Reassessing the Birth of Jesus

In a 2010 article in BYU Studies, Professor Jeffrey R. Chadwick of BYU made the case that Jesus was born in December of 5 BC.  In the most recent issue of BYU studies, professors Lincoln Blumel and Thomas Wayment review Chadwick’s article and make the case that

his handling of certain ancient sources, including the Book of Mormon, was problematic.We are convinced that the primary evidence does not allow one to pinpoint a year, let alone a month, for the birth of Christ with any degree of certitude.

One of the biggest problems with dating the birth of Christ is that the Gospels themselves don’t agree.  Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Christ, while Matthew and Luke give years that are off by a decade.  Blumel and Wayment (B&W) discuss the problem.

Matthew and Luke link the birth of Jesus with the tenure of Herod, who died in the spring of 4 BC.  In many respects, the death of Herod provides a terminus post quem for Jesus birth, since according to Matthew 2:15, 19 and Luke 1:5, Herod was alive when Jesus was still a child.24 Combined with the evidence of Herod’s death in the spring of 4 BC, it seems reasonable to conclude that the date of Jesus’s birth should be pushed back into the previous year, if not more, to account for Jesus being two years old and under.

Luke tells us that a census was conducted, causing Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem.  This census is problematic, because we have no record of a census occurring around 4 BC.  Instead the census was closer to 6 or 7 AD with Cyrenius (also known as Quirinius) was governor.

The association of the birth of Jesus with the census, referred to as taxation in the KJV (Greek apographe), is considered by many scholars to be an erroneous statement by Luke.33  Clearly a birth date under Herod the Great (before his death in 4 BC) that was also during the census of Cyrenius (AD 6 or 7) is not historically possible unless some further evidence is brought to light that would indicate an earlier census of which we are currently unaware or some other piece of evidence that would resolve the issue.

B&W note that early church fathers had little to say outside the gospel accounts. These early fathers had little to say about the birth of Christ (even though they may have had access to records no longer available.)  B&W show that the earliest leaders did not agree with each other, and often gave approximations for the birth of Christ.  They summarized their findings in the following table.

Dates proposed by Various Early Christian Writers for the Birth of Christ
Irenaeus of Lyons Forty-first year of the reign of Augustus, reckoning from either 44 or 43 BC = 4 or 3 BC
Clement of Alexandria Twenty-eighth year of Augustus, 24/25 Pharmuthi and Pachon 25, reckoning from 30 BC = April 19 or 20, 2 BC and May 20, 2 BC
Tertullian of Carthage Forty-first year of the empire of Augustus, reckoning from 43 BC = 3 BC or possibly 2 BC
Julius Africanus 5500 years since creation = 2 BC
Eusebius of Caesarea Forty-second year of the reign of Augustus and  twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt/ third year of the 194 Olympiad = 2 BC

Chadwick used the Book of Mormon to make his case, but B&W note problems with this approach.  They listed 8 reasons, but I will show the 4 that seemed most compelling to me.

  1. We cannot be certain of the number of months in a calendar year: eleven is the highest number of months mentioned in a single year (Alma 49:1).  We are also uncertain on the number of days in a Nephite month.
  2. The Book of Mormon counts 600 years between Lehi’s departure and the birth of Jesus, which according to our modern calendar occurred in less than 600 years.
  3. The Book of Mormon authors referred to time using recognizable terms: days, weeks, months, and years, but without any indication of how many days there were in a year or month, both of which are crucial to determining the use of a lunar calendar.
  4. The dates on the bottom of the page in the printed edition of the Book of Mormon are often approximations.  Because certain date-able events are mentioned (for instance, the first year of the reign of Zedekia in 597 BC), we realize that there are discrepancies between our calendar and theirs.

Chadwick also makes use of the death of Christ to back-calculate Christ’s birth, but that is problematic as well.  The gospels differ on what day Christ was born, but that could be the result that Passover was not precisely known by the Jews.  Because they operated on a lunar calendar, the new month had to occur on the date of the new moon.  If the weather was cloudy, it was hard to know when a new month started, and ancient Jews were frequently off a day or two.  Sometimes they celebrated Passover twice so by celebrating it twice they would hope to get it right.72

The authors conclude that this problem is

extraordinarily complex.  To offer a compelling case regarding the date of Jesus’s birth, one must exclude certain pieces of information as well as weight some pieces of evidence as more important than others.  While we appreciate Chadwick’s attempt to untangle this Gordian knot, we ultimately feel that the argument that Jesus was born in December of 5 BC is flawed and does not adequately take account of all the diverse evidence.  In all likelihood, the evidence supporting Jesus’s birth probably cannot justify more than to say that Jesus was born before Herod the Great passed away in the spring of 4 BC and probably not earlier than 6 BC, and that he died under the prefecture of Pontius Pilate.  Am ambiguous solution is at times frustrating to many readers, but until further evidence comes forward, our current sources will permit only opinions beyond those boundaries.

What are your conclusions about the birth of Jesus?


6 comments on “Reassessing the Birth of Jesus

  1. […] I still think this video is the best take on the “war” ever!! (And for fun, some historical notes on the Jesus […]

  2. I had to do a Priesthood lesson on the birth of Christ last year. It gave me a headache trying to work it all out.

    The explanation that I found for the census mention in Luke. There was an earlier census in 14 bc, I think from memory, while an census might have been called, in Rome, it sometimes took a few years for it to filter down to the outer provinces.

  3. Yes, I’ve heard of a census in 14 BC, but 14 years for a census seems not really plausible.

  4. There was apparently another one in 8 BC. while there may have been earlier census’s the mention of Cyrenius is problematic.

  5. “Chadwick also makes use of the death of Christ to back-calculate Christ’s birth, but that is problematic as well.”

    I never even thought of this. Assuming that Jesus was about 33 when he died, what date(s) would that make for a birth? I assume we are more sure of the year that event.

  6. Jettboy, I encourage you to review my review of the Chadwick article. He gives several dates given by prominent Mormons over the years. Suffice it to say, there is no general consensus. See http://www.mormonheretic.org/2011/12/25/was-jesus-born-in-december/

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