This is one of those highly debated subjects that can cause substantial division. Even as those who seek to know the truth get caught up in the debates between those who think they know. I grew up quite certain that Jesus was born in a manger on December 25. I also believed in Santa until I was 6. I wonder if Virginia ever found out the truth about that one.
Does it matter? That’s for you to decide, not me. I’ve made up my mind. Then changed it, made it again, and repeated the pattern a few times since. There’s so much information out there on the subject it seems silly to attempt to reproduce it here. Having said that, here are some of the most significant issues (in no particular order) to consider when trying to figure out the “real” birth date of Jesus.
- Herod’s death
- Season (weather)
- Magi’s visit
- Astronomical signs/prophecy
- Other prophecy
- Quirinius, Caesar, and others mentioned in Mt & Lk
- John the Baptist’s father’s term as high priest
- Jesus’ age at the start of his ministry and length of ministry
- Crucifixion date
- Josephus’ writings
- Early church fathers (writings prior to about 400 AD)
- Pagan festivals
Probably the most widely known secret in Christendom is that Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25th or January 6th – the two dates traditionally adopted by the western and eastern Catholic churches respectively. Those dates do hold significance beyond coinciding with pagan festival dates, but the support is flimsy at best.
The next two most popular dates are tied to the great feasts of Israel (Lev 23). Those who understand the feasts and their prophetic relationship to and fulfillments in Christ most often choose either Passover, Trumpets, or the start of Tabernacles as likely dates. There are reasons to support each of these possibilities and reasons to reject each. Spring and fall are both good fits with conventional wisdom about when the census data (and taxes) as collected. Spring is probably a better fit with the description of sheep grazing near town, although it is by no means conclusive. It is also worth mentioning at this point that the Jewish calendar operates quite differently from the Gregorian calendar we use today which just adds to the confusion.
The year is as much a question as the month. Depending on who you talk to Jesus may have been born anywhere between early 6 BC and autumn of 1 BC. There are two critical factors on choosing the best year to accept. First is the matter of when Herod died. The most widely accepted date for Herod’s death is late 4 BC. This is based on Josephus’ histories which recorded among other things a lunar eclipse happening just a few weeks (or a few months) before his death. There was a significant lunar eclipse in June, 4 BC, and none in 3 BC. There were also candidate eclipses in 2 BC and two in 1 BC. Of all these, the best candidate eclipse is actually the one in December 1 BC because it would have been widely seen in the early evening hours. All of the others occurred much later in the night and would have gone unnoticed by most of the population. Another important factor in the dating of Herod’s death is that coins have been found with Herod’s son’s imprint which are dated about 4-3 BC. At first it seems highly unlikely to find their coins dated before Herod’s death, but that might not be a problem for a couple of reasons. For one, they likely dated their rule starting when they were assigned subordinate rulerships as regents. For another, one of the sons died before Herod, yet has coins dated about 3 BC, which means they must have based the date for the start of rulership with their regency rather than actual kingship.
The date of Zachariah’s term as high priest is another important factor to consider. Working from the most likely date of his term through the period of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies, the date for Jesus’ birth was probably the autumn of 3 BC.
Luke also records that Jesus was “about 30” when he started his public ministry. This makes perfect sense since public ministry was expected to start at age 30 (Nu 4:3). When you subtract 3.5 years from the crucifixion, the best date being 33 AD, it was autumn of 29 AD when Jesus’ public ministry began and 1 BC when he was born. This evidence is an excellent fit with a December 1 BC eclipse and early 1 AD death of Herod.
There is considerable debate about the nature and timing of the census since there are no detailed records of it apart from the gospels and Josephus. The best dates are probably 2 BC, plus or minus one year. This does little to help determine whether 3 or 1 BC is better for Jesus’ birth, but it makes the traditionally accepted 4 BC death for Herod much less likely.
One popular interpretation of Rev 12:1-5 is that it specifies precisely when Jesus was born to within a window of perhaps 2 hours. This passage talks about astronomical signs. The sun clothes the virgin which means the sun is in the constellation of Virgo. This occurs each year during September to early October. The passage also says the moon is under the virgin’s feet. The moon so near the sun in that position means it is a new moon. Hebrew months always begin with the new moon. The Hebrew date for this prophecy can only be 1 Tishri, the first day of the Hebrew year (Rosh HaShanah) which is also known as the Feast of Trumpets. The next question is which year. Earnest Martin performed and published calculations showing the best fit is 1 Tishri (10/11 September) of 3 BC shortly after dusk. The time of day is important in determining the best year within the possible range since the account of the shepherd visitation strongly suggests early evening.
There are a number of other factors to consider, including the famous star sign, the timing and age of Jesus at the magi visit, dating of Quirinius as governor, many others.
In summary: 1 BC is a better fit with Crucifixion and Jesus’ age, assuming Jesus’ ministry was in fact 3 and a half years (inferred but not explicitly stated in John’s gospel). 1 BC is also an excellent fit with the most likely eclipse used to date Herod’s death. 3 BC is a better fit with Rev 12:1-5 and Zachariah’s term as high priest. 3 BC is still plausible in conjunction with a later date for Herod’s death (1 BC or 1 AD). It is also possible that “about 30” could be liberal or that Jesus’ ministry was longer than 3.5 years.
Conclusion: I do not know with any more certainty than anyone else, but I prefer the mid-September (1 Tishri) 3 BC birth date. Have you done your own research and if so, what date do you like best and why?