When Was Jesus Born?
December 5, 2007
Let me begin by saying right up front that no one knows exactly when Jesus was born because the Bible does not clearly answer this question. That doesn’t mean the question is unimportant, only that it is not essential to our Christian faith. As we approach Christmas this year, it is good to remind ourselves that nowhere does the Bible command us to celebrate Jesus’ birth. If the first Christians knew the precise year and day when our Lord was born in Bethlehem, they didn’t make an issue of it. Yet it was inevitable that his birth would be remembered. Two of the gospels contain detailed information about the events surrounding the birth of our Lord. And since his birth happened in a very unusual fashion, it is not surprising that Christians for 2000 years have done what Mary did as she considered all that happened to her. Luke 2:20 says she treasured up all the events and pondered them in her heart. It is a useful spiritual exercise to think about the how and when and why of the events surrounding our Lord’s birth.
Even though we cannot precisely answer this question, it matters because Jesus Christ entered the history of our world. The infinite God humbled himself, taking on the very form of humanity. He became one of us. Christianity therefore has an historical basis. God never asks us to blindly believe. There is always enough evidence for those who wish to believe. Francis Schaeffer spoke of “upper story” and “lower story” truth. At Christmas we encounter both kinds:
Santa Claus is “upper story”—a myth meant to teach lessons about giving.
Jesus Christ is “lower story”—true truth based on hard facts.
The fact that we don’t know the precise day and year makes the subject all the more interesting. I would further suggest that Christianity has nothing to fear from the facts of history. Therefore, let us investigate and see what we find regarding the birth of Jesus Christ.
I. Two Key Texts
Two texts lead us in the right direction:
1) Galatians 4:4 “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” That phrase “had fully come” is a very picturesque Greek expression. It speaks of something that is complete and fully developed, like a ripe apple ready to be picked. Or like a pregnant woman feeling labor pains, ready to deliver her baby. It describes the moment in history when all things were in place, when all the pieces were on the board, that one moment when the stage was perfectly set. At that moment, not earlier and not later, God sent forth his Son. It means that God had prepared all of history from the beginning; he had set the stage for the entrance of his Son into the world. Jesus was born during the famed Pax Romana, the Roman peace that spread across the Mediterranean world. No doubt you’ve heard it said that “all roads lead to Rome.” That statement was literally true. The Romans had built a road system that stretched from Rome in all directions. That enabled the gospel message to quickly spread to all parts of the known world. And Greek was the common language throughout the empire, which further united people and made it easier for the message of Jesus to come to the masses. He came at a time of religious ferment and moral decline. And it was an age of prophetic fulfillment, as all the lines of Old Testament prophecy converged on a forgotten stable outside a country inn in the little village of Bethlehem. What started in Genesis continued throughout the Old Testament. God promised over and over that he would intervene in history. One day the Messiah would come. There was an ever-narrowing stream of prophecy, the promises becoming more and more specific. Until it happened. The angel came to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Then to Mary. Then to the shepherds. Then the Magi in the east saw the star and knew the King of the Jews had been born. Herod, that evil and sick king tottering on the throne in Jerusalem, seems to have been caught by surprise. But the scribes weren’t. They knew the baby would be born in Bethlehem. Thus the stage was set for the coming of Christ. It happened just as God said it would. Not too soon. Not too late. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son.” There came a precise moment, ordained from the beginning by God the Father, when he said, “It’s time,” and his Son stepped out of the portals of glory, descended the starry staircase, and entered our world wrapped in rags, sleeping in a feeding trough. Among other things, this verse means there a day and there was a year and it does matter because it mattered to God.
B. Luke 2:11 “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” We focus on the last half of that verse, and rightly so. But Luke adds two important facts in the phrases “this day” and “city of David.” That ties the birth of Jesus to a specific time and place. Jesus was born not just any day, but on “this day,” a particular moment in time-space history. Second, he wasn’t born in some vague, ethereal place. He was born in Bethlehem, a town that still exists twenty-one centuries later. You can go there, as I have on three occasions. It’s still exactly where it was in David’s day. It hasn’t moved.
It’s interesting that the Holy Spirit gives us the exact place, but not the exact day. However, that does not change the fact that there was a day when Jesus was born.
