A Guest Post by David Blocker
The traditionally accepted year of Jesus’ birth, “1” AD, was estimated by Dionysius Exiguus (died c. 544), (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York) who had to work from limited and perhaps inaccurate sources.
The year 4 BCE, accepted by traditional scholars, was chosen in order to reconcile the birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:1 (NIV), “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod … ”) with the chronology found in the histories of Flavius Josephus. 4 BCE was the last year that the birth of Jesus could have occurred during the life time of Herod the Great. Herod the Great died in 4 BCE (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities XVII.vi.5-ix.3; Jewish War I.xxxiii.5-9.) and the War of Varus, a Judean uprising against the Romans and their representatives, began shortly thereafter (Antiquities XVII.x).
The time of Jesus’ birth given by the Gospel of Matthew conflicts with the time of birth given by the Gospel of Luke.
The Gospel of Luke does not associate Herod with Jesus’ birth. Instead the birth of Jesus was linked to a Roman census (Luke 2:1 (NIV), “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”).
The only Roman census of Judea from this time period of which we have a record occurred in 6 or 7 CE, after the Romans had assumed direct control over Judea (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17.13. 5). The purpose of the census was to allow the Romans to determine the taxable resources of Judea.
The birth narrative chronologies presented by the canonical gospels are contradictory and cannot be reconciled. According to the Gospel of Matthew Jesus was born while Herod the Great was alive and ruled Judea. According to the Gospel of Luke the birth of Jesus occurred after the death of Herod, when the Romans were consolidating their control over Judea. Driven by theological constraints, Dionysius’ attempt to date Jesus’ birth, can be considered, at best, to be an act of pious self-deception.
The two canonical gospel accounts of Jesus birth cannot be simultaneously true. One or the other, or both, must be in error.
Both of the Gospel birth narratives fail to mention the unrest in Judea during the two time periods they assigned to Jesus’ birth. The time of birth given by the Gospel of Matthew occurred just before the War of Varus. The 7 CE Roman census to determine the taxable resources of Judea, inspired Judas the Galilean and his colleague Zadok to campaign against the Roman occupation of their country (Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.8.1, “118 Under him (Coponius, procurator of Judea) a Galilean named Judas incited his people to rebel, calling them cowards if they paid tax to the Romans and let themselves be ruled by mortal men, having formerly served God alone.”).
There are early non-canonical sources that provide a date for the birth of Jesus. The majority of them place the year of Jesus’ birth around 3 to 2 BCE. Therefore, Jesus was conceived, near at the beginning of the War of Varus.
Early sources which give a date for Jesus’ birth at variance with the traditional 4 BCE date are listed below:
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (ca. 194 AD) (Stromata, Book 1, Chapter XXI) “from the birth of Christ to the death of Commodus (December 30/January 1, 192/3) there were 194 years, one month, and 13 days.” Clement implies that Jesus was born on 18 NOVEMBER, 3 BC
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: “Our Lord was born in the twenty-eighth year, when the first census was ordered to be taken in the reign of Augustus.” (Stromata, Book 1, see Clark’s edition, pages 444-445). Clement, since he lived in Egypt, reckoned the sole reign of Augustus from the death of Cleopatra, and so gives the twenty-eighth year instead of the forty-first. This gives a birth year of 3/2 BCE.
IRENAEUS, about AD 180, wrote ‘Our Lord was born about the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus.’ (3/2 BCE). (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 21.3)
TERTULLIAN wrote, ‘When Augustus had been reigning for twenty-eight years after the death of Cleopatra, Christ was born, and the same Augustus survived after Christ was born fifteen years; and the remaining times of years to the day of the birth of Christ bring us to the forty-first year, which is the 28th of Augustus after the death of Cleopatra.’ (Answer to the Jews, Chapter VIII)
Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in August 30 BC. This places the birth of in the forty-first year of Augustus, which is 3/2 BCE.
JULIUS AFRICANUS assigned 3/2 BCE as the year of Jesus’ birth (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Hendrickson, 1998 ed., §§ 284-290, pp. 154-157)
HIPPOLYTUS of Rome (AD 170-236) – placed the birth of Christ in 2 BC. (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, (Hendrickson, 1998 ed.) §§ 293, pp. 158-160).
