The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical reference, but most theologians assume a date of birth between 6 BC and 1 BC. The historical evidence is too incomplete to allow a definitive dating, but the date is estimated through two different approaches—one by analyzing references to known historical events mentioned in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and the second by working backwards from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus.
Estimation via the Nativity accounts
The nativity accounts in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke do not mention a date or time of year for the birth of Jesus, and Karl Rahner states that the gospels do not, in general, provide enough details of dates to satisfy the demands of modern historians. Many modern scholars do not see the Luke and Matthew nativity stories as historically factual,[additional citation(s) needed] and for this reason, they do not consider them a reliable method for determining Jesus' date of birth. Karl Rahner states that the authors of the gospels generally focused on theological elements rather than historical chronologies.
Both Luke and Matthew associate Jesus' birth with the time of Herod the Great. Matthew 2:1 states that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king". He also implies that Jesus could have been as much as two years old at the time of the visit of the Magi, because Herod ordered the murder of all boys up to the age of two years, "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi". Matthew 2:16 Most scholars agree that Herod died in 4 BC, although a case has also been made that Herod died only in 1 BC.
Luke 1:5 mentions the reign of Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus, but places the birth during the Census of Quirinius, which only took place ten years later in AD 6 as described by the Jewish historian Josephus. He, in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. AD 93), indicates that Cyrenius/Quirinius' governorship of Syria began in AD 6, and Josephus mentions a census sometime between AD 6–7.
Most scholars believe Luke made an error in referring to the census. Raymond E. Brown notes that "most critical scholars acknowledge a confusion and misdating on Luke's part". As a result, most scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 and 4 BC, the year in which Herod died. Tertullian believed, some two centuries later, that a number of censuses were performed throughout the Roman world under Saturninus at the same time. Some biblical scholars and commentators believe the two accounts can be harmonised, arguing that the text in Luke can be read as "registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria", i.e. that Luke was actually referring to a completely different census. These arguments have been rejected by the mainstream as "exegetical acrobatics", in the words of Geza Vermes, springing from the assumption that the Bible is inerrant, and most scholars have concluded that Luke's account is an error.
Working backwards from when Jesus began preaching
Another approach to estimating the year of birth works backwards from when Jesus began preaching, based on the statement in Luke 3:23 that he was "about 30 years of age" at that time. Jesus began to preach after being baptised by John the Baptist, and based on Luke’s gospel John only began baptising people in "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1–2), which scholars estimate would be in about AD 28–29. By working backwards from this, it would appear that Jesus was probably born no later than 1 BC. Another theory is that Herod's death was as late as after the January eclipse of 1 BC or even AD 1 after the Dec 1 BC eclipse.
This date is independently confirmed by John's reference in John 2:20 to the Temple being in its 46th year of construction during Passover when Jesus began his ministry, which corresponds to around 27–29 AD according to scholarly estimates.
Despite the celebration of Christmas in December, neither Luke nor Matthew mentions a season for when Jesus was born. However, scholarly arguments regarding the realism of shepherds grazing their flock during the winter have taken place, both challenging a winter birth for Jesus as well as defending it by relying on the mildness of winters in ancient Israel and rabbinic rules regarding sheep near Bethlehem before February.
Alexander Murray of History Today says that the celebration of Christmas as the birth day of Jesus is based on a date of a pagan feast rather than historical analysis. Saturnalia, the Roman feast for Saturn, was associated with the winter solstice. Saturnalia was held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms. It is likely that such a Christian feast was chosen for Christ's marked contrast and triumph over paganism; indeed, new converts who attempted to introduce pagan elements into the Christian celebrations were sharply rebuked.
December 25 may have been selected due to its proximity to the winter solstice, because of its theological significance. After the solstice, the days begin to lengthen with more sunlight, which Christians see as representing the Light of Christ entering the world. This mirrors the celebration of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, near the summer solstice; John said of Jesus "He must increase, I must decrease." John 3:30 NRSV
In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Lord's Day (Sunday) was the earliest Christian celebration and included a number of theological themes. In the 2nd century, the Resurrection of Jesus became a separate feast as Easter and in the same century Epiphany began to be celebrated in the Churches of the East on 6 January. The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated.
The earliest source stating 25 December as the date of birth of Jesus is likely by Hippolytus of Rome, written very early in the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on 25 March, and then added nine months – festivals on that date were then celebrated. 25 March would also roughly be the date of his crucifixion, which ancient Christians would have seen as confirming the date of his birth, since there was a notion that the great prophets were conceived into the afterlife on the same date they were conceived into the world. John Chrysostom also argued for a 25 December date in the late 4th century, basing his argument on the assumption that the offering of incense in Luke 1:8–11 was the offering of incense by a high priest on Yom Kippur (early October), and, as above, counting fifteen months forward. However, this was very likely a retrospective justification of a choice already made rather than a genuine attempt to derive the correct birth date.
Lastly, 25 December might be a reference to the date of the Feast of the Dedication, which occurs on the 25 Kislev of the Jewish calendar. This would require that early Christians simply translated Kislev directly to December.
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- Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998 page 499: “There is very little in the two infancy narratives that reflects historical reminiscence.”
- Sanders, E. P. The historical figure of Jesus. Penguin, 1993, pages 85–88
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- Flavius Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapters 1–2. Josephus indicates that the census under Cyrenius (i.e., Quirinius) occurred in the 37th year after Octavian's (i.e., Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus') victory over Marc Antony at Actium, which secular historical records date to 2 September 31 BC. Therefore 31 BC + 37 years = AD 6–7.
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Geza Vermes, The Nativity, Penguin 2006, p. 96.
W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders, "Jesus from the Jewish point of view", in The Cambridge History of Judaism ed William Horbury, vol 3: the Early Roman Period, 1984
Anthony Harvey, A Companion to the New Testament (Cambridge University Press 2004), p. 221.
Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1991, v. 1, p. 213.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977, p. 554.
A. N. Sherwin-White, pp. 166, 167.
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