I taught the captioned lesson in Gospel Doctrine today (with Artemis in attendance!), and it went very well. I’m sharing my notes with my Bloggernacle friends as a little early Christmas gift. Enjoy!
When Was Jesus Born?
Notes by Kevin Barney for his Gospel Doctrine Class, Schaumburg 2nd Ward, December 19, 2010
I. No Historical Sources to Provide an Exact Date.
A. Mark 6:21-28 portrays a birthday celebration for Herod Antipas. He was a Hellenized (“Greekified”) Jew, and this was a Hellenistic practice. Piously religious Jews in the first century didn’t keep birthdays. It wasn’t prohibited by the Torah, but it was a foreign practice. The mortal Jesus himself very likely didn’t know what his birth date was. We care so much because our culture is largely derived from Greece and Rome, where birthdays were kept. His disciples probably didn’t know when he was born; it wasn’t a question one would even ask.
B. Gospel spreads to gentiles, and they’re of course curious and want to know. But if the information ever existed, by now it’s long gone. Early Church Fathers come up with dates, including May 20, March 21, April 21 and April 15, but these are obviously guesses.
C. Eventually, from the third to fourth centuries, the field narrows to two contenders: December 25 in the west and January 6 in the east. Over time December 25 becomes dominant, and January 6 is recharacterized as Epiphany, the date the Wise Men visit Jesus. The 12 days between these two dates become the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” (Armenian Christians still celebrate Christmas on January 6.)
D. There is no Jesus family Bible or ancient familysearch.org. No historical sources exist that preserve the date of his birth. The only way we could know that date with specificity would be by revelation.
II. Do We Have a Revelation? Three Approaches in LDS Tradition.
April 6, 1 B.C.: GBH, SWK, HBL, JET, BHR, JCL, JPP, Others [majority view]
December, 5 B.C.: JRC, [BRM], [TAW], JRC
?, 4-7 B.C. ["agnostic" or "don't know" view]: HS, [BRM], [TAW], SKB, CWG, HKH, KLB
A. April 6, 1 B.C. This is by far the most widely held view in the Church, but it is not a “doctrine.” If we were to resolve this with a game of “G.A. poker, “ this theory clearly would win. But the presidents who have mentioned it have done so only in passing (say while dedicating a building on April 6th); it seems clear none has received a revelation on the point. The popularity of this view is clearly due to its appearance in the James Talmage classic, Jesus the Christ (1915). Everyone who accepts this view today, whether she knows it or not, got the idea directly or indirectly from that source. Talmage borrowed it from B.H. Roberts’ Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, which appeared 22 years earlier in 1893.
In 1980 John Lefgren published a thin, non-scholarly book entitled April Sixth, which attempted to support the April 6, 1 B.C. theory. In a 1982 review in BYU Studies, BYU scholars Kent Brown, Wilfred Griggs and Kimball Hansen ripped it to shreds. John Pratt came to the defense of the theory, and published a response also in BYU Studies, to which Brown, Griggs and Hansen provided a brief rejoinder. Pratt has continued to be active in defending the April 6, 1 B.C. position.
B. December, 5 B.C. J. Reuben Clark, Jr. rejected the April 6, 1 B.C. theory, and preferred a date of December, 5 B.C. in his Gospel harmony, Our Lord of the Gospels. Bruce R. McConkie in a lengthy note in his Messiah series examined the entire question, and concluded that he preferred Clark’s view. Thomas A. Wayment did a review of this issue, and suggested a date between Spring and Winter, 5 B.C., which is close to Clark’s position. The most recent LDS scholarly treatment is an article just published by Jeff Chadwick in BYU Studies, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” in which he concludes Clark’s view is correct.
C. ?, 4-7 B.C. Elder Hyrum Smith, in a D&C commentary published four years after Talmage’s book, was open to an April 6th date, but rejected the 1 B.C. year, stating “the organization of the Church in the year 1830 is hardly to be regarded as giving divine authority to the commonly accepted calendar. There are reasons for believing that those who…tried to ascertain the correct time” of the Savior’s birth “erred in their calculations, and that the Nativity occurred four years before our era…. All that this Revelation means to say is that the Church was organized in the year that is commonly accepted as 1830, A.D.”
Although Bruce R. McConkie leaned Elder Clark’s way on this issue, in the end he concluded “We do not believe it is possible with the present state of our knowledge—including that which is known both in and out of the Church—to state with finality when the natal day of the Lord Jesus actually occurred.”
Wayment is somewhere between the December, 5 B.C. theory and the agnostic view given the wider time span he allows for. The position of BYU scholars Brown, Griggs and Hansen has already been described.
III. Problems with the April 6, 1 B.C. Theory.
A. The source of the theory is D&C 20:1:
1The arise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the ccoming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it being regularly dorganized and established agreeable to the elaws of our country, by the will and commandments of God, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April— [emphasis added]
The Church was organized on April 6, 1830, and the idea is that this is meant to be a specific date and year count back to the birth of Jesus, which would place his birth on April 6, 1 B.C. A surface reading would seem to support that idea.
B. Four points regarding the date:
(i) We need to understand the abbreviation A.D. It stands for anno Domini “the year of the Lord,” which itself is short for anno Domini nostri Iesu Christi, “the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So technically, our shorthand designation of A.D. 2010 [note that A.D. goes before the year, B.C. after] means something like “Two Thousand Ten Years from the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(ii) D&C 20 is a quasi-legal document, which we call the “constitution” or the “articles and covenants” of the Church. And 19th century legal documents of a charter nature typically were written with great formality and rhetorical flourish. This was just a fancy way of expressing the date on which the Church was organized, April 6, A.D. 1830.
