In his 1915 classic entitled Jesus the Christ, Elder James E. Talmage maintained that Jesus Christ was born on April 6 in the year 1 BC.1 Talmage was apparently the first LDS writer to propose this particular date. Nearly a century has passed since his book appeared, and in that time it has become practically axiomatic among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was born on April 6 of 1 BC.
The above quote comes from the January 2011 issue of BYU Studies. Jeffrey Chadwick has undertaken a study to figure out when Jesus was born, and he comes to the conclusion that December was the correct month. Trying to precisely date the birth of Jesus is problematic, because Luke and Matthew can’t even agree on when Jesus was born.
The Gospel of Luke states that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem due to a census that was being taken when Ceasar Augustus was head of the Roman Empire and Cyrenius (also spelled Quirinius) was governor of Syria. A footnote for the New American Bible (a Catholic study Bible) states:
Although universal registrations of Roman citizens are attested in 28 BC, 8 BC, and AD 14, and enrollments of individual provinces of those who are not Roman citizens are also attested, such a universal census of the Roman world under Ceasar Augustus is unknown outside the New Testament. Moreover, there are notorious historical problems connected with Luke’s dating the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria and the various attempts to resolve the difficulties have proved unsuccessful.
P. Sulpicius Quirinius became a legate of the province of Syria in AD 6-7 when Judea was annexed to the province of Syria. At that time, a provincial census of Judea was taken up. If Quirinius had been legate of Syria previously, it would have been before 10 BC because of the various legates of Syria from 10 BC to 4 BC (the death of Herod) are known, and such a dating for an earlier census under Quirinius would create additional problems for dating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
A previous legateship after 4 BC (and before AD 8 ) would not fit with the dating of Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod. Luke may simply be combining Jesus’ birth in Bethelehem with his vague recollection of a census under Quirinius to underline the significance of this birth for the whole Roman world: through this child born in Bethlehem peace and salvation came to the empire.
The Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus was a decade earlier than Luke. In Matthew, Jesus was born just before Herod’s death. Chadwick takes considerable effort to precisely date Herod’s death. The ancient historian Josephus recorded a lunar eclipse 10 days to 2 weeks prior to Herod’s death. Astronomical research places this eclipse on March 13 in 4 BC, so Herod’s death must have occurred in late March or early April of 4 BC. Most scholars generally agree that Herod died in 4 BC, placing Jesus’ birth some time before 4 BC. (Chadwick notes another eclipse occurred in September 15 of 5 BC, but argues that
this date fell months prior to Passover and is otherwise difficult to reconcile with the known length of time Herod is recorded to have reigned, as noted by Thomas A. Wayment’s study. Wayment–and Brown, Griggs, and Hansen before him–seem willing to at least consider the September 15 eclipse of 5 BC as the one mentioned by Josephus, but they seem more convinced by the 4 BC eclipse of March 13.36 The present study argues that a September eclipse and November death date for Herod in 5 BC are not possible in view of what is known about the length of Jesus’s life.
Chadwick notes many other historical pieces to the puzzle, but I want to hit the crux of why he thinks Jesus was born on December. Though most scholars believe that the census in Luke was not related to the birth of Jesus, Chadwick calculates that Gabriel appeared to Mary (also known as “the Anunciation of Mary”)
to announce to Mary that she would conceive and bring froth a son to be named Jesus (see Luke 1:27-31). In the Jewish context of this account, this would mean that the month of Adar, the sixth month of the Jewish year occurred from mid-to-late February to mid-to-late March….
From the account in Luke it appears that the Annunciation actually occurred near the end of Adar (mid-to-late March) and that Mary conceived immediately or within a day or two of the angel’s visit. This is all evident because Luke reported that after the Annunciation Mary traveled “with haste” (immediately) to Judea, where she stayed for three months with her older kinswoman Elisabeth, and that the older woman, six months pregnant with her own child, instantly recognized that Mary was also carrying a child in her womb (see Luke 2:39-43).
Of course, nine months after March would put Jesus birth in December. Chadwick goes on to say that “it is quite possible, perhaps even probable that Jesus was born during Hanakkuh at the end of 5 BC.”
Now, I’m sure this flies in the face of conventional LDS thought. Chadwick references other studies of the birth of Jesus and notes problems with the dates proposed. Here is a summary.
April of 1 BC. As mentioned earlier, this is the date proposed by Elder James E Talmage in Jesus the Christ. However, since it has been demonstrated that Herod died in 4 BC, the year is wrong.
April of 4 BC. Orson Pratt and Bruce R. McConkie have postulated a date of April 11 for this year. Chadwick states
Herod died within days of the beginning of April that year, and Jesus has to have been born at least two months, and more likely three to four months, prior to Herod’s death in order for all the events described in Luke and Matthew to have taken place before Herod’s passing. This would push the latest historically plausible date for Jesus’s birth to December of 5 BC.
April of 5 BC. Chadwick explains why this date is unworkable as well.
Any date in April of 5 BC, whether it be April 6 or some other day, is likewise unworkable as the natal date of Jesus. The death of Jesus must have occurred in early April of AD 30, the only other year in which Passover fell late in the week and which also allows Jesus to have lived thirty-three full years from his birth. But April of 5 BC was thirty-four full years prior to Jesus’s death, and the language of the Book of Mormon does not allow for thirty-four full years to have passed from Jesus’s birth to his death.
Spring or Autumn of 5 BC. Chadwick rules out Autumn as well, because the Annunciation of Mary occurred in the Jewish month of Adar, corresponding to March. As for any other spring date, Chadwick notes that other authors have also excluded Spring or Summer dates as well.
Dates in 6 or 7 BC. Chadwick notes that some non-LDS scholars have proposed earlier dates. Some reference that Herod wanted all children two years and younger killed, so they have proposed an earlier date. Such dates would put Passover on a Tuesday at the death of Christ, making him stay in the tomb longer than the requisite three days recorded in the Gospels. Earlier dates would also conflict with John the Baptist’s ministry that occurred
“in the fifteenth year in the reign of Tiberius Ceasar” (Luke 3:1), the commencement of which can be confidently dated to autumn A.D. 27. Jesus cannot have died in the same year that John began preaching, since Jesus himself only began preaching at Passover (spring AD 28), just months after John’s advent.