The reckoning of time in antiquity went through a variety of changes until Julius Caesar, on the basis of the Egyptian solar calendar, standardized a 365-day year with an extra day inserted on leap years. Both the church and the Western world followed this method of reckoning time until the reforms of Pope Gregory XIII promulgated on February 24, 1582. Since that time, the Gregorian calendar has been followed. In AD 525, when Pope John I asked a Scythian monk named Dionysius to prepare a standard calendar for the Western church that would be reckoned from the birth date of Christ, Dionysius relied both on the Julian calendar and on available information about the date of the founding of the city of Rome to compute the birth date of Christ. In Dionysius’ calendar, AD 1 was set at 754 A. U. C. (anno urbis conditae, i.e., from the founding of the city of Rome), with Jesus’ birthday being set as 25 December 753 A. U. C. Unfortunately, Dionysius miscalculated the birth of Jesus, for the Gospels state that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died before the turn of the era (estimates range from about 4 to 1 BC). Thus, historically, one arrives with the anomaly of Jesus being born several years BC.1Several key factors in the Gospels provide information that enables one to more precisely date the birth of Christ: (1) Herod’s death, (2) the census of Quirinius (Luke 2:1–2), (3) the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry (Luke 3:1) coupled with the mention of Jesus’ age (Luke 3:23), and (4) the timing of the magi’s visit to Jesus (Matt. 2:9–12) which is related to the star that guided them to Jesus. We now examine these four considerations.
Two kinds of evidence help us determine the probable date of Herod the Great’s death—literary and numismatic (i.e., coinage). Regarding the first of these, Josephus relates that Herod the Great was proclaimed King of Judea by the Romans when Calvinus and Pollio were proconsuls, in 40 BC (Antiquities of the Jews 14.381–85; Jewish Wars 1.282–85; cf. Tacitus Historiae 5.9). Josephus then adds that Herod reigned for thirty-seven years from the time of that proclamation (Antiquities of the Jews 17.191; Jewish Wars 1.665). The difference in years (40 and 37) stems from the fact that it took Herod from 40 BC until 37 BC to gain possession of Jerusalem and the rest of his domain. This then would place the death of Herod at approximately 3 BC.2 However, Josephus also reports that an eclipse of the moon occurred shortly before Herod’s death (Antiquities of the Jews 17.167), and in view of the fact that this is the only time Josephus mentions this sort of phenomenon, it is improbable that he fabricated this piece of data. There were no such eclipses in 3 BC, but there was one on March 12/13, 4 BC. He also mentions that Passover was celebrated shortly after Herod’s death (Antiquities of the Jews 17.213; Jewish Wars 2.10). In 4 BC, the first day of Passover would have been April 11. Thus, it is likely Herod died between March 12 and April 11, 4 BC. Since Jesus was born during Herod’s reign, this means that Jesus was born sometime before March of 4 BC.
The numismatic evidence centers on Herod’s first coin, which was minted in “Year 3.” No doubt this coin was minted shortly after his final capture of Jerusalem in 37 BC, thus backdating his reign to the time of 40 BC.
The Census under Quirinius
Luke 2:1–2 says that Caesar Augustus took an empire-wide census when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Palestine. This statement poses three historical problems. First, there is no evidence for an empire-wide census taken during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Second, Quirinius was sent by Augustus to be governor of Syria and Judea in AD 6 not 6 BC, the time of Jesus’ birth (see our discussion below). And Quirinius did take a notable census in AD 6–7, according to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.1–2). Thus it has been suggested that Luke confused Quirinius with P. Quintilius Varus who was legate of Syria during 6–3 BC. Third, a Roman census would not have required Jews to travel to their ancestral home for registration. Moreover, would Rome have undertaken a census in a client state that already had its own ruler (Herod)?
