One of the hardest dates to pin down for most historians is the day when Jesus was born. There are a number of issues in determining the date, not the least of which is that there seems to be a bit of legendry attached to it. Nonetheless, there have been some attempts to determine what the date is, and there have no limits to the number of attempts to attach a date to the day of Jesus’ birth.
Jesus Birthday – Background Issues
Before we begin an investigation into the date of Jesus birthday, there are some issues to address. The obvious one is that there is some debate as to whether or not Jesus even existed. Keep in mind that while we see Jesus as a major figure today, at the time we would have been seen as yet another street preacher in Jerusalem which had scores of them. While he may have been a bit more successful than the others he would have been seen as just one among many.
Israel at the time was seen as the armpit of the Roman Empire, even though it was a center of learning. This is because the Israelites were on the verge of rebelling at all times, and local politics were part of the duty as the Pharisees attempted to rule over the regular people even as they had to make their Roman masters happy. This made a tour of duty in the Israel something everyone tried to avoid. All of this means that not only was Jesus relatively unremarkable, but he had is ministry in a backwater place where he would be easily ignored by History.
Because of this only two historians even noted that he lived; in general he was just a footnote in most histories. Of the two historians in the area, Josephus had a debatable reputation even then, and the accounts of Tacitus, while usually on the mark, are debated by some historians. In short, determining a date for Jesus’ birthday is harder simply because some debate he even existed.
The Month of Jesus Birth
Because of the lack of written documentation, putting a specific date will be impossible; the best that can be done is to get it down to a month. Doing so is actually not that hard once you realize that the month was changed by the early church in order to coincide with pagan holidays. Based on details such as the shepherds sleeping with their flocks outside, some historians have been able to nail the month down to the equivalent of late March or early April.
The logic is that it had to be warm enough for a man and his wife to make the journey as well as leave, and the shepherds had t be able to watch their flocks. All told, the best time for this would have been early spring, rather than early winter, which would be the case if Jesus birthday was anywhere near December 25.
The Year of Jesus Birth
Determining the year of Jesus birthday is a little more complicated. There are three events that historians have used to determine the date: The Slaughter of the Innocents, the explosion of the Crab Nebula, and dates in Herod’s rule. By looking at these events historians have been able to estimate that Jesus was likely born a few years earlier than most people have been taught, or about 5 or 6 BC.
The Crab Nebula is the part that started all of this off. There a number of possibilities for the star that the Magi followed, and the Crab Nebula is one of the lead contenders. At the time it would have just gone nova, and so was a major part of the sky. The Magi would have been able to determine if there was a corresponding place on the planet and head there to see what event it was foretelling, if just out of curiosity if nothing else. With a little research they would have determined what the actual event and checked it out.
This would have led the Magi to the land of Israel looking for a new king as foretold by the nova. When they arrived, they visited King Herod first, and that set off those events. However, the Magi are important to the story as they are proof that something special was happening in the area. Even if the events are a complete fabrication, they would have been required in order to show that events were about to really change in Israel. The Magi’s visit to Herod, however, helps date the events as well.
The rule of Herod puts the largest limit on the date, as Herod was the Roman in charge of Israel at the time. Because of that, the birth of Jesus is limited to 4 BC, when Herod died. The Magi visited him on their way to Bethlehem, and Herod suggested that he follow them there in order to celebrate the birth of the King of the Jews as well. The Magi left well before Herod could get ready, leaving Herod to go by himself. Obviously that would not happen.
Instead, the Magi were able to arrive and leave before Herod was able to respond, completing their mission and exiting history. Joseph and Mary also left Bethlehem quickly as well and escape into Egypt. However, Herod was able to quickly dispatch a unit of legionnaires who slaughtered all children under the age of two years of age.
There is some debate as to whether or not the event happened, with some believing that Josephus combined it some of the stories of Herod and his children, and even if it did happen it would not have been resulted in as many deaths as Matthew said. Nonetheless, because it is within the parameters of Herod’s behavior and the timing works out, it can be used to determine a general date.
Jesus Birthday In Closing
Thus, based on all the evidence available, Jesus birthday is sometime in late March or early April, possibly in 5 or 6 BC, making the given of December 25, 1 AD just a little off. While some difference is to be expected, it is nonetheless not enough to make changes in any calendars.