Today in History: The Birth of Jesus Christ

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On December 25, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. John 3:16 says, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, so that those who believe in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical sources, but most biblical scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 BC and 4 BC, the year in which King Herod died.

The historical evidence is too incomplete to allow a definitive dating, but the year is estimated through three different approaches:

i) analysing references to known historical events mentioned in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew,

ii) working backward from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus, and

iii) astrological or astronomical alignments

iv) the description of shepherds watching over their sheep

The common Christian traditional dating of the birthdate of Jesus was 25 December, a date first asserted officially by Pope Julius I in 350 AD. 

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. 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 (Massacre of the Innocents), “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” Matthew 2:16.

In addition, if the phrase “about 30” in Luke 3:23 is interpreted to mean 32 years old, this could fit a date of birth just within the reign of Herod, who died in 4 BC according most scholars.

Luke 1:5 mentions the reign of Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus. This Herod died in 4 BC.

Luke 2:1-2 also places the birth during a census decreed by Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governing Judah. Some interpreters of Luke determine that this was the Census of Quirinius, which the Jewish historian Josephus described as taking place circa AD 6 in his book Antiquities of the Jews (written c. AD 93) by indicating that Cyrenius/Quirinius began to be the governor of Syria in AD 6 and a census took place during his tenure sometime between AD 6–7.

Since Herod died a decade before this census, most scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 and 4 BC.

On the other hand, a census was not a unique event in the Roman Empire. For example, Tertullian argued that a number of censuses were performed throughout the Roman world under Sentius Saturninus at the same time.

Some biblical scholars and commentators believe the two accounts can be harmonized, arguing that the text in Luke can be read as “registration before (πρώτη) Quirinius was governor of Syria”, i.e., that Luke was actually referring to a completely different census, though this understanding of the Greek word has been rejected by scholars.

Other gospel evidence

Another approach to estimating the year of birth is based on an attempt to work backwards from the point when Jesus began preaching, using the statement in Luke 3:23 that he was “about 30 years of age” at that time.

Jesus began to preach after being baptized by John the Baptist, and based on Luke’s gospel John only began baptizing people in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1–2), which scholars estimate would place the year at 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 eclipse that occurred in 1 December BC.

Luke’s date is independently confirmed by John’s reference in John 2:20 to the Temple being in its 46th year of construction when Jesus began his ministry during Passover, which corresponds to around 27–29 AD according to scholarly estimates.

In the third century, the date of birth of Jesus was a subject of great interest, with early Christian writers suggesting various dates.

Around AD 200, Clement of Alexandria  wrote:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] […] Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].

The early Christian writer Lactantius wrote “the east is attached to God because he is the source of light and the illuminator of the world and he makes us rise toward eternal life”. It is for this reason that the early Christians established the direction of prayer as being eastward, towards the rising sun.

A late fourth-century sermon by Saint Augustine explains why the winter solstice was a fitting day to celebrate Christ’s birth:

Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.

Steven Hijmans of the University of Alberta wrote: “It is cosmic symbolism […] which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the southern solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the northern solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception”.

The Christian treatise De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis Domini nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae (‘On the solstice and equinox conception and birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and John the Baptist’), from the second half of the fourth century, dates John’s birth to the summer solstice and Jesus’s birth to the winter solstice.