Article of the Month

December 2013

THE DATE OF JESUS' BIRTH

In the sixth century the  Church began to reckon time from the birth of our Lord, and fixed the date  A.D. 1 as it now stands.  The year A.D. 1 was fixed upon as early as the sixth century by Dionysius Exiguus, and other scholars of that period, though it did not come into general use until two centuries later.   Whether they placed it correctly or not does not affect the chronology as revealed in the Bible.

It has become customary among many scholars to concede that our commonly accepted A.D. is incorrect to the amount of four years — that our Lord was born four years previous to the year designated A.D., that is, in the year B.C. 4.  And this theory  has been followed by the publishers of the common version of the Bible.  We cannot agree that B.C. 4 was the true date of our Lord’s birth.  On the contrary, we find that he was born only one year and three months before our common era, A.D., namely, in October of B.C. 2.

The general reason with most of those who claim that A.D. should have been placed four years earlier to correctly mark the Savior’s birth, is a desire to harmonize it with certain statements of the Jewish historian Josephus, relative to the length of the reign of Herod the Great.  According to one of his statements, it would appear that Herod died three years before the year reckoned A.D. 1.  If this were true, it would certainly prove that our Lord was born in the year B.C. 4, for it was this Herod that issued the decree for the slaying of the babes of Bethlehem, from whom the infant Jesus was delivered.  (Matthew 2:14-16)  But is this statement of Josephus reliable?  Is it true that Herod died three years before the year A.D.?  No, we answer.   Josephus alone is not sufficient authority for such a decision as he is known and admitted to be inaccurate  in his record of dates.

But this notion has prevailed.  The date B.C. 4 has been generally accepted, and historical events and dates have been somewhat bent to fit and support this theory.  Among other supposed proofs that B.C. 4 was the proper date was an eclipse of the moon, said by Josephus to have  occurred a short time before the death of Herod.  All that is known of that eclipse is as follows:  Herod had placed a large golden eagle over the gate of the Temple.  Two notable Jews, named Matthias and Judas, persuaded some young men to pull it down.  They did so, were arrested  and executed.  To make the matter clear, Josephus relates that there was at that time another Matthias, a high priest, who was not concerned in the sedition.  He then adds:  “But Herod deprived this Matthias of his high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive, and that very night there was an eclipse of the moon.”  This is recorded as one of the last prominent acts of Herod and is given a date which might correspond with B.C. 4 by Josephus, who marks the date by the eclipse mentioned.

But since at times as many as four eclipses of the moon occur in one year, it is evident that except under very peculiar circumstances the record of such an occurrence proves nothing.  Where the time of the night, the time of the year and the among of obscuration all are given, as has been done in several instances, the record is of great value in fixing dates; but in the case under consideration, there is nothing of the kind.  Hence  absolutely nothing is proved by the record so far as chronology is concerned.  Josephus does mention a fast, as having been kept before the event, but what fast, or how long before is not stated.  

As it happens, there was only one eclipse of the moon in B.C. 4, while in B.C. 1 there were three.  The eclipse of B.C. 4 was only partial (six digits, or only one-half of the moon being obscured), while all three in B.C. 1 were total eclipses   — the entire moon was obscured, and of course for a longer time causing the event to be much more noticeable.  Hence if the eclipse theory has any weight,  it certainly is not in favor of the earlier date, B.C. 4.

In this connection it may be well to note the conflict of opinion among learned men relative to the exact date of Herod’s death, that thus it may be apparent to all that there is no well-founded reason for accepting B.C. 4 as the only date in harmony with Matthew 2:14-16.  Faussett’s Bible Encyclopedia gives Herod’s age when made governor at about twenty years.  This would make his death, at seventy years, A.D. 2.  Chambers’ Cyclopedia and Smith’s Bible Dictionary give his age at that time as fifteen years, which would place his death at A.D. 7.   Appleton’s Cyclopedia, article Chronology, says, “Josephus also gives dates, but he is altogether too careless to be taken into account.”

WHAT IS CORRECT?

We now proceed to offer the Scriptural evidence relating to this subject which more nearly agrees with the common era and shows that our Lord’s birth occurred only one year and three months prior to January, A.D. 1.  It is as follows:

Our Lord’s ministry lasted three and a half years.  The sixty-nine symbolic weeks of years (Daniel 9:24-27) reached to his baptism and anointing as Messiah, and there the last or seventieth w eek (seven years) of Israel’s favor began.  He was cut the beginning of his ministry.  He was crucified, we know, at the time of the Passover, about April 1st, whatever the year.  The three and a half years of his ministry, which ended in April, must consequently have begun about October, whatever the year.  And October of some year must been the true month of his birth, because he delayed not to begin his ministry as soon as he was thirty, and could not, according to the Law (under which he was born and which he obeyed), begin before he was thirty.  As we read, “Now when Jesus began to be about thirty years of age he cometh” etc.   (Luke 3:23)

John the Baptist was six months older than our Lord (Luke 2:26, 36), hence he was of age (thirty years, according to the Law — Numbers 4:3; Luke 3:23, etc.) and began to preach six months before our Lord became of age and began his ministry.  The date of the beginning of John’s ministry is cleared stated to have been the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,”  the third emperor of Rome.  (Luke 3:1)  This is a clearly fixed date of which there can be no reasonable doubt.  Tiberius became emperor at the death of Augustus Caesar, in the year of  Rome 767, which was the year A.D. 14.  

