Dating the Birth of Jesus: What is truth? Irreconcilable Traditions, Myths, Legends and “Facts”.

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

8 kommentarer

  1. Michael W. N. said,

    14 november, 2011 den 20:50

    Blocker writes, ”The traditionally accepted year of Jesus’ birth, 4 BCE, was estimated by Dionysius Exiguus…”

    However, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1909) reads:

    ”In chronology Dionysius has left his mark conspicuously, for it was he who introduced the use of the Christian Era (see CHRONOLOGY) according to which dates are reckoned from the Incarnation, which he assigned to 25 March, in the year 754 from the foundation of Rome (A. U. C.).”

    In other words, Dionysius designated the year 754 A. U. C. as the year 1 CE.

    According to Dionysius, the year AD 1 began on January 1, 754 AUC (or maybe March 25, 754 AUC). In that year, Jesus reached the age of one year. Consequently, according to Dionysius, Jesus must have been born the year before 1 CE, but this year had no number.

    Gilla

  2. 15 november, 2011 den 09:24

    The fact that Dionysius miscalculated the time of the Birth is another issue – which I am sure David is aware of. Dionysius simply got to c. 4 BCE as the time of Jesus’ birth and named this AD1 but lost track of some of the years. Scholars disagree however on which year Dionysius actually intended for the nativity. Was it 1 CE or 1 BCE (as you suggest) or perhaps even 2 BCE? It all depends on how you interpret him.

    Gilla

  3. Michael W. N. said,

    15 november, 2011 den 12:43

    You wrote: ”Dionysius simply got to c. 4 BCE as the time of Jesus’ birth and named this AD1 but lost track of some of the years…”

    It seems I have missed an important point. Could you please provide a reference? The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1912), to which Blocker refers, does not seem to imply that Dionysius had Herod’s death in mind, or that he was familiar with Josephus.

    More precisely: in which documents does Dionysius refer to Herod’s death?

    Scholars tend to agree that Dionysius calculated his date for the year 1 with the assistance of the Paschal period of 532 years. Alden A. Mosshammer has recently challenged this view and offered an alternative solution, which is as simple as it is elegant. According to Mosshammer (The Easter Competus and the Origins of the Christian Era, p. 437), Dionysius adopted his era of Incarnation from the tradition of the Alexandrian church: ”It was the Christian era of Julius Africanus, adopted by Anatolius of Laodicea, and transmitted along with the 19-year cycle to Athanasius, Andreas, Theophilus, Pandorus, and the Armenian church, as well as to Dionsyius Exiguus.”

    Gilla

  4. Michael W. N. said,

    16 november, 2011 den 12:22

    I would still very much like to know the source for the claim that ”Dionysius chose the year 4 BCE” in order to ”reconcile” Matthew’s birth narrative with Josephus.

    It is not the Catholic Encyclopedia.

    This should be an easy enough question to answer.

    Gilla

  5. 16 november, 2011 den 19:07

    Hi Michael and sorry for the delay.

    I have no source for claiming that Dionysius chose the year 4 BCE. If you say that he never mentioned Herod, I suppose you are right. I never said he did – although I of course was thinking of Herod. I should also have said the year 4 BCE, at the latest. There could be no doubt that Dionysius as a Christian was aware of Matthew’s birth narrative and then also that Jesus must have been born before Herod died in 4 BCE. Unless I am misinformed, Dionysius never even accounts for how he got to the date 754 AUC (or 753) as the year of Jesus birth; i.e. AD 1. He must anyway have thought that Herod was alive in 754 AUC. It is interesting though that you are suggesting that Dionysius was unaware of Josephus’ writings.

    Gilla

  6. DBlocker said,

    17 november, 2011 den 05:25

    Thank you for all for the comments, especially Michael in 3.

    Dionysius calculated a date not in agreement with placing Jesus’ birth before Herod’s death or consonant with the later census. If the Gospel of Matthew is used as the most reliable source, an earlier nativity date results. I had assumed that Dionysius was using Josephus and not Africanus, a weak assumption on my part.

    The real point I am trying to make is that the traditional date by Dionysius, dates suggested by the gospels, the consensus 4 BC, and dates given in other sources do not agree, though there does appear to be clumping around 3/2 of some sources. I have also seen some suggestions for 6/7 BCE as well but did not have the sources at hand to cite them.

    2000 years out there is still no real consensus as to the year of Jesus’ birth.

    Which date and which source a researcher validates is dependent on which camp he belongs to: theologian ( requires reconciling the gospel accounts), historicist (would have to justify why one source outweighs the others) or mythicist ( would claim that the fuzzy data is the result of disparate authors trying to create an historical basis from a set of myths). There are many essays belonging to each group already in existence. Many more will be written.

    The date of birth one accepts also influences which date is the most likely one for the crucifixion, since both dates determine Jesus’s age.

    What we end up with is the same problem Dionysius faced and attempted to solve 11/2 millenia ago.

    The problem has already been shown not to have a single solution that will satisfy everyone. The problem will not be solved to the satisfaction of all , unless new data is discovered (unlikely), or a new way of looking the old data is found that is generally accepted (also unlikely).

    Gilla

  7. DBlocker said,

    19 november, 2011 den 18:44

    Thank you all for your comments which allowed me to improve my essay. The blog format provides much appreciated comments and editorial help. I look forward to receiving more valuable and very useful criticism from the blog readers.

    The first two paragraphs should read:
    —————-

    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).
    —————————-

    As I previously stated determining the birth year of Jesus to the satisfaction of all is probably not possible. Instead one will be offered a selection, each choice being supported by a particular school of thought.

    Some interesting links on this topic are given below:

    http://www.westarinstitute.org/Periodicals/4R_Articles/dionysius.html

    http://library.kcc.hawaii.edu/~inaba/Instruction/history/exiguus.html

    http://ixoyc.net/data/Fathers/524.pdf

    Gilla

  8. 19 november, 2011 den 20:30

    Instant karma! I’ve replaced the first two paragraphs.

    Gilla


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