Christmas is almost here, a wonderful time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But when was he really born?
For many Latter-day Saints, an answer came from James E. Talmage’s book Jesus the Christ. Published in 1915 under the direction of the First Presidency, this book has been a staple of missionaries, Seminaries, and Institutes, along with gospel doctrine teachers and others, for a hundred years. In it, Talmage relied on current Protestant scholarship (which was heavily anti-Catholic and thus looked for ways to counter Catholic doctrines, including dates such as Christmas) and an interpretation of D&C 20:1 to conclude that “Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, April 6, B.C. 1” (p. 98, 1982 edition). The authority of Jesus the Christ seemed to settle the issue for many.
But even other Church leaders came to different conclusions, or at least left the door open for other ideas, such as J. Reuben Clark, who dated it to “B.C. 5, Dec” citing Samuel Andrews for the date but commenting that “Others give B.C. 4, January to April” (Our Lord of the Gospels, 33). Bruce McConkie, in his well-known Mortal Messiah series, follows Clark’s dating (not Talmage’s, stating “Jesus was born in December of 5 B.C.” (1:356).
Modern scholars also have differing views. For example, one excellent study on the birth records in Matthew and Luke by a Catholic scholar proposes “the best evidence favors March/April 4 B.C.” (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 607). So the answer is still open for debate, and a good one happened in BYU Studies between 2010 and 2012.
Argument for December 5 BC – Chadwick
Jeffrey Chadwick of BYU agrees with Clark and McConkie, and gives a number of supporting reasons in his BYU Studies article, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ” (BYU Studies 49:4, pp. 5-38). His arguments can be summarized as:
- Herod the Great died at the end of March or perhaps early April in 4 BC, according to Roman historical sources. Because Jesus was born during his reign (Matthew 2:1), he had to be before that date.
- Because we can correlate the Jewish lunar calendar to astronomical events and thus know the years in which Passover started on either a Thursday or Friday (required from New Testament accounts), we can tie that to Jesus’ approximate age at the start of his ministry to determine that he died in April AD 30, which aligns his birth, based on the length of his ministry, to Herod’s death date. This timeline is supported by the Book of Mormon’s counting of years as well.
- Jesus had to have been born at least eight weeks before Herod’s death to allow adequate time for the events in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, including Jesus’ circumcision and naming (Luke 2:21), Mary’s purification (40-days; Luke 2:22) and Jesus’ presentation at the temple (Luke 2:22-38), and their trip to Egypt (about a two-week journey; Matthew 2:13-16) because it was in Egypt that they learned of Herod’s death (Matthew 2:19). Given that they stayed in Egypt for some time and that other events may not have happened in rapid succession, it is more likely that the birth was 3-4 months before Herod’s death.
- Mary’s Annunciation (Gabriel’s visit to her with news of her pregnancy) is said to be “in the sixth month” (Luke 1:26). Some see the precedent for this as Elizabeth’s pregnancy but Chadwick ties it to the Jewish calendar month of Adar (the sixth month), making the event from mid-February to late-March. Seeing Mary’s trip to visit Elizabeth as a Passover journey with family, he puts the Annunciation late in Adar, meaning mid- to late-March, meaning that was also the beginning of her pregnancy.
Triangulating all these arguments and giving reasons to eliminate other possibilities, Chadwick comes up with strong support for a December AD 5 date.
Argument for an earlier date and bigger range – Blumell and Wayment
Lincoln Blumell and Thomas Wayment responded in 2012 to Chadwick’s arguments in their own BYU Studies article, “When Was Jesus Born?” (BYU Studies 51:3 , pp. 53-81). Their position was that we simply cannot be as precise as Chadwick would like to be with Jesus’ birth date because of imprecision in ancient records, but given all the evidence, they believe that the best period is about 6-5 BC. Their arguments are:
- No early Christian sources—those closest to the event—give us a date with any specificity. In fact, few except Matthew and Luke even discuss Jesus’ birth. It simply wasn’t a topic of interest to them. One, Ignatius of Antioch, reported that a new star shone in conjunction with Jesus’ birth, but offered no information that would help with a date. Another, Justin Martyr, simply follows Luke’s language, tying Jesus’ birth to the census of Quirinius (in AD 6 or 7) as an approximate time. Later, Irenaeus proposes the “forty-first years of the reign of Augustus” as the birth-year of Jesus, but that only sets a range, since several events are potentially when his reign started. Finally, Clement of Alexandria disapproves of some who are trying in his day (about AD 150-215) to discern Jesus’ birth date, giving examples of the dates they are proposing (which are several and in his mind unconvincing). Finally, Tertullian triangulates three events—Augustus’s ascension, Cleopatra’s death, and Augustus’s death—to get to a year of either 3 or 2 BC, a date roughly followed by two later writers, Julius Africanus and Eusebius.
