December 09, 2017

When Was Jesus Born?

It is amazing.  Curious.  Jesus is one of the most important humans ever to walk on the face of our planet, yet nobody seems to have had the presence of mind to write down the dates of his birth, ministry or death. Although there are many historical and Biblical references to his life and work, there are only vague references to tell us when these events occurred.

It is therefore impossible to establish accurate dates for the birth, ministry and death of either John the Baptist or Jesus. Biblical references are subject to interpretation, and the Roman historian Flavius Josephus – who does mention both men in his texts – may have been more interested in the narrative he was writing than accurate historical information. Most scholars believe John and Jesus were born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C. (Before Christ, Before the Christian era). It would appear John was born sometime in March or April. Jesus was born about six months later in September or October. Other dates are possible. John started his ministry between 26 and 28 A.D. (Anno Domini, in the Year of Our Lord). Jesus began his ministry between 27 and 28 A.D. John was imprisoned in the spring, and beheaded in August, of 28 or 29 A.D. Jesus was crucified in 29 or 30 A.D. Christian traditions favor 30 A.D.  It should be noted the popular date of birth we observe for Jesus, December 25, was established by the Catholic Church in 336 A.D. (Julian calendar) in order to replace a pagan Roman holiday (Saturnalia) with a Christian holiday. Ironically, this is also the date when Romans gave tributes to the Sun God. Another interesting irony: it is possible Jesus was actually conceived on December 25, 6 B.C.

To further confuse the date issues, we should note the calculation of years and months in the Hebrew calendar does not match the calculation of these time spans in the Julian (old Christian) calendar; the Hebrew New Year may have actually started between the birth of John (in March or April) and the Birth of Jesus (in September or October); and finally, there is no year zero.

So, what can we do? In the absence of better information, we can establish a reasonable, logical, and credible time line that may, or may not, be entirely accurate, but does give us a way to lay out the events that shaped the lives of these two men. The dates are an interesting way to visualize history, but in the final analysis what matters to us is that both men existed and both men had an incredible influence on human history.

So here goes. Tradition tells us our Christian calendar starts on the date Jesus was born. That would be at the beginning of the first year A.D. (There is no year zero). But the date of his birth was accidentally miscalculated when Dionysius Exiguus developed a new calendar in the 6th century. In 525 A.D. Pope John I asked him to create a set of tables that would establish the proper dates for Easter. Dionysius invented a method called Anno Domini (A.D.) to number the years for the Julian Calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.). Dionysius renumbered the years of the Julian Calendar, using the incarnation of Jesus Christ as year 1 in the Roman numbering system. Unfortunately, Dionysius miscalculated the date Jesus was born. He apparently misunderstood how the years in the Hebrew calendar were numbered. Scholars place the birth of Jesus between 6 and 4 B.C.

According to the Hebrew calendar, Jesus may have been born after the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah in 4 B.C. For purposes of simplicity, let’s use the Gregorian calendar dates.

After considerable research of available (and often conflicting) information, we can narrow down the possible dates Jesus was born. If Jesus was born on Christmas day, as tradition tells us, it would have been 6 B.C. But Jesus was more likely born in late September or early October. That would move the date of his birth into the next year. Thus in our scenario, John was born in the month of March of 5 B.C. and Jesus was born in September or October of 5 B.C. 

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