In December each year most Christians celebrate Christmas. Most of those realize December 25th was not the real birth date. But can we possibly find the real date? Although I discussed this subject in two different ways in previous blogs, I thought this month (December) it was worth combining them into one comprehensive explanation.
We need to first go to the gospel accounts of the birth of Christ. Two clear time constraints are given there. According to Matthew, King Herod was still alive, and according to Luke, the trip to Bethlehem occurred during a census connected with Quirinius being the governor of Syria. According to history, King Herod died in 4 BC, but Quirinius did not become governor until 6 AD. This appears to be a real problem trying to pin down a date, for these reigns do not overlap! Are we stuck? Many have claimed that Luke simply got it wrong. But wait a minute. Why would we care who was governor in Syria anyway? Syria is not Judea. Why would Luke tell us who was governor of Syria at the time? During research for Cry for Jerusalem, I discovered that Josephus informs us that although Judea had Roman governors during the first century AD, it was still under the broader legal authority of the Roman Province of Syria. Quirinius, Governor of Syria, thus had legal authority over Judea. So Luke is giving us the legal governor over Judea, which did not have its own governor at the time.
In order to resolve this problem of the historical date conflict, I turned to my favorite historical scholar of the 19th century, Thomas Lewin. He was a high-level British barrister with a mind for detailed evidence. He wrote a book on the chronology of the New Testament, carefully pinpointing years of many of the events, including the birth of Christ. He also concludes up front that Herod did die in 4 BC, and Quirinius became governor in 6 AD. But he also then brought to light the political situation of the time. First of all, why did Rome ever want to conduct a census? Not to count voters like we do—but because they wanted to collect taxes. Lewin points out under King Herod Judeans had been ”allies” of Rome, not “subjects”. This was because of the close relationship of Herod to Augustus Caesar at the time. But Herod still had to do Rome’s bidding. Technically we call him a client King.
King Herod the Great ruled Judea as a Roman client king from 37-4 BC.
Under this arrangement, Herod could collect his own taxes to help build the new Temple and other grand buildings, and in turn Rome would not collect taxes. Those Judean taxes were fed back into the local economy by providing thousands of jobs in the building projects. But Herod went rogue in 7 BC and attacked his neighboring kingdom in Jordan without Caesar’s permission. This angered Augustus so much he sent a letter to Herod stating Judea would no longer be considered an ally, but subjects of Rome—with “subject to taxes” implied. To give teeth to this threat he began the registration process for such a census. And so, in 6 BC that registration process was begun, and Joseph and Mary would need to go to Bethlehem. In fact, Luke writes twice that the two went to be “registered” for the census (as opposed to being counted). This is almost like being registered for a military draft, without the draft instituted yet. But King Herod died in 4 BC, and the census-tax process was put in limbo while Judea was being divided up amongst Herod’s sons. Finally in 6 AD Rome first began to rule Judea directly with its first taxation based on—as Luke writes—a first census “count” when Quirinius was Governor of Syria (but based on the earlier registration in 6 BC). The registration in 6 BC and census-taxation in 6 AD under Quirinius are thus linked, and the birth of Christ was most likely in 6 BC. This also gave the family time to flee from Herod to Egypt as Matthew described, before they received news of his death in 4 BC and returned to Judea to settle in Nazareth. So now that we have a year, can we find independent evidence for this year, and even pinpoint the date of Christ’ birth in the year 6 BC?
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
Let’s begin with astrology—which two thousand years ago was the same thing as astronomy. Both the Babylonians and the Greeks watched the night skies with great interest and plotted and calculated the movements of the stars and planets. They also believed that these movements influenced world events. In 1999 Michael Molnar, an astronomer from Rutgers University, published a book—"The Star of Bethlehem”. The book gives the first really convincing explanation for what the “wise men from the east”—likely Persia—saw. Molnar goes into great detail describing how horoscopes were used by the Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians at the time to predict events, and especially royal births. Kings and emperors were given their horoscopes that could tell them they were destined for greatness from the day they were born. The signs that would indicate this were complex, yet very well established and written down. They also were specific about which constellations of the Zodiac represented which countries. The sign of Aries, the Ram, was known to correspond to the Levant, and especially Judea. The planet with the most royal implications was Jupiter. Certain positions of Jupiter with respect to the other planets, the moon, the sun, and the horizon, on a certain day, would give strong indicators that someone born on that day in that country was destined for royalty. And if more than one of these alignments were present the indications were very strong. The most important of these alignments were the following: the sun had to be in the constellation of that country, Jupiter was also in that constellation close to the sun, Jupiter was close to the moon, and the meeting of these happened close to the horizon at sunrise or sunset.
