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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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7 Answers 7

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+50

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
    Commented Sep 9, 2011 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. Commented Sep 9, 2011 at 16:33
  • I added a further sentence (with footnote pointer) to the quotation so you can see how the source is used. Commented Sep 9, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 4:12
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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. Commented Jan 11, 2013 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
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 12:51
  • @JoelCoehoorn: Do you have evidence for that statement? Frank 1924 puts the duration of census at between one and three years, and the current table of census years suggests that it would not have taken more than five years.
    – Corbin
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 14:36
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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 ----- (Nisan 15) - years -- year
[4] ------- [5] ------ [6] -------- [6] ---------- [6]

a. Mar 23, 5 BC - T - 20:21 - Full - 15 Nisan --- Mar 24, 5 BC    
b. Sep 15, 5 BC - T - 22:12 - Full - 13 Tishrei - Apr 12, 4 BC - 7-6 BC - 30 AD
c. Mar 13, 4 BC - P - 02:41 - Full - 14 Adar II - Apr 12, 4 BC
d. Jan 10, 1 BC - T - 01:09 - Full - 13 Tevet --- Apr 09, 1 BC - 4-3 BC - 33 AD
e. Dec 29, 1 BC - P - 16:32 - Full - 13 Tevet --- Mar 30, 1 AD

Day 1 of months in the Hebrew Calendar are determined through these 2 steps:

  1. Find the date and time of the previous new moon, NM_date & NM_time [11].

If NM_time < 12:00
    then Month.1 = since (NM_date + 1) sunset to (NM_date + 2) sunset
If NM_time > 12:00
    then Month.1 = since (NM_date + 2) sunset to (NM_date + 3) sunset

a. 5 BC

New Moon = Mar  8  04:45
Nisan  1 = since Mar  9 sunset to Mar 10 sunset
     +14            +14
Nisan 15 = since Mar 23 sunset to Mar 24 sunset. Eclipse at Mar 23 20:21.

Since the eclipse was at the beginning of the day of Passover, it is directly excluded. Even if the previous lunisolar year had been embolismic and the month that started on Mar 9 - Mar 10 had been Adar II, this eclipse would be excluded 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. 5 BC

New Moon = Sep  1  18:10
Tishrei  1 = since Sep  3 sunset to Sep  4 sunset
       +12            +12
Tishrei 13 = since Sep 15 sunset to Sep 16 sunset. Eclipse at Sep 15 22:12.

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 3 days after 10 Tishrei.

c. 4 BC (has Adar II)

New Moon = Feb 25  18:33
Adar II  1 = since Feb 27 sunset to Feb 28 sunset
       +13                             +13
Adar II 14 = since Mar 12 sunset to Mar 13 sunset. Eclipse at Mar 13 02:41.

New Moon = Mar 27  03:59
Nisan  1 = since Mar 28 sunset to Mar 29 sunset
     +14                             +14
Nisan 15 = since Apr 11 sunset to Apr 12 sunset

Just as it would have been the case with the 23 Mar 5 BC eclipse if the previous lunisolar year had been embolismic, this eclipse is excluded since an interval of 30 days is too short for all the events narrated by Josephus between the eclipse and the Passover after Herod's death. Additionally, this eclipse was partial and occurred way too late in the night to be likely to be noted and remembered.

d. 2 BC (has Adar II)

New Moon = Dec 26  15:58
Tevet  1 = since Dec 28 sunset to Dec 29 sunset
     +12                             +12
Tevet 13 = since Jan  9 sunset to Jan 10 sunset. Eclipse at Jan 10 01:09.

1 BC

New Moon = Mar 24  11:48
Nisan  1 = since Mar 25 sunset to Mar 26 sunset
     +14                             +14
Nisan 15 = since Apr  8 sunset to Apr  9 sunset

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 Tevet 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 3 days after 10 Tevet.

e. 1 BC

New Moon = Dec 14  15:11
Tevet  1 = since Dec 16 sunset to Dec 17 sunset
     +12                             +12
Tevet 13 = since Dec 28 sunset to Dec 29 sunset. Eclipse at Dec 29 16:32.

1 AD

New Moon = Mar 13  20:49
Nisan  1 = since Mar 15 sunset to Mar 16 sunset
     +14                             +14
Nisan 15 = since Mar 29 sunset to Mar 30 sunset

This eclipse is directly excluded 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: Whereas in principle both scenarios b and d are possible, from the facts that the only fast day associated with important priestly duties was Yom Kippur and 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 on Yom Kippur, it is clear that the most probable scenario is b, the eclipse before Herod's final illness being on Sep 15, 5 BC and the Passover after Herod's death being on Apr 12, 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) Phases of the Moon: 0001 to 0100

[7] Calendar Converter

[8] Historical solstices and equinoxes

[9] Hebrew calendar

[10] LEAP YEAR - Jewish Virtual Library

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  • What do you make of Joel Coehorn's answer about typesetting error: "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:" ? Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 10:47
  • The first quoted passage from Antiquities Book XVII in my answer is not a "typesetting error", and it is what decides between scenarios b and d. I stand by my conclusion above.
    – Johannes
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 1:18
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A study of the document produced by Dionysius Exiguus about 5 hundred years after Christ's birth, reveals not only his intent but the intent of God himself. The BC/AD timeline was created by the appearance of Christ himself in the flesh. This was clearly the position of Mr. DE. Time before Christ was labeled BC and his Latin gave the Anno Domini--AD-- meaning--in the year of our Lord. Dating Christ's birth by man has been a backward proposal. One doesn't discover the year of Christ's birth. His birth began and created the BC/AD time frame. This was true in Mr. DE's document. Christ's birth set the dividing line for BC/AD, at least it did for Mr. DE. The Herod dating is off center, of course, because Herod cannot die before Christ. Herod must die in the year of our Lord and this fact is completely upheld by scripture, yet disregarded by man's scholarship. Our 20/21 century attempts to find the birth year of Christ has always been and remains right under our nose. For every one's birth year on earth is derived from the 1/1/1--the first day of the first month in the first year of our Lord. The BC/AD time line may be changed to BCE/CE in labels but the birth of Christ, the Son of God, remains to be so powerful that all of time and all dates, point to God coming in the flesh. Don't use Herod as the benchmark, use Christ!

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  • Can you specify which writings of Dionysius Exiguus prove this? You're probably right that he had a hand in the way we date things, but I'd like to know what exactly he used as a rationale.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 19:42
  • hbar.phys.msu.su/gorm/chrono/paschata.htm Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 21:30
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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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I believe that Jesus is born at the year 7 B.C. because it is revealed:

122:8.1All that night Mary was restless so that neither of them slept much. By the break of day the pangs of childbirth were well in evidence, and at noon, August 21, 7 B.C., with the help and kind ministrations of women fellow travelers, Mary was delivered of a male child. Jesus of Nazareth was born into the world, was wrapped in the clothes which Mary had brought along for such a possible contingency, and laid in a near-by manger.

Reference:
https://truthbook.com/jesus/mary-mother-of-jesus/events-of-jesus-birth

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    Why do you think that webpage is particularly reliable? What arguments do they give to support that date? No one else is even trying to pin point a single day! What do they know that no one else does?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 12:55
  • @curiousdannii It seems that there is a major problem which prevents theologians to believe such revelations. In that case, I apologize that I can't give anymore credibility and that I will leave you to believe it by faith. Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 9:12
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    Unless this view is espoused by some group of Christians then it's just opinion. Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 17:37

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