The month, day or even year of Jesus' birth cannot be exactly ascertained. Due to a mistaken calculation based on the Roman Calendar by Dionysius Exiguus in 525, it was long held that Jesus was born in the year 1 BC (making the following year, AD 1, the first throughout which he was alive).
Year of Birth
The Gospels are problematic, because they offer two accounts that chronologists find incompatible. Matthew states that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive and that Herod ordered the slaughter of infants two years old and younger (Matt. 2:16). However, the Jewish historian Josephus reports a lunar eclipse shortly before the death of Herod. Astronomers have pinpointed that eclipse to the year 4 BC, which would imply that Herod died in that year as well (contra Dionysius Exiguus). Thus, many chronologists conclude that the year 6 BC is the most likely year of Jesus' birth. Consequently, Jesus would have been about four to six years old in the year AD 1.
On the other hand, Luke's account places Jesus' birth during a census conducted under the governorship of Quirinius, who, according to Josephus, conducted a census in AD 6. In order to reconcile the two Gospel accounts, some have suggested that Josephus was mistaken, that Quirinius had a separate period of rule under Herod, or that Josephus reported the date of completion of the census. In any case, the actual date of his birth remains historically unverifiable.
In recent years, East Asian historians have attempted to match the birth of Jesus with special events in their history. They found that, according to the oldest record of the Comet Halley during the Han Dynasty, "The comet heads east with its tail pointing west at night, and was appearing in the sky for more than 70 days" in 6 BC. This has been suggested as an independent record of the "Star" described in Matthew 2. If accepted, this suggestion would place the birthday of Jesus in summer rather than winter.
In the 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus proposed to make the birth of Jesus the basis of the calendar but he miscalculated the death of Herod. Years reckoned in this way are labeled "BC" and "AD", which stand for Before Christ and Anno Domini (meaning "in the year of the Lord" in Latin).
Date of Birth
The exact date is even more problematic. Some say that the birth could not have happened in deep winter, because the Bible says that shepherds spent the night outdoors with their flocks on the night that Jesus was born (Luke 2:8). But others say that this is speculation. Nonetheless, it is most likely that Jesus was born between October and March.
Originally, Christmas' date was set to correspond with the Roman festival of the birth of the Sun God Mithras, which coincided with the "return of the sun" after the shortest day of the year. As early as A.D. 354, Jesus' birth was celebrated on December 25 in Rome. Other cities had other traditional dates. The history of Christmas is closely associated with that of the Epiphany. If the currently prevailing opinion about the compilation of the gospels is accepted, the earliest body of gospel tradition, represented by Mark no less than by the primitive non-Marcan document (Q document) embodied in the first and third gospels, begins, not with the birth and childhood of Jesus, but with His baptism; and this order of accretion of gospel matter is faithfully reflected in the time order of the invention-of feasts. The church in general adopted Christmas much later than Epiphany, and before the 5th century there was no consensus as to when it should come in the calendar, whether on January 6, or March 25, or December 25.
The earliest identification of the 25th of December with the birthday of Jesus is in a passage, otherwise unknown and probably spurious, of Theophilus of Antioch (171-183), preserved in Latin by the Magdeburg centuriators , to the effect that the Gauls contended that as they celebrated the birth of the Lord on the December 25, whatever day of the week it might be, so they ought to celebrate Easter on the 25th of March when the resurrection occurred.
The next mention of December 25 is in Hippolytus' (c. 202) commentary on Daniel. Jesus, he says, was born at Bethlehem on December 25, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of Augustus. This passage also is almost certainly interpolated. In any case he mentions no feast, nor was such a feast congruous with the orthodox ideas of that age. As late as 245 Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Jesus "as if he were a king Pharaoh." The first certain mention of December 25 is in a Latin chronographer of A.D. 354, first published in complete form by Mommsen. It runs thus in English: "Year I after Christ, in the consulate of Caesar and Paulus, the Lord Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December, a Friday and 15th day of the new moon." Here again no feastal celebration of the day is attested.
There were, however, many speculations in the 2nd century about the date of Jesus' birth. Clement of Alexandria, towards its close, mentions several such, and condemns them as superstitions. Some chronologists, he says, alleged the birth to have occurred in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, on the 25th of Pachon , the Egyptian month (May 20). These were probably the Basilidian gnostics . Others set it on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (19th or 20th of April). Clement himself sets it on November 17, 3 B.C. The author of a Latin tract, called the De Pascha computus, written in Africa in 243, sets it by private revelation, ab ipso deo inspirali, on March 28. He argues that the world was created perfect, flowers in bloom, and trees in leaf, therefore in spring; also at the equinox, and when the moon just created was full. Now the moon and sun were created on a Wednesday. The 28th of March suits all these considerations. Jesus, therefore, being the Sun of Righteousness, was born on the 28th of March.
The same symbolic reasoning led Polycarp (before 160) to set his birth on Sunday, when the world's creation began, but his baptism on Wednesday, for it was the analogue of the sun's creation. On such grounds certain Latins as early as 354 may have transferred the human birthday from January 6 to December 25, which was then a Mithraic feast and is by the chronographer above referred to, but in another part of his compilation, termed Natalis invicti solis, or birthday of the unconquered Sun. (Under the Julian Calendar, the winter solstice occurs on December 24, so starting with December 25, the days begin to get longer again.) Cyprian invokes Christus Sol verus, Ambrose Sol novus noster, and such rhetoric was widespread. The Syrians and Armenians, who clung to January 6, accused the Romans of sun-worship and idolatry, contending with great probability that the feast of the 25th of December had been invented by disciples of Cerinthus and its readings by Artemon to commemorate the natural birth of Jesus. Ambrose, On Virgins, writing to his sister, implies that as late as the papacy of Liberius 352 - 356, the Birth from the Virgin was feasted together with the Marriage of Cana and the Feeding of the 4000, which were never celebrated on any other day but January 6.
