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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 The Star of Bethlehem 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
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@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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The estimation of the year of Jesus' birth depends on the estimation of the year of Herod's death. The information to date the latter event is provided by Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews, book 17 [1].

In 17.6.4, when narrating events leading to Herod's last times, he notes an event involving the high priest Matthias ben Theophilus:

Now it happened, that during the time of the high priesthood of this Matthias, there was another person made high priest for a single day, that very day which the Jews observed as a fast. The occasion was this: This Matthias the high priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, (7) to have conversation with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account, Joseph, the son of Ellemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office. But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon. (8)

Two important notes regarding this passage.

First, that "very day which the Jews observed as a fast" was specifically Yom Kippur according to rabbinic tradition. Quoting Jewish Encyclopedia:

On the eve of a Day of Atonement—for the priest the most important time in the year—he had become ritually unclean, and consequently was unable to perform the duties of his office, which were discharged instead by his kinsman Joseph ben Ellem ("Ant." xvii. 6, § 4). This occurrence is mentioned in the Talmud (Tosef., Yoma, i. 4; Yoma 12b; Yer. Yoma 38d), although the name of Matthias ben Theophilus is omitted. [2]

Tractate Yoma in the Tosefta and the Talmuds is all about Yom Kippur services. Quoting Yoma 12b of the Babylonian Talmud:

It happened to Joseph b. Elam of Sepphoris that after a disqualifying accident had happened to the high priest, he was appointed in the former's place [3].

Second, the "very night" when "there was an eclipse of the moon" does not refer to "the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated", or even necessarily to the night immediately following that, but to the night when "Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive", which could have happened a few days after the day observed as a fast.

In 17.6.5, when describing Herod's final illness, Josephus notes that Herod "went beyond the river Jordan, and bathed himself in the warm baths that were at Callirrhoe," until "having no longer the least hopes of recovering".

In 17.9.3, when narrating events shortly after Herod's death, Josephus notes "the approach of that feast of unleavened bread, which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called the Passover".

Even while the only fast day associated with important priestly duties was Yom Kippur, and moreover, that according to rabbinic tradition the event of a high priest becoming unable to perform his duties and being substituted by a "Joseph, the son of Ellemus" was specifically in Yom Kippur, I will list all Jewish fast days at that time, which were "the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months" in Zechariah 8:19 plus the Fast of Esther on Purim eve, 13 Adar, instituted after the time of prophet Zechariah (Esther 9:31).

Month No, month name: Fast day, reason.

4, Tammuz: 9 Tammuz, breach of the walls of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:3-4; Jer 39:2, 52:6–7).

5, Av: 7/10 Av, destruction of the First Temple (2 Kings 25:8-10; Jer 52:12-14).

7, Tishrei: 10 Tishrei, Atonement Day (Yom Kippur) (Lev 16:29-31 and 23:26-28).

10, Tevet: 10 Tevet, beginning of the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1-2).

12/13, Adar/Adar II: 13 Adar/Adar II, the Fast of Esther on Purim eve.

Considering all candidate lunar eclipses, we have:

AJ 17.6.4 - Eclipse -- Moon phase - Eclipse date - AJ 17.9.3 --- Jesus' - Jesus'
lunar  ---- type and - on day of -- in Hebrew ---- Passover ---- birth -- death
eclipse --- midtime -- eclipse ---- calendar ----- (full moon) - years -- year
[4] ------- [5] ------ [6] -------- [7] ---------- [8]

Mar 23, 5 BC - T - 20:21 - Full - 14 Adar II (a) - Apr 11, 4 BC - 7-6 BC - 30 AD
Sep 15, 5 BC - T - 22:12 - Full - 14 Tishrei (b) - Apr 11, 4 BC - 7-6 BC - 30 AD
Mar 13, 4 BC - P - 02:41 - Full - 14 Adar/II (c) - Mar 31, 3 BC - 6-5 BC - 30 AD
Jan 10, 1 BC - T - 01:09 - F.+1 - 15 Shevat (d) -- Apr 07, 1 BC - 4-3 BC - 33 AD
Dec 29, 1 BC - P - 16:32 - Full - 13 Tevet (e) --- Mar 27, 1 AD - 3-2 BC - 33 AD