Five responses counter the preceding doubts about Luke’s reliability in the matter. (1) If there was a census that affected Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, it would probably proceed along the lines of a Jewish census, not a Roman one. In that case it is plausible that Jews would return to their ancestral homes and that both adults go (especially if Mary was also of Davidic descent). (2) Elsewhere Luke demonstrates knowledge of the later census by Quirinius which prompted the revolt of Judas the Galilean in AD 6–7 (Acts 5:37). It is not likely that he would have confused this census, which he knew to be a later one, with one during the reign of Herod. (3) It is not certain that Luke in 2:1 means that Augustus took one enormous census of the whole empire. The language is general and could simply mean that the various parts of the empire were subject to various censuses during the time of Augustus. The Greek says that Caesar decreed that “all of the Roman world be enrolled.” Both the present tense of apographō (“I enroll”) and the use of pas (“all”) suggest that Luke intended to say that Caesar Augustus decreed that the enrollment, which had been previously been going on in some parts of the empire, should now be extended to all parts, including client states like Judea. Indeed, the Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White agrees, “A census or taxation-assessment of the whole provincial empire . . . was certainly accomplished for the first time in history under Augustus.”3 (4) There is some evidence of a census of Judea under Saturninus between 9–6 BC (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.19). We also know that Quirinius undertook more than one census during his governorship. (5) While Luke 2:2 could be translated as referring to the first census, prōte could also mean former. In other words, on this reading Luke would be saying that the census under Quirinius at the time of Jesus’ birth was a former or prior one than the decree Luke mentions in Acts 5:37, the one in AD 6–7. Ben Witherington summarizes the impact of these five counter-responses:
Thus it is more probable that Luke is referring to a census under Quirinius that took place prior to the famous one in AD 6–7. If so, we have no clear record outside Luke of such an action by Quirinius, though it is not impossible that it took place. Herod’s power was on the wane at the time of Jesus’ birth, and a census in preparation for the change of power could well have been forced on Herod since he had fallen into some disfavor with Augustus near the end of his life. We know also that Quirinius had been made consul in 12 BC and a person of his rank serving in the East frequently had far-reaching authority and duties. It is thus not improbable that, acting as Caesar’s agent, he had Herod take a census. It is also possible he was governor more than once in Syria,
though the possibility also remains that Luke may be identifying him by his later and, to his audience, more familiar office. It is less likely that Luke means that Quirinius started a census in 6 BC and finished it in AD 6–7, for he says that this was the first census the governor took (distinguishing it from some later one). The upshot of all of this is that Luke’s reference to the census does not suggest a different date for Jesus’ birth than does the Matthean evidence.4
John the Baptist and Jesus’ Public Ministry
Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his ministry during the fifteenth year of Caesar Tiberius’ reign (Luke 3:1). Augustus died in the summer of AD 14, and that fall the Senate acknowledged Tiberius to be the new Caesar. Thus, John the Baptist began his ministry in AD 29. In Luke 3:23 the author says that Jesus was about thirty years old at that time. The word Luke uses here of Jesus is hōsei which should be taken as a round number. Thus, there is no real discrepancy between Luke and Matthew on this point. Jesus was born in about 6 BC (so Matthew as we saw above) and on this reckoning would have been thirty-five years old at the start of his ministry, which Luke conveniently rounds off to thirty.
The Magi’s Visit
Three factors enter into the date of Jesus’ birth and the magi’s visit, two relative to the magi and one concerning church tradition: the star the magi saw, the timing of their visit, and the day of Jesus’ birth. Regarding the first of these, various astronomical suggestions have been made concerning the star that guided the magi to Bethlehem: the star was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC; it was the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter from August 12, 3 BC onward; the astronomical phenomenon was Halley’s comet, which took place in the region in 12 BC; the star was a super-nova or the birth of a new star, which Chinese astronomers recorded in 5/4 BC. But Matthew 2 provides information that makes the astronomical suggestions difficult to sustain, especially the facts that the magi saw the star at its rising which led them to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem (but why would they need the star’s leading for the short six mile journey from the former to the latter?) and then to the precise location in Bethlehem. Most likely, then, the star was the glory of God or an angel; in other words, something supernatural rather merely natural.