- Like Chadwick, they acknowledge that the gospels clearly place Jesus’ birth while Herod was alive and Herod’s death when Jesus was still a child. Since his death occurred in the spring of 4 BC, that provides a terminus post quem by which to compare other arguments. However, the word Matthew uses to describe Jesus when the wise men came is not baby or infant but young child (Greek paidion). Combined with the age of the children Herod had killed, they argue for a date one or more years before Herod’s death.
- Luke says that Jesus was “about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23) in or just after the fifteenth year of Tiberius, who ruled AD 14-37. This puts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry about AD 28 and suggests a birth of 3 BC. However, because by some reckonings, Tiberius’s reign could have started in AD 13, so that pushes the range back to AD 27 and 4 BC.
- Luke’s suggestion in 2:2 that Jesus was born around the time of a census by Quirinius (Cyrenius in the KJV) doesn’t match other references, such as Herod’s death. That census was in AD 6-7, a decade or more after Herod’s death.
- John 2:2 has the Jews proclaiming that the temple had been under construction for “forty and six years.” That construction started with the fifteenth or the eighteenth year of Herod’s reign. If the latter, then that puts Jesus’ ministry start in about AD 27-28, which mostly aligns with Luke.
- The Book of Mormon does indeed provide precise dates for Jesus’ birth and death, according to their calendar. The challenge is, of course, that we don’t have a clear understanding of their calendar. Was it a lunar or solar calendar? We don’t know how many months were in their calendar or how many days in each month.
- They point out that Chadwick ignores the discrepancy between the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and John regarding the day of Jesus’ death. In the former, it is the first day of Passover (15 Nissan) while in John it is the day before (14 Nissan). Further, his argument for a Thursday crucifixion goes against the clear assertion in all four gospels that Jesus was crucified on Friday, because of the need to remove his body before the Sabbath, which began at sunset on Friday.
- Further, since the start of a month was determined by observation of the new moon, that was a less accurate system than we use today to calculate those dates. Poor weather or other factors often caused the decision of the start of the month to be ‘incorrect’ by modern measurements. We don’t have a full understanding of how they rectified their lunar calendar with the solar one; we know they added a month sometimes but not when this happened or even how it impacted other dates that year. That opens up almost every year from AD 27 to Ad 34 as possibilities. In short, we can only get to a range of possible years for his death, and thus require a range of dates for his birth, from 9 to 4 BC.
- We don’t know the length of Jesus’ ministry; it could have been 1 year or 3 years, depending on a number of interpretations of the gospels.
- They take issue with Chadwick’s interpretation about the “sixth month” in relation to the Annunciation. The sixth month, they assert, in Jesus’ time was not Adar but Elul, which is August/September. If Chadwick was right about that being a calendar reference, then Jesus would be born in early summer. They argue, however, that the reference is clearly to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, just mentioned in the previous sentence. (Kent Brown in his seminal and highly recommended work on Luke, makes the same argument that it refers to Elizabeth; see S. Kent Brown, The Testimony of Luke, 107).
Putting all that together, their argument is that he was born sometime in the years 6 or 5 BC.
What I have learned
It would be wonderful to be able to say, “Jesus was born on [date].” Even Chadwick, in his interpretations and efforts to be precise, can only give a range. Blumell’s and Wayment’s range is larger and thus safer, and reflects a careful approach to scholarship that I have seen and appreciated especially in Wayment’s work over the years.
Taking all the approaches I have seen into account, I agree that Herod’s death date, which seems relatively fixed (as much as most ancient dates can be) is the key: Jesus had to be born during his reign, and early enough to allow time for the events of both Matthew and Luke to occur, assuming we accept them all as historical. Thus I believe December 5 BC is too close to Herod’s death date and Blumell and Wayment’s estimate of 6-5 BC more accurate, with me leaning toward 6 BC.
In terms of month, a spring birth sounds personally appealing but I have to acknowledge that there is no compelling evidence in the gospels to tie the event to a certain month. Other events in his life can be tied to feasts and such so we can at least get close to when they happened, but Matthew and Luke simply don’t provide anything that steers us to be more specific. Unless new information or revelation is received, I am forced to be satisfied with a range of months.
What about Christmas?
We celebrate Christmas because it was a day that was associated with the pagan celebration of the rebirth of the sun in the days after the winter solstice, and as Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ in later centuries, it made sense for the sun’s birthday, the light of the earth, to become the Son’s birthday, the Light of the world. Most of the customs we have around Christmas have similar pagan or other origins. That may give us pause but should not dampen our Christmas spirit. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born, 25 December is as good as any, and that event has made this time of year one that many treasure. It brings families together, mends broken hearts, is the most charitable time of the year, and gives us another occasion to remember our complete dependence on that small baby in Bethlehem who grew up to be our Redeemer and Savior, who offers us the gift of his own life in order to save ours.
So happy birthday, Jesus. Thanks for being born, whenever it was.