(a) For Mar 23, 5 BC, the calendar converter [7] calculates 15 Nisan. However, it is possible that the Hebrew year ending that March was embolismic or leap. Quoting the "Hebrew Calendar" entry in Wikipedia:

During leap years Adar I (or Adar Aleph — "first Adar") is added before the regular Adar. Adar I is actually considered to be the extra month, and has 30 days. Adar II (or Adar Bet — "second Adar") is the "real" Adar, and has the usual 29 days. For this reason, holidays such as Purim are observed in Adar II, not Adar I. [9]

Regarding the intercalation of leap years in Herod's time, quoting the "Leap year" entry in Encyclopaedia Judaica:

The intercalation of years was already practiced by the Sanhedrin in the Hasmonean and mishnaic periods. Among the factors then taken into consideration were the ripened state of the Omer ("barley") offered on Passover, and that of the bikkurim ("first fruits") sacrificed on Shavuot. It also depended on whether the roads and bridges were passable so that the pilgrims could go to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and whether the ovens for the paschal-lamb sacrifices were already dry after the rainy season. (See: Tosef., Sanh. 2:12; Sanh. 11aff.) [10]

If the Hebrew year corresponding to Julian year 6-5 bC was leap, Mar 23, 5 bC would have been 14 Adar II instead of 15 Nisan. This fits exactly with the lunar eclipse being on the night following the Fast of Esther on Purim eve, 13 Adar II.

The Passover after Herod's death cannot have been the one immediately after this eclipse, which happened on a full moon, since an interval of 29 days is too short for all the events narrated by Josephus between the eclipse and the Passover after Herod's death.

(b) This is consistent with the "very night" when "there was an eclipse of the moon" not referring to the night immediately following the fast of 10 Tishrei, but to the night when "Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive", with this event happening a few days after 10 Tishrei.

(c) For Mar 13, 4 BC, the calendar converter [7] calculates 14 Adar II, which would have been 14 Adar if the previous Hebrew year was embolismic or leap as said above. Either case, it fits exactly with the lunar eclipse being on the night following the Fast of Esther on Purim eve, 13 Adar or Adar II.

Just as in the Mar 23, 5 BC eclipse, the Passover after Herod's death cannot have been the one immediately after this eclipse, which happened on a full moon, since an interval of 29 days is too short for all the events narrated by Josephus between the eclipse and the Passover after Herod's death.

Importantly, this eclipse was partial and occurred way too late in the night to be likely to be noted and remembered.

(d) No Jewish fast day was near the date of this eclipse.

(e) This eclipse can be directly discarded because, first, it did not occur at night, and second, but more important, it occurred below the horizon and could not be seen from Jerusalem [5]!

Conclusion: the most probable scenario is the eclipse before the final illness of Herod being on Sep 15, 5 BC, and the Passover after Herod's death being on Apr 11, 4 BC.

Since Herod met the Magi in Jerusalem (Mt 2:1,3), the meeting had to be before he left the city some time after Sep 15, 5 BC. Assuming that the meeting occurred within the 1-year interval Sep 6 BC - Sep 5 BC, and that Herod's subsequent order to execute all babies in the area "two years old and under" reflected his own uncertainty about Jesus' date of birth "in accordance with the time (of the star's appearance) he had ascertained from the magi" (Mt 2:7,16), Jesus could have been born between 2 years before the start and 6 months before the end of that interval, i.e. between Sep 8 BC - March 5 BC.

References

[1] Antiquities of the Jews - Book XVII

[2] Jewish Encyclopedia

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma

[4] NASA. "Catalog of Lunar Eclipses: -0099 to 0000 (100 BCE to 1 BCE)". Online at: NASA Eclipse Web Site (On that page, 1 bC = 0000, 2 bC = -0001, and 4 bC = -0003.)

[5] NASA's Javascript Lunar Eclipse Explorer for Asia and Asia Minor, at NASA Eclipse Web Site

[6] Phases of the Moon: -0099 to 0000 (0100 to 0001 BCE)

[7] Calendar Converter

[8] United States Naval Observatory (USNO). "Spring Phenomena, 25 BCE to 38 CE". Online at: Spring Phenomena 25 BCE to 38 CE (lately available only through google cache, accessed searching for the page title.)

[9] Hebrew calendar

[10] LEAP YEAR - Jewish Virtual Library

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