Dating the Birth of Jesus

CHALLENGE: “Our calendars are mistaken. Jesus wasn’t born in 1 B.C. but around 7–6 B.C.”

DEFENSE: The year of the calendar is not a matter of faith.

In A.D. 525 a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis “the Short” or “the Humble”) created the Anno Domini (Latin, “Year of the Lord”) system of reckoning. It later came into international use.

Made centuries after Christ, this calculation is in no way essential to the Faith. The Church does not teach Christ was born in any particular year, and it is universally recognized that Dionysius’s calculations are probably slightly off (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 3: The Infancy Narratives, 61-62).

The estimate that Christ was born in 7–6 B.C. is based on the view that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. Matthew records that, attempting to kill Jesus, Herod slaughtered the male infants two years old and under in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:16). This suggests that Jesus’ birth took place two or more years before Herod’s death, leading many to propose a date of 7 or 6 B.C.

The view that Herod died in 4 B.C. has been popular for some time, but recent studies indicate that this view is probably wrong and that the traditional date of Herod’s death, 1 B.C., is correct. This would put the birth of Jesus in the 3–2 B.C. time frame, which is when the Church Fathers say it was. A large majority of early Christian sources place Jesus’ birth at this time (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed, 291).

Confirmation is found in the Gospel of Luke. It records that John the Baptist began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, or A.D. 29 (see Luke 3:1). Shortly afterward, Jesus began his own ministry, and Luke reports that he was about thirty years old at the time (see Luke 3:23).

Deducting thirty years from A.D. 29, and taking into account the fact that there is no “Year 0” (instead, there is a jump from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1), would indicate Jesus was born around 3–2 B.C. Thus Dionysius Exiguus was probably only a year off.

TIP: On the problems with dating of Herod’s death to 4 B.C., see Finegan’s book as well as Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul.

_____________________________________________

Editor’s note: Jimmy Akin’s new book A Daily Defense comprises 365 one-page defenses (plus one for leap year) of typical challenges to the Catholic Faith. These daily doses of apologetics are designed to arm the reader with short-form answers and tips for delving deeper into any particular subject.

 

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
Jimmy Akin

By

Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As the senior apologist at Catholic Answers, he has more than twenty years of experiencing defending and explaining the Faith. Jimmy is a convert to the Faith and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy. Jimmy is a weekly guest on the national radio program Catholic Answers Live, a regular contributor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a popular blogger and podcaster. His personal web site is JimmyAkin.com.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

MENU