Yes, this is an important objective question. Perhaps, though, it is not so important as the question I will pose at the end of this writing, which is a subjective question. In the meantime, my research has left me with a sense of charm about the question—to get the answer, there is so much flexibility that must be acknowledged. I’ve enjoyed learning how hard we humans have tried during many years of time-counting and calendar-creating both to get the answer right and to undergird Christian expectation.
To begin with, Jesus wasn’t born during Year Zero. That’s because there wasn’t a Year Zero. Logically, there can’t be a Year Zero. Consider the month and day you were born. In my case, it’s October 30. If I were so vastly important that the world’s dating was to hinge on October 30, then the 365 days BEFORE my birth would be termed 1 B.D. (the final year before Dikkon) and the 365 days AFTER my birth would be termed 1 A.D. (the first year after Dikkon). There’s no room for a Year Z.D. (zero Dikkon). And in the era of B.D., we would all count backward; in the era of A.D., we would all count forwards.
Jesus is the Christ, the savior of the world. He is so vastly important that the world’s dating hinges upon his birth—in B.C. (before Christ) or in A.D. (anno domini – “in the year of our Lord”). Establishing the actual year when Jesus was born was difficult to do and even questionable whether to undertake. However, it was considered important because that was the year when the Holy Trinity commenced the final stage of its plan to redeem fallen humans and to restore paradise in the New Jerusalem. Here’s the sequence. One year Jesus was born. About three decades after His birth, He—who is incarnate God—was sacrificed on the Cross. Three days after that, His Resurrection guaranteed redemption for those who believe in His glory. So the year of Jesus’ birth is a pivotal year; salvation history turns upon it. Eternal life turns upon it.
But there is another year that is even more ineffably sublime. The year of Jesus’s birth merely begins the sequence of events that we term Christ’s passion and our redemption. Salvation history is climaxed by Christ’s Resurrection, not by His birth. To early Christians, for the purpose of their worship, the most vital information arising from calendar study was to figure out, each year, on which date they were to celebrate Easter.
In fact, many early Christian fathers objected to the celebration of Christmas at all. The date of Christmas was not determined until what we nowadays call the year 221 A.D. by Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 180 A.D.—c. 250). Using the Bible as one of his principle authorities, Sextus wrote a prodigious 5-volume chronology of sacred and secular time running from the world’s creation, which he placed in 5499 B.C., and up to the date of his book’s publication in 221. In it, he concluded that Jesus was born on December 25th. Many contemporary theologians responded, in effect, so what? It’s pagans who celebrate the birth of their heroes. We don’t. Christians are concerned not about the births of our saints and especially not about Jesus’ birth. We’re concerned about their deaths. While everyone is born, not everyone is martyred—and no one has ever been martyred as the incarnate God was martyred. His martyrdom brought Resurrection and Ascension! It revealed the whole of God’s redemptive plan—it revealed the empyrean and provided for the salvation of all of believing humankind.
Human life, we Christians believe—this is according to many of the church fathers—our human life is a transitional period of time before we proceed to our final and eternal home in heaven. We experience trials and hardships during our lives, and we are allowed to know grace. If we are blessed by the opportunity of martyrdom perhaps our death day will be remembered for a long time afterward. Our birth day is of much lesser importance.
How to Calculate which Year?
As a man of our modern technological age, I am accustomed to time being measured by tools which we consider absolutely objective—by atomic clocks, for example. But that was not the way time was measured back in the day. Back in the day, time was measured by competing calendars, which were each built on observation of the solar and the lunar cycles in the sky, and also on reference to legendary events and to political or religious verities. For example, the city of Rome kept track of years by looking back to its birth in 753 B.C. (on April 1, to be specific), when it was founded by the legendary Romulus and Remus. Roman years (using the abbreviation AUC—from the founding of Rome, “ab urbe condita”) were counted from that legendary event—and note that the B.C. I used in this sentence in order to orient us moderns did not exist as a concept then. Next, as of 46 B.C. (or 708 AUC) a new calendar was imposed, the Julian calendar, by edict of Julius Caesar, so then there two dating systems existed. Further, after that same Julius forced Republican Rome to become Imperial, years were also calculated from the date of the accession of absolute power by the then emperor, reporting, for instance, that a certain event happened “in the 16th year of the reign of Caesar Augustus.”
