First published in the Bridge Magazine, December 2018
When was Jesus really born?
Combine all that fuss about Christmas, with our Anno Domini calendar system, and you might imagine that Jesus was born in 1AD on December 25th. The problem is, there’s nothing in the Bible to point us to December 25th, and lots of evidence in the Bible to suggest Jesus was born several years earlier!
This lack of clarity over when Jesus was born has led some sceptics to be very critical of Christian claims about the birth of Jesus. In his God Delusion, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins dismisses the evidence for Jesus’ birth as a load of historical nonsense[i]. But is he right? What can we know for sure about when Jesus was born?
First, let’s deal with the obvious: in Jesus day there was no system for registering births with the state, so we don’t have the sort of details about Jesus’ birth that would be a matter of public record about any birth today. The exact time and date of his birth, and what he weighed, are a mystery, though it’s reasonable to assume that Mum and baby were in a stable condition.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t make a plausible estimate about when he was born. The gospel writers Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod (who most historians reckon died in 4BC[ii]). Luke later tells us that Jesus was “about thirty” years old in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (28AD). So if Jesus was born no later than 4BC, and was still “about 30” in 28AD, then he had to have been born in 6-4BC.
Which would all be fine if the Gospel of Luke didn’t also tell us that Jesus was born after Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to register for a census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is a problem because Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6AD, ten years after Herod died. So it looks like Luke made a mistake, and there’s an error in the Bible! Perhaps Dawkins is right after all?
Or perhaps not. As you can imagine, the historians have been poring over this question for many years, and have offered a number of possible explanations.
It could be that Quirinius was governor of Syria more than once: not only in 6-12AD but also during the period 4BC-1BC when we don’t know who was governor[iii]. If he’d begun a census in this earlier period, then there’s no problem with what Luke says. Sadly there’s no conclusive evidence to prove this, though there are some interesting hints it might have been the case. An archaeological find known as the Antioch Stones dated somewhere between 11-1BC, places Quirinius in Syria at this time, and the Roman historian Tacitus also seems to place him in the area in 4-3BC[iv]. Another archaeological find known as the Lapis Tiburtinus, refers to an un-named person going to Asia to take on a senior role for the second time. This could be Quirinius, but without a name, we can never know for certain.[v]
Another possible explanation is that Luke is referring to a census that began before Jesus’ birth, but which wasn’t completed until Quirinius was governor in 6AD (some Roman censuses took as long as 40 years to complete). This is a plausible theory, but until evidence of such a census is found, it is only just a theory.
Perhaps more likely is that many of our modern Bibles mistranslate the rather ambiguous language that Luke uses about the census. The New International Version which we use in many of our services, states:
This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
However Greek word orders are very different to English, and the word translated as “first” can also be translated as “before”. The Greek scholar and historian NT Wright suggests a better translation would be,
This was the first registration, before the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[vi]
This actually makes a lot of sense grammatically and historically, because the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6AD was notorious: it lead to revolution and the imposition of direct Roman rule on Israel.
Sadly, until more historical evidence emerges, we can’t know which explanation is right, but as things stand, no archaeological discovery has proven Luke wrong. In fact, the opposite is true, which does rather undermine Dawkins’ “historical nonsense” argument.
What then can we conclude from all this? That the checkable facts in Luke and Matthew’s accounts, suggest that Jesus was born no later than 4BC and possibly as early as 6BC.
Which is all of course rather embarrassing for the inventor of the Anno Domini system, a 6th century monk called Dionysius Exiguus. Either he hadn’t read his Bible very accurately, or more likely, he made a mistake when translating the Roman calendar system into his new format. And once his flawed Anno Domini system was popularised by a 7th century monk called Bede, based in my home town of Sunderland (and former parish of Jarrow) it was more than anyone’s job was worth to correct the error!
[i] Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, p93-95
[ii] For details of Herod’s death, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great
[iv] Tacitus, Annales, iii. 48
[v] For a sceptical view of the evidence about Quirinius see https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html
[vi] For more information on how Luke 2:2 can be translated, see http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2004/12/luke-census-and-quirinius-matter-of.html