April Sixth and the Conception of Jesus

In the Church today, there seem to be two views on when Jesus was born. The majority view is that he was born on April 6, 1 B.C. A strong minority view takes an agnostic approach, that we don’t know when Jesus was born, but that 1 B.C. is too late. The majority view has strong GA support (B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball–a winning hand in most games of GA Texas Hold ‘em). One of the few GAs of recent memory to take a non-dogmatic, agnostic position is, surprisingly, Bruce R. McConkie (post Mormon Doctrine). At the scholarly level, the debate has played out in a book published by John Lefgren, April Sixth, a negative critique by Brown, Griggs and Hansen of BYU, and a response by John Pratt (the science editor of Meridian Magazine), which played out in the pages of BYU Studies. You are welcome to discuss this debate here if you like, although it is not actually the subject of this post.

(For the record, I will simply say I strongly favor the agnostic position. Good Jews didn’t keep birthdays [a hellenistic practice], so the mortal Jesus very likely didn’t know himself when he was born. That information was not preserved in the early Christian church, and would only be available by modern revelation. I think seeing D&C 20:1 as an announcement of the precise birthdate of Jesus Christ is an egregious misreading first made by B.H. Roberts in 1893 [there is no evidence that anyone in the first generation of Mormonism read it that way, and Orson Pratt explicity argued on different grounds for a birthdate of April 11], and this is one of the very few topics where I agree with BRM as against BHR.)

Intriguingly, however, April 6th comes up in the discussion of when Jesus was born in a completely different and unexpected way. Allow me to explain.

No one in the Church accepts December 25 as Jesus’ actual birthdate, and scholars would agree with that much. So how did December 25 get the job as the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth?

It wasn’t until about AD 200 that Christians began to care about when Jesus was born and speculate on the subject. The earliest guesses were all over the map, if mostly in the Spring: May 20, March 21, April 21, April 15 (tax day!) were among the early dates suggested by the Church Fathers. By the fourth century, two dates had gained preeminence: December 25 in the west, and January 6 in the east. Although the modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6, December 25 ultimately prevailed, and January 6 was recast as the feast of Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem. The period between these two dates constitute the famous “twelve days of Christmas.” (The earliest mention of December 25 is from a mid-fourth century Roman almanac, which for that date notes natus Christus in Betleem Judeae “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”)

Why December 25? The most commonly recited theory is that that date was borrowed from pagan celebrations, such as the Roman Saturnalia (December 17-23) and the feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25 itself, the Winter Solstice on the old Julian calendar. The idea is that the Christians deliberately chose this date to give themselves cover for their own quiet celebrations, or perhaps to lure pagans into a celebration they were already comfortable with. One problem with this view is that there is no evidence for it in early Christian writings, which generally see December 25 as the date of the true birth of Jesus, and view the coincidence of it falling on the Solstice as a heavenly sign, for Jesus is the true Sun that enlightens the world, that sort of thing. The first suggestion that the timing was deliberately chosen by the early Christians to coincide with the pagan holidays is not made until the 12th century.

There is another theory about this that is less well known. Under this theory, the key to the traditional dating of Jesus’ birth lies in the date of his death at Passover, for which information, while still ambiguous, is more readily available. Around AD 200, Tertullian reported the calculation that 14 Nisan (the day Jesus was crucified according to the Gospel of John) in the year he died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25, and was later recognized as the feast of the Annunciation, traditionally understood as the date of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was understood to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year–March 25. Nine months later, on December 25, he was born. This idea explicitly appears in an anonymous Christian treatise, On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this information, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the Winter Solstice. The same idea appears in Augustine’s On the Trinity.

In the east they similarly linked the dates of Jesus’ conception and death, but instead of working off of 14 Nisan from the Hebrew calendar they used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their Greek calendar–April 6 to us. And April 6 is, of course, exactly 9 months before the eastern date for the birth of Jesus, January 6.

This way of viewing things may well reflect rabbinic notions that great things could be expected to occur again and again at the same time of year. For isntance, the Babylonian Talmud preserves a debate between two second century AD rabbis that reflects this view. Rabbi Eliezer states “In Nisan the world waw created; in NIsan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born…and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)

Thus we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results, December 25 or January 6.

(The information in this post derives from Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Bible Review 18/6 (December 2002), 46.)

Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff. But I have a question:

    Suppose, for the sake of argument only, that we had an unambiguous authoritative revelation that dated Jesus’ birth as April 6. Further assume that we knew the year to be 1 B.C. What would we actually “know” about Jesus birth as a result?

    If we “know” that Jesus was born on April 6, what does this mean? Does it mean that if I count back 365 x 2008 days on the calendar as of April 6, 2007, I will have pinpointed the actual day of Christ’s birth? Will I have to count a 366th day for every increment of four years (but not counting years that are divisible by 100, but not 400) in order to do the calculation correctly? Or will I have to investigate whether the calendar was generally calculated in the same manner it is today, and if not, make some adjustments? Which adjustments? As I do my calculations, what role should Pope Gregory XIII’s deletion of 10-days from the calendar in 1582 play in my effort to pinpoint Christ’s birth? Etc., etc.