Chrysostom, in a sermon preached at Antioch on December 20, 386 or 388, says that some held the feast of December 25 to have been held in the West, from Thrace as far as Cádiz, from the beginning. It certainly originated in the West, but spread quickly eastwards. In 353 - 361 it was observed at the court of Constantius II. Basil of Caesarea (died 379) adopted it. Honorius, emperor (395 - 423) in the West, informed his mother and brother Arcadius (395 - 408) in Byzantium of how the new feast was kept in Rome, separate from January 6, with its own troparia and sticharia . They adopted it, and recommended it to Chrysostom, who had long been in favour of it. Epiphanius of Crete was won over to it, as were also the other three patriarchs, Theophilus of Alexandria, John of Jerusalem , Flavian I of Antioch. This was under Pope Anastasius I, 398 - 400.
John or Wahan of Nice, in a letter printed by Combefis in his Historia monoizeii tarurn, affords the above details. The new feast was communicated by Proclus, patriarch of Constantinople (434 - 446), to Sahak , Catholicos of Armenia, about 440. The letter was betrayed to the Persian king, who accused Sahak of Greek intrigues, and deposed him. However, the Armenians, at least those within the Byzantine pale, adopted it for about thirty years, but finally abandoned it together with the decrees of Chalcedon early in the 8th century. Many writers of the period 375 - 450, e.g. Epiphanius, Cassian , Asterius, Basil, Chrysostom and Jerome, contrast the new feast with that of the Baptism as that of the birth after the flesh, from which we infer that the latter was generally regarded as a birth accoding to the Spirit. Instructive as showing that the new feast travelled from West eastwards is the fact (noticed by Usener ) that in 387 the new feast was reckoned according to the Julian calendar by writers of the province of Asia, who in referring to other feasts use the reckoning of their local calendars. As early as 400 in Rome an imperial rescript includes Christmas among the three feasts (the others are Easter and Epiphany) on which theatres must be closed.
Date of Death
Calculation of Jesus' date of death is complicated by apparent inconsistencies in the reports in the Synoptic Gospels as compared to the Gospel of John. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is clearly a Passover meal, and so would have taken place on a Thursday, the 15th of the Jewish month of Nisan (the Jewish calendar counts the day as beginning with the evening), with the crucifixion on the next day, Friday, still the 15th of Nisan. For John, however, the Passover meal was to be eaten on the evening of the Friday when Jesus was crucified, so that the Last Supper was eaten on the evening of 14th of Nisan and the crucifixion was on the 14th, at the same time that the lambs for the Passover were being slaughtered in the Temple of Jerusalem, so that the Jews could celebrate the Passover that evening. Various attempts have been made to harmonize the two reports. Perhaps the most likely theory is that Jesus, knowing he was to be dead at the appointed time for the Passover meal, chose to hold the Passover meal with his disciples a day early, thus holding to the account of John. Some scholars have recently suggested rejecting Thursday as the day of the Last Supper and support a non-Passover Last Supper on Tuesday or Wednesday, thus providing more time for the events that occurred between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
Assuming the chronology of John, the other important datum for the dating is the fact, attested to in all the Gospels, is that Jesus' death occurred under the administration of Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate held his position from 26-36 and the only years in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday are 27, 33, and 36 and possibly in 30 depending on when the new moon would have been visible in Jerusalem. Scholars have defended all of the dates.
The most commonly cited dates are April 7, 30 A.D. or April 21, 33 A.D. Data that are supplied in support of these dates include the following: In the Gospel of Luke, it is stated that Jesus was about 30 years old when he started his public ministry. If Jesus' birth was in 6 BC, then this points to the beginning of the public ministry some time around 26 A.D. Another datum to be considered is the statement in Luke's, that John the Baptist's ministry began in the 15th year of the reign of emperor Tiberius. That reign began in 14 A.D., placing John's appearance in about 28 or 29 A.D., too late for the beginning of Jesus's ministry as calculated above. Evidence in the Gospel of John point to three separate Passovers during Jesus' ministry, which would tip the scales toward 33. This is strengthened by details of the reign of Sejanus in Rome. Sejanus had ordered the suppression of the Jews throughout the empire, and after his death in 32, Tiberius had repealed those laws. This would fit with the Gospel accounts that seem to indicate that Pilate did not want to crucify Jesus, but was forced into it by the Jewish leaders.
Nonetheless, proponents of the year 30 point out that Tiberius was already functioning as emperor some years before the death of Augustus, so that the beginning of his reign could be counted from 11 or 12, putting the beginning of John's ministry in about A.D. 26. This harmonizes with the "thirty years old" statement in the Gospel of Luke as well.
This understanding of the Gospels is difficult to reconcile with the tradition that holds the Last Supper took place on the first night of Passover which is defined in the Torah to be the 14th of Nisan. Furthermore, at that time, the date of Passover was set by the court in Jerusalem based upon testimony of witnesses. It was not until after 500 that the calendar was changed to be based upon calculation. Therefore, it is not possible to state on which day of the week the 14 of Nisan occurred for any year before 500 without historical documents that attest to a particular day of the week.
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