So far we have discussed the probable year of Jesus’ birth. Along the way, we have established some parameters for narrowing the date even further. The astronomical data point to a series of conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus between September 14, 3 BC and May 8, 2 BC that would have had deep implications for anyone (such as the Magi) schooled in astrological symbolism.
The historical data provided by Josephus indicates that within this time frame, twelve to fifteen months before the death of Herod—that is, most likely between November 3 BC and February 2 BC—an enrollment of loyalty oaths was taking place in Israel that is a prime candidate for the census or registration recorded by Luke. Of course, the registration may have begun some time before the incident Josephus records, in which six thousand Pharisees refused to sign the oath. Additionally, since the purpose of the census was to record the people’s consent to the Senate granting Augustus the title Pater Patriae, the deadline for such a registration would have to be February 5, 2 BC, or actually a little before.
This suggests the first half of the time range is more likely than the second. A date between mid-September and mid-January seems most likely. Remarkably, this range can accommodate both of the most likely theories as to the date of Christ’s birth: during the fall festivals of Judaism or at the traditional date in late December or early January. For the period in question, the dates of the fall festivals are:
- Rosh Hashanah: Tishrei 1, AM 3759 = September 10, 3 BC.
- Yom Kippur: Tishrei 10, AM 3759 = September 19, 3 BC.
- Sukkot: Tishrei 16-22, AM 3759 = September 25-October 1, 3 BC.
The possible winter dates are of course
- December 25, 3 BC, the traditional date of “Christmas.”
- January 6, 2 BC, an earlier date for the Feast of the Nativity, still observed by the Armenian Orthodox Church.
It is sometimes objected that shepherds would not have been keeping their flocks outside in the middle of winter. In fact, the Mishnah (Shekalim 7:4) deals with the possibility of flocks being kept in the fields near Bethlehem, even in winter. This was the rainy season in Judea, when green grass was abundant. Although chilly, the nighttime lows would not be oppressively cold. Televised coverage of Christmas midnight mass from Bethlehem commonly shows worshipers in shirtsleeves. So, what documentary evidence can be mustered in favor of either of these two theories?
Claims of Eyewitnesses to Census Records
If my interpretation of the “census” is correct, the infant Jesus would not have been recorded at all at the registration in the year of his birth, since it pertained merely to soliciting oaths of allegiance to Augustus. Jesus would, of course, have been listed in Quirinius’ provincial census of AD 6 as well as Augustus’ third empire-wide census of AD 14.
Some ancient writers claim to have investigated the census records in Rome and found written proof that the date of Jesus’ birth was in fact December 25th. Numerous ancient writers claimed some familiarity with the Roman census records. Justin Martyr stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which fact could be ascertained from Roman tax records (First Apol. 1:34). Tertullian also spoke of the “census of Augustus” as a faithful witness to the Lord’s birth, kept in the Roman archives (Adv. Marc. 4:7). More specifically, by the fourth century several church Fathers were appealing to the census documents to determine Jesus’ birth date. Cyril of Jerusalem requested Julius, bishop of Rome, to determine the date of Jesus’ birth “from the census documents brought by Titus to Rome.” The date assigned was December 25th.
Today, however, these documents are no longer extant, and it is widely assumed that they were forgeries in the first place. Since at any rate the documents are no longer available to be consulted, the wiser course of action is to disallow them as evidence. We will have to look elsewhere for credible evidence of Jesus’ birthday.
Hints within the Biblical Narrative
Those who argue for a fall date base their conclusion on a number of details in the biblical text itself, namely:
- Luke 3:23 literally reads, “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years old.” This wording might suggest that his baptism and the start of his public ministry occurred around his birthday. Assuming that his ministry lasted approximately three and one half years, we can count back from his crucifixion in the spring to a beginning point in the fall of the year.
- Mary went with Joseph to be enrolled in the census. Why would Mary go along? If the enrollment came around the Feast of Tabernacles, Mary may well have accompanied Joseph to attend the feast, as was her custom at Passover (Lk 2:41). Furthermore, the fall of the year, after the end of harvest time, would have been a logical time for any kind of census to be taken.
- This would also explain why there “was no room at the inn.” During the three pilgrimage feasts, vast numbers of people would have filled not only Jerusalem but also surrounding villages like Bethlehem, only five miles away.
- A birth around the time of Tabernacles would perhaps shed additional light on John’s statement that “the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14, literal translation).
There are, however, some problems with this scenario:
- This reading requires Jesus’ ministry to have lasted precisely three and a half years, but this is nowhere stated in the Bible. The most we can say is that his ministry spanned three Passovers, on the last of which he was crucified.
- John 1:14 notwithstanding, no ancient Christian writer ever drew a connection between the birth of Christ and any of the fall festivals of Judaism. The New Testament writers and many others in the first few centuries made much of Jesus’ death occurring at Passover. Would these same writers have completely overlooked the possibilities for interpreting the symbolism of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot in terms of the birth of Christ?
Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that many people embrace a fall date because it feeds their previously existing anti-Christmas bias. The traditional date is seen as a pagan innovation only superficially Christianized; therefore, a more scripturally appropriate date is preferred. It should be noted, however, that if Jesus was born during the feast of Tabernacles, which began in late September 3 BC, then a likely date for his conception was in fact December 25 of 4 BC!
In the earliest patristic thought, the true miracle of Christmas was understood to be not the birth of Jesus as such, but the mystery of his incarnation. By displacing the birth of Christ to late September, those who believe Christmas is a gross capitulation to paganism have in fact placed the more significant miracle precisely on the date they despise.
A fall date cannot be dismissed out of hand, but neither can it be said that the biblical evidence is entirely compelling. Are there other means of calculating the most probable date of Jesus’ birth?