The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical reference, but most theologians assume a year of birth between 6 BC and 4 BC. The historical evidence is too incomplete to allow a definitive dating, but the year is estimated through two different approaches—one by analyzing references to known historical events mentioned in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and the second by working backward from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus. The day or season has been estimated by various methods, including the description of shepherds watching over their sheep.
The nativity accounts in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke do not mention a date or time of year for the birth of Jesus.Karl Rahner states that the authors of the gospels generally focused on theological elements rather than historical chronologies.
Both Luke and Matthew associate Jesus' birth with the time of Herod the Great.Matthew 2:1 states that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king". He also implies that Jesus could have been as much as two years old at the time of the visit of the Magi, because Herod ordered the murder of all boys up to the age of two years, "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi". Matthew 2:16 However, if the phrase "about 30" is interpreted to mean 32 years old, this could fit a date of birth just within the reign of Herod, who died in 4 BC.
Luke 1:5 mentions the reign of Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus, and places the birth during the Census of Quirinius, which the Jewish historian Josephus described as taking place circa AD 6 in his book Antiquities of the Jews (written c. AD 93), by indicating that Cyrenius/Quirinius' governorship of Syria began in AD 6 and a census took place during his tenure sometime between AD 6–7. As a result, most scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 and 4 BC, the year in which Herod died.Tertullian believed, some two centuries later, that a number of censuses were performed throughout the Roman world under Saturninus at the same time. Some biblical scholars and commentators believe the two accounts can be harmonised, arguing that the text in Luke can be read as "registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria", i.e. that Luke was actually referring to a completely different census.
Other gospel evidence
Dispute of Jesus and the Pharisees, by James Tissot, c. 1890
Another approach to estimating the year of birth is based on an attempt to work backwards from when Jesus began preaching, using the statement in Luke 3:23 that he was "about 30 years of age" at that time. Jesus began to preach after being baptised by John the Baptist, and based on Luke’s gospel John only began baptizing people in "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1–2), which scholars estimate would place the year at about AD 28–29. By working backwards from this, it would appear that Jesus was probably born no later than 1 BC. Another theory is that Herod's death was as late as after the January eclipse of 1 BC or even AD 1 after the eclipse that occurred in December 1 BC.
This date is independently confirmed by John's reference in John 2:20 to the Temple being in its 46th year of construction when Jesus began his ministry during Passover, which corresponds to around 27–29 AD according to scholarly estimates.
Day and season
Despite the modern celebration of Christmas in December, neither the Gospel of Luke nor Gospel of Matthew mention a season for Jesus' birth. Scholarly arguments have been made regarding whether shepherds would have been grazing their flock during the winter, with some scholars challenging a winter birth for Jesus and some defending the idea by citing the mildness of winters in ancient Israel and rabbinic rules regarding sheep near Bethlehem before February.
Alexander Murray of History Today argues that the celebration of Christmas as the birth day of Jesus is based on a date of a pagan feast rather than historical analysis.Saturnalia, the Roman feast for Saturn, was associated with the winter solstice. Saturnalia was held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities up through 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and in the Roman Forum, as well as a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms. The Roman festival of Natalis Solis Invicti has also been suggested, since it was celebrated on December 25th and was associated with some prominent emperors. It is likely that such a Christian feast was chosen for Christ's marked contrast and triumph over paganism; indeed, new converts who attempted to introduce pagan elements into the Christian celebrations were sharply rebuked.
Alternately, December 25 may have been selected due to its proximity to the winter solstice because of its symbolic theological significance. After the solstice, the days begin to lengthen with longer hours of sunlight, which Christians see as representing the Light of Christ entering the world. This mirrors the celebration of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, near the summer solstice; John said of Jesus "He must increase, I must decrease." John 3:30 NRSV
In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Lord's Day (Sunday) was the earliest Christian celebration and included a number of theological themes. In the 2nd century, the Resurrection of Jesus became a separate feast (now called Easter) and in the same century Epiphany began to be celebrated in the Eastern Churches on 6 January. The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated.
The earliest source stating 25 December as the date of birth of Jesus is likely a book by Hippolytus of Rome, written in the early 3rd century. He based his view on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which Hippolytus placed on 25 March, and then added nine months to calculate the date of birth. That date was then used for the Christmas celebration. 25 March would also roughly be the date of his crucifixion, which ancient Christians would have seen as confirming the date of his birth, since many people of that era held the belief that the great prophets were conceived into the afterlife on the same date they were conceived into the world.John Chrysostom also argued for a 25 December date in the late 4th century, basing his argument on the assumption that the offering of incense mentioned in Luke 1:8–11 refers to the offering of incense by a high priest on Yom Kippur (early October), and, as above, counting fifteen months forward. However, this was very likely a retrospective justification of a choice already made rather than a genuine attempt to derive the correct birth date.
Lastly, 25 December might be a reference to the date of the Feast of Dedication, which occurs on 25 Kislev of the Jewish calendar. This would require that early Christians simply translated Kislev directly to December.
^Doggett. (2000). "Calendars" (Ch. 12), in P. Kenneth Seidelmann (Ed.) Explanatory supplement to the astronomical almanac. Sausalito, CA: University Science Books. ISBN0-935702-68-7. p579: "Although scholars generally believe that Christ was born some years before AD 1, the historical evidence is too sketchy to allow a definitive dating".
^ abPaul L. Maier "The Date of the Nativity and Chronology of Jesus" in Chronos, kairos, Christos: Nativity and chronological studies by Jerry Vardaman, Edwin M. Yamauchi 1989 ISBN0-931464-50-1 pp. 113–129
^Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum Mundi by Karl Rahner 2004 ISBN0-86012-006-6 p. 731 /ref> Karl Rahner states that the gospels do not, in general, provide enough details of dates to satisfy the demands of modern historians. Most mainline scholars do not see the Luke and Matthew nativity stories as historically factual according to Marcus Borg ("The Meaning of the Birth Stories" in Marcus Borg, N T Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (Harper One, 1999) page 179: "I (and most mainline scholars) do not see these stories as historically factual.")
^Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. Harper, San Francisco. 1998 page 499: “There is very little in the two infancy narratives that reflects historical reminiscence.” For this reason, they do not consider them a reliable method for determining Jesus' date of birth. (Sanders, E. P. The historical figure of Jesus. Penguin, 1993, pages 85–88)
Merz, Annette (2015). "The Quest for the Historical Jesus". In Van Kooten, George H.; Barthel, Peter (eds.). The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy. BRILL. ISBN9789004308473.