The Christmas story
When was Jesus born? Predictions of his birth
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The year of Christ's birth is unknown. The only available evidence relating to his
birth is contained within the 40 or so gospels written by the early Christian
movement. Of these, the four that made it into the official canon of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament),
are most often cited -- Matthew and Luke, chapters 1 & 2. People have tried to approximate the time of
Jesus' birth using various clues:
References to political leaders: Luke 1:5 states that Jesus was born when Herod was
King of Judea. Luke 2:2 states that Jesus was born when Cyrenius (a.k.a.
Quirinius) was also governor of Syria. Unfortunately, this appears to be an impossibility.
The historical record shows that Herod was king from 37 until his death in 4 BCE. (A few
scholars say 5 BCE). Quirinius was not governor of Syria at any time during this period.
He came to power in 6 CE, a decade after Herod died. 1 Some biblical literalists have suggested that the two Gospels can be harmonized
if Quirinius was governor during two separate intervals. There is no historical
evidence to support this; however, it is often taught as truth.
Census/taxation: Luke 2:1-4 mentions that Jesus' birth occurred during
the time that Caesar Augustus had ordered all of the known world to be taxed. Luke said
that every person had to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed.
Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. But
it is probable that this
universal census and tax never actually happened. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote a
very complete history of the Jews in Palestine. He does mention a census which was
conducted in Judea in 6 CE. But this was only a local census, not one that would enable
"all the world to be taxed." Its purpose was to count the male
population so that they could be taxed at a later time. And it triggered a major uprising
among the Jews, who regarded a census as against scripture and the will of God. He does
not refer to an earlier census and poll tax.
At the time of Jesus' birth, the Jews were
still subject to King Herod. Since Palestine was a client kingdom of Rome, only the king
had powers of taxation in the land. 2 It was only in areas
that were operated under direct Roman rule that Caesar Augustus could have taxed the
There is no record of a mass migration of adults to their ancestral
cities in order to be registered. It would have been totally impractical to hold a census
in this way. The primitive transportation systems of the Roman Empire would have been
totally inadequate to handle the flow of people. The entire empire would be largely shut
down for many months while people were returning to their home towns. Even today, with
airplanes, trains, busses and automobiles, it would not be practical to hold a census in
Herod's "slaughter of the innocents:" Matthew 2:16 describes King Herod's
order that all of the boy infants who had not reached their second birthday in Bethlehem
and vicinity were to be murdered. The date of that mass murder would give an approximate
idea of Jesus' birth. Unfortunately for historians (and fortunately for the residents of
the Bethlehem area) the killings never appeared to have happened. If the children were killed, then
historians of the era would have been certain to have recorded the event. No
such record exists. Josephus wrote in great detail about even minor actions and decisions of Herod.
The mass murder was never mentioned.
Our present method of dates, which divide the past into AD (anno domine, the year of
the Lord) and BC (before Christ), was established by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century. Exiguus was a Christian monk whose name translates into English as "Denny
As the calendar has been more generally accepted among people of many religions,
the terms AD and BC have been largely superseded in religious and academic books by: CE (common era) and BCE (before the
The best guess of most Biblical scholars is that Jesus was born
between 7 and 4 BCE. Recently, a new suggestion of 1 BCE has been put forth. So perhaps
Denny was not as far off in his calculations as people have believed. 3
The 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus would appear to have already passed.
Marcus Borg organized and hosted the "Jesus at 2000" seminar on the
life of Jesus. It was held on 1996-FEB-8 to 10, the approximate date of the 2000th anniversary of Jesus' birth.
The month and day of Jesus' birthday is also unknown. However, we can be fairly certain
that it was not DEC-25.
THE SHEPHERDS: Luke 2:8 mentions that shepherds were living in their
fields keeping watch over their flocks during the nighttime (and, one would assume, also
during the daytime.) This is a good indication that Jesus' birth did not happen in December when the flocks would have already have been moved from the fields
pens. They were only in the fields during the warmer months. There is a remark in the
Talmud that flocks were put out to grass in March and brought in during the beginning of
November. During the Jewish month of Heshvan (our October/November) the fall rains hit and
the animals are penned up. At best, the passage narrows down the birth month to one
of 7 months in the late spring, summer, or early fall.
Hilke Dokter 4 offers three indicators from the Bible that
Jesus was born during the Jewish month of Tishri (our September/October).
The approximate month of Jesus birth can actually be calculated with reference to the conception of John the
Luke 1:5 says that John's father, Zacharias, was "a member of
the Abijah division of the Temple service corps." (Living Bible)
1 Chronicles 24:15 assigned the priests of the Abijah division to begin
temple service at the start of the 9th week of the year. But at the end of the week,
Pentecost had begun, so he would have remained on duty until the end of the 10th week.
