15).
Setting the birth of Christ in 6 BC or earlier entails another serious difficulty. According to Luke, “And Jesus himself [when He was baptized] began to be about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23). The term “about” means that at the time of His baptism, Jesus was approximately thirty years old (16). The evidence currently available strongly points to AD 33 as the year of the Crucifixion (17). The generally accepted chronology of Jesus’ ministry sets His baptism a little more than three years earlier (18). Thus, if the Crucifixion was in AD 33, the Baptism was in AD 30 (or possibly, in late 29). Later we will discuss the month and day. If Jesus was born in the year preceding the same month and day in early 6 BC or late 7 BC, He came to His baptism when He was thirty-five, an age seemingly well outside the bounds of “approximately thirty” (19). If He was born one or two years later, He was somewhat closer to thirty than forty, so Luke’s wording is fully appropriate.
The implausibilities in dates earlier or later have convinced many scholars, including Paul L. Maier and Harold W. Hoehner, that Jesus was born in 5 or 4 BC (20). To arrive at a more precise date, we must consider the evidence concerning the exact month and day when Jesus was born.
Month and Day when Jesus Was Born
The tradition that Jesus was born on 6 January
Can we pinpoint the date of Jesus' birth? Various ancient sources lead us to the answer. Clement of Alexandria says, "From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus [the Roman emperor who died on 31 December AD 192 (21)] are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days" (22). If we suppose that he is using the Roman calendar, we deduce that Clement set Christ's birth on 18 November 3 BC (23). But it is highly doubtful that this date, affirmed by no other ancient source, is the one he so confidently espouses. We arrive at a different date if we suppose that Clement, a resident of Egypt, is using the Egyptian calendar without intercalation. Measuring backward from Commodus' death an interval of 194 years (each exactly 365 days), one month (thirty days), and thirteen days brings us to 6 January 2 BC (24). It so happens that before the church as a whole fixed the date of the Nativity as 25 December, the generally accepted date in the Eastern church and possibly also in the Western church was 6 January (25). Apart from Clement, the earliest sources affirming this date do not precede the fourth century (26), yet Clement's testimony proves that the association of Christ's birth with 6 January was a tradition rooted centuries earlier, perhaps in the early church itself, perhaps even in historical fact. Several considerations strengthen the probability that 6 January was the actual birthday of Christ.
The tradition that Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth
Clement gives us interesting additional information. He comments, "And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon" (27). Since Pachon is an Egyptian month and since Clement was Egyptian, Edwards assumes that Clement is referring to the Egyptian calendar (28). If we reckon Augustus' reign from the Battle of Actium, on 2 September 31 BC, when he put down his last rival, Antony, and if we count the accession year (as was customary in Egyptian reckoning of Roman regnal years (29)), Augustus' twenty-eighth year on the Egyptian calendar lasted from 29 August 3 BC to 28 August 2 BC (30). The twenty-fifth day of Pachon in that year was 20 May 2 BC (31).
Yet Clement also says that some remember Christ's birth on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi (32); that is, a month earlier than the twenty-fifth of Pachon. The uncertainty as to the correct month leads us to doubt that any of these dates have a factual basis. We find no evidence elsewhere, either in the Gospels or in the writings of the early church, that Jesus was born in the period from late April to late May. But notice that the Egyptians who differed on the month of Christ's birth were nevertheless agreed that the day was the twenty-fifth. This number was so firmly lodged in Christian thinking as a significant date that, according to Clement, many in Egypt placed the Crucifixion on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth, others on the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi (33). Yet the actual date of the Crucifixion did not correspond to the twenty-fifth of the month on any well-known calendar. It is likely that the twenty-fifth was originally associated not with Christ's death, but with His birth.
The Western church was first to anchor this date in the month of December. Occasionally one finds such claims as the following:
Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome (129-138), ordained that "in the holy night of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, they do celebrate public church services, and in them solemnly sing the Angels' Hymn, because also the same night he was declared unto the shepherds by an angel, as the truth itself doth witness." Theophilus, who was Bishop of Caesarea during this same period, urged that "the observance or celebration of the birthday of our Lord [be held] on what day soever the 25 of December shall happen" (34).
In fact, no tradition linking Christmas to 25 December can be traced back beyond the time of Constantine (35). The pronouncements cited in the above quotation derive from late sources of dubious reliability (36).
Several manuscripts of Hippolytus' Commentary on Daniel, a work of the early third century, state,
For the first appearance of our Lord in the flesh took place in Bethlehem eight days before the Kalends of January [25 December], on the fourth day [Wednesday], under Emperor Augustus, in the year 5500 (37).
But many scholars believe that the reference to 25 December is a late correction of the date actually stated by the author (38). The author's date may be preserved in a single manuscript which curiously contradicts itself by giving two dates: both 25 December and 2 April (39). For two reasons, it is likely that 2 April is the original reading.
- A third-century work called De Pascha Computus, which, it is agreed, is based on a lost work of Hippolytus, states that Christ was born on Passover (40). It is therefore probable that Hippolytus himself was of the same opinion. Although the date of Passover Eve varies from year to year, it is never far from 2 April.
- In the Lateran Museum at Rome is an ancient statue of Hippolytus which was probably executed shortly after his death (41). This statue bears the dates of Passover for the years 222-333, and next to one date, 2 April of a certain year, is inscribed "genesis ['birth'] of Jesus Christ" (42). No doubt the statue was intended to honor Hippolytus as the one who calculated the dates of future Passovers. We therefore surmise that in the third century, it was believed that Hippolytus set Christ's birth on 2 April, one of the recurring dates in the Passover cycle.
We come to the conclusion that the present date of Christmas was an invention of the fourth century. No doubt two compelling arguments favored the adoption of 25 December as the official date of Christmas.
