Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dating the Nativity: New Considerations

A year ago, I put up a series of three posts which tried to use various kinds of historical and scientific evidence in order to hone in on the date of Christ's birth. The first post dealt with the evidence of Herod's death. This establishes what historians call a terminus ad quem -- a date before which Christ must have been born, because we know that Herod was alive at Jesus' birth (and for some time afterwards, since he ordered the death of all children born in Bethlehem during the previous two years). Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, includes one key piece of evidence in his account of Herod's last days: he states that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly before Herod died. We saw that combining the evidence of Josephus with the astronomical record of lunar eclipses in the last B.C. years (scroll down to the very bottom; NASA's computer numbering counts the year 1 B.C. as "0000") gave the best result for Herod's death as occurring in January of 1 B.C (according to Jewish tradition, Herod died on 2 Shebat, or January 26 of that year), following an eclipse on January 12. (The eclipse dates given in the article on Herod just linked are in error, and should be disregarded in favor of the dates shown in the previous link.)

Since writing that post, I have been pointed to another lunar eclipse that occurred in 1 B.C. -- but eleven months later, on December 29. The argument for this latter eclipse turns upon the fact that it would have been much more visible to people in Palestine, because the eclipse became visible shortly after sunset, while on January 12 the moon's umbral phase did not even begin until six hours after sunset (see this article for details).

As the article by John Pratt just linked points out, the December eclipse also allows for a better fit with the events Josephus records as occurring after Herod's death. How does it work, however, in relation to my second post last December, which discussed how the earliest Christians all converged upon a date for the nativity between 3 and 2 B.C.?

The point at issue here turns on the subtleties in the account of the visit by the wise men (magi, or court astronomers) in Matthew, chapter 2. To describe the infant Jesus, Matthew uses the Greek word paidion in verse 9, which is usually translated as "young child, little boy [or girl]." (See this link for other verses which use the word.)

The Greek word for "infant" or "baby", however is brephos -- as used in Luke 2:12, when the angel told the shepherds they were to look for "a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." It is a word used only by Luke in the Gospels; Matthew does not use it at all.

If Jesus was born most probably (as we shall see) in May or June of 2 B.C., and the Jewish Parthian astronomers (the "magi" -- see my third post of last year) arrived to worship and give him gifts in December of that year, then having Herod on his deathbed just a few weeks later is a bit of a push. Adding another eleven months to Herod's life allows for plenty of time for the Wise men to avoid Herod on their return trip, for Herod to hear about it later, and then to give the order for the Massacre of the Innocents. This, then, would fix the time of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, where they would have had to stay for only another seven months until Herod died.

Accordingly, I am revising my preferred chronology somewhat. It now looks like this:

May-June, 2 B.C.: Jesus born at Bethlehem, where Joseph has gone to be enrolled in an empire-wide tribute to Augustus' rule.

June 17, 2 B.C.: "Star of Bethlehem" super-conjunction of Jupiter and Venus observed throughout the East; the Jewish astronomers at the Parthian court put this phenomenon together with Jupiter's earlier conjunctions and conclude that a new King of the Jews has been born to their west, in Judea. They make preparations and start on a journey to worship him.

December 25, 2 B.C.: As Jupiter comes to a standstill over Bethlehem in the skies to the south of Jerusalem, the wise men, having visited Herod in his palace, find their way to the Christ child, who is now about six or seven months old (no longer a brephos). Joseph and Mary have in the meantime moved from the stable where Jesus was born, and found lodging in a house (Mt. 2:11 -- oikia).

January-February, 1 B.C.: The court astronomers quietly begin their return to Parthia, avoiding any meeting with Herod (who by this time of year has probably gone to the mineral baths, on the Dead Sea).

April-May, 1 B.C.: Herod learns he has been tricked, and that the wise men are long gone. Joseph, warned in a dream, has fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Based on what the astronomers had told him earlier about the time of Jesus' birth, and allowing for their possibly mistaking the time of conception (see my post next week on this) as the date of birth, Herod orders the massacre of all children in Bethlehem born within the preceding two years.

December 29, 1 B.C.: Herod puts to death a Jewish rabbi and his pupils by burning them alive (they had offended him by pulling down the graven image of an eagle which he had ordered erected on the Holy Temple). That night, everyone sees a blood-red lunar eclipse.

January, 1 A.D.: Herod falls ill, and despite numerous attempts at a cure, dies on the 26th of the month (Shebat 2).

