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The Christmas story

When was Jesus born? Predictions of his birth

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In what year was Jesus' born?

The year of Christ's birth is unknown. The only available evidence relating to his birth is contained within the 40 or so gospels written by the early Christian movement. Of these, the four that made it into the official canon of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), are most often cited -- Matthew and Luke, chapters 1 & 2. People have tried to approximate the time of Jesus' birth using various clues:

  • References to political leaders: Luke 1:5 states that Jesus was born when Herod was King of Judea. Luke 2:2 states that Jesus was born when Cyrenius (a.k.a. Quirinius) was also governor of Syria. Unfortunately, this appears to be an impossibility. The historical record shows that Herod was king from 37 until his death in 4 BCE. (A few scholars say 5 BCE). Quirinius was not governor of Syria at any time during this period. He came to power in 6 CE, a decade after Herod died. 1 Some biblical literalists have suggested that the two Gospels can be harmonized if Quirinius was governor during two separate intervals. There is no historical evidence to support this; however, it is often taught as truth.

  • Census/taxation: Luke 2:1-4 mentions that Jesus' birth occurred during the time that Caesar Augustus had ordered all of the known world to be taxed. Luke said that every person had to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed. Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. But it is probable that this universal census and tax never actually happened. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote a very complete history of the Jews in Palestine. He does mention a census which was conducted in Judea in 6 CE. But this was only a local census, not one that would enable "all the world to be taxed." Its purpose was to count the male population so that they could be taxed at a later time. And it triggered a major uprising among the Jews, who regarded a census as against scripture and the will of God. He does not refer to an earlier census and poll tax.

    At the time of Jesus' birth, the Jews were still subject to King Herod. Since Palestine was a client kingdom of Rome, only the king had powers of taxation in the land. 2 It was only in areas that were operated under direct Roman rule that Caesar Augustus could have taxed the citizens directly.

    There is no record of a mass migration of adults to their ancestral cities in order to be registered. It would have been totally impractical to hold a census in this way. The primitive transportation systems of the Roman Empire would have been totally inadequate to handle the flow of people. The entire empire would be largely shut down for many months while people were returning to their home towns. Even today, with airplanes, trains, busses and automobiles, it would not be practical to hold a census in this manner.

  • Herod's "slaughter of the innocents:" Matthew 2:16 describes King Herod's order that all of the boy infants who had not reached their second birthday in Bethlehem and vicinity were to be murdered. The date of that mass murder would give an approximate idea of Jesus' birth. Unfortunately for historians (and fortunately for the residents of the Bethlehem area) the killings never appeared to have happened. If the children were killed, then historians of the era would have been certain to have recorded the event. No such record exists. Josephus wrote in great detail about even minor actions and decisions of Herod. The mass murder was never mentioned.

Our present method of dates, which divide the past into AD (anno domine, the year of the Lord) and BC (before Christ), was established by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century. As the calendar has been more generally accepted among people of many religions, the terms AD and BC have been largely superseded in religious and academic books by: CE (common era) and BCE (before the common era). Exiguus was a Christian monk whose name translates into English as "Denny the Dwarf."

The best guess of most Biblical scholars is that Jesus was born between 7 and 4 BCE. Recently, a new suggestion of 1 BC has been put forth. So perhaps Denny was not as far off in his calculations as people have believed. 3

The 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus would appear to have already passed. Marcus Borg organized and hosted the "Jesus at 2000" seminar on the life of Jesus. It was held on 1996-FEB-8 to 10, the approximate date of the 2000th anniversary of Jesus' birth.

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In What Month Was Jesus' Born?

The month and day of Jesus' birthday is also unknown. However, we can be fairly certain that it was not DEC-25.

  • THE SHEPHERDS: Luke 2:8 mentions that shepherds were living in their fields keeping watch over their flocks during the nighttime (and, one would assume, also during the daytime.) This is a good indication that Jesus' birth did not happen in December when the flocks would have already have been moved from the fields into pens. They were only in the fields during the warmer months. There is a remark in the Talmud that flocks were put out to grass in March and brought in during the beginning of November. During the Jewish month of Heshvan (our October/November) the fall rains hit and the animals are penned up. At best, the passage narrows down the birth month to one of 7 months in the late spring, summer, or early fall.

