You might think that Jesus was born in the Year Zero–between 1 B.C. and A.D. 1.
You often hear that Jesus was born around 6-7 B.C.
The evidence from the Bible and the Church Fathers, however, support a different year.
Here’s what the evidence says . . .
Not in Year Zero
There is a good reason why Jesus wasn’t born in Year Zero: There wasn’t one.
The sequence of years before Christ ends at 1 B.C. and the A.D. series picks up the very next year with A.D. 1.
This is a bit surprising to us, since we’re used to working with number lines that have a zero on them, but zero wasn’t a concept on the intellectual scene when our way of reckoning years was developed.
If it helps, you can think about it this way: Suppose you have a child and you want to date events relative to that child’s birth. The first year before the child was born would be 1 B.C. (Before the Child), and the first year after his birth (that is, the year ending with his first birthday) would be the first year of the child.
If the child happens to be the Lord, that would be the first year of the Lord, which in Latin is Anno Domini, from which we get A.D.
Thus there is no Year Zero between 1 B.C. and A.D. 1.
(BTW, please note that the “A.D.” goes before the number. “A.D. 2013” = “The Year of the Lord 2013,” which is an intelligible phrase. If you write “2013 A.D.” that would be “2013 the Year of the Lord,” which is gibberish.)
So what year was Jesus born?
The guy who developed the way we reckon years was a 6th-century monk named Dionysius Exiguus (“Dennis the Short”).
He apparently thought Christ was born in 1 B.C. (actually, it’s a bit more complex than that, but we’ll keep this simple).
Today most think this date is a little too late and that the evidence supports a date a few years earlier.
For a little more than a century, the idea has been popular that Jesus was born in 6-7 B.C.
The reasoning goes like this: Jesus was born late in the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C.
Furthermore, the wise men saw the star rise in the east two years before they came to visit Jerusalem, where they met Herod.
Back up two years from 4 B.C. and you get 6 B.C.
Back up another year in case Herod didn’t die immediately after they visited, and you get 7 B.C.
So: 6 or 7 B.C.
The problem, as we saw in a previous post, is that the arguments that Herod died in 4 B.C. are exceptionally weak.
Let’s take the same logic as above and plug in the more likely date of Herod’s death.
As we saw in a previous post, the evidence points to him dying in 1 B.C.
So . . . back up two years from that and you get 3 B.C.
Back up another year for cushion and you get 4 B.C.
Thus: 3-4 B.C.
That’s not an unreasonable estimate, but there are two problems with it:
- It’s got a couple of problematic assumptions.
- Other evidence, including other evidence from the Bible, suggests it’s a little too early.
The problematic assumptions are that the star was first visible in the east at the moment of Jesus’ birth and that it was visible for a full two years prior to the magi’s arrival.
The first of these assumptions is problematic (among other reasons) because its appearance could be connected with another point in Jesus’ life, such as his conception. If that were the case, you’d need to shave nine months off to find the point of his birth.
It’s also problematic because Matthew doesn’t say that the star appeared two years earlier. What he says is that Herod killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem that were two years old and under, in accord with the time he learned from the magi.
That means that there is some approximating going on here.
Herod would certainly want to make sure the child was dead, and he would err on the side of . . . well, the side of caution from his perspective.
That is, he would to some degree over-estimate how old the child might be in order to be sure of wiping him out.
Thus all the boys two and under were killed.
That means Jesus was at most two years old, but he was likely younger than that.
What may well have happened is Herod may have been told that the star appeared a year ago and he decided to kill all the boys a year on either side of this to make sure of getting the right one.
And then there’s the fact that the ancients often counted parts of a year as a full year in their reckoning, so “two years” might mean “one year plus part of a second year.”
All this suggests that two years was the maximum amount of time earlier that Jesus was born, and likely it was less than that.
Thus . . .
This date would be indicated if we start with Herod’s death in 1 B.C. and then, taking into account the factors named above, backed up only one year, suggesting 2 B.C.
Then, if we back up another year to allow for the fact Herod didn’t die immediately, that would suggest 3 B.C.
So, sometime between 2-3 B.C. would be reasonable, based on what we read in Matthew.
Do we have other evidence suggesting this date?
Both inside and outside the Bible.
The Gospel of Luke
Although Luke offers some helpful clues about the timing of Jesus’ birth, we don’t know enough to make full use of them.
The date of the enrollment ordered by Augustus is notoriously controversial, for example, and too complex to go into here.
However, later indications he gives in his gospel are quite interesting.
He records, for example, that John the Baptist began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar” (3:1).
Tiberius became emperor after Augustus died in August of A.D. 14. Roman historians (e.g., Tacitus, Suetonius), however, tended to skip part years and begin counting an emperor’s reign with the first January 1 after they took office.
On that reckoning, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar would correspond to what we call A.D. 29. (Remember, the 15th year is the time between the completion of the 14th year and the completion of the 15th year, the same way a child’s first year is the time between his birth and his first birthday.)
Jesus’ ministry starts somewhat after John’s, but it doesn’t appear to be very long. Perhaps only a few weeks or months.
If so, Jesus’ ministry also likely started in A.D. 29.
That’s important, because Luke gives us a second clue: He says Jesus was “about thirty years of age” when he began his ministry (3:23).
So, if you take A.D. 29 and back up thirty years, when does that land you?
You might think in 1 B.C., but remember that there’s no Year Zero, so it would actually be 2 B.C.
Or the end of 3 B.C. if Luke was counting Tiberius’s reign from when he became emperor rather than from the next January 1.
Thus: 2-3 B.C. is a reasonable estimate.
That’s still only an estimate, though, because Jesus could have been a little less or a little more than thirty.
(For purposes of comparison, note that when Luke describes the age of Jairus’s daughter, he says she was “about twelve”; 8:42. So Luke doesn’t seem to go in for rounding things to the nearest 5 years; he tries to be more precise than that. When Luke says Jesus was “about thirty,” he’s probably not envisioning anything between 25 and 35 but a range narrower than that.)
To confirm our estimate, it would be nice if we had an exact naming of the year Jesus was born, and in fact we do . . .
The Fathers Know Best
There is a startling consensus among early Christian sources about the year of Jesus’ birth.
Here is a table adapted from Jack Finegan’s excellent Handbook of Biblical Chronology (p. 291) giving the dates proposed by different sources:
|The Alogoi||4 B.C. or A.D. 9|
|Cassiodorus Senator||3 B.C.|
|St. Irenaeus of Lyon||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|St. Clement of Alexandria||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|Tertullian of Carthage||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|Julius Africanus||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|St. Hippolytus of Rome||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|“Hippolytus of Thebes”||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|Origen of Alexandria||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|Eusebius of Caesarea||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|Epiphanius of Salamis||3 B.C. or 2 B.C.|
|Dionysius Exiguus||1 B.C.|
|The Chronographer of the Year 354||A.D. 1|
As you can see, except for a few outliers (including our influential friend, Dionysius Exiguus), there is strong support for Jesus being born in either 3 or 2 B.C.
And note that some of the sources in this table are quite ancient. Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, and Hippolytus of Rome all wrote in the late 100s or early 200s.
We thus have strong indication–from a careful reading of Matthew, from Luke, and from the Church Fathers–that Jesus was born in 3 or 2 B.C.