Matthew 2:1 NTBDC: When was Jesus born?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored 170+ books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The Bible does not explicitly state on what date Jesus was born. We can determine the year (2 B.C.E.), the likely season, and possible month (early fall [September through November), but not the exact day.

  • According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “The true birthdate of Christ is unknown.” Also, the same encyclopedia teaches that: “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church.”
  • In line with this the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: “The exact date of Christ’s birth is not known.”
  • Additionally, Wikipedia states, “the date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical reference. The historical evidence is too incomplete to allow a definitive dating.”

While the Bible has no historical reference to the exact date of Jesus’ birth, we can extrapolate inferences by looking at two events that will help us know that it was very much likely not December 25. We can gain some additional insights through three different approaches: 

While the Bible does not directly answer the question, ‘When was Jesus born?’ it does describe two events surrounding his birth that lead many to conclude that he was not born on December 25.

(1) We need to examine references to known historical events mentioned in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, (2) by working backward from the start of the ministry of Jesus (29 C.E),[1] and (3) astrological or astronomical alignments.[2] The day we cannot establish with any kind of certainty but we can certainly get at the season, which can be estimated by various methods, including the account that tells us of shepherds watching over their sheep in the fields.[3] Again, if you are looking for greater detail than here, see the link to the article above.

It Most Certainly Was Not In the Winter

Caesar Augustus Decreed the Registration. Right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus published a decree that ordered that “a census be taken of all the inhabited earth (Roman Empire).” “All the people were on their way to register for the census, each to his own city.” When we consider that Jesus’ parents lived in Nazareth and needed to go to Bethlehem, we are looking at a week or more of travel. (Luke 2:1-3) Many across the Roman Empire would have to travel great distances, to be obedient to this decreed to register, likely for taxation and military purposes. Therefore, the burden it caused would have made such a decree unpopular regardless of when it took place in the year. However, it would have been quite foolish for Augustus to make such a decree in the dead of winter, which would have aggravated his subjects even further to have to travel great distances in the cold weather. 

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The Shepherds Living in the Fields with the Sheep. Luke 2:8. “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” The website bibleinfo.com notes “According to Bible commentator Adam Clarke, it was customary for the Jews to send their sheep to pasture from the spring until early October. As the cold winter months began, the flocks would return from the fields for shelter and warmth. Since the shepherds were still tending their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem, it can be concluded that the angels announced the news of Jesus’ birth no later than October.”

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Likely Early Fall

We can get at the season and the year by calculating backward from the date of his death, which was on Passover, Nisan 14 33 C.E., which was in the Spring. (John 19:14-16) Jesus, when he began his ministry (3.5 years), was about thirty years of age. (Luke 3:23) Therefore, we can deduce that Jesus was born in the early fall of 2 B.C.E. 

How Did Christmas Come to Be December 25?

The Encyclopædia Britannica says, The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains uncertain, but most probably the reason is that early Christians wished the date to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti); this festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again began to lengthen and the sun begins to climb higher in the sky. The traditional customs connected with Christmas have accordingly developed from several sources as a result of the coincidence of the celebration of the birth of Christ with the pagan agricultural and solar observances at midwinter. In the Roman world, the Saturnalia (December 17) was a time of merrymaking and exchange of giftsDecember 25 was also regarded as the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the Sun of RighteousnessOn the Roman New Year (January 1), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poorTo these observances were added the German and Celtic Yule rites when the Teutonic tribes penetrated into Gaul, Britain and Central Europe. Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian. Since the Middle Ages, evergreens, as symbols of survival, have been associated with Christmas. Christmas is traditionally regarded as the festival of the family and of children, under the name of whose patron, St. Nicholas, presents are exchanged in many countries.

What Does the Bible Say?

Do not let the following comment lead you to believe how this article is going to come out in the end. It needs to be stated that Neither Jesus nor any New Testament author told the Christians (followers of Christ) to celebrate his birthday. However, there are multiple Bible verses that obligate Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Lu 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-25)

McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia states: “The observance of Christmas is not of divine appointment, nor is it of N.T. origin. The day of Christ’s birth cannot be ascertained from the N.T., or, indeed, from any other source. The fathers of the first three centuries do not speak of any special observance of the nativity. The baptism of Jesus was celebrated in the Eastern Church by A.D. 220, but not in the Western until the fourth century, and the Eastern Church finally adopted the Christmas festival from the Western (about A.D. 380).” Yes, honest-hearted ones know that Christmas has its roots in pagan religious rites. Yes, the Bible does show that God will find us an abomination if we worship him in a way that brings reproach on him and corrupts us through false worship. – Exodus 32:5-7.

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Matthew 2:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi[4] from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,

Bible Archaeology (2005) by Hoerth and McRay offers a date that is accepted by most Bible scholars when they write, “It can be known that he [Jesus] was born before 4 B.C.” How do they come up with that date? They go on, “because Matthew writes that he was ‘born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King (Matthew 2:1), and Herod (the Great) died in that year [4 B.C.]; having reigned from 37 B.C.” How do they come up with the date for the death of Herod the Great?

