It doesn’t come as a surprise to most people that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th in the year 0. But if that’s the case, when was Jesus actually born? Is this a question we can even know the answer to?
To this day, Jesus’ actual date of birth remains unknown, despite numerous historic and scientific efforts. Based on the biblical literature, he was likely born sometime between February and October sometime before the year 4 BCE.
Clearly, there’s no definitive answer to the question. But it’s an interesting topic for speculation! As we continue down the rabbit hole, we’ll examine the historical details in the Gospel, we’ll take a brief look at failed scientific explorations, and we’ll talk about why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday at the end of December.
The bottom line is the ancient world just wasn’t as interested in birthdays as we are today. Moreover, the ancient world wasn’t nearly as interested in exact historical details as we are today. So as much as we’d like to know exactly when we should be singing “Silent Night” and hanging stockings over our fireplaces, December 25th is as good as any date.
Instead of starting with the exact date, let’s widen our scope a bit. What year was Jesus born? Well, since the calendar centers on the birth of Jesus, we might think that Jesus was born in the year 1. Well, it’s not really that simple. Our year counting system was developed in the year 525 CE by Dionysus Exiguous. We could just take his word for it, or we could try to do some historical digging based on the birth narratives of Christ found in scripture. There are a few details that we can try to use as anchors in our investigation. But here’s a spoiler alert: there are problems with most of them.
Herod Is King
This detail is given to us by both Matthew and Luke. Since their birth narratives (and the rest of their books) are so different, it’s unlikely that either author had access to the other author’s work. That being said, the fact that both authors corroborate the fact that the birth of Jesus took place while Herod was king is significant. It doesn’t necessarily mean this is historically accurate. But it does likely mean that neither author invented this information. It was readily accessible in the community’s narratives about Jesus. So where can we place this in history
Herod the Great reigned as the King of Judea from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. If we are to believe that Jesus was born during his reign (and there’s really no reason to doubt that) then the latest we can date his birth is 4 BCE.
Now, let’s take this a step further. According to Matthew’s gospel, we can assume that Jesus was pretty young when Herod died. Jesus and his family had been living as refugees in Egypt from the time Jesus was born to the time Herod died in the year 4. Unfortunately, Matthew doesn’t tell us how long the young family lived in Egypt. It could have been months. It could have been years. We have very good reason to believe that Jesus spent most of his formative years in Nazareth, so they couldn’t have been in Egypt for very long.
So based on the fact that Herod was probably the king when Jesus was born, and that Herod probably died before Jesus was very old, we can roughly estimate the year of Jesus’ birth to be around 7-4 BCE.
This is the one historical detail that both Matthew and Luke agree upon. Next, we’ll look at one historical detail provided by each Gospel independently.
Slaughter Of The Innocents
Let’s start with Matthew. One pretty significant historical detail Matthew discusses in his Gospel is what has often been referred to as the Slaughter of the Innocents. This is the reason why Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt in Matthew 2. Herod, aware of the prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth, decides to slaughter all male children in Bethlehem aged two and under. This should have been a standout event in ancient history, right? So surely there are other sources to corroborate this story and give us a rough estimate on the date. Well, aside from Matthew, there are exactly… zero sources that point to this event.
But that doesn’t mean this event didn’t happen. Here’s the thing. Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was a small village with maybe 300ish people. If we estimate that about 15% of the population were babies, we’re looking at maybe (and that’s a big maybe) 45 babies. Divide that in half to get about 20 baby boys, give or take a few. If a world leader in 2020 were to murder 20 babies, it would be a pretty big scandal. For an ancient ruler to kill 20 babies, especially to protect his royal lineage, no one would really bat an eye. And when you look at Herod the Great, he was apparently a pretty bad dude. Having 20 babies in a small village put to death wouldn’t have been enough to make the news.
All that said, this gives us no additional information in our quest to determine the year of Jesus’ birth. We’re still at our rough estimate of 7-4.
As we move to Luke, things get a bit more… problematic. Our beloved doctor presents himself as a Greek historian, ready to give us all the facts we need in order to come to an understanding of how Jesus of Nazareth transformed history. Yet as with all biblical literature, we need to read “history” through ancient eyes and not through our own. Luke’s purpose in giving supporting historical details was not for us to nail down the exact date of Jesus’ birth but to establish a sense of ethos. To let us know that the story he’s telling can be trusted.
Unlike Matthew, Luke situates Jesus’ birth in a specific historical event: a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. He even gives more details than that to help us narrow it down. This census took place while was governor of Syria. And this was the reason that Mary and Joseph, citizens of Nazareth, traveled to Bethlehem.
Okay cool, so have some more politicians. Maybe that means we can get a more precise date for Jesus’ birth. First, Augustus. He was the emperor in Rome from 27 BCE to 15 CE. So yes, no matter where you put the birth of Jesus, Augustus was the emperor. So what about you
became governor in the year 6. Boom! There we go. That means Jesus had to be born in the year 6 CE. Yes, you read that right. Common era. Nine years after the death of Herod the Great.
Okay, well the detail was a parenthetical note anyway. Perhaps this was added later by scribes trying to pinpoint the census. Or maybe Luke was just wrong about being the governor at the time.Well, hold on. It gets trickier.
Let’s forget about and talk about the census itself. According to Luke, the census in question was of the entire empire. There would have been other historical records indicating a census of the entire empire during the reign of Augustus, but Luke is the only source. That tells us there was no Empire-wide census taken by Caesar Augustus.
What Season Was Jesus Born?
Okay, so we’ve narrowed it down to a year or two. Or three. But can we get even more specific than that? Can we get closer to the exact date of Jesus’ birth? There is one super tiny detail in Luke’s Gospel that might give us a super tiny lead, allowing us to narrow down Jesus’ birthday to a few months. If that didn’t sound very confident, good. It’s not supposed to.
When Jesus was born, Luke tells us that the shepherds that came to visit him had been watching their flocks by night. Why would he tell us that small detail? This likely has more to do with setting the scene for the shepherds to meet the angels and see the heavenly host, which would have been the stars. Luke was not dropping hints for us about what time of the year this scene took place. However, even if that wasn’t his purpose, we can do a bit more speculation based on this fact.
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