The previous blog post discussed whether Jesus was born on December 25. What is known about the year of His birth? Was He born in 1 AD?
Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, who ruled from 44 BC to 14 AD, and while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2). Quirinius’ first term was from 7 BC to 1 BC.
Herod the Great was king over Israel at this time (Matthew 2:1). This is the father of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, who executed John the Baptist and tried Jesus.
Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, says Herod died shortly before Passover after a lunar eclipse. This eclipse has long been assumed to be the one of March 13, 4 BC, with Passover on April 11, leading to the generally accepted belief that Herod died in 4 BC.
But this eclipse was only partial (40%) and hard to see in Judea. It’s also unlikely Herod could have accomplished everything Josephus describes between the eclipse (March 13) and Herod’s death (before April 11), including two complete royal household moves with a sick, near-death Herod.
Another alternative is the total lunar eclipse that occurred in Judea on January 10, 1 BC, three months before Passover. This gives time for Josephus’ events between the eclipse and Herod’s death.
Moreover the church fathers Irenaeus (130-200 AD), Tertullian (160-225 AD), and Eusebius (263-339 AD) all say Jesus was born 15 years before Caesar Augustus died (14 AD) and 28 years after Cleopatra’s death (30 BC). This would place His birth in 2 BC, since there is no year 0.
Furthermore, in 2 BC there was a census marking the 25th anniversary of Augustus being named “Emperor” in 27 BC.
Whether Herod died in 4 BC or 1 BC matters only as a limiting date for Jesus’ birth. We do not know the length of time between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death to calculate back from Herod’s death date to Jesus’ birth date.
We don’t know precisely how long it was from Christ’s birth until the departure for Egypt caused by the magi’s visit. Matthew says Herod killed Bethlehem’s boys age two and under after the magi’s departure. Presumably Herod added time to ensure catching the baby king. Jesus was probably 6 to 18 months old when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, but we don’t know exactly.
We don’t know how long Jesus stayed in Egypt (was it months or years?) before news of Herod’s death via an angel prompted His family’s return to Israel.
Thus the unknown time from birth to Egypt, plus the completely unknown sojourn in Egypt precludes the use of Herod’s death date to determine Jesus’ birth year.
We don’t have enough data from either Biblical or historical records to be sure about the year, and the historical data we do have contradicts itself. Jesus was probably born sometime between 7 BC and 2 BC.
How could Jesus have been born in a BC year? The modern BC/AD calendar was not devised until 525 AD when Pope John I assigned Dionysius to standardize the calendar for the western Church. Dionysius made a mistake in his calculations, with the result that Jesus was really born before 1 AD.
We don’t know Jesus’ birth date. The key is that Jesus of Nazareth was born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. History and Scripture both abundantly testify to this. Not knowing the birth date does not affect the fact or significance of His birth. Christmas is a time to gratefully remember the birth of the Savior who came to die for mankind’s sin.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Read the prequel:
What Day Was Jesus Born?
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Monday December 14, 2009 A.D.
Read my December 2009 Bible-Science newspaper column:
When Was Jesus Born?