Patheos answers the question:
When Was Jesus Born?

It is always difficult to be exact with ancient dates, but most scholars believe that Jesus was born around 6-4 B.C. The calendar as it is known today recognizes history before and after the life of Jesus Christ by separating dates accordingly. Years count down before his birth and start to count forward after. [Years before his life were called B.C.: Before Christ. Years after his life were referred to as A.D., or years Anno Domini, which means “Year of our Lord.” In recognition of the pluralist reality of religious beliefs, these are sometimes changed to BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era).] Early historians calculated Jesus’ birth as year one, but today scholars recognize that, according to all historical references to his birth and lifespan, he was probably born before “year one.”

Only two of the gospels refer to Jesus’ birth, and the details they provide give clues to the date of his birth. Matthew places the birth during the reign of Herod the Great, a vassal king of Judea under the Roman rule. Since Herod died in 4 B.C., Jesus had to have been born before that. Matthew also tells about the magi, or wise men, coming to find the baby Jesus because of an extraordinary star in the sky (Matthew 2.1-11) that was a sign to them of an auspicious birth. These eastern astrologers believed it indicated the birth of the king of the Jews, and they sought him out to worship him and give him honorific gifts. Historians have considered a variety of astronomical phenomena that could be the event Matthew describes, including the appearance of Halley’s comet, which was visible in 12 B.C., and different rare conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn.

The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), and that there was a Roman census at the time that required Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ parents, to go to Bethlehem to register (Luke 2.1-5). Luke says the census took place during the tenure of Quirinius, who was the Roman governor of Syria at the time. History records a Roman census in A.D. 6, which would have been too late for Jesus’ birth according to Matthew’s account. Luke also mentions that Jesus started his public ministry when he was about 30 years old (Luke 3.23), and the gospels indicate that he preached and healed for three years before he was executed.

Extrabiblical sources recognize the existence of a man called Jesus who was executed by order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea during Tiberius Caesar’s reign. Pilate governed from A.D. 26-36/37, so for Jesus to be approximately 33 years old at the time of his death and alive before Herod’s death, he had to have been born no earlier than 7 B.C. and no later than A.D. 4.

Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25 December every year, which is the origin of Christmas. This date, though, is almost certainly not the exact day of his birth. It was chosen strategically to coincide with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to celebrate Jesus as the Light of the world, the light that comes into our darkness.

Read more about Jesus’ birth here.


12/15/2020 11:06:39 PM
About Kathleen Mulhern, Ph.D
Kathleen Mulhern is a writer, editor, historian, speaker, and professor. She teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Colorado School of Mines and Regis University, and is currently an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation. Kathleen graduated with a B.A. from Wheaton College, earned an M.A. in French Literature from the University of Denver, an M.A. degree in Church History from Denver Seminary, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado.