X Close Menu

When was Jesus born?

The Christmas story begins with a brief historical note in Luke 2:1-2. The emperor Caesar Augustus who issued this decree was in fact the grand nephew of Julius Caesar, which is to say that his mother (Atia) was the daughter of Julia, Julius Caesar’s sister.

It’s amazing how often people get caught up in the debate over when Jesus was actually born. In order to answer this question, we need to understand the nature of our calendar.

In a.d. 525 Pope John I asked Dionysius, a Scythian monk, to prepare a standard calendar for the western church. Dionysius did so by starting with what he thought was the year of Christ’s birth. His study led him to conclude that Jesus was born @ 754 years after the founding of Rome. Thus the 754th year after the founding of the great city became year 1 in the Christian era and Jesus was assumed to have been born in the immediately preceding year on December 25th. Thus the time before this first January 1st are denoted BC or “Before Christ” and those after are designated AD or “Anno Domini”, meaning “in the year of the Lord.”

However, we know from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was born just before King Herod the Great died. All agree that Herod died sometime between March 29 and April 11 in the year 4 b.c. Therefore, Jesus could not have been born later than March/April of 4 b.c. Other evidence suggests that Jesus was born sometime between October of 5 b.c. and March of 4 b.c.

But what about December 25? As you probably know, in the ancient world December 25 was celebrated by pagans as the feast of Saturn, the Sun god. Christians adopted this date as the birthday of Jesus as early as the late second century. The major objection to the December date is the fact that in Luke 2:8 the shepherds are said to be tending their flock during the night, in the open fields. It is argued that from November to March the flocks were kept indoors. But this is not as conclusive as you might think.

First, it could have been a mild winter. Judean winters were not typically severe.

Second, the evidence is not conclusive that the sheep were in fact brought under cover during the winter months. It’s also been pointed out that the mere fact that sheep were present in Bethlehem proves it was winter time, for otherwise the sheep would have been in pasture in the wilderness.

Finally, Jewish sources (the Mishnah, Shekalim vii.4) suggest that the sheep around Bethlehem were often kept outside year round, and that those sheep deemed worthy to be used during the Passover as sacrificial offerings were in the fields at least 30 days before the feast in February. Thus, winter weather by itself is not a decisive factor.

My point, then, is that a winter date for the birth of Jesus is entirely within the realm of possibility. It conceivably could have been any day during December of 5 b.c. or January of 4 b.c. We simply don’t know, and honestly, it doesn’t matter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments for this post have been disabled.