When Was Jesus Born?

Caravaggio Nativity Scene

Happy Birthday, Jesus — one day late.  Or am I?

The truth is that no one knows for sure precisely when Y’shua bin Miriam entered this world.

Experts agree that it was certainly not in the year A.D. 1 (despite the fact that “A.D.” stands for “anno Domini”).

Depiction of Jesus with Semitic features

As Roger Highfield has pointed out in his book, The Physics of Christmas (©1998, Back Bay Books):

Our present calendar is a modification of the one introduced by Julius Caesar on January 1, 45 B.C.  The Roman system of dating ab urbe condita (from the foundation of Rome) dates to the first century B.C.  That changed in the sixth century when a monk living in Rome, Dionysium Exiguus, proposed that the Christian era should date from a unique event of far-reaching religious significance, the supposed year of Christ’s birth.  His system marked the origin of the A.D. sequence we now employ.  Unfortunately, the monk overlooked four years of the rule of the emperor Augustus when he tallied up the history of the Roman empire.  That suggests that Christ was born around four B.C.

Image of Jesus created from information gathered from Shroud of Turin

There are other problems with attempting to determine precisely when Jesus was born.

Many historians have tried to work backward from the time of his crucifixion.  We know that Jesus died during the rule of Pontius Pilate (between A.D. 26 and 36).  There are those who believe that biblical passages point out a blood-red lunar eclipse that allegedly took place right after the crucifixion.  However, even with this data, subtracting backward is not accurate as we don’t actually know how old Jesus was at the time of his death.

Traditional Western Image of Jesus

33, right?  I think we have all picked up this fact somewhere along the way.  But, the Bible is not specific on this point.  The 33 figure comes from the Luke reference that Jesus began his ministry at age 30 and that it lasted approximately three years.  However, this is far from established historically.

Many historians and religious scholars estimate Jesus’ age at between 33 and 38, and perhaps as high as 40.  But, there is another biblical reference in which Jesus is told, “You are not yet fifty.”

Thus, going backward doesn’t work very well.

We know Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus (44 B.C. to 14 A.D.).  Matthew and Luke inform that He was born during the rule of King Herod the Great.  Historians cannot agree on the date of this Hebrew king’s death (4 B.C.?, 5 B.C.?, 1 B.C.?, 1 A.D.?).  Therefore, this information is of limited help in precising a year.

What about the Great Census?  Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were on the move to register for a census which took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  But, several more roadblocks occur here.  There is no official record of a census by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius.  He did not become governor until 6 A.D.  By that time, Herod the Great was dead and gone.

Caesar Augustus, known as "Octavian"

In his book, Highfield points out that three official censuses (censi?) took place during the reign of Augustus.  But, they were in 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and 14 A.D.  Therefore, they are all seemingly outside the target window for Jesus’ birth.

Many scientists have tried to fix a date based upon the appearance of the Christmas star which is said to have guided the Wise Men and instructed the shepherds in the field.  However, there appears to be a lack of consensus as to which astronomical event created this apparition.  Indeed, we may be dealing with a case of biblical embellishment here intended to bolster the divine significance of the birth.

Now, as for the day of the year, we know almost certainly that it was not December 25.

From Sacred Origins of Profound Things (Charles Panati, 1996, Penguin Ariana):

Not in December, Dude.

The biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth gives no date for the event, though it more likely occurred in spring than in winter.  Saint Luke tells us that shepherds were “abiding the in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” — shepherds guarded their flocks day and night only at lambing time, in the spring; in winter, the animals were kept in corrals, unwatched.The idea of celebrating the Nativity on December 25 was first suggested early in the fourth century, a clever move on the part of Church fathers, who wished to eclipse the December 25 festivities of a rival pagan religion, Mithraism, that threatened the existence of Christianity.

It is important to note that for two centuries after Christ’s birth, no one knew, and few people cared, exactly when he was born.  Birthdays were unimportant; death day counted.  Besides, Christ was divine and his natural birth was deliberately played down.  In fact, the Church even announced at one point that it was sinful to contemplate observing Christ’s birthday “as though He were a King Pharoah.”

On December 25, pagan Romans, still in the majority, celebrated Natalis Solis Invicti, “Birthday of the Invincible Sun God,” Mithras.  The Mithras cult originated in Persia and rooted itself in the Roman world in the first century B.C.E. [B.C.].  By the year, 274 C.E. [A.D.], Mithraism was so popular with the masses that Emperor Aurelian proclaimed it the official state religion.  In the early 300s, the cult seriously threatened Christianity, and for a time, it was unclear which faith would emerge victorious.

Church fathers debated their options.

It was well known that Roman patricians and plebeians alike enjoyed festivals of a protracted nature.  The Church, then, needed a December celebration.

Thus, to offer converts an occasion in which to be pridefully celebratory, the Church officially recognized Christ’s birth.  And to offer head-on competition to the sun worshipers’ popular feast, the Church located the Nativity on December 25.

Traditional Jewish route from Galilee to Judea. Note the detour across the Jordan to avoid "unclean" Samaria

I’m sorry to mess with concepts that have probably been set in concrete in many of your minds.  But, there is also debate about the place of Jesus’ birth.

This one is a “no-brainer” Major, right?  Everyone knows Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Luke tells us so.

Well…

Mary and Joseph lived in Galilee.  In their world, traveling to a small village in Judea was going to another country.  As the map at left shows, this would have been quite the schlepp.  Consider, just for a moment, the possibility that Jesus was born in Nazareth.

El Greco's depiction of St. Luke

Now, why would Luke want us to believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem?  Because it is the birthplace of King David.  It had been prophesied that the Messiah would come from the City of David.  This would give additional weight to the political argument that Jesus was divine and that his coming had been biblically foretold.

+++++++

Do these facts really matter so much?

I believe that what counts is the faith that backs up the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.  There is no doubt that the man existed historically.  To paraphrase Doctor Evil, the details of Jesus’ birth are inconsequential.

Manger or cave? For now, we won't touch that one.

If you believe that the man known by the Hebrew name Y’shua Son of Miriam and the Greek title of Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of man, then the mundane facts of when and where he entered this world are of limited relevance.

Nevertheless, the tradition of the Christmas tale is important.  It is one of the cornerstones of our culture.

If we did not have the wonderful elements of the manger, the shepherds, the Magi and yes, even the star, I would miss it all very dearly.

— The Major

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