The original question was: We are led to believe that King Herod died about 3 or 4 B.C. If this is accurate, then Jesus must have been born earlier, as Herod would have to be alive to implement the slaughter of the innocents. Also, the Magi, (however many there were in number) paid tribute to Herod by visiting him. This means Jesus’ birthday was years before the commonly believed date. What are the facts?
Answer by Daniel Durston
A date problem?
In order to establish if there is indeed a conflict with the commonly believed date of Jesus’ birth and the time of Herod, a chronological sequence of events surrounding this time in history needs to be mapped out. If indeed Herod died in 3 or 4 B.C when exactly was Jesus born? A.D. is the Latin abbreviation for ‘Anno Domini’ or roughly translated ‘the year of our Lord’. The BC/AD system was developed in 525 AD by Dionysius Exiguus, a Catholic monk, who had been commissioned by Pope John I, specifically to determine the correct date for Easter as well as keeping track of the time that had passed since the birth of Jesus.
Dionysius’ dates do cause an issue because his calendar would result in Jesus having been born after our now known data about the date of death for the Herod recorded in Scripture as being alive when Jesus was born. We must also note that since the Scriptures do not directly state the year and time of Jesus birth not even on the ancient Jewish Calendar, there can be no conflict between any man made calendar and the Scriptural record on this point. However, from both within Scripture and from outside historical data, there are clear historical events, people and rulers that create an indisputable time frame for the birth of Jesus Christ.
There are three main ways to establish the year of the birth of Jesus: first, by working backwards from the starting point of his ministry to the year of birth; second, by calculating the ‘seventy weeks’ prophecy in the book of Daniel and other prophetic scriptures; or, third by identifying events surrounding his birth.
Jesus in Real History
A seemingly obvious point ought to be initially mentioned. Even if there were no documented events regarding the precise time of Jesus birth, that would not negate the fact that he was born, it would just mean we would not know the exact time of his birth! Often exact birth and death records of people are unavailable but people, places and events that are known and historically documented can connect and place that person accurately within a certain time frame.
To give you a modern example: one of the older associates of Creation Research had his birth and passport records destroyed in World War 2. It wasn’t a problem until he applied for his pension only to be told he didn’t exist, when he obviously did and had many witnesses to confirm it and and his age, but nothing on paper. In the case of Jesus Christ, no serious historian disputes the life and rule of King Herod, and there are twelve references to Herod in Matthew’s gospel to which the birth of Jesus is connected. Nine of these references directly associate Herod with Jesus.
Matthew Chapter 2 opens with the birth of Jesus and Herod’s response: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. “ Matthew 2:1-4 According to Matthew 2:1 the birth of Jesus took place in the days of Herod, meaning King Herod was alive at the time of Jesus birth. Matthew also mentions the place, Judea, (the known historical location and Herod’s sphere of rule). Locations are named also in context of Jesus birth, for example Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1, 2:5, 2:6, 2:8, 2:16, Luke 2:4, 2:15,) and references are to be found in John’s gospel also.
There are also six references to the town of Nazareth in Matthew’s gospel which all are in context of Jesus (2:19, 2:23, 4:13, 13:53, 21:11, 26:71). Five references to the town of Nazareth can be found in Mark’s gospel again all in context of Jesus (1:9, 1:24, 6:1, 10:47, 16:6). Luke makes reference to Nazareth 8 times (1:26, 2:4, 2:39, 2:51, 4:16, 4:34, 18:37, 24:19) and John’s gospel 5 times (1:45, 1:46, 18:5, 18:7, 19:19). In addition to these places Jesus is tied with Jerusalem in many of the synoptic gospels, 12 in Matthew, 10 in Mark and 30 times in John’s gospel.
The good historian and physician Luke also clearly places the birth of Jesus in an irrefutable time frame. Luke records: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” Luke 2:1-5
Here we learn Joseph and expecting mother Mary, makes the journey for the registration by decree of Caesar Augustus. The authenticity of the life and rule of Augustus, who is considered to be the first ruler of the Roman Empire, from 27BC until 14AD, is a well documented fact by historians. Also Luke ties Jesus’ 30th year to the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, (27-28 AD) placing Jesus birth at 4BC. (Luke 3:1-3) The times of Tiberius (and Augustus) are known exactly from Ptolemy’s Canon, and the time of the death of Herod is fixed for us by Josephus (Antiquities XVII. 4).
So the year our Lord Anno Domini is not the actual year of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is important to note the AD calendar was not commenced during Jesus’ earthly life or in the Apostolic era. A monk in Rome called Dionysius Exiguus computed that the year he was in was 525 years after the birth of Christ. But he was ‘out’ by 4 years. Considering the number of calendar revisions this was a good calculation.
The main area of confusion obviously lies with the different calendars that have been invented by men over the past few thousand years. These need to be considered, so a brief overview is necessary.
The Julian, Gregorian and the Jewish calendars are of special importance. Most calendars have three chief methods of time-reckoning. The lunar calendar based on the phase observations of the moon resulted in lunar months, some of which were 29.5 days. In addition to this there was the solar calendar, based upon the earth’s orbit of the sun, approximately 365 days. And finally the civil calendar which was dictated around civil or religious events. The discrepancies become apparent right away between the lunar and solar calendar since 12 x 29.5 = 354 (lunar cycles) compared with the solar calendar of approximately 365 days. Keeping the calendars in pace with one another involves the process of ‘intercalation’. This simply means the addition of a specified period of time every so often. The early Roman calendar was based upon 12 lunar months of varying length.