But those misled by the inaccurate statements of Josephus relative  to Herod, and who place the  birth of Jesus at B.C. 4 in order to harmonize with him, run across a difficulty in this clearly stated date given by Luke, and endeavor to make it also harmonize with their B.C. 4 theory.  To accomplish this end, they make the claim  that Tiberius began to exercise authority some three or four years before Augustus died, and before he was fully constituted emperor.  They claim that possibly his rule might have been reckoned from that date.  

But such suppositions will be found baseless by any who will investigate the matter on the pages of history.  It is true that Tiberius was exalted to a very important position by Augustus, but it was not four years before Augustus’ death, as their theory would demand, but ten years before, in A.D. 4.   But the power then conferred upon him was only such as had been enjoyed by others before his day.  It was in no sense of the word imperial power, and in no sense of the word can his “reign”  could not be said to have commenced before Augustus’ death and his own investiture in office at the hands of the Roman Senate, A.D. 14.

History says, “The Emperor, whose declining age needed an associate, adopted Tiberius A.D. 4, renewing his tribunian power.”  (Article:  TIBERIUS, Rees’ Cyclopedia.)

“He [Augustus] determined accordingly  to devolve upon him [Tiberius] a share in the government…This formal investiture placed him on the same footing as that enjoyed by the veteran Agrippa during his later years, and there can be no doubt that it was universally regarded as an introduction to the first place in the empire…The programme  for the succession was significantly shadowed out; Tiberius had been ordered to assume his place at the head of the Senate, the people, and the army…The adoption, which took place at the same time, is dated June 27 (A..U.C. 757 — A.D. 4.”  Merivale’s History of the Romans (Appleton’s), Vol. IV, pp. 220, 221.

Thus there is conclusive proof that the first year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was not three or four years before Augustus died; and that the honors referred to as conferred during Augustus’ reign were conferred ten, and not four, years before Augustus’ death and were in no sense imperial honors.

We may, therefore, consider the date of Luke 3:1 not merely the only one furnished in the New Testament, but an unequivocal one.  There can be no doubt about it in the minds of any who have investigated it.  Tiberius began to reign in

A.D. 14.  The fifteenth year of his reign would therefore be the year A.D. 29, in which year, Luke states (3:1-3), John began his ministry.  Since our Lord’s thirtieth birthday and the beginning of his ministry were in October, and since John’s birthday and the beginning of his ministry were just six months earlier, it follows that John began his ministry in the spring, about April first — just as soon as he was of age; for God’s plans are always carried out on exact time.  So, then John was thirty years old in A.D. 29, about April first.  And Jesus’ birth, six months later, must have been B.C. 2, about October first.

Again, there is clear, strong evidence that Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 3rd,   A.D. 33.  The fact that his crucifixion occurred at the close of the fourteenth day of the month Nisan (Passover), and that this date rarely falls on Friday, but did so in the year A.D. 33, substantiates that date so thoroughly that even Usher, who adopted B.D.  4 as the date of Jesus’ birth, was forced to admit that his crucifixion was A.D. 33.  (Compare Usher’s dates in the margin of the common version Bible at Luke 2:21 and Matthew 2:1 with those at Matthew 27 and Luke 23.)  The date  of the crucifixion being A.D. 33,  it follows that if Jesus had been born B.C. 4, he would have been 36 years old when he died; and his ministry from his thirtieth to his thirty-sixth year would have been six years.  But it is clear that our Lord’s ministry was three and a half years only.  And this generally conceded fact is proved by Daniel’s prophecy concerning Messiah’s cutting off in the middle of the seventieth week of Israel’s favor.  (Daniel 9)

Thus, it is again proven that Jesus’ birth was about one year and three months before our common era, A.D. 1, for, his ministry ending when he was thirty-three and a half years old, April 3rd,  A.D.  33, the date of his birth may be readily found by measuring backward to a date thirty-three and a half years prior to April 3rd, A.D. 33.  Thirty-two years and three months before April  A.D. 33 would be January 3rd, A.D.1, and one year and three months further back would bring us to October 3rd, B.C.2 as the date of our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem.  The difference between lunar time, used by the Jews, and solar time, now in common use, would be a few days, so that we could not be certain that the exact day might not be in September about the 27th, but October 1st, B.C. 2, is about correct.  Nine months back of that date would bring us to about Christmas time, B.C. 3, as the date at which our Lord laid aside the glory which he had with the Father before the world was [made] and the taking of or changing to human nature began.  It seems probable that this was the origin of the celebration of December 25th as Christmas Day was originally celebrated as the date of the annunciation by Gabriel to the virgin Mary.  (Luke 1:26)  Certain it is that a midwinter date for Jesus’ birth does not well agree with the declaration of Scripture that at the time of our Lord’s birth the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks.

It is important to note that we are not being critical of the world’s celebration of the birth of our Savior.  The date itself is somewhat immaterial as far as the celebration of the event is concerned.  This article is presented merely for the sake of Biblical accuracy and, ultimately, for the benefit of those who study the chronological complexities of prophecies like Daniel 9.

 

 

 

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