Concerning the second factor in ascertaining the date of the birth of Jesus, Matthew 2 reports that the magi arrived at the place of Jesus’ birth when he was a child, not an infant. Thus, it seems that the magi arrived in Bethlehem about a year after Jesus’ birth. This piece of information, plus the date of the death of Herod in 4 BC, indicates that Jesus was born in 6/5 BC.
The third factor related to determining the date of Jesus’ birth is church tradition. As early as the church father Hippolytus (AD 165–235), it was said that Jesus was born on December 25, a date also set by John Chrysostom (AD 345–407), whose arguments prevailed in the Eastern Church and have been assumed in the Western Church. Some have argued that Luke mentions that shepherds were watching their flocks outside (which might favor a date between March and November, that is the spring-summer-fall, not the winter). But Rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, Mishna Seqalalim 7.4) suggests that sheep might also be outside in winter. Thus, we may say that December 25, the traditional date, and January 6, the date followed by the Armenian Church, are both possible. The celebration of the nativity is attested in Rome as early as AD 336 and this celebration also involved recognizing January 6 as Epiphany, the day the magi visited Jesus.
Taking into consideration the death of Herod the Great, the census by Quirinius, the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ public ministry, and the magi’s visit leads one to the conclusion that Jesus was born in Bethlehem somewhere between 6–5 BC and in the winter, perhaps December 25.
 1. See Ben Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus”, in DJG, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot Knight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove/Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 60–74.
 There is a debate as to whether Herod’s reign began in 40 BC when he was appointed client king over Judea by Antony, Octavian, and the Senate or when he took possession of Jerusalem in 37 BC.
 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprint, 1978), 168–69.
 Witherington, “Birth of Jesus,” 68. I deal with the Quirinius census in my commentary on Luke. There I draw upon the findings of William Ramsay who, though writing a century ago, makes a plausible connection with the Lukan statement:
The reference in Luke 2:1 to the first worldwide enrollment for taxes when
Quirinius was governor of Syria has raised the eyebrows of historians because,
while the birth of Jesus took place during the reign of Herod the Great (who
died in 4 B.C.; see Matt. 1–2 and Luke 1:5), Quirinius was governor of Syria
A.D. 6–9. Thus it was assumed that Luke had misinterpreted the chronology
of the two. However, William Ramsay offered a very plausible explanation:
Quirinius may well have been the military leader in Syria from ca. 9 to 4 B.C.,
in conjunction with the civil governor, Saturninus. Indeed, Ramsay pointed
to the famous inscription, titulus tiburtinus, which contains the significant
line, “as pro-praetorial legate of Divus Augustus, he received again the province
of Syria and Phoenicia.” This remark suggests that someone was Caesar
Augustus’s legate (governor) in Syria twice. Although the name of the person
is lost from the manuscript, Ramsay suggested that, in light of Luke 2:1,
Quirinius well fits the description. His first activity in Syria took place, along
with the census, from 9 to 4 B.C., while his second contact with the area,
this time as chief magistrate, stretched from A.D. 6 to 9 (William Ramsay,
The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament
[London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915], 238–300; taken from my Luke, Moody
Gospel Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1995], 24–25).
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus by C. Marvin Pate. This title was released on April 27, 2015. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Answers to critical questions regarding the study of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith
The conclusions of the quest for the historical Jesus, which casts the majority of Christ’s life as a myth, are a stark contrast to the orthodox view of Christ as presented in the Bible. Pate demonstrates that a critical analysis of the gospel text along with historical and cultural methods of investigation actually point toward an orthodox view of Christ.
This work argues that the canonical Gospels are the most trustworthy information we have about the gospel writers as well as the life and ministry of Jesus, including his death, visit to hades, resurrection, and ascension. Readers will be encouraged by the reliability of the Gospel writers, the reality of Jesus’ humanity and deity, and the inferiority of the apocryphal gospels.