Three dating systems may have seemed complicated, but then something different happened in 1278 AUC. A mathematically-minded monk and member of the Roman Curia, Dionysius Exiguus, invented the concept of A.D. As indicated above, this man’s concern was to make accurate predictions going forward of when Easter should be celebrated annually. To him I’m sure, Christian time ought to dominate Romulus-and-Remus time, so he counted backward 525 years from the year he was making his calculation to “the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ”…or to in the year of our Lord, A.D 1. Scholars find it difficult to understand how Dionysius picked 525 years for his calculation (and what I’ve read is too long and complicated for our space here to contain)—but here’s where the charming humanity and the flexibility of the process is discernable. Apparently, Dionysius specified that he avoided any clues he might otherwise have found in some calendars if they mentioned a particular emperor who persecuted Christians and whom Dionysius wanted to be struck from the record. Also, I understand that there are suggestions in his writing that he picked 525 years because, at his own time, general Christian understanding of the date of the End Times was that they would begin 500 years after the birth of Christ. Dionysius may deliberately have placed his own year twenty-five years after the supposed Eschaton. Maybe he did this to avoid public panic. And anyway what he wanted people to pay attention to was Easter.
So Dionysius Exiguus invented A.D., and he placed A.D. 1 where he placed it. We’ve been living with that dominant hinge ever since. But note—more flexibility—even that dominant hinge did not become widely used throughout Europe until 731 A.D. when it was adopted by the Venerable Bede and appeared in his major work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Still, In what Year was Jesus Born?
By 731 and after, it was clear that there had existed a year we could call A.D. 1. So that’s the answer to our question—it’s obvious. Jesus was born in A.D. 1—the first year of our Lord Jesus Christ. But not so fast.
There is another way to approach the truth. Let’s review what the Bible and Roman history tell us. Matthew 2:1 tells us that Jesus was born “during the reign of King Herod” the Great. At “about that same time,” the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and reported they had seen the Star in the west and had traveled to worship the boy born to be king. Herod, vicious enough to have murdered two of his wives and three of his sons when he thought they plotted against him, ordered all male children around Bethlehem “who are two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16) to be murdered. From history, we believe that Herod died in the year 4 B.C. So we might conclude that Jesus must have been born about one or two years before the date of Herod’s death, in order for the Magi to have had time for their travel and to describe to Herod how old the child born at the time of the star must now be. (Note that all these dates are speculative and have flexibility—including Herod’s death date: did he die in January or December, and into which year were those 12 months placed?) Flexibility again. So maybe Christ was born in 4 or 5 Before Christ.
But there’s more. Luke 3:1 locates the preaching of John the Baptist “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius” which we know from history would be A.D. 29 (although there is some flexibility there, too, because Roman historians usually—but probably not always—dated the emperor’s accession to absolute power as of the first January 1 after he gained the power). We know that Jesus began preaching shortly after his baptism by John. But how long after? A month? A year? Later, in Luke 3:23, we are told that “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry.” Would that still have been in A.D. 29? And what does “about thirty years old” actually mean, when our urgency is to count backward toward a birth year date that is firm? So, using the suggestions we have in Luke, arithmetic gets us to this other maybe: maybe Christ was born in any year between about 2 Anno Domini and 3 or 4 Before Christ.
For simplicity and for lack of space, I’ve left out others lines of speculation, but the consensus among scholars today (including most church fathers) seems to be an average of about this: Christ was probably born in year 2 or 3 Before Christ.
Note also that current-day custom is to downplay the use of the abbreviations A.D. and B.C. There are scholars from various religious traditions other than Christianity—including the religion of atheism—who object to worldwide dating being hinged on the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. The current trend is to use, instead, the abbreviations C.E.—Common Era—and B.C.E.—Before the Common Era. Even with the more generic initials, the hinge time is the same—the birth of Jesus Christ.
Objective Question; Subjective Question
We can’t answer the objective question. We can get close to a firm answer but not there. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of God. Perhaps he wants us to pay attention primarily to something else than an exact date. He seeks to redeem our souls. He calls us to Him. He has been calling us to him since Jesus’ Resurrection. So in what year was Jesus born?
Subjectively, here at the beginning of Advent 2018, while liturgically we await—I hope with patience and anticipatory joy—His birth on December 25, 2018, we can say He will be born, very soon now, as He has been born, each year, during more than two millennia.
May He—upon His death at Easter—redeem us and save us forever. Amen.
Dr. Dikkon Eberhart and his wife Channa live in the Blue Ridge area of SW Virginia. They have four grown children and five grandchildren, who keep them busy. Eberhart is the author of the popular memoir The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told (Tyndale House Publishers). Eberhart writes memoirs to assist those who long to be closer to God. Meet him at his blog and website www.dikkoneberhart.com
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
What is Christmas? Understanding History, Origin and Traditions
When Was Jesus Born? History of December 25th
Where Was Jesus Born? 5 Things to Know about Bethlehem
The Birth of Jesus: Bible Story and Scripture Verses
Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh Were Given to Baby Jesus
Christmas Bible Verses & Scripture Story
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