ORIGEN (AD 185-253) – In a fragment of Origen’s homilies on Luke, he states that Jesus was born in the forty-first year of Augustus, that Augustus ruled in all fifty-six years, and that there remained to his rule from and after Christ’s birth fifteen years. (Frag. 82 on Luke 3:1). This translates to 3/2 BC
EUSEBIUS, The History of the Church I. 5: ”It was the forty-second year of Augustus’ reign, and the twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, when our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ, at the time of the first registration, while Quirinius was governor of Syria… was born in Bethlehem in Judaea.” (2 BC by Augustus’ reign year and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. This cannot be reconciled with Quirinius’ census, showing that Eusebius writings cannot be accepted uncritically).
EPIPHANIUS, agreed with Eusebius that Augustus reigned fifty-six years and six months, and wrote that Jesus was born in the 42nd year of Augustus reign which would have been 2 BC (Panarion, XX, ii).
EPIPHANIUS elsewhere dates the Epiphany of Christ in official Roman terms, saying that it was in January of the year in which the consuls were Octavius for the thirteenth time, and Silvanus (Augusto XIII et Silvano); this was January, 2 BC (Panarion, LI, xxii, 3). By Epiphany, he probably meant the conception at the time of the Annunciation by the angel to Mary, which is nine months before the actual birth (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Hendrickson, 1998 ed., §§ 493, p. 289).
PAULUS OROSIUS stated that Christ was born in the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the founding of Rome. 752 A.U.C. is 2 BCE (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, trans. Roy J. Defarri; FC 50; Washington D.C. Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1964, pp. 280-281). (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Hendrickson, 1998 ed. §§ 497, p. 290.)
CASSIODORUS (490-585 CE) placed the birth of Christ in the consulship of Lentulus and M. Messala (Lentulo et Messalino), stating “When these were consuls, our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God was born in Bethlehem in the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus” or 3 BC (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, 1998 ed. §§ 498, p. 290).
GREGORY OF TOURS (d.594 CE), History of the Franks 1.19: “in the forty fourth year of the reign of Augustus, our Lord….was born.” About 1 BCE.
“EURIPTUS, disciple of John”: “1, 1 In the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, after our Lord Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh in Bethlehem of Judea, Herod Antipatris (son of Antipater?), king of Judea, sought to kill Jesus.” (From The Beheading of John by Euriptus, the disciple of John. Geerard’s CANT (180; BHG 831-833). Translated from: A. Vassiliev, Anecdota graeco-byzantina, I, (Moscow: Universitatis Caesareae, 1893), pp. 1-4, based on Montis Casin. 277 (11th c.). (Other manuscripts containing this text are Vat. gr. 1192 (15th c.), and Vat. gr. 1989 (12th c.)). Translation and internet posting by Tony Burke, Associate Professor, Dept. of the Humanities, Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies, York University. Text downloaded from: http://www.tonyburke.ca/more-christian-apocrypha/the-beheading-of-john-by-euriptus-the-disciple-of-john on 06/2011.
Augustus was named Julius Caesar’s heir in 44 BCE. The 42nd year of Augustus would be 2 BCE.
The birthday of Ceasar Augustus and the traditional birthday of Jesus occur at the same time of the year. According to Suetonius (b. ca 69/75- d. after 130), ” From that time on Augustus had such faith in his destiny, that he made his horoscope public and issued a silver coin stamped with the sign of the constellation Capricornus ( Approximately Dec.-Jan.), under which he was born.” (From Suetonius, The Twelve Ceasars, The Divine Augustus, 94.)
When attempting to determine the year of Jesus’ birth one has a large number of sources from which to choose. The Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus was born before Herod the Great died (before 4 BCE). According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born after the death of Herod, after the Romans had directly annexed Judea and were preparing to apply direct taxation to it, approximately 6 to 7 CE.
The traditionally accepted date of 4 BCE was decided upon by a 6th century CE monk who was trying to find a theologically acceptable reconciliation of his sources.
The preponderance of early writers place Jesus’ birth in the year 3/2 BCE, which is later than the traditional dating of 4 BCE (See Jack Finnegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Revised Edition, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Mass., 1998, p. 279-291 for disscussion) and concurrent with the War of Varus.
The researcher is left with the task of trying to extract historical truth from a melange of unattributed reports, myths, legends and pious fictions.
David Blocker 2011/11/14