  • Hilke Dokter 4 offers three indicators from the Bible that Jesus was born during the month of Tishri (September/October).

  • The month of Jesus birth can actually be calculated with reference to the conception of John the Baptist:
    • Luke 1:5 says that John's father, Zacharias, was "a member of the Abijah division of the Temple service corps." (Living Bible)
    • 1 Chronicles 24:15 assigned the priests of the Abijah division to begin temple service at the start of the 9th week of the year. But at the end of the week, Pentecost had begun, so he would have remained on duty until the end of the 10th week.
    • Luke 1:23-24 records that Zacharias returned immediately to his home, and that John was conceived shortly thereafter - probably during the last half of Sivan, the 3rd month in the Jewish calendar.
    • Allowing for a normal 9 months pregnancy, John would have been born in the springtime.
    • Luke 1:36 records that the angel came to Mary when John's mother Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant.
    • Luke 1:31 reports that Mary conceived very shortly after the angel's visit.
    • Assuming a normal, 9 month pregnancy, Jesus would have been born about 6 months after John - sometime in the fall of the year.

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Predictions of Jesus' Birth:

Isaiah 7:14 is frequently cited as pointing to Christ's birth - particularly at Christmas time. English Bibles differ subtlety in the translation of this verse.

  • Some translations talk of a young woman becoming pregnant - not an unusual occurrence.

  • Others imply that a virgin engaged in sexual intercourse and became pregnant - again not that unusual.

  •  Still others imply a relatively unusual event -- by saying that a woman was pregnant while still remaining a virgin. Actually, a woman can become pregnant without having engaged in sexual intercourse if a man had ejaculated in her pubic area. Spermatozoa are quite capable of migration inside her. So the event would not necessarily be a miracle.

The Septuagint (a.k.a. LXX) is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made in Alexandria, Egypt between 300 and 200 BCE. When the Gospels were written (circa 70 CE to 100 CE) Hebrew had fallen into disuse. The Gospel authors probably spoke Aramaic but also knew Greek. They relied on the Septuagint as their source of the Hebrew Scriptures.

As it happens, the Septuagint and similar Greek translations at the time contained an error. They translated the Hebrew word "almah" into the Greek "parthenos", which usually means a "virgin." "Almah" appears 9 other times in the Hebrew Scriptures; in each case it means "young woman" - a female who might have been a virgin or might have been sexually active. When the Hebrew scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do over 50 times) they always used the Hebrew word "betulah." 5 So, Isaiah was referring to a young woman becoming pregnant (a rather ordinary event) and not to a woman having conceived while still remaining a virgin (a miracle). During the Christian era, the passage has become so famous that many modern translators find it difficult to conform to the Hebrew original. Many duplicate the error of those ancient Greek translations. To correct the mistranslation could result in a significant loss in sales because of the widespread nature of the belief that Isaiah predicted Jesus' miracle conception.

The story in Isaiah 7:14 appears to involve an event over 7 centuries before the birth of Jesus. 6 It describes a siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians about 715 BCE. The prophecy was that a child that was born to the young woman at the time of the siege was a sign from God that the Jews would survive and that Jerusalem would continue as before. The passage describes the child in terms that exclude Jesus as a possible candidate. The prophecy was presumably fulfilled more than 700 years before the birth of Jesus.

However, Isaiah 7:14 is frequently cited at Christmas time as if it is a prophecy of Jesus' birth.

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Related essay on this web site:

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References:

  1. A.N. Wilson, "Jesus", Sinclair-Stevenson, London, UK (1992), Pages 73-83. You can read reviews of this book or order it safely from Amazon.com
  2. Robin L. Fox, "The Unauthorized Version: Truth and fiction in the Bible," Knopf, New York, NY (1992) Review/order the book
  3. M. J. Borg, Ed., "Jesus at 2000," Westview Press, (1997), Page 2. Review/order the book
  4. Hilke Dokter, "The Messiah's True birth date" at: http://www.members.shaw.ca/hdokter
  5. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), P. 74-79. Review/order the book
  6. Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/
  7. "Septuagint," at: http://www.septuagint.net/
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Copyright © 1997 to 2011, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated and reviewed 2013-OCT-08
Author: B.A. Robinson
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