Luke 1:23-24 records that Zacharias returned immediately to his home,
and that John was conceived shortly thereafter - probably during the last half of
the 3rd month in the Jewish calendar.
- Allowing for a normal 9 months pregnancy, John would have been born in the springtime.
Luke 1:36 records that the angel came to Mary when John's mother
Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant.
Luke 1:31 reports that Mary conceived very shortly after the angel's
- Assuming a normal, 9 month pregnancy, Jesus would have been born about 6 months after
John - sometime in the fall of the year.
If Jesus was born in the fall, why do we celebrate his birthday on DEC-25?:
There have been many different religions active in the Middle East and Europe, each with a deity or panethon of deities. Many of these gods were believed to have been born on DEC-25. That date was the best estimate that ancient people could make of the time of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The solstice -- the shortest daytime in the year and the beginning of Winter -- actually happens sometime between DEC-21 to 23, depending on the year. With the techniques available to people in ancient times, it was only on about DEC-25 that they were able to detect that the daytimes had become noticably longer. So they settled on DEC-25 as the birth date of their god. The Chrisitan Church adopted this day from the Pagans for Jesus' birthday, even though it is in error. This was a common policy of early Christianity. They often built their cathedrals where Pagan holy places once were, and often adopted Pagan holidays for their own. This helped the common folk accept the new religion. More details
Isaiah 7:14 is frequently cited as pointing to Christ's birth -
particularly at Christmas time. English Bibles differ
subtlety in the translation of this verse.
- Some translations talk of a young woman
becoming pregnant. This is not an unusual occurrence, because people at the time of Jesus' birth tended to marry very early in life.
- Others imply that a virgin engaged in
sexual intercourse and became pregnant - again not that unusual.
- Still others imply a relatively unusual event -- by saying that a woman was pregnant while still remaining a virgin.
Actually, a woman can become pregnant without having engaged in sexual
intercourse if a man had ejaculated in her pubic area. Spermatozoa are quite
capable of migration inside her. So the event would not necessarily be a miracle.
The Septuagint (a.k.a. LXX) is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures
made in Alexandria, Egypt between 300 and 200 BCE. When
the Gospels were written (circa 70 CE to 100 CE) Hebrew had fallen into disuse.
The Gospel authors probably spoke Aramaic and also knew Greek. They relied on
the Septuagint as their source of the Hebrew Scriptures.
As it happens, the Septuagint and
similar Greek translations at the time contained an error. They translated the Hebrew word "almah"
into the Greek "parthenos", which usually means a "virgin."
"Almah" appears 9 other times in the Hebrew Scriptures; in each case it means
"young woman" -- a female who might have been a virgin or might have
been sexually active. When the Hebrew scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do over 50
times) they always used the Hebrew word "betulah." 5 So, Isaiah was referring to a young woman becoming pregnant (a rather ordinary event) and
not to a woman having conceived while still remaining a virgin (closer to a miracle). During the
Christian era, the passage has become so famous that many modern translators find it
difficult to conform to the Hebrew original. Many duplicate the error of those ancient
Greek translations. To correct the mistranslation could result in a significant loss in sales because of the widespread nature of the belief that Isaiah predicted Jesus' miracle conception.
A similar problem has happened in Leviticus 18 and 20. Any English translation of the Bible that did not refer to same-gender sexual behavior by males as an "abomination" would lose many sales, even though the word which is translated as " abomination" really means "ritually impure," like eating shell fish or receiving a tattoo.
The story in Isaiah 7:14 appears to involve an event over 7
centuries before the birth of Jesus. 6 It describes a siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians about 715
BCE. The prophecy was that a child that was born to the young woman at the time
of the siege was a sign from God
that the Jews would survive and that Jerusalem would continue as before. The
passage describes the child in terms that exclude Jesus as a possible candidate.
The prophecy was presumably fulfilled more than 700 years before the birth of Jesus.
However, Isaiah 7:14 is frequently cited at Christmas time as if it is a
prophecy of Jesus' birth.
Related essays on this web site:
A.N. Wilson, "Jesus", Sinclair-Stevenson, London, UK (1992), Pages
can read reviews of this book or order it safely from Amazon.com
Robin L. Fox, "The Unauthorized Version: Truth and fiction in the Bible,"
Knopf, New York, NY (1992) Review/order
M. J. Borg, Ed., "Jesus at 2000," Westview Press, (1997), Page 2. Review/order
Hilke Dokter, "The Messiah's True birth date" at: http://www.members.shaw.ca/hdokter
J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus",
Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), P. 74-79. Review/order
Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/
"Septuagint," at: http://www.septuagint.net/
"Page Info," Stop the World, the Teabaggers Want Off , Facebook, as on 2015-DEC-01, at: https://www.facebook.com/
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Last updated and reviewed 2016-MAR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson