In a sense, it doesn’t matter what date we celebrate Christmas on. The important thing is that God sent His Son to save us, and the actual date is relatively unimportant. Perhaps this is why Mark’s gospel has nothing to say about the birth of Jesus at all. All he says is that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) came “at the right time” (Mk. 1:15) and Paul agrees with him (Gal. 4:4). However, if we are interested in dates, a little historical research is necessary.
Mt. 2:1 tells us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King.” This means that He was born before Herod the Great died. So let’s see if we can work out the date of King Herod’s death.
The 1st-Century Romano-Jewish historian Josephus states in his “Antiquities of the Jews” that Herod the Great was first declared king by the Romans:
“...on the 184th Olympiad, when Caius Domitius Calvinus was consul the second time, and Caius Asinius Pollio the first time.” (Antiquities XIV 14:5).
The Olympiads are dated back to the restoration of the Olympic Games in 776 BC, and are counted in four-year periods. The 184th Olympiad ended in (184*4)-776 = 40 BC and began in 44 BC, but since Josephus also gives the precise consular year he can only mean that Herod was declared to be king by the Romans in 40 BC. However, this was not the first year of Herod’s actual reign, as we shall see.
The immediate prior king to Herod the Great was Antigonus II Mattathias, who was the last Hasmonean king of Judea. Antigonus himself was officially proclaimed king in 40 BC (Antiquities XIV 13:10). Herod opened a campaign against Antigonus and laid siege to Jerusalem. Antigonus was taken to Antioch and was beheaded by Marc Antony in 37 BC (Antiquities XV 1:2).
“And thus did the government of the Asamoneans cease, 126 years after it was first set up. This family was a splendid and an illustrious one, both on account of the nobility of their stock, and of the dignity of the high priesthood, as also for the glorious actions their ancestors had performed for our nation; but these men lost the government by their dissensions one with another, and it came to Herod, the son of Antipater, who was of no more than a vulgar family, and of no eminent extraction, but one that was subject to other kings.” (Antiquities XIV 16:4).
The Hasmonean dynasty began with Judas Maccabeus’s revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 167 BC, but his reign did not officially begin until 163 BC, when Menelaus the High Priest died (2 Mac. 4:23-25), and the rebel leader’s reign was formally acknowledged by Antiochus V Eupator, the (Seleucid) king of Syria. 126 years after this date is (163-126) = 37 BC, when Antigonus died.
It is evident that Josephus considers the actual reign of Herod to have begun at the death of Antigonus, i.e. in 37 BC. Indeed, this is confirmed by Antiquities XV 5:2, which states:
“At this time it was that the fight happened at Actium, between Octavius Caesar and Anthony in the seventh year of the reign of Herod; and then it was also that there was an earthquake in Judea, such a one as had not happened at any other time.”
The battle of Actium was September 2nd, 31 BC, so the first year of Herod’s reign must have been 31-(7-1) = 37 BC.
In addition, Antiquities XIV 16:4 tells us when Herod captured Jerusalem:
“This destruction befell the city of Jerusalem when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls of Rome on the 185th Olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast, as if a periodical revolution of calamities had returned since that which befell the Jews under Pompey; for the Jews were taken by him on the same day, and this was after 27 years’ time.”
The 185th Olympiad ended in (185*4)-776 = 36 BC and began in 40 BC, but since Josephus again gives the precise consular year he can only mean that Herod captured Jerusalem in 37 BC.
Again, Josephus says this was 27 years to the day (according to the Hebrew calendar) from when Jerusalem was taken by Pompey. This happened in “the third month” (March) of 63 BC according to the Roman calendar of the time. However, when we remember that in 63 BC the Roman New Year was actually falling nearly three months prior to what the Julian calendar would later consider to be the start of the year (a situation that was only corrected by the “Year of Confusion” in 46 BC), we can see that Pompey actually captured Jerusalem in December 64 BC if we use a proleptic Julian or Gregorian calendar. This means that Herod captured Jerusalem in (64-27) = 37 BC. [In fact, Jews fast on this day each year to commemorate the fall of Jerusalem; they call it “Asarah B’Tevet” (the 10th of Tevet), and it almost always falls in December.]
