Date of birth of Jesus

The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical reference, but most theologians assume a date of birth between 6 BC and 1 BC.[1] The historical evidence is too incomplete to allow a definitive dating,[2] but the date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.[3][4]

Estimation via the Nativity accounts[edit]

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.[5] Many modern scholars do not see the Luke and Matthew nativity stories as historically factual,[6][7][additional citation(s) needed] and for this reason, they do not consider them a reliable method for determining Jesus' date of birth.[8] Karl Rahner states that the authors of the gospels generally focused on theological elements rather than historical chronologies.[9]

Both Luke and Matthew associate Jesus' birth with the time of Herod the Great.[9] 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[10] Most scholars agree that Herod died in 4 BC, although a case has also been made that Herod died only in 1 BC.[11][12][13][14][15][16]

Luke 1:5 mentions the reign of Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus,[4] 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.[9] 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.[17]

Most scholars believe Luke made an error in referring to the census.[18][19][20] Raymond E. Brown notes that "most critical scholars acknowledge a confusion and misdating on Luke's part".[21] As a result, most scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 and 4 BC, the year in which Herod died.[1][4][9] Tertullian believed, some two centuries later, that a number of censuses were performed throughout the Roman world under Saturninus at the same time.[20][22][23] Some biblical scholars and commentators believe the two accounts can be harmonised,[24][25] 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.[26] These arguments have been rejected by the mainstream as "exegetical acrobatics", in the words of Geza Vermes,[27] springing from the assumption that the Bible is inerrant,[28] and most scholars have concluded that Luke's account is an error.[29]

Working backwards from when Jesus began preaching[edit]

Dispute of Jesus and the Pharisees, by James Tissot, c. 1890

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.[30] 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.[30][31][32][33][34] By working backwards from this, it would appear that Jesus was probably born no later than 1 BC.[3][30][33] Another theory is that Herod's death was as late as after the January eclipse of 1 BC[35] or even AD 1[36] after the Dec 1 BC eclipse.[37]

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.[38]

Christmas celebration[edit]

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[39][40] as well as defending it by relying on the mildness of winters in ancient Israel and rabbinic rules regarding sheep near Bethlehem before February.[41][42][43]

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.[44] 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.[45]

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[46]

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.[47] 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.[48]

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.[49] 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.[citation needed] 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.[50]

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.

In Islam[edit]

