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This question is a spin-off from On which date was Christ born?

There are differing views on the birth year of Christ, which also affect the dating of the resurrection (as we know Jesus's age on death). Which years are possible, and what are the arguments?

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One theory:

It's not the easiest thing to follow, but http://bethlehemstar.net has a very interesting hypothesis on the subject. The information is all there, especially in footnotes, but unfortunately it's not presented very clearly on the site itself... they want you to get the video.* The upshot is that the date is most likely 3BC, and maybe 2BC.

You get around the Herod problem because of a recent study that found a typesetting error made in 1544 for the manuscripts used to date Herod's death. It is now believed he died in 1BC, rather than 4BC:

The Bible recounts that Herod learned of the Messiah's birth from astronomers who had seen the Star of Bethlehem. He tried to kill the child, so, obviously, the Bible records that Herod was alive at Jesus' birth. Remember that this mattered to Kepler, because historians of his time apparently inferred from Josephus' history that Herod died in 4 BC (9). Necessarily, Kepler assumed Christ was born before that date, perhaps 5 BC or earlier...

But modern scholarship has deepened our understanding of Josephus' manuscripts. A recent study was made of the earliest manuscripts of Josephus' writings held by the British Library in London, and the American Library of Congress. It revealed a surprise that allows us to target our mathematical telescopes better than could Kepler (10). It turns out that a ... printer typesetting the manuscript of Josephus' Antiquities messed up in the year 1544. Every single Josephus manuscript in these libraries dating from before 1544 supports the inference that Herod passed in 1 BC. Strong recent scholarship confirms that date (11).

* As a side note, the video is well worth your time. It's just a shame that they charge for it; this is something that would be good to see spread more widely.

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Do they have any external source for that last statement? – Andrew Sep 9 '11 at 16:28
    
@ashansky 11. Andrew Steinmann, "When Did Herod the Great Reign?" Novum Testamentum Volume 51, Number 1, 2009 , pp. 1-29 .. and .. Ernest L. Martin, The Star That Astonished the World (Second Edition; Portland, Oregon: ASK Publications, 1996) ISBN 0-94-5657-87-0. – Joel Coehoorn Sep 9 '11 at 16:33
    
I added a further sentence (with footnote pointer) to the quotation so you can see how the source is used. – Joel Coehoorn Sep 9 '11 at 16:35
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Bounty awarded as part of the Advent 2015 bounty challenge... You should consider contributing to C.SE again after your long hiatus. – ThaddeusB Dec 8 '15 at 4:12

Because both the Gospel of Mathew and Luke agree that the birth took place before the death of Herod (who died in 4 BC), historians generally assume Jesus was born around 5 BC or slightly before.

Source: WikiPedia

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I believe that Dr. Richard P. Bucher provides an excellent analysis of this question. Luke 2:1-3 specifically states the purpose of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem (Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus). And, from extra-biblical sources, we know that Augustus ordered a census in 27 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD.

So 8 BC seems the most reasonable answer to your question.

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The trick here is that in the ancient world a census of that scale could take a decade or longer to conduct. – Joel Coehoorn Jan 11 '13 at 4:11
    
The other problem is that that census (and leader who supposedly ordered it) don't quite line up with historical records for that time frame.... – Dan Dec 3 '15 at 12:51

There are two sets of data to provide information on the year Jesus was born:

  1. Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 BCE to April 4 BCE.
  2. Jesus was born during a census conducted under Quirinius.

The reign of Herod is too long to give much guidance at this stage, but Matthew implies that Jesus must have been born at least two or three years before Herod died. First, Herod feared Jesus as a rival, something that would not have been of much concern in the last months of his life, and we know from history that Herod was not much concerned about his sons. Also, he seems unsure of when Jesus was born, but took action up to two years after the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:26).

The census under Quirinius too place in 6 CE after Rome deposed Archelaus and imposed direct rule in Judea:

Jewish Antiquities, XVIII,i,1: Quirinius, a Roman senator who had proceeded through all the magistracies to the consulship and a man who was extremely distinguished in other respects, arrived in Syria, dispatched by Caesar [Augustus] to be governor of the nation and to make an assessment of their property. Coponius, a man of equestrian rank was sent along with him to rule over the Jews with full authority. Quirinius also visited Judaea, which had been annexed to Syria, in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and to liquidate the estate of Archelaus.

Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament , page 233, that although there were a few local censuses, there never was a census of the whole Empire under Augustus. It would have been an impossibly huge task to conduct a census across the entire empire, with little benefit in doing so. Furthermore, any Roman census would not have involved Judea during the reign of King Herod, as the Romans were unconcerned how Herod collected his taxes, nor how he used them, as long as he kept the peace.

It was simply not possible for Jesus to be born during the reign of Herod (37-4 BCE) and also at the time of the census under Quirinius (6 CE). The stronger evidence is that Jesus was born in the time of Herod, since both Matthew and Luke mention this. That means we have to eliminate the census of Judea as a marker for the birth of Christ. Brown says the best explanation is that, although Luke likes to set his Christian drama in the context of well-known events from antiquity, sometimes he does so inaccurately.

On the evidence before us, we have narrowed the year of Jesus' birth to the latter years of the reign of King Herod, but probably at least two or three years before his death in April 4 BCE. This means our best estimate can be that Jesus was born no later than 7 or 6 BCE.

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