In the last decades computer programs have been created that can rewind the night sky back thousands of years to see exactly what it would have looked like at any time of any day from any place on earth. Molnar decided to run such a program back in time to look at the years between 10 and 4 BC to see if anything unusually royal appeared for the country of Judea, as seen from the Middle East. Lo and behold, two dates, and only two, appeared where all the indicators were present—and more. For those dates Jupiter and the Sun were both in Aries at sunset, and then sunrise. These two special dates also had the moon eclipsing Jupiter for a few hours! —something extra special that would really have excited any astrologer at the time watching the skies for signs. The dates were March 20th and April 17th, 6 BC. Others have later calculated that such a special event would occur only once in many thousands of years. These two dates are one month apart. That is because the moon in that time circled the earth to once again line up with Jupiter. The second time was at sunrise rather than sunset. The fact it happened twice would have confirmed to them that someone really special must have just been born. So now it seems that the early spring of 6 BC is a target for what astrologers from the east would have deemed a royal birth—one worth paying a visit to perhaps. And after they left to return home, Herod realized it had been nearly two years since they had first seen the “star”, and Herod was still alive—he died not long after in the spring of 4 BC. But do we believe that births and destinies align with the stars? Most today don’t. But many in that time did. And this celestial event happening in 6 BC is eerily spot on. It fits our other earlier evidence that a census registration began in Judaea in that same year.
Let’s move to an independent check now on the monthly timing of the birth of Jesus to see if that might line up with the Month of Nisan—either March or April. That would certainly add weight to the idea that one of the Lunar-Jupiter occultations was an indicator of royal birth. But what can the schedules of priests working in the Temple tell us about the timing of the birth of Jesus? This unassuming clue comes from the gospel of Luke, where the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist is described. His father, Zechariah, was a priest working in the Temple in his normal rounds when he saw an angelic vision predicting his son’s birth to Elizabeth, who had been barren. When he returned home, she became pregnant. Six months later she was visited by Mary, who had just been told she had become pregnant. Nine months later Jesus was born. That means 15 months or so after Zechariah left the Temple, Jesus was born.
Here is the key—it says Zechariah was of the priestly course (group) of Abijah. According to the book of 1 Chronicles King David had divided up the tribe of Levi into 24 groups to take turns working in the coming temple that Solomon was to build. Abijah is listed as course number eight. Josephus tells us that these 24 courses took turns working in the time of Herod’s Temple. Each group worked one full week, twice a year, in the order listed. But 24 times two makes 48 weeks, not 52 weeks in a year. Josephus tells us that at a few festival times, all the groups drew lots and took turns serving off and on those extra few weeks. This way no one group got stuck working the holiday shift every year. We are trying to figure out here which weeks of the year Abijah’s group, and thus Zechariah, would have served. That would give us starting point from which to add 15 or so months to the birth of Jesus—to see if that date then agrees with the dates the astrologers saw the moon eclipsing Jupiter.
There are still a number of possibilities with the priestly schedule though. Not only two different weeks of the year when Zechariah was serving, but two other possibilities—did the schedule restart every year on Nisan 1—the religious new year? Or did they cycle through continually from when the service first started up decades before? Although Jewish historians are not sure, some have used other clues to back-calculate when the course of Abijah would have been serving in the Temple. Fortuitously, in the year 8 BC, Zechariah would have finished his service either near the end of May or near the end of November—whether the schedule restarted every year or cycled differently as it adjusted year to year. If Zechariah saw his angelic vision in late May or November and then returned home, then either June or December of 8 BC would be the month for the conception of John the Baptist. Adding 15 months then lands us in either September of 7 BC or March of 6 BC. The latter one agrees with a March 20th date for the eclipse of Jupiter by the moon, witnessed by the magi in the east. Thus, additional independent evidence is now added in favor of the March eclipse date. And again, the year 6 BC agrees with the registration year for the census near the end of Herod’s reign.
We cannot say for sure that March 20th is the exact date because the eclipse was simply a sign to astrologers of a royal birth. That’s not direct evidence the birth was on that date. But amazingly when you place this date into a conversion calculator for Julian to Jewish Calendars, in 6 BC it falls on Nisan 1—the Jewish religious New Year—when things are to begin anew. Just a coincidence? That’s also a time in spring when sheep often give birth to lambs. Such lambs were used one year later in Passover meals on the 15th of Nisan. During lambing season shepherds watched for these births to make sure they happened safely. Even if that means they were out watching their flocks by night.
In the Cry for Jerusalem blog section Ward covers subjects to do with the vast amount of research that went into the Cry for Jerusalem historical novel series, including Ancient Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, Biblical topics, and the writings of Josephus.