Some Thoughts on the Dating of the Birth of Jesus

My novel Casting Lots provides an exact date for the crucifixion of Jesus, of April 7, 30 AD. This is based upon the known dates of the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate, that is 26 AD through 36 AD, and further based upon the assumption that Christian tradition of Jesus being crucified on a Friday is correct, and finally based upon the assumption that Christian tradition of Jesus being crucified on a Friday after partaking of the Passover supper on a Thursday is correct.  This is the unique date that meets the criteria set forth above.

On the other hand, the date of the birth of Jesus is wrapped in far greater mystery. Our only sources for the birth of Jesus are two of the Gospels, and one of these Gospels contradicts itself.  Historians, such as Josephus, are silent on the issue.

Having said that, I should point out that it is not unusual that no Roman source mentions the birth of Jesus. For example, we have no source for the date of the birth of many famous Romans, including, for example, Gaius Julius Caesar.

Matthew 2:1, (” After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,…”), clearly dates the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great. Luke 1:5-41, which reads in part  as follows: “In the time of Herod king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…” , dates the birth of John the Baptist to the reign of Herod the Great and, by implication, also dates the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great.  As previously discussed in another blog, Herod the Great likely died in 4 BC.

One problem in dating Jesus’ birth arises from the text of Luke 2:1-2, “…there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the entire world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” Unfortunately, there is no other source that mentions a decree requiring a census and a levy of taxes upon the provinces.  Cyrenius (Publius Sulpicius Quirinius) was governor of Syria and imposed a taxation in 6 AD.  This taxation was deeply resented and was long remembered by the populace of Judea and provoked outbreaks of rebellion.  At that time, Herod’s son, Archelaus was on the throne.  He was deposed and Rome administered Judea as a Roman province, with Cyrenius as legate. Josephus records this census as having occurred in 6 AD and there is no reason to doubt his dating.

Thus we have a clear contradiction between Luke 1:5 and Luke 2:1-2 and Matthew 2:1. There is no easy way to reconcile this, even though many elaborate theories have been proposed.

My best conjecture is that there may have been a census or a levying of taxes in 6 or 5 BC and that Luke in recording a census may have mistakenly thought it was the most famous one, that of the one of Cyrenius. Having said that, I must say that this is completely conjectured.  There is no source for a census or a levy having occurred in 6 or 5 BC.

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