II. The Year of His Birth
1. How did we arrive at December 25 as the birth of Christ?
In A.D. 525 Pope John I asked Dionysius, a Sythian monk, to prepare a calendar for the Western Church. He dated Christ’s birth as Year 754 of Roman time. January 1, 754 Roman time became AD 1. Christ’s birth was thought to have occurred one week earlier, on December 25. The years before were calculated at BC (Before Christ) and the years after as AD (Year of Our Lord). In this reckoning, there was no year zero. The calendar went from 1 BC directly to AD 1. There was only problem with this scheme. Later research showed that Dionysius missed the date by at least four years because he miscalculated the death of Herod. Our present calendar is four years off. Thus this should be 2003, not 2007!
2. What Biblical Evidence Do We Have Regarding the year of Christ’s Birth?
As we study the biblical text, Matthew and Luke provide most of the details surrounding the actual birth of Jesus. Both tell the same story from different points of view. The other two gospels do not give details regarding the Nativity. Mark starts after Jesus’ birth; John starts before. Therefore, our search limited primarily to two gospels—Matthew and Luke.
There are two major time markers we need to consider:
#1 According to Luke 2:1, Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus (44 BC-AD 14).
The traditional Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke begins this way: “Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1 KJV). Most of us read those words without giving them a second thought. Actually, Caesar Augustus was the greatest of the Roman emperors, greater even than his granduncle, Julius Caesar. It was said that when he came to Rome it was a city of brick and when he left it was a city of marble. Caesar Augustus was 19 years old when he came to power in 44 B.C. He reigned as emperor for 58 years. His greatest single act—the one which would have the most lasting effect on world history—was to call for a census of the empire. The purpose of the census was to compile a list of property owners for the purpose of collecting taxes and military registration. It was a thoroughly secular decree, the kind of thing governments have been doing since the beginning of time. Historians tell us that it is not likely that the whole empire was enrolled at the same time. Given the slow system of communication in those days, it might have taken years for the census to be completed in some of the outlying provinces. A lot would depend on the local political situation and the willingness of local rulers to cooperate.
When the time came to take the census in Israel, it is just possible that a compromise was made to take into account Jewish custom. The Romans ordinarily enrolled men where they were currently living, while the Jews counted families according to their ancestral hometowns. That would explain why Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem at a most inconvenient time—in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy.
#2 According to Matthew 2:1, Jesus was born while Herod was still alive.
Josephus tells of a lunar eclipse in the spring of 4 BC when Herod died. Astronomers calculate that as happening on March 13, 4 BC. Thus Jesus must have been born sometime earlier. Herod controlled all of Israel, making it likely that Mary and Joseph would indeed be forced to make the difficult and dangerous trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We know from history that Herod at this point is old, tired, cranky, ill, and near death. He earned a reputation as a vicious, evil, diabolical, paranoid killer. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people:
It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. But he never got over her. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and even though he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end. You see, above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him. The great historian Josephus called him “barbaric,” another writer dubbed him “the malevolent maniac,” yet another named him “the great pervert.”
Perhaps his basic character can best be seen by one incident in the year 7 B.C. Herod is an old man now. He has been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn’t have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him. They are sons by his late wife Mariamne. He orders them put to death … by strangling.
No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”
His wife… his mother-in-law … his brother-in-law … two sons . . among hundreds of others. Killing was what he did best. It was during those turbulent, bloody final years of Herod’s reign that Augustus ordered a census taken of the entire Roman Empire.
Looking at the evidence, we know that Jesus must have been born sometime before March-April 4 BC. The census itself could have been taken any time in the previous two years, thus giving us a likely date of 6-4 BC for the birth of Christ.
There are several other key biblical indicators:
1. John 8:57 tells us that Jesus was “not yet 50 years old.” That statement is too general to help us.
2. Matthew 2:16 says that Herod ordered all the babies under 2 years of age to be killed. Does this mean that Christ had been born two years earlier? Possibly, but not necessarily. It’s true that Matthew uses a Greek word that means “child” and not “infant.”
But the words can be used interchangeably. When the Magi arrive with their gifts, Jesus is in a house in Bethlehem, not a manger. But Mary and Joseph would have moved to a house as soon as possible.
Herod ordered all babies 2 and under to be killed to make sure he got Jesus. After all, he didn’t know precisely when he had been born, only that it had happened before the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. Herod was a cruel killer. It was no big deal to slaughter the baby boys of Bethlehem. But if Jesus was less than two years old at the time, it means he must have been born 6-4 BC.
3. Luke 3:23 says that Jesus was “about 30 years old” when he began his ministry. We know that Jesus began his ministry soon after John the Baptist began his, and John began in the 15th year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1)–AD 26-29. The word “about” could indicate that Jesus was 27-33 years old. That means the earliest likely date for the birth of Jesus would be around 5 BC.
