Friday, January 2, 2015

The Year Of Jesus' Birth

Question: In what year was Jesus born? 

AP: According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born during the days of Herod the Great. But Luke states that the Nazarene was born precisely in the year in which the emperor Augustus had ordered a universal census, while a man named Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-6). All we know through the historian Josephus is that Quirinius arrived in the province around A.D. 6 or 7, and then he conducted the census.

On the other hand, the chronology of ancient history teaches us that Herod the Great died in the twenty-seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar. In other words, he died in 4 B.C. If we add one or two years to these four years before our era—it is said that Jesus lived in Bethlehem before the killing of innocents—then, we arrive at the year 6 or 5 B.C. for Jesus’ birth.

So, between Matthew’s news about Herod’s cruel actions and Luke’s calculations about the date, there is a difference of more than ten years! Where is the truth? Matthew probably comes closest to it, because the data on the census that Luke offers are suspect.


TWH: Pinpointing the exact year of Jesus’ birth is difficult. Actually, with the evidence that we have at present, no definite answer can be offered. Nevertheless, we can make some important observations, as Antonio pointed out. Both Matthew and Luke point out that Herod the Great was still reigning over the Jews at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew 2:1 reads, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi coming from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” Luke 1:5a makes the connection as well, only his is provided in the discourse introducing John the Baptist’s birth. It reads, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah.” This Herod died in 4 B.C. (for a discussion, see Federico M. Colautti, Passover in the Works of Josephus [Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002], pp. 97ff.).

If Herod died in 4 B.C., then it is necessary for Jesus to have been born between 6 and 4 B.C. Why? Because Matt. 2:7, 16 tells us that Herod issued an order to kill all the male children who were two years old and under.

As far as the governorship of Quirinius goes, we know that he was governor of Syria in A.D. 6 at the time of a census (but that doesn't necessarily refer to this one). That’s the problem that Antonio references. Strong arguments can be made that Quirinius was part of a dual reign governorship before A.D. 6 (e.g., the Lapis Tiburtinus). And there is strong evidence to support that censuses were taking place about every seven/fourteen years in the Empire (see, for example, Roger S. Bagnall, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: Sources and Approaches [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006], 255-265). If we use the dates of census records in Egypt and count backwards, we land at a date closer than the ten year interval that Antonio mentioned. What then would explain the shorter differential? One likelihood could be a period of unrest in Israel, either prolonging the amount of time to conduct the census or postponing it.

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