- This date was guaranteed wide acceptance by virtue of its fidelity to the ancient tradition that Christ was born on the twenty-fifth.
- Also on this date was the important Mithraic feast Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun) (43). Replacing the pagan feast with Christmas was likely a ploy to make Christianity, the newly official religion of the empire, more palatable to Roman legionnaires, many of whom had been devotees of Mithraism (44).
If Christ was indeed born on the twenty-fifth, perhaps it was on the twenty-fifth of a Jewish month. Many authors have pointed out that 25 December is the Latin equivalent of 25 Kislev (45). It may be significant that 25 Kislev is the beginning of Hanukkah, the eight-day celebration also known as the Feast of Dedication, or the Feast of Lights. This was the feast which, late in Jesus' career, provided the setting for His startling announcement that He is One with the Father (John 10:30). One could argue that the date of Christmas was set in the fourth century by church leaders who believed that Christ, the Light of the world, must have been born during the Feast of Lights. Yet nowhere in the writings of the fourth century do we find a theological justification for the present date of Christmas (46).
The linkage between Christmas and Hanukkah is more likely historical. That is, it is more likely that the choice of 25 December as the date of Christmas was guided by a tradition that His birth fell on 25 Kislev.
We find some support for this date in the Nativity story. The report that the shepherds spread "abroad" the news of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:17) and then "returned" rejoicing (Luke 2:20) resolves into fuller detail if we suppose that these events took place during a feast. "Abroad" means specifically that they carried the news to the many devout Jews assembled in Jerusalem. "Returned" means that after visiting Jerusalem during the closing days of the feast, they came home to Bethlehem. We understand also why Bethlehem was so crowded at this time. Among those seeking lodging were not only some like Joseph who had come to Bethlehem for the enrollment, but also some others who were traveling in connection with the feast.
Convergence of the two traditions
Evidence favoring 25 Kislev as the date of Christ's birth does not undermine the tradition that He was born on 6 January. On the contrary, it so happens that in 5 BC, 6 January was the Babylonian 25 Kislev (47). Thus, since a birth year of 5 BC is consistent with available evidence, the two ancient traditions concerning the exact date—one affirming the twenty-fifth of a month, the other pointing to 6 January—serve to authenticate each other.
The proximity of Jesus' baptism to His birthday
Clement tells us that some (presumably, some among the followers of the Gnostic teacher Basilides) remember Christ's baptism on 11 Tybi (6 January), others on 15 Tybi (10 January) (48). Plentiful evidence from a later period shows that many Eastern churches celebrated the Baptism as well as the Nativity on 6 January (49). To prove that Jesus was baptized on His birthday, some patristic writers point to Luke 3:23.
And Jesus himself [when He was baptized] began to be about thirty years of age (50).
Although the Gospels certainly imply that Jesus was baptized a few months before Passover, the case for putting His baptism on His birthday, 6 January, is weak for two reasons.
- The tradition assigning both the Nativity and the Baptism to 6 January is undermined by other traditions which set these events at different times. Among certain groups, the Baptism was placed a few days after the Nativity. As noted earlier, some Gnostics, for example, thought that 10 January was the day of the Baptism. In Jerusalem, the Baptism was celebrated twelve days after 6 January (51).
- The puzzling wording of Luke 3:23, more accurately rendered, "And Jesus himself was beginning to be about thirty years of age" (52), cannot be forced to mean that He turned "about thirty" on the very day of His baptism. The thought being expressed is that He had recently begun to be "about thirty"; in other words, that He had turned "about thirty" not long before His baptism.
The only conclusion sustained by historical and exegetical evidence is, therefore, that Jesus was baptized within a short time after His birthday. The widespread tendency in the Eastern church to join the celebrations of the Nativity and the Baptism might be viewed as additional evidence that the actual events fell so close together on the calendar that the distinction between their dates was easily lost.
A correct view of the relation between Christ's birthday and His baptism helps us to fix the time of year when He was born, for, as we have said, the Gospels place His baptism in the months preceding Passover. The traditional date of the Nativity, 6 January, gains credibility by its implication that the Baptism fell in middle or late January, a placement that fits well into Gospel chronology.
The first day of Hanukkah is a plausible date for Jesus' birth when we consider that every other major event in the unfolding of His redeeming work also fell on a feast day. He died on Passover (54), He rose again on the Feast of Firstfruits (55), and He created the church on Pentecost (Acts 2). How fitting that the One known as the Light of the World (John 8:12) should be born on the Feast of Lights! Jesus is called the Light because He is the Light in two respects.
- Light is life, as John teaches us (John 1:4). Light is pure energy, and without energy there is death.
- Again as John teaches us, Jesus is the Light that "the darkness" cannot "grasp" (John 1:5). "The darkness" is willful ignorance arising from sin. But just as light enables us to see, Jesus awakens the mind to truth and knowledge.
Similarly with regard to the date of the Incarnation, both the tenth and the fourteenth of Nisan are plausible because they appear on the calendar of feasts. Moreover, like the date 25 Kislev, they point to larger theological truth. Since they mark the choosing and the slaying of Passover lambs, the coincidence of either with the Incarnation of Christ would reveal His identity as the Lamb of God, born to die. His identity would later be underscored again when He died on Passover.
Of these two dates in Nisan, the tenth is the stronger candidate. Not only does it allow a gestation nearer to normal, but also it allows an otherwise obscure date on the Hebrew calendar to take on profound meaning. The yearly setting aside of lambs for slaughter prefigured both the time and the nature of the Incarnation. When the Son of God assumed human flesh, He was not slain as the picture provided by Passover required, but He certainly took the step positioning Himself to be slain. Indeed, we may say that at His entrance into this world, He became a sacrificial lamb.