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Discovery Magazine 12/1/2005

When was Jesus Born?

by  Alden Bass

Luke gives us more information on the time of Jesus’ birth than any other gospel writer. According to his account, Joseph and Mary traveled from Galilee to Judea in order to be registered for the Roman government. This occurred “in the days of Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2:1-2). We also know from Matthew’s account that the event occurred during the reign of Herod the Great. All of these names may be confusing, but in the ancient world, time was often marked by the reign of political leaders. So, using that system, we might say that the American Civil War began in the days of President Lincoln. This is all the information the Bible directly gives concerning the time of Christ’s birth.

Based on the information in the gospel accounts and secular history, scholars agree that Jesus’ birth probably occurred in 4 B.C. This is interesting because our calendar system is supposed to begin with Christ’s birth, which is why we date things A.D. (an abbreviation of the Latin words anno domini, meaning “year of our Lord”). The man who invented our current calendar system, a scholar named Dionysius, miscalculated the year of Jesus’ birth, and the problem has never been fixed.

The specific date of Christ’s birth is celebrated today as December 25th, a day we call Christmas. The name of this familiar holiday comes from “Christ’s Mas,” which originated as a pagan feast day among the Romans that honored the birth of Sol, the Sun god. The feast day was adopted in A.D. 354 by religious leaders in Rome, and has been observed ever since.

The truth is that the Bible does not give an exact date for Jesus’ entrance into this world. Luke reports that shepherds were in the fields tending their flocks (2:8ff.)—evidence that the birth was very likely not in December at all (the fields would have been wet and cold then), but probably sometimes between April and September. Many dates have been suggested, but all are mere guesses. Perhaps God intentionally withheld the date because He knew that men would focus on one special day instead of worshipping all year long on the appointed day—Sunday. Early Christians remembered Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection all year round, and so should we.



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