Updated: Jan 14
According to nearly all the world today this is now the year 2023 AD—Anno Domini (or 2023 CE—Common Era). Anno Domini being the Latin for “in the year of our Lord”—with the alternative being BC “before Christ”. But many historians and archaeologists have now switched to using CE and BCE—the “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era”. This is to the chagrin of many Christians worldwide, who feel their culture is being cancelled. But despite the reasoning of some—that they don’t want to follow a Christian-based calendar—an even more persuasive argument is that nearly all scholars agree today that Christ was not born in the year 1. This blog will look at how the birth of Christ has been dated, and how little-understood Roman-Judea politics contributes to some of the confusion.
In the 6th century a monk named Dionysius Exiguus dated the birth of Christ at 753 years after the founding of the Roman Empire, and declared it year 1 AD. This birth year is now nearly universally believed to be in error. But if one were to backtrack from a date for the crucifixion, using certain passages from the gospels, one might come to the same conclusion. For example, the gospel accounts are clear that the Passover feast (Last Supper) took place on a Thursday evening 24 hours before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. It is also clear that Christ’s ministry was during the reigns of Tiberius Caesar (14-37 AD) and Pontius Pilot, the governor of Judea (26-37 AD). Furthermore, the gospel writer Luke states that John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, placing it in about 29 AD. It can also be deduced from the gospels that Jesus’ ministry started about a year later and lasted three years, which would put the crucifixion in the year 33 AD. This is consistent with the fact that during the year 33 the Passover feast (always on the 15th of the Jewish month Nissan) fell on a Thursday. This only happens on average once in every seven years. Luke also writes that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry. Thirty years before would make him born in the year 1 or -1 (a year zero has never been included by historians). But a key point here is “about 30 years old”, so he could have been just “in his 30s”. Luke did not know his exact age, nor by inference did anyone he interviewed.
King Herod the Great ruled Judea as a Roman Client King from 37-4 BC.
The real confusion comes by looking at the events surrounding the gospel birth accounts of Jesus. Two clear constraints are given: King Herod was still alive, and the trip to Bethlehem occurred during a census connected with Quirinius being the governor of Syria. King Herod died in 4 BC, and Quirinius did not become governor until 6 AD. This appears to be a real problem trying to pin down a date, for these two reigns do not overlap. Many have therefore claimed that Luke simply got it wrong. But pause 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.
In order to resolve this seemingly unsolvable problem, 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 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 that I never realized. First of all, why did Rome want to conduct a census? Not to count voters—but because they wanted to collect taxes. Lewin points out though, mostly from the writings of Josephus, that King Herod and Judea had been an ”ally” of Rome, not “subjects”. This was because of the close relationship of Herod to Augustus Caesar at the time. But Herod knew he still had to do Rome’s bidding. As an ally Herod could collect his own taxes to help build the new Temple and other grand buildings, and 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 being 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—the first census when Quirinius was Governor of Syria (based on the earlier registration). Meaning it seems the very first census of Judea by Rome, completed when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. 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, before they received news of his death in 4 BC and return to Judea to settle in Nazareth. Jesus, in turn, began his ministry in his mid-30s, which does not conflict with Luke’s uncertain age of “about 30”. So the bottom line is maybe six years should be added to 2023 AD to give us a true year of our Lord 2029. But leave all history already recorded in the 2023 CE calendar.
Cry For Jerusalem is a series of historical fiction books covering the seven years leading up to the burning of Herod’s Temple and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Author Ward Sanford gives this period of history new depth in Cry For Jerusalem and showcasing the works of eyewitness historian Flavius Josephus in a new way with this fictional yet fact-based dramatization.
In the CFJ blog section Ward covers subjects to do with the vast amount of research that went into the CFJ novel series, including Ancient Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, and Biblical topics and the writings of Josephus.