Again, in Antiquities XX 10:1, Josephus reports:
“Accordingly, the number of the high priests, from the times of Herod until the day when Titus took the temple and the city and burnt them, were in all 28; the time also that belonged to them was 107 years.”
The “times of Herod” began with his conquest of Jerusalem, just as the “times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24) began with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70 (the nation of Israel then effectively no longer existed until its re-instatement in May 1948). Since the Temple and city fell to Titus in AD 70, this means that Herod’s own conquest of Jerusalem was in (107-70) = 37 BC.
As for the High Priests during this period (37 BC–AD 70), there were indeed 28 of them, as Josephus mentions.
Likewise, Antiquities XVI 5:1 states:
“About this time it was that Caesarea Sebaste, which he had built, was finished. The entire building being accomplished: in the 10th year, the solemnity of it fell into the 28th year of Herod’s reign, and into the 192nd Olympiad.”
[The Caesarea mentioned here is the one referred to in Acts 9:30; 10:1,24; 11:11 and 12:19, and not the Caesarea Philippi of Mt. 16:13 and Mk. 8:27.]
The 192nd Olympiad ended in (192*4)-776 = 8 BC and began in 12 BC, so the 28th year of Herod’s reign was some time between 12 and 8 BC. This puts the first year of his reign some time between 12+(28-1) = 39 BC and 8+(28-1) = 35 BC.
If the first year of Herod’s reign was 37 BC, as calculated above, then the 28th year of his reign was 37-(28-1) = 10 BC, which falls exactly in the middle of the 12–8 BC period of the 192nd Olympiad, confirming that our calculations are correct.
Thus we have two important dates:
Having worked this out, we can now calculate exactly when Herod died. Antiquities XVII 8:1 states:
“When he had done those things, he died, the fifth day after he had caused Antipater to be slain; having reigned, since he procured Antigonus to be slain, thirty-four years; but since he had been declared king by the Romans, thirty-seven.”
The first year of Herod’s appointment by Rome was in 40 BC. So the 37th year since he had been declared king (and hence the year of his death) was 40-(37-1) = 4 BC. Equivalently, the first year of Herod’s actual reign in Judea was 37 BC. So the 34th year of his reign is again calculated to be 37-(34-1) = 4 BC. According to Josephus, Herod died during this year.
In addition to the above reasons, the reigns of Herod’s sons and successors also appear to indicate that he died in 4 BC:
Josephus also tells us that Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse which occurred on a fast day:
“Now it happened that, during the time of the High Priesthood of this Matthias, there was another person made High Priest for a single day, that very day which the Jews observed as a fast... and that very night there was an eclipse of the Moon.” (Antiquities XVII.6:4)
Now a lunar eclipse always happens at a Full Moon, and since Jewish months always begin at the New Moon, the eclipse must have happened on the 14th day of a Jewish month. The only fast on the 14th day of a Jewish month is the ‘Esther Fast’ which takes place during the Purim festival. This occurs on the 14th day of the Jewish month Adar (Adar II in leap years such as 4 BC).
A partial eclipse of the Moon did indeed take place on March 11th (Gregorian)/March 13th (Julian) of 4 BC at 2:41 am, and this corresponds to 14th Adar II of the Hebrew Year 3757 exactly.
Also according to Josephus, Herod died before the following Passover (Antiquities XVII 9:3). Passover would have taken place on 14th Nisan 3757, which was April 9th (Gregorian)/April 11th (Julian). So Herod died some time between March 11th and April 9th (Gregorian) in the year 4 BC.
This gives us the following timeline:
Herod the Great was succeeded by Herod Archelaus (Ethnarch of Judaea) in 4 BC (Mt. 2:22).
If Herod the Great died (Mt. 2:19) in 4 BC then Jesus must have been born before 4 BC, since He was born within Herod’s reign (Mt. 2:1).
The Star of Bethlehem (Beit Lechem in Hebrew) (Mt. 2:2) may have been a comet, or a planetary conjunction between Venus and Jupiter on March 11th in 5 BC, or another conjunction between Venus and the crescent of the 3-day old New Moon on April 10th 5 BC (which would have combined to look like a comet’s tail), but modern astronomers’ best guess is that it was a nova (a star undergoing a temporary outburst of radiation) in the constellation of Aquila, also in 5 BC it is now only a 16th-magnitude star. We don’t really know which of these was the Star of Bethlehem, but we can be pretty sure the year was 5 BC!