The chronology is primarily based on the words of the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus used “consular dating” (dates based on events during the rule of Roman consuls [chief magistrate]).

In dating the time that Herod was appointed king by Rome, Josephus uses a “consular dating,” He locates the event as occurring during the rule of certain Roman consuls. According to this, Herod’s appointment as king would be in 40 B.C.E. Still, the data of another historian, Appianos, would place the event in 39 B.C.E. By the same method Josephus places Herod’s capture of Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E. Still, he also says that this occurred 27 years after the capture of the city by Pompey (which was in 63 B.C.E.). (Jewish Antiquities, XIV, 487, 488 [xvi, 4]) His reference to that latter event would make the date of Herod’s taking the city of Jerusalem 36 B.C.E. Now, Josephus says that Herod died 37 years from the time that he was appointed king by the Romans and 34 years after he took Jerusalem. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 190, 191 [viii, 1]) This might indicate that the date of his death was 2 or perhaps 1 B.C.E.

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It may be that the Jewish historian Josephus counted the reigns of the kings of Judea by the accession-year method, as had been done with the kings of the line of David. If Herod was appointed king by Rome in 40 B.C.E., his first regnal year could run from Nisan of 39 to Nisan of 38 B.C.E.; similarly, if counted from his capture of Jerusalem in 37 (or 36) B.C.E., his first regnal year could start in Nisan 36 (or 35) B.C.E. So if, as Josephus says, Herod died 37 years after his appointment by Rome and 34 years after his capture of Jerusalem. If those years are counted in each case according to the regnal year, his death could have been in 1 B.C.E. Presenting an argument to this effect in The Journal of Theological Studies, W. E. Filmer writes that evidence from Jewish tradition indicates that Herod’s death occurred on Shebat 2 (the month of Shebat falls in January-February of our calendar).—Edited by H. Chadwick and H. Sparks, Oxford, 1966, Vol. XVII, p. 284.

According to Josephus, Herod died not long after an eclipse of the moon and before a Passover. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; 213 [ix, 3]) Since there was an eclipse on March 11, 4 B.C.E. (March 13, Julian), some have concluded that this was the eclipse referred to by Josephus.

On the other hand, there was a total eclipse of the moon in 1 B.C.E., about three months before Passover, while the one in 4 B.C.E. was only partial. The total eclipse in 1 B.C.E. was on January 8 (January 10, Julian), 18 days before Shebat 2, the traditional day of Herod’s death. Another eclipse (partial) occurred on December 27 of 1 B.C.E. (December 29, Julian).

The date of Herod the Great’s death illustrates problems that can be encountered in dating by lunar eclipses. Josephus’ writings (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; XVII, 188-214 [viii, 1–ix, 3]) show Herod’s death occurring shortly after a lunar eclipse and not long before the start of the Passover season. Many scholars date Herod’s death as in 4 B.C.E. and cite as proof the lunar eclipse of March 11 (March 13, Julian calendar) in that year. Because of this reckoning, many modern chronologers place the birth of Jesus as early as 5 B.C.E.

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However, that eclipse in 4 B.C.E. was a mere 36-percent magnitude and would have attracted the attention of very few people at the early morning hour that it occurred. Two other eclipses took place in 1 B.C.E., either one of which might fit the requirement of an eclipse not long before the Passover. The partial lunar eclipse of December 27 (December 29, Julian calendar) was perhaps observable in Jerusalem but probably not as a conspicuous event. According to calculations based on Oppolzer’s Canon of Eclipses (p. 343), the moon was passing out of the earth’s shadow as twilight fell in Jerusalem, and by the time it was dark, the moon was again shining full. On the other hand, it is not included in the comprehensive listing by Manfred Kudlek and Erich Mickler. Thus, the extent to which that eclipse was visible in Jerusalem or whether it was visible at all is uncertain at this point in history. More striking than either of the above was the late-night lunar eclipse that occurred in the early hours of January 8, 1 B.C.E. (January 10, Julian calendar). This was a total eclipse in which the moon was blacked out for 1 hour 41 minutes. It would have been noticed by anyone awake, even if the sky was overcast. So, during the years here discussed, more than one eclipse occurred shortly before a Passover. Viewed from the standpoint of information available now, it seems that the one most likely to have been noted was that on January 8, 1 B.C.E.—Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East From 3000 B.C. to 0 With Maps, by M. Kudlek and E. H. Mickler; Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany; 1971, Vol. I, p. 156.

[1] New Testament History by Richard L. Niswonger 1992, pp. 121–124

[2] Molnar, Michael, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, 1999, Rutgers Univ. Press

[3] “New Testament History” by Richard L. Niswonger 1992, pp. 121–124

[4] Astrologer, Magician, Soothsayer, Sorcerer, Wise man or Priest: (Aram. gezar; Gr. magos) A person who studies the positions of the Moon, Sun, and other planets in the belief that they can predict future events. A person of the pagan world who was respected for their occultist knowledge of medicine, astrology, and the interpretation of dreams.–Dan. 2:27; Matt. 2:1.

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