There are two sets of data to provide information on the year Jesus was born:
- Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 BCE to April 4 BCE.
- 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.