    In other words, what does saying that Christ was or was not born on “April 6″ even mean?

    Aaron B

  2. anonymous says:

    Not only “what does April 6th mean”, but why should we care to know (or argue) the date? What I mean by this is that unlike the Jewish feasts there doesn’t appear to be any heavenly decree that we celebrate His birth at any particular time, so why does it matter? Do you suppose He is in heaven saying “Darn mortals, they messed up my birthday!”.

    My point is shouldn’t we be “celebrating” the meaning of His birth every day of the year? Shouldn’t we be acknowledging His atoning sacrifice every day of the year? Since He doesn’t apparently care (about the actual date), why should we?

  3. ed johnson says:

    Aaron is right, as usual.

    On the other hand, a statement such as “Jesus was born in the spring in the year 1 B.C.” is fairly unambiguous.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Aaron, “translating” dates from an ancient calendar to our modern calendar can be very difficult, and if different people don’t do it the same way, we can easily end up with apples and oranges. Perhaps an advocate of the April 6 as Jesus’ birthday view will appear and explain why that is important to her.

    One quick example I’m familiar with, the old Roman calendar originally had 10 months, starting with March (Martius). So anyone who knows a Romance Language will recognize the prefixes for seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth in our month names September, October, November and December, which are of course the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months on our calendar. (A winter period without a month was divided into the two months January and February following December. And this is before we even get to the Julian calendar.)

    The month names can be misleading, since they had different lengths and different annual intercalation strategies than we use today (not to mention the Gregorian shift, as you point out). So the Ides of March, 44 BC, when Caesar was assasinated, did not actually fall exactly 2050 years ago this past March 15.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Ed, your statement may be unambiguous, but in my view it is wrong. 1 B.C. is too late, since according to Josephus Herod the Great died in 749 ab urbe condita (“from the founding of the city [of Rome]” = 4 B.C.) This was a big part of the debate between Brown, Griggs and Hansen v. John Pratt I mention in the post above from BYU Studies. I take the view of Brown, Griggs and Hansen (which is the standard scholarly view) as against Pratt (who is trying to defend what he apparently views as a standard Mormon view).

  6. This is very interesting…I had bought into the Christmas as a replacement for pagan holiday explanation. This is a much richer (and satisfying) reasoning.

  7. This is fascinating. I read somewhere (and being me, don’t have a reference), that the wise men actually came when Jesus was more of a toddler/very young boy. And they were astronomers- which makes total sense to me, for what it’s worth.

  8. Thanks for this interesting post, Kevin. I’ve always been fascinated by calendars, and this sort of thing. Don’t remember what/where I heard it, but I’ve always though the date was more like 4 BC. (Actually, I’ve never even heard of the 1 BC theory before.) Some stuff I’ve read puts the date between 8 – 4 BC. But I do believe the April 6th date.

  9. Funny how persistent 9 months is for human gestation, even though it’s actually around 38 weeks, which is not exactly the same. Have to be careful how you calculate it if you’re doing fancy pants calendar work.

    I’m a big believer in sacred time as espoused by Mircea Eliade. In that view (basically Pratt’s), Jesus had to have been born on April 6 because that is the date that his church was born. Makes perfect sense to me. In this view, his birthdate is a ritual rather than a calendrical statement.

    As far as whether Christmas was a response to the pagans, I think our discussion on this thread demonstrates the extent to which we are locked into overly simplistic models. That we have no early official Catholic statement that “Winter Solstice is being coopted this year for the first time” does not mean that Christmas was not the early Christian cooptation of a familiar calendrical ritual. Their view may have been something like early Mormons’ views of Masonry or American Protestantism, that the Romans preserved something of the truth but did not have the whole of it. The shortest day of the year and the changing of the seasons is hard to blow off as the figment of the “pagan” imagination.

    I agree we needn’t think the Catholics somehow exploitive for finding in the Solstice the birth of the Lord, but we shouldn’t have anyway. I myself am glad to recognize Dec 25 as a ritual statement in my mainline Christian heritage of Jesus’s birth which accords with a belief in the change of the seasons and the lifecycle of the earth. I am also glad to embrace the ritual April 6 date. Both allow me to structure my year, with my recognition of the earth’s moods and the changes in my own mortality that these mark, on Jesus as Creator, and for that I am grateful.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Tracy M., the rationale for the wise men visiting Jesus later is that, if they originated from Persia or Babylon, it would have taken them months to travel to Judea.