Some people think that this shows that Jesus must have been born in the Spring of 5 BC, but they are ignoring the fact that, if Herod wanted to kill all boys under the age of two (Mt. 2:16), it was probably because Jesus was about one year old at the time. Thus, Jesus was probably born in the previous year 6 BC.
Luke tells that a census was ordered by Augustus (Lk. 2:1) and carried out by Quirinius (or Cyrenius), when he was governing in Syria (Lk. 2:2). Now, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was “legate” of Syria in AD 6, when he held another census (Antiquities XVIII 1:1), but he also held office there as a consul between 12 and 4 BC (this is mentioned in “Res Gestae Divi Augusti” 10). Indeed, Josephus tells us that when he became legate under Herod the Great’s successor Archelaus,
“Archelaus’s country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius, one that had been consul, was sent by Caesar to take account of people's effects in Syria.” (Antiquities XVII 13:5).
Thus, it is also possible that Quirinius had carried out an earlier census than the one in AD 6, while he had been in his previous job as consul. In fact, when Luke says “This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governing in Syria”, he may have been deliberately pointing out that this was not the more famous census of AD 6 but an earlier one (the Greek word “prote”, usually translated “first”, can also be translated “prior”).
Papyri collected in Egypt have shown that the Romans undertook periodic censuses throughout their empire. In Egypt, for example, censuses were taken at 14-year intervals, so it is likely that the Syrian censuses were taken every 14 years too (and Palestine was part of Syria at that time). 14 years before the census of AD 6 would have been 9 BC. However, Herod had recently lost the favour of the Emperor Augustus and was probably dragging his feet on taking the census—a process which always enraged the difficult Jews—and Augustus could easily have ordered his trusted Quirinius to assist in this volatile project! This would have pushed the timeframe into the 7–6 BC mark. Thus, if Jesus was born in 6 BC, it is still possible that Luke’s account is historically accurate.
The period from 7 to 6 B.C. also coincides with the transition of power between two legates of Syria: Sentius Saturninus (9–6 BC) and Quintilius Varus (7–4 BC). The handover period was between 7 and 6 BC, and Augustus may have appointed Quirinius to step in and conduct a taxation census when he couldn’t trust the two legates. Other research has found that an Empire-wide census was ordered by Rome in 12 BC, which was not concluded until after 7 BC (orders took time, and Syria was on the edge of the Roman Empire!)
Tertullian, writing in c. AD 200, suggests that it was in fact the legate Saturninus who initiated the census which Quirinius carried out:
“But there is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ.” (Adversus Marcionem IV 19).
If Tertullian is correct, this would put the census some time during Saturninus’s governorship (9–6 BC), and the suggested date of 7–6 BC for the census certainly fits into that time-frame.
As for the idea that in a Roman census no-one would actually have been required to travel “to his own city”, it must be remembered that the purpose of Roman censuses was not merely to count populations but to ensure that all tax revenue was collected (“that all the world should be taxed”, Lk. 2:1). Citizens were required to return to their own cities because that was where their family land was held, and the Romans needed to know who owned which parcels of land. If someone didn’t return to be registered as the owner of his land, the government could take the land away from him! Evidence of people returning to their family lands has been found by historians. For example, in AD 104 Vivius Maximus issued an edict that said:
“From the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus. Since the time has come for the house-to-house census, it is mandatory that all men who are living outside of their districts return to their own homelands, that the census may be carried out.”
An earlier Roman census record, from AD 48, contains a declaration:
“I Thermoutharion, along with Apollonius my guardian, pledge an oath to Tiberius Claudius Caesar that the preceding document gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household.”
These records show that the call of citizens to return to their city of birth for registration was common in Roman censuses. Thus, it was quite plausible for Joseph and Mary to have been required to travel to Bethlehem, as Luke indicates.
We may be assured that Quirinius would not have ordered a census to be taken in winter, at the worst possible period for travel; but Luke’s account that the shepherds were abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night (Lk. 2:8) lets us know that Jesus was born in summer or early autumn. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night – there would have been very little food available for the sheep out in the fields!
If we are going to narrow down the date of Jesus’s birth any further than “the summer or autumn of 6 BC”, it is going to be necessary to understand how the Hebrew calendar worked.
Next page: The Hebrew Calendar >>