Jesus’ Birth Date Riddle
The birthday of Jesus is given in the New Testament in clear text. The problem is the clue is given as a riddle. Solve the riddle and learn why Lent lands were it does and why Herod killed the babies.
Does the Bible give us any clues as to when Jesus was actually born? Yes. The place where this is given is in Luke. The following is the relevant text.
1And when the days of Pentecost were fulfilled, when they were all assembled as 1, 2suddenly a sound came from the skies like a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
3And there appeared to them tongues which were divided like flames of fire, and they rested on each of them.4And they were all filled with the holy spirit, and they began to speak in a different tongue according to what the spirit gave them to speak.
5Now there lived at Jerusalem devout men and Jews from every nation under the skies. 6And as the sound took place all the people gathered together, and they were confused because every man heard them speak in his own tongue. 7And they were all amazed and marvelled saying to each other, Look are not all these who speak Galileans? Acts 2:1-7
The inference of this story is that Caesar Augustus issued the decree to conduct a census. That decree was sent throughout the Roman world. The receiver of that decree in the area of concern to this story was Quirinius the ruling governor of Syria. This Quirinius is somehow important to the understanding of the story of the census.
Recall our main interpretive rule is the principle that all of scripture has been reduced to an essential minimum. Any detail not needed has been removed. Quirinius’ role in the census matters otherwise it would have been removed before the story was committed to text. It matters that Quirinius was governor or else it would have been omitted.
It makes sense to tell us this is a Roman Census. It provides several important facts: The Roman world is ruling the area at the time and that everyone throughout the Roman world would be counted. Caesar Augustus is the head of that government and the source of the decree.
But, why Quirinius? Why does this man as governor need to be detailed here? The story seems to make just as much sense without him being part of the story. Read the passage again and skip Luke 2:2. What is it that this verse adds?
This was the first census Quirinius conducted as governor. A sense of this statement is that he was young or inexperienced in some way. He may have been a "fast-tracker" or he may have been looking to gain political control over his district. Either way, his roll is important, or it would have been left off the story.
The Holiday of Quirinus
Each year, on what today we would call the 17th of February, the Roman world held a holiday. That holiday was called Quirinus and was an event that celebrated the Roman god of war. (Note the spelling is off from the Governor’s name by one insignificant letter.)
In the pagan world of ancient Rome the various gods had to be pacified in order to have success in the affairs of the world, in the affairs of the empire. Quirinus was a military holiday, one that was important to the army and leaders in the army. Quirinius was a young governor, looking for any angle to keep and promote his own position and power. Anyone wanting success in the army, as any governor would want, would play to the political power to be gained at the various pagan Roman holidays.
This holiday, with the same name as the governor himself, appears to be the governor’s contribution to the timing of the census. This is why Luke 2:2 had to remain in the story. It provides the date Joseph and Mary had to be in Bethlehem. It sets Jesus’ birthday, February 17.
Picking the Year
In an earlier article we showed Jesus remained behind in the temple, at Passover, in March of the year 12 AD. He had to be 12 years old at that March 12 AD Passover. The way the Bible measures years of life, this age means Jesus was in his 12th year of life at March of 12 AD.
That event means that Jesus could not have been born after Passover in 1 AD nor before Passover in 1 BC. Though we don’t have a precise date for either of these passovers, they fell in late March, so the February we are searching for here is the February in 1 AD.
February 17, 1 AD Roman is the date of Jesus’ birth. (Roman means January 1, was the New Years date.)
The following shows this date on a standard auditable date report. At this period in history it was known as 754 AUC, the Roman year counting system. The restatement of the Roman years with Christian year numbers is the second row under the Roman Date column in the following report. This is the modern year statement for this Roman date.
|Fri||10989-08-29 AA||16 Feb 1 NS||17 Feb 754 AUC||4008629 AAN|
|1489-08-29 FE||18 Feb 0 OS||17 Feb 1 AD||1721472 JDN|
Because this birthday lands in the period between the pagan January 1 New Years date and the traditional Christian March 25 New Years date this date is ambiguous as stated in the English of this article. This why the Bible Time website uses date reports. It specifies the date unambiguously.
We’re going to pull up the same date report in later articles, exploring the other date details from the report. The Biblical date for the event matters and there are some day-accurate stories that will also reinforce the date. Before going much further, lets look at column of this report we won’t use again, the column labeled Modern Date.
The top row of the Modern Date column for Jesus’ birthday, this date states February 16, 1 day earlier. Why? The reason is the calendar. This calendar is the New Style Gregorian calendar that was introduced by Pope Gregory in 1585 AD, run back to this period in history. No one in the world before the late 1500s ever heard of this calendar so the date is irrelevant for this story. It might matter if you are an astronomer and want to know what the modern date would be for this event.
The bottom row of the Modern Date column is a variation on the Julian calendar that does not correct for the missing year 4 leap day, causing the date to be off by 1 the other way, February 18. This is an artifact for some of the different systems for stating BC time. Most dates in this box before this period have a "?" on the date as a warning. This, too is irrelevant to the discussion. The only fields that really matter are the Roman dates stated on the AUC year counting system, which uses the January 1 New Years break, and the Christian restatement of that date system in the second row.
Traditional Birth Year Support
Early church tradition stated that Jesus was born in the year 753 AUC, Christian. Curiously, the year 1 AD is the year 754 AUC, which seems to be contradictory. The way we reconcile this is to realize that the Church also switched the start of the year from January 1 to March 25. The year number goes down by one between January 1 and March 25 when we use the Christian New Years definition. The birthday we’ve stated here lands in 753 AUC if we use the Christian New Years Day definition, in perfect agreement with the traditional birth year of Jesus.
At this point it should be obvious that the people who restated the Roman year numbers as the Christian year numbers we are all so familiar with must have known what they were doing. If we had accepted them as an authoritative source we would simply accepted this witness. As it is we confirmed it through another path. Even though we did not take the modern year numbering system as authoritative, we can state from this analysis that it is an accurate measure of the year of the birth of Jesus. The renumbering happened in the 600s and the paperwork used for the conversion appears lost. This is why so many think they can restate the year of Jesus’ birth in an earlier year.
There are other popular dates for Jesus’ birth. Most put it several years previous to the date given here. Why would they be wrong?
Two questions you should ask when you study the alternatives: Does this rely on private, or priestly knowledge? Astronomers with their star charts are using what the Bible would call pagan priestly knowledge to date things they think Jesus was following at his birth. Those who don’t worship Jesus are turned over to the worship of the sun, moon and starry host. In Old Testament times it was a capital offense to date things this way. Though we live in an era of forgiveness, we still expect bad dates from star charts because they are pagan.
Others say they’ve dug in the dust of Palestine and found a bit of paper or clay that says when Jesus was born. A census record or decree from some period in the years before 1 AD is said to date Jesus’ birth earlier than traditional date. Problem here? Private knowledge. Though this article does not explore the computerized calendaring tools, the rest of this website does. They are drawn completely from the Bible without any other authoritative sources. Any highschooler with a programmable pocket calculator can reproduce all the dates given here and not need any private, priestly, or most likely nefarious source of knowledge outside of the Bible itself.
Of course this is just one pass at this date. We can derive the date in other ways, confirming the details of this story. The next story we look at is the predicted dates for Gabriel’s New Testament appearances.
Phil Stone, updated 2016-11-06