In Islam, the Quran references a fruit branch which Mary shook as she gave birth.[51] This fruit, the date, is known to ripen during the summer months.[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Dunn, James DG (2003). "Jesus Remembered". Eerdmans Publishing: 324. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ Doggett. (2000). "Calendars" (Ch. 12), in P. Kenneth Seidelmann (Ed.) Explanatory supplement to the astronomical almanac. Sausalito, CA: University Science Books. ISBN 0-935702-68-7. p579: "Although scholars generally believe that Christ was born some years before AD 1, the historical evidence is too sketchy to allow a definitive dating".
  3. ^ a b Paul L. Maier "The Date of the Nativity and Chronology of Jesus" in Chronos, kairos, Christos: nativity and chronological studies by Jerry Vardaman, Edwin M. Yamauchi 1989 ISBN 0-931464-50-1 pp. 113–129
  4. ^ a b c New Testament History by Richard L. Niswonger 1992 ISBN 0-310-31201-9 pp. 121–124
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum Mundi by Karl Rahner 2004 ISBN 0-86012-006-6 p. 731
  6. ^ Marcus Borg, "The Meaning of the Birth Stories" in Marcus Borg, N T Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (Harper One, 1999) page 179: "I (and most mainline scholars) do not see these stories as historically factual."
  7. ^ 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.”
  8. ^ Sanders, E. P. The historical figure of Jesus. Penguin, 1993, pages 85–88
  9. ^ a b c d Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum Mundi by Karl Rahner 2004 ISBN 0-86012-006-6 page 731
  10. ^ Freed, Edwin D (2004). "Stories of Jesus' Birth". Continuum International: 119. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Barnes, Timothy David (1968). "The Date of Herod's Death". Journal of Theological Studies (19): 204–219.
  12. ^ Bernegger, P. M. (1983). "Affirmation of Herod's Death in 4 B.C.". Journal of Theological Studies (34): 526–531. JSTOR 23963471.
  13. ^ Gelb, Norman (21 February 2013). Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 140.
  14. ^ Vardaman, Jerry (1989). Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan. Eisenbrauns. pp. 93–94. ISBN 9780931464508.
  15. ^ Emil Schürer; Géza Vermès; Fergus Millar (January 1973). History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. A&C Black. p. 328. ISBN 9780567022424.
  16. ^ Steinmann, Andrew E. (2009). "When Did Herod the Great Reign?". Novum Testamentum. 51 (1): 1–29. doi:10.1163/156853608X245953.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Archer, Gleason Leonard (April 1982). Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. p. 366. ISBN 0-310-43570-6.
  19. ^ Nikos Kokkinos, 1998, in Chronos, kairos, Christos 2 by Ray Summers, Jerry Vardaman ISBN 0-86554-582-0 pages 121–126
  20. ^ a b C.F. Evans, Tertullian's reference to Sentius Saturninus and the Lukan Census in the Journal of Theological Studies (1973) XXIV(1): 24–39
  21. ^ Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories, (Liturgical Press, 1988), p. 17.
    For example, Dunn, James Douglas Grant (2003), Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans. p. 344. ISBN 0-8028-3931-2 Similarly, Erich S. Gruen, "The expansion of the empire under Augustus", in The Cambridge ancient history Volume 10, p. 157.
    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.
    Fergus Millar Millar, Fergus (1990). "Reflections on the trials of Jesus". In P.R. Davies; R.T. White (eds.). A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (JSOT Suppl. 100). Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 355–81. repr. in Millar, Fergus (2006), "The Greek World, the Jews, and the East", Rome, the Greek World and the East, University of North Carolina Press, 3: 139–163
  22. ^ Nikos Kokkinos, 1998, in Chronos, kairos, Christos 2 by Ray Summers, Jerry Vardaman ISBN 0-86554-582-0 pp. 121–126
  23. ^ The Life of Jesus of Nazareth by Rush Rhees 2007 ISBN 1-4068-3848-9 Section 54
  24. ^ Archer, Gleason Leonard (April 1982). Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. p. 366. ISBN 0-310-43570-6.
  25. ^ Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1943; republished Eerdman, 2003), p. 87–88.
  26. ^ Geza Vermes (2 November 2006). The Nativity: History and Legend. Penguin Books Limited. pp. 28–30. ISBN 978-0-14-191261-5.
  27. ^ Vermes 2006, p. 28–30.
  28. ^ Novak 2001, pp. 296–297.
  29. ^ Brown 1978, p. 17.
  30. ^ a b c The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum 2009 ISBN 978-0-8054-4365-3 page 114
  31. ^ Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible 2000 Amsterdam University Press ISBN 90-5356-503-5 page 249
  32. ^ The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew-Luke, Volume 1 by Craig A. Evans 2003 ISBN 0-7814-3868-3 pages 67–69
  33. ^ a b Christianity and the Roman Empire: background texts by Ralph Martin Novak 2001 ISBN 1-56338-347-0 pages 302–303
  34. ^ Hoehner, Harold W (1978). Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Zondervan. pp. 29–37. ISBN 0-310-26211-9.
  35. ^ Revillo, Juan, & Keyser, John. "Did Herod the 'Great' Really Die in 4 BC?". Hope of Israel Ministries.
  36. ^ "Where Was Jesus Born?". Koinonia House.
  37. ^ Pratt, John. "Yet Another Eclipse for Herod". International Planetarium Society.
  38. ^ Jack V. Scarola, "A Chronology of the nativity Era" in Chronos, kairos, Christos 2 by Ray Summers, Jerry Vardaman 1998 ISBN 0-86554-582-0 pages 61–81
  39. ^ "When was Jesus born? |". Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  40. ^ "When Was Jesus Born?". Lamb and Lion Ministries. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  41. ^ "New Testament History" by Richard L. Niswonger 1992 ISBN 0-310-31201-9 pp. 121–124
  42. ^ Luke: an introduction and commentary by Leon Morris 1988 ISBN 0-8028-0419-5 p. 93
  43. ^ Stories of Jesus' Birth by Edwin D. Freed 2004 ISBN 0-567-08046-3 pp. 136–137
  44. ^ Murray, Alexander, "Medieval Christmas", History Today, December 1986, 36 (12), pp. 31–39.
  45. ^ "Library : History & Origin: Feast of the Nativity".
  46. ^ "Why do we celebrate Jesus' birth on December 25? - Catholic Answers".
  47. ^ An introductory dictionary of theology and religious studies by Orlando O. Espín, James B. Nickoloff 2007 ISBN 0-8146-5856-3 page 237
  48. ^ Christian worship in Reformed Churches past and present by Lukas Vischer 2002 ISBN 0-8028-0520-5 pages 400–401
  49. ^ Mercer Dictionary of the Bible by Watson E. Mills, Edgar V. McKnight and Roger A. Bullard 2001 ISBN 0-86554-373-9 page 142
  50. ^ Roger T. Beckwith (2001). Calendar and chronology, Jewish and Christian: biblical, intertestamental and patristic studies, p. 72
  51. ^ Stowasser, Barbara Freyer (22 August 1996). Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199761838.
  52. ^ "How are Dates Grown? Harvesting Dates at Dateland Date Gardens". Retrieved 11 December 2017.


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