February-March, 1 A.D.: Post-mortem ceremonies take place in Judea to mark Herod's passing; Archilaus assumes the throne after the Passover on March 26 of that year.

April-May, 1 A.D.: Joseph is told he may return from Egypt, because Herod is dead. He does not return to Judea, however, because Archilaus is just as cruel and arbitrary as his father was (Mt 2:22). So he takes his family to Nazareth, where Jesus turns two years old.

Still to be placed in this chronology are the events in the heavens which preceded the birth of Jesus, and which heralded the Annunciation and Conception. I shall take those up in my post next week. And I shall conclude this series of posts with another look at the evidence for the Virgin Birth of Jesus.


  1. You might take a look at some of the writings of Dr. Ernest L. Martin which can be found at the website for the Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. According to the late Dr. Gene Scott, many scholars point towards a date in September for the Nativity.

  2. Right, RM Bruton, I am aware of Dr. Martin's work, and have used much of it in my previous analyses. I am also aware of the analyses by several people of the Temple priestly service cycles, which point to a March birth date for John the Baptist, and hence a September birth date for Jesus six months later.

    However, I am more influenced by the weight of the astronomical evidence, and I will explain how this factors in when I write my next post.

    Also, there is the point I made in the text of this post: a birth date in September of 3 BC cannot be ruled out, as we will see, but a birth date in September of 2 BC would not only place it outside the consensus of most ancient authors, who had access to many more sources than we do currently, but it also would make Matthew's use of the word "paidion" over "brephos" somewhat questionable -- when the wise men came to visit, Jesus would only have been barely three months old.

  3. It seems right that the Lamb of God would be born in the Spring which is the lambing season.

    All things work according to God's seeming love of layer upon layer of symbol and metaphor and for God's redemptive purposes. In Scripture, every small jot and tittle is there for a reason. The Stories in Scripture of Creation, the Fall of Man, Abraham, Moses, the Law and the Prophets, the Messiah dying at Passover, The Holy Spirit coming on the day of Pentecost, all Christ's words and actions, His Gospel, the early Letters of His followers are all purposeful, deliberate, symbolic, intertwined, anointed and efficacious.

  4. I have felt for a number of years that the dating of the Nativity of Christ was way-off. Charles H. Welch, who worked with Dr. E.W. Bullinger agreed that December 25 could not be the correct date. I have inclined towards 3 or 4 BC. What do you do on December 25th?

  5. December 25 appears, for the reasons explained above and in the posts last year, to be the best candidate for the arrival of the magi from the East to worship the Christ child. It seems perfectly appropriate, therefore, to observe the day with the worship of Christ, and with the giving of gifts.

  6. Starting on the 25th, yes, Alexi. If the magi followed what Jupiter did, they stayed around with Mary, Joseph and Jesus until January 6, when they would have taken their leave, and departed. (Remember that by the time the magi arrived in Bethlehem, the Holy Family had moved into regular lodgings, and were no longer in a stable.)

  7. Absolutely fascinating.

    As always, thank you so very much for this terrific site and the extraordinary, insightful work you so faithfully do !

    Have a most blessed Christmas and a very speciall New Year !!!

  8. I would add a reason that celebrating in December (or some time other than in the Spring) the birth of the Christ would be appropriate. I would observe that if the early church had a better idea of the actual date, then the celebration in the Spring would have been too close to what in English we call Easter. As I recall, the preparation of catechumens during a period before Easter goes very far back into the formation of the Church. To celebrate the Birth of the Christ would have disrupted this period of pennance and preparation. Also placing it not too far before Easter would fit well into annual cycle of the Church.

    With Mr. Haley's note that the Visitation of the Magi and the Epiphany may have occurred in the December time frame, there is more reason that the Early Church would select December for the celebration of the Birth.

  9. Deck, I was thinking along those lines,too. A spring celebration of the Nativity would not fit into a liturgical year where we know the events of Passover and Easter did happen in the spring. Perhaps we just need a name change from Christmas to Epiphany ??

  10. Don't forget that right now, our Anglican calendar has Epiphany beginning the day after Christmas and running until Lent. So there's no adjustment needed in the terminology. "Christmas" is "Christ mass" -- when we take the Holy Eucharist in celebration of Christ's incarnation into the world. That celebration can take place as appropriately as when the magi celebrated it, as on the actual day of His birth.