New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
It may seem presumptuous to even attempt to date accurately the birth of Jesus. The effort has repeatedly ended in failure.1 However, what follows are three proposals that all yield about March 25 as the conception of Jesus. The evidence suggests no other date consistently.
The nativity of Jesus is only directly described in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. From these brief accounts a few facts can be gleaned to place His birth into its historical context. With the writings of contemporary historians, coins, Chinese astrological records, and Jewish customs it is possible to place the conception of Jesus in March of 5 BCE. This was possibly the traditional date of March 25. The birth of Jesus then fell nine months later on about December 25, 5 BCE. This section will pursue reestablishing the validity of this traditional date for Christmas.
The first examination is an analysis of the chronology of Herod the Great and his sons. This investigation relies heavily on the writings of Josephus, the coins of the period and Jewish tradition. This chronology can be used as a framework for dating throughout the time of Jesus and the following early growth of the church. The nativity and visit of the Magi occurred before Herod the Great died, whose death is here proposed on November 27, 4 BCE. This date extends the possible birth of Jesus up to eight months beyond the usual dating of Herod's death in late March of 4 BCE. This allows the second Star of the Magi to have been the supernova that appeared over Bethlehem on April 24, 4 BCE.
Next is an examination of the historical context of the census conducted by Quirinius that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. This has been attempted to establish the earliest possible date of Jesus' birth. The Roman historian, Dio Cassius, provides the background. This was the first of two special taxations to support the Roman legions worldwide. It was a 5% inheritance tax on the estates of the deceased, which required a census to establish transferable assets and genealogies. Joseph proceeded to Bethlehem where his tribal records were kept. However, Dio does not date this first census. Also, it does not seem possible to date Quirinius' authority over Judea until 6 CE at the time of the second census. However, a different translation of the gospel text is considered. This indicates that Quirinius was not intended as the governor of Syria during the first census. Luke may have been saying the first census was before the later census directed by Quirinius.
In the following chapter is an examination of Luke's meaning of Jesus' conception in "the sixth month." This is likely a reference to the sixth lunar month of the Syro-Macedonian calendar. This would have been the calendar system used by Luke, a Greek from Antioch, whose Gospel is addressed to a Greek in Antioch. The middle of that sixth month of Xanthikos in 5 BCE was March 25.
The same dating for the conception of Jesus is established by considering the priest duties of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Zacharias was of the division of Abijah, which served in rotation at the Temple in Jerusalem. He was likely confronted by the angel, Gabriel, during the Feast of Tabernacles in 6 BCE. The conception of John can then be dated. Jesus was conceived about five and a half months following, which fell in March of 5 BCE. This also supports the traditional date of the Annunciation on March 25.
Next, the astronomical and astrological records help to determine the stars of the Magi. There are the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE, variable stars, and other natural phenomena. However, these do not really satisfy the Scriptures or the underlying chronology. The possibility that the magi saw the "Shekinah" glory of God cannot be dismissed. However, in the ancient Chinese astrological records are found two sightings that fit the nativity. The first was a tailless comet or nova that first appeared on about March 25, 5 BCE and was visible for seventy days. Here, the first Star the Magi saw in the east heralded the conception of Jesus, not His birth. The second was a nova or supernova that appeared over Bethlehem in the early morning of April 24, 4 BCE, the star of Bethlehem.
Three proofs support the Annunciation on March 25, which in 5 BCE also coincided with the Vernal Equinox*. Nine months later Jesus would have been born on about December 25, which fell on the Winter Solstice. The day of His birth fell on Kislev 25 in 5 BCE and coincided with Hanukkah. The mid winter birth was probable, as shepherds who brought their lambs for sacrifice at the Temple would have stayed in the fields at night. This leads to a consideration of the claim that Christmas was a pagan holiday. However, there was early recognition of December 25 as the actual date of the birth of Jesus.
* The source for the dates of the Vernal Equinox during this period appears to have been in error, actually occuring on March 22/23. See http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/SpringPhenom.html. Jerusalem time is 2 hours and 13 minutes earlier.
Finally, based on the birth of Jesus on December 25, 5 BCE, it is possible to fill the missing gaps and propose a scenario of the events surrounding His birth. This is summarized in a dated chart.
Looking forward to the baptism of Jesus by
John the Baptist the date of His birth becomes important. Luke records
that Jesus was about thirty years old at the time of His baptism, and with
His birth on December 25, 5 BCE, indeed He was.
1. J. Barr, "Why the World was Created in 4004 B.C.: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology," JRUL 67, No. 2 (1985), 600-601.