The one key date in all of this is the death of Herod in March 4 BC. We are not far from the mark if we conclude that Jesus was born shortly before that—within 6 months to a year at the most. A birth date in late 5 BC or early 4 BC is possible.
III. The Day of His Birth
This is much more difficult to determine. Dates have been suggested from every month of the year and it is clear that Christians in the earliest centuries disagreed among themselves about the exact date. Over time two days came to be accepted as the most likely dates for the birth of Jesus:
1. December 25
Hippolytus (165-235) suggested this date, and Chrysostom (343-407) agreed.
2. January 6
This date was put forth by the Eastern Church as the most likely date of Jesus’ birth. It is also regarded by some as the date the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. It is noteworthy that both of these are “midwinter dates.” Not surprisingly, there have been several objections to these dates. First, since in the Roman calendar December 25 marked the Feast of Saturnalia, it is said that Christians simply took over a pagan holiday, making it their own, with no historical connection to the birth of Christ. It’s true there was a pagan feast on that day. And it is widely assumed that Christian “took over” the pagan holiday and made it their own. William Tighe, a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in a recent article called Calculating Christmas (Touchstone Magazine, December 2003), says the reverse it is more likely true:
Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.
If Christ was indeed born on December 25, it might have been a message to the world that Christ was greater than the pagan gods, like the plagues of Exodus that answered the Egyptian deities. As a theologian asserted in 320, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”
Second, it is objected that since Luke 2 says the shepherds were watching over their flocks outdoors, the birth of Jesus could not have happened in the wintertime because sheep don’t graze in December in Israel. That’s not always true. It could have been a mild winter. Since sheep were kept in the wilderness and only brought in during the winter, the fact that the shepherds were near Bethlehem may indicate that it was in fact winter time. One Jewish source says that sheep were kept outside year-round in Bethlehem to provide animals for the sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, a December date is at least possible.
IV. A Tentative Conclusion
As I prepared this message, I was struck by the difficulty of figuring out ancient chronology. If you were so inclined, you could spend many hours perusing the Internet to find discussions of various eclipses, when Herod really died, the problem of dating the beginning of Emperor Tiberius’ reign, the puzzling question of how many times Quirinius was governor of Syria, competing quotes from the church fathers regarding the date of Jesus’ birth, and fascinating theories linking the birth of Jesus to the birth of John the Baptist and the exact time during the Jewish year when Zacharias served in the temple as part of the division of Abijah. And that’s just scratching the surface.
It is true that the Bible doesn’t tell us the exact date of Christ’s birth, which means that it is not an essential element of our faith. However, it does give us enough historical markers so that we can make an educated guess. Christ had to have been born before Herod’s death and after the Roman census was announced. His birth likely took place it the last few months before Herod’s death when the deranged ruler, wracked with pain, his evil mind churning out plot after plot, feared nothing more than the report of a child born who was “King of the Jews.” It makes perfect sense to believe that Herod’s vicious slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem was one of the final official acts of his horrific career. It all fits. Therefore, I would suggest that a date late in the year 5 BC or early in 4 BC is a possible time for the birth of Christ. When the ancient traditions are taken into account, it is not impossible that Christ was indeed born on December 25 in the year 5 B.C.
* * * * * * * * * *
Having said that, you may ask, “Does all of this really matter?” In one sense, of course, the answer is no. No doctrine of the Christian faith rests upon knowing the exact day and year of Christ’s birth. And no stress is put upon the date of his birth in the New Testament. No one is ever told to celebrate Christmas.
The emphasis always rests on the fact of his birth, not the date.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Christianity is a faith based on certain historical facts. If Christ was truly born, if his birth is not a myth or a legend, if the story is really true, then the date of his birth does indeed matter. When Luke says, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,” he means to say, “There was a day, there was a place, and there was a baby who was the Savior.”
Let us this Sunday rejoice in this great truth: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given. On that day so long ago, a very real day in a very real year—even if we can’t pinpoint it exactly–the eternal Son of God entered humanity, the Word Became Flesh and dwelt among us–God himself joined the human race!
It happened, it really happened. Christmas really happened. Because it happened, Good Friday really is good and Easter is even better. We celebrate the very real birth of a very real Savior whose name is Jesus Christ. Let the party begin! Break out the cider, open the presents, sing the carols, hug each other. This is our day, brothers and sisters. We were born for Christmas because on Christmas Christ was born for us.
Joy to the world, the Lord is Come!