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In What Year was Jesus Born?

This week's question comes form Howard Thompson from Austin, Texas. Howard writes that there seems to be at least three different dates (years) for the birth of Christ. "As I recall, the Bible puts his birth: (1) before the death of King Herod in 4 BC [Luke 1.5]; (2) during the Roman census of Judea in 6 AD [Luke 2.2]; (3) and 'about thirty years' prior to Tiberius' fifteenth year as emperor of Rome (which would be at about 2 BC) [Luke 3.1]. If the Bible is divinely inspired by an all-knowing deity, why are there different dates on something as important as the birth of the only salvation opportunity?"

Just to make it fair, I'll add one more date. According to Matthew's account (Matthew 2.1) the magi came to Herod and told him when they had seen the star of Christ. Herod later panicked, fearing a coup d'etat, and had all males in Bethlehem under two-years old killed. Since Herod died in 4 BC and he wanted the children under two years old put to death, we can deduce that Matthew dates the birth of Christ between 6-5 BC.

Okay, so what's the real date and how did the Bible get it so wrong?

This question is rather complex, so we'll take two weeks to answer the questions. We'll begin with the dating of Christ's birth.

Luke is the only gospel writer concerned with setting Jesus' life and ministry in a political/historical context. Luke uses several different political leaders and a political census to date the birth of Christ: Caesar Augustus, Caesar Tiberius, Quirinius, King Herod the Great, Pilate, and the census ordered by Caesar August "that all the world should be taxed." Of these, only three are problematic. The reign of Tiberius puts Christ's birth at about 2 BC; the death of Herod the Great puts the birth before 4 BC; and the census of Quirinius in 6 AD puts the birth quite late.

Let's quickly clear up two of these dates. According to Luke 3.1, 23 Jesus' ministry began when he was "about thirty" in the fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign. Tiberius became emperor in 14 AD, so Jesus' ministry began in 28 or 29, depending on whether one uses Jewish or Latin reckoning. This would put the birth of Jesus at 1 or 2 BC. However, Herod died in 4 BC and Jesus had to have been born before this, so there's a 3-5 year difference. This need not be problematic, however, since Luke is unclear about Jesus' age when he began his ministry: "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work" (Luke 3:23). Jesus could have been thirty or even thirty-three or thirty-four; Luke is unsure.

But the census of Quirinius is a problem. Quirinius was the governor of Judea from 6-9 AD and he performed a taxation census in 6. The only possibility of an earlier census by Quirinius is in noting he was a consular in Syria from 12 BC to 3 AD and Judea was a part of the Syrian region. But Judea had its own administration--an administration ruled by Herod who would not have allowed an enforced Roman census. Further, Quirinius was a consular and not a governor and besides, there's no evidence of a Roman census earlier than 6 AD anyway. The only census that could have taken place is one called for by Herod, perhaps at the suggestion of his good "friend" Augustus.

So when was Jesus born? If Luke somehow linked a census by Herod to Quirinius, a doubtful proposition at best, and if the dating of Tiberius and the death of Herod is taken into consideration, then Jesus was born between 4 and 6 BC, dates that basically agree with the Matthean account. Unfortunately, the dating really can't be any more precise.

Back in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII corrected the Julian calendar and established what is now our modern calendar and though he set the annual length of the year, he incorrectly chose the year of Christ's birth (and with the above confusion, who can fault him?). So although 1 anno Domini, was supposed to indicate the year of Christ's birth, we now know 1 should be 4, 5, or 6 BC.


Merry Christmas 1997--or '90, '91, '92 or so!

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