The Pontifices (high ranking priests) controlled the calendar and were also responsible for intercalation. By the time of Julius Caesar the calendar was getting rather confusing, so in 46BC Caesar undertook a reform to correct it. He introduced the ‘Julian’ calendar, and it’s this one that is basically used today. He abolished the lunar year and established a calendar of 12 months of 28, 30 or 31 days, with February taking a 29th day every 4th (leap year). The leap year compensates for the fact that a 365 day calendar year is actually a few hours shorter than the solar year.
But the Julian calendar was still out of sync with the sun by 11 minutes per year. This came to the attention of Pope Gregory XIII who introduced a further reform in 1582. Motivated to determine the Easter day celebration, and to place the calendar back in sync with the solar year he dropped 10 days in 1582. October 4th was immediately followed by October 15th. The intercalation of the leap year’s extra day was omitted on all centenary years except for multiples of 400, thus avoiding the Julian error of 3 days in 400 years. (For this reason the year AD 2000 was a leap year, but AD 1900 wasn’t.) The dropping of 10 days was very unpopular and it took decades and in some cases centuries for different countries to adopt these changes.
So when taking into consideration the calendar changes and revisions and what has been left on record by the four different gospel authors, a chronological timeline of history can be mapped out regarding the correct birth year of Jesus. The Biblical facts have also been backed up and verified through secular historical sources. The Biblical accounts, along with secular historical data, provide compelling evidence for a 4BC birth using the Gregorian Calendar and his death some 33 yrs later to pay the price of your sin and mine which is the best gift God has ever given, so accept it humbly as we remember the season of his birth.
Sources: The Date of the Crucifixion and the Era of New Birth by David Davidson Whiston, William; Josephus: The Complete Works, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.
What about the month of Jesus birth?
It was in A.D. 325 that the Roman Church settled that the 25th December was to be observed as Christ’s birthday. The actual time of the year is disputed and most scholars go for a late summer birth. The gospel of Luke with its detailed account offers the most valuable clues surrounding the time of the year for Jesus birth. By placing the birth of John the Baptist alongside the birth of Jesus, an accurate picture of a chronological timeline can be drawn.
Luke’s gospel commences with the story of John the Baptist’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth . While Zacharias was ministering in the temple he received the visit from the angel Gabriel concerning the birth of John. Soon after Zacharias finished his duties at the temple, Elizabeth conceived. It was in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that Gabriel informed Mary she too would bear a Child, Jesus (Luke 1:26-36). Jesus then was born about six months after John. If the time of Zacharias service in the temple can be traced out, an approximate time of the year for Jesus’ birth can be worked out.
The clue for this lies in Zacharias being “of the division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5). The course of Abijah will provide a point of reference from which the time of the year can be deciphered. 1 Chronicles 24 not only provides the time of the year when the course of Abijah was but how long it lasted. The courses were made up of the different heads of two different fathers, Eleazar and Ithamar. The father of these two was Aaron where the Aaronic priesthood had its roots. So the course of Abijah was one of 24 courses, 16 heads of house from Eleazar and 8 from Ithamar. The different courses were responsible for ministering in the temple and its duties at different times of the year. Each course ministered twice per year leaving 3 extra weeks that were filled with events such as feasts and celebrations, (the Hebrew year normally has 51 weeks). In the Jewish calendar Nisan 1 was the first shift cycle going through the whole year. The course of Abijah was the eighth shift. These shifts were observed right up until the time of the destruction of the temple in 70AD.
If Jesus was born sometime in 4 BC, counting back 9 months of the gestation period and the 6 month difference in age, John must have been conceived in the first half of 5 BC. Knowing this we need to attach it to the first course of Abijah as the time when Gabriel visited Zacharias in the temple. Frederick Coulter calculates it as follows: In the year 5 BC, the first day of the first month, the month of Nisan, according to the Hebrew Calendar, was a Sabbath. According to computer calculation synchronizing the Hebrew Calendar and the stylized Julian Calendar, it was April 8. Projecting forward, the assignments course by course, and week by week, were: Course 1, the first week; Course 2, the second week; all Courses for the Passover and the feast of unleaved bread the third week; Course 3, the fourth week; Course 4, the fifth week; Course 5, the sixth week; Course 6, the seventh week; Course 7, the eighth week; Course 8, the ninth week; and all courses the tenth week, which was the week of Pentecost. If Zacharias worked on his assigned course this period ran from the Hebrew calendar Iyar 27 through to Sivan 12. By the Julian calendar that is June 3rd through to 17th. If he returned to his home after his assigned course, and Elizabeth conceived in the following 2 weeks that places the time approximately between June 18th through July 1st. So Elizabeth’s sixth month would have been in December, during which time Mary conceived. If we project six months after John’s expected birth time (late March 4BC) then Jesus would have been born approximately the later part of September, right around the Feast of Trumpets.
Source: Coulter, Frederick, The Life of Jesus Christ:1st Edition,York: York Publishing Company, 1974.
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