    On Saturday I saw The Nativity Story. I liked it. They made an effort to infuse some realism in the story, which I appreciated (though if I were making the film, I would have gone farther down that road than they did). They gave the three wise men the traditional medieval names, with two white and one black, per tradition, and had them coming from Persia. In the movie, they interpreted the astrological conjunction in advance, and so timed their long journey so as to arrive shortly after Jesus was born.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    BTW, I first learned of the pagan assimilation theory and the feast of Sol Invictus when I was a boy. I was really into astronomy, and I subscribed to Sky & Telescope. There was an ad in one issue for a lecture on the Christmas Star, so I ordered it. (This was my version of sending away for x-ray specs advertised in the back of a comic book.) It was a cool lecture; it came on a long playing, 33-1/3 vinyl album (for you kids who don’t know what record albums are). This theory was a part of that lecture.

  12. Antonio Parr says:

    April 6th — December 25th — whenever/whatever. I would be happy if Latter-Day Saints made it a point to celebrate the birth of Christ at any time with even a hint of the reverence and wonder displayed by our Christian counterparts.

    When I joined the Church, I never imagined for a moment that one of the things that I would have to sacrifice was the communal celebration of Christ, His birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection.

  13. For what it’s worth, and if I can actually remember, many early Christian Fathers thought Jesus was born in the spring was because he died in the spring, on passover to be more precise. This seemed appropriate to them for variously described “mystical” reasons.

  14. cew-smoke says:

    It’s obvious that his birth was on March 25th. We all know the Lord likes to group the most important things on the same date to better keep all the heavenly holidays lined up so nicely. Since I was born on March 25th… voila! The answer is now obvious. LOL!!!

    Now, back to your regularly scheduled discussion.

  15. cew-smoke says:

    Antonio: I am sorry to hear that you do not get to celebrate the birth of the Savior in a way you are accustomed to. As for me, I guess I am lucky, we always have the Sunday before Christmas dedicated to Christ and talk about him with such love and devotion in both Sacrament, Sunday School and Priesthood. We also always have a wonderful Stake musical program right around Christmas where through song and word we get to join in and participate the proverbial reason for the season.

    Perhaps you should take the initiative to offer your thoughts to the Bishop on the matter and maybe help jump-start something new and wonderful in your ward or stake.

  16. Of course we need to know when He was born… it would determine whether He was an Aries or a Capricorn!
    Zodiac Signs

    (Kevin, you didn’t miss much with the x-ray specs, but the potato gun worked pretty well.)

  17. David Brosnahan says:

    I heard a report by some female near-eastern studies PhDs which said that Jesus was probably not born in a cave. Rather, Joseph and Mary would have had family in Bethlehem and would have planned to stay with them. Houses in Jeruselem at that time were two levels. The animals lived on the ground floor while the people lived upstairs. The verse “no room in the inn” could be translated to mean, there was no room in the upper part of the home, so they had to stay with the animals on the ground floor. According to them, there was no going from inn-to-inn looking for a place to stay.

    This interpretation fixes another conundrum. It says that when the wise men found Christ, still in Bethlehem, they found him in a house. Matthew reads, “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother” (Matt. 2: 11).

    Also, here is some wild speculation. I always pondered the Messianic prophecy which reads, “For behold, the child shall not have knowledge to cry” (Ne. 18: 4). Having had 3 premature babies, I can say that they really never cried that much for a few months. I don’t think a crying baby constitutes sin or some great sign. The scriptures tell us that “and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” This prophecy may mean simply that Christ was born a bit early; maybe at 36 weeks instead of 40. My kids were skinny but came right home from the hospital. I don’t think Joseph and Mary would have scheduled such an arguous trip so close to her due date.

  18. Mitchell Colver says:

    I am rather confused by a great deal of this. Kevin Barney cites both President Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball as General Authorities, but fails to mention that they BOTH were President, and therfore Prophet, at the time they each respectively made the statement that Christ was born on April, 6th, B.C. 1.

    See General Conference, April 6th, 1973, Harold B. Lee & General Conference, April 6th, 1980, Spencer W. Kimball.

    “Whether by my mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” -D&C 1:38.

    Seems to me that the Lord himself, through the mouth of TWO WITNESSES and acting Presidents of the Church and Prophets unto all the nations, has stated very clearly that he was born on April 6th, B.C. 1.

    “And the wisdom of the wise shall be confounded.” Do not be surprised that modern science and astrology and computers and history books don’t all come up with that same date. Spiritual truths are derived through spiritual means, not through the “understandings of men.”
    Bruce R. McConkie (see Mortal Messiah, 1979), as smart a man as he was, was never a seer unto the nations. The three BYU professors who took it upon themselves to investigate the matter were ALSO never seers unto the nations.

    Harold B. Lee, President of the Church & Prophet
    Spencer W. Kimball, President of the Church & Prophet
    Two witnesses, two seers, two servants.
    The Lord and the truth.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Mitchell, my own view is that Presidents Lee and Kimball did not receive revelation on this point. They were simply repeating something that they had read in Talmage’s classic, Jesus the Christ. Talmage got the idea from B.H. Roberts. And Roberts was simply wrong. He came up with a clever little idea that D&C 20:1 articulates the precise birth date of Jesus, but he was wrong. The idea doesn’t trace back any earlier than him in the 1890s.

    (I do not believe in prophetic infallibility.)

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