When was Jesus born? Scholars do not agree.
Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, there are stories in the press and articles online about the date of the Birth of Christ. These stories, articles, blog posts, online discussions, etc. are typically not based on any substantial knowledge of Biblical chronology. They offer superficial explanations which ignore the complexities of this issue. A neat and seemingly comprehensive answer to the question of when Jesus was born can only be arrived at by an overly-simplistic approach, which glosses over the complexities of the subject.
The vast majority of the more prominent explanations for the date of Christ’s Birth are written by persons who have not studied the field of Biblical chronology, and have written no books on the subject. They are ignorant of the subject area and ignorant of the work of those scholars who specialize in chronology. They write for an audience that has no toleration for lengthy complex discussions; their facile answers to complex questions are readily accepted by their readers (for reasons which escape my understanding). Do not imitate them.
This post is an overview of the complexities involved in determining the date of Jesus’ Birth. A full treatment of the question cannot fit into even a lengthy article or post.
Biblical chronologists do not agree on the year of the Birth of Jesus Christ. The dates suggested by these scholars range from 15 BC to 1 BC. There is no majority opinion among scholar on the year of Christ’s Birth.
A suggested year for the Lord’s Birth must take into account many different considerations:
* The census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
* The association between the census and Quirinius (Lk 2:2).
* The possible dates when Quirinius was governor (or ruler) of Syria.
* The second census under Quirinius, versus the first.
* The identification of the Christmas star followed by the Magi.
* The correlation between the BC/AD calendar and the different calendar systems of that time.
* The dates for the reigns of the Roman emperors, especially Augustus and Tiberius.
* The date for the massacre of the holy Innocents and the subsequent death of Herod.
* The date of the lunar eclipse mentioned by Josephus as occurring prior to the death of Herod.
* The age of Christ at His Crucifixion and the year of that event.
* The timing of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in the Jewish calendar.
A suggested month and/or day for the Birth of Jesus must account for:
* The timing of the service of Zechariah in the Temple, after which John the Baptist was conceived.
* The timing of the birth of John the Baptist and his age relative to that of Christ.
* The timing of the Incarnation relative to the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
* A reconstruction of the Jewish calendar in that time period.
* The explanation for the shepherd’s being in the fields at night, whether it was winter or not.
* The timing of the journey of the Magi relative to the appearance of the Christmas star.
* Varying Christian traditions on the day and month of Jesus’ Birth.
The facile explanations that can be found on various websites and blogs do not account for all, or even most, of the above factors. And the in-depth treatment of the above considerations by scholars has not resulted in a general consensus on most points.
My suggested date for the Birth of Jesus is found in my book of New Testament Biblical chronology:
Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary
For a good scholarly comprehensive summary of the field of Biblical chronology, see:
Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, revised edition, 1999.