(iii) John Whitmer was the scribe who penned the words of D&C 20. A year later he was called to replace Oliver Cowdery as Church Historian, as described in D&C 47. In his history record, he used this same formulation in regard to a different date: “It is now June the twelfth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty one years, since the coming of our Lord and Savior in the flesh.” Clearly he did not mean to suggest that June 12th was the Lord’s birth date!
(iv) As I’ve shown, this idea only goes back to B.H. Roberts in 1893. I have looked, and so far as I can determine not a soul in the first two generations of the Church read it that way, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor. It took 63 years for someone to see that this wording supposedly had relevance to determining the birth date of Jesus. In 1870, Orson Pratt, on completely different grounds, made an argument for Jesus being born on April 11. Pratt was the leading scripturist of his day, and if he didn’t know anything about this supposed reading of D&C 20:1, then it simply didn’t exist at that time.
C. Regarding the Year:
(i) Our calendrical distinction between B.C. and A.D. ultimately was devised in A.D. 525 by the Roman monk Dionysius Exiguus (“Dennis the Short”), who used a new system to calculate dates for Easter. He equated the birth year of Jesus with 753 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city [of Rome]), which would equal 1 B.C. on our calendar. About A.D. 800 this way of counting years began to catch on in a big way, although in some areas it would be hundreds of more years before it took.
(ii) Big problem—Herod the Great died in 750 A.U.C. = 4 B.C., and according to the infancy narrative of Matthew (and by implication also in Luke) Herod was still alive when Jesus was born. We know Herod’s death date because Josephus reports that he died between a lunar eclipse and Passover, which astronomers have put near the beginning of 4 B.C. Pratt argues for an eclipse in December of 1 B.C., which would result in a death in A.D. 1. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Pratt is an astronomer, and the eclipse is just the beginning; there is other evidence of an historical nature that Herod died in 4 B.C.
(iii) So although it is counterintuitive, the very latest that Jesus could have been born was 4 B.C., and probably at least a little earlier than that.
IV. So How Did December 25 Get the Job? Two theories:
A. December 25 was celebrated as the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar. The Roman festival of Saturnalia ran for a week just up to that date, and the deity Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) was honored on that date. So the dominant theory is that Christians chose that date to be able to celebrate at a time while others were celebrating, and so to do so unobtrusively.
B. Information about the birth date was hard to come by, but the death date was easier, if still ambiguous. Tertullian calculated that Jesus would have died on March 25. And there was a common belief, found in rabbinic sources, that great things tend to happen at the same times of year. (Compare our emphasis on the date April 6 in our history.) So the premise was made that Jesus was conceived on the same day he died: March 25. This became the Annunciation. And nine months later, December 25, became the birth. This is explicitly described in a couple of fifth century Christian sources. Since Jesus and John the Baptist were six months apart, this became a neat and tidy framework: each was conceived on an equinox, and each was born on a solstice.
C. Here’s the kicker: Remember how in the east they used a different calendar, and they originally conceived of the birth as being on January 6? What is the date 9 months previous? April 6! That was the date of both the death and conception in the east, and the eastern date for the Annunciation.
V. OK, So We Don’t Know the Exact Date. Are There General Indications of the Time of Year?
A. Spring? Luke’s “while shepherds watched their flocks by night” has led many to envision a spring nativity, as it appears to be an allusion to the lambing season, which takes place in the spring. Note that the early guesses of the Church Fathers were all in the spring, probably for this reason. This possibility is not absolute, however, as shepherds could be outside with their sheep for much of the year. (Personally I kind of lean towards a spring birth, and I think April 6 is an excellent guess—just not revelatory.)
B. September/October or March/April? There is an intriguing clue at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, where we learn that Zechariah was a priest after the order of Abijah. In 1 Chronicles 24 we learn that the priests who served at the temple were divided into 24 priestly courses (by families), of which Abijah was the eighth. Each course would serve a week at the temple starting with Nisan, which falls in March or April of our calendar, and then you would go through the 24 courses again in the second half of the year. In the lunar year there typically were 51 weeks, and this procedure covers 48. The other three weeks were the major feasts, at which all priests were on duty.
So say that the eighth week (excluding Passover, which would be a joint week) of the temple year fell the last week of May, and that John returned home and Elizabeth conceived the first week of June. Mary is visited by the angel in Elizabeth’s sixth month, so say the first week of December. Counting nine months from then suggests a birth date of early September.
That’s a clever analysis, but we can’t be too tight with it. First, we’re not sure what year we’re talking about, and since lunar dates move around in relation to the solar calendar, it matters. Second, we’re not certain that Elizabeth conceived immediately upon Zechariah’s return home. Third, we’re not sure when during Elizabeth’s sixth month Mary visited or the angel appeared, or how long after that before Mary conceived. Fourth, we’re assuming that our understanding of these priestly courses from the Mishnah applies to this earlier period.
Given all of that uncertainty, it makes sense to widen the scope of the time period from early September to September/October. Further, if his service was in the second half of the year and not the first, then we need to adjust those dates back by six months, which results in a birth of Jesus in March/April.
So this is a fascinating possibility to think about, but it doesn’t result in a very tight timeframe for establishing the birth date.
C. Any anniversary of a date from antiquity is more symbolic than actual due to the need to translate between ancient and modern calendrical systems. (For instance, the old Julian calendar is currently 13 days out of alignment with our modern Gregorian calendar.)
Thoughts on Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” BYU Studies 49/4 (2010): 5-38. [Not part of the classroom presentation]
1. Chadwick is a fine scholar, and I enjoyed the article. It was very helpful to have a complete survey of the issue from an LDS perspective.
2. Needless to say I agree with his rejection of April 6, 1 B.C. I saw that he took a lot of heat in the comments at Meridian when a teaser for his article was published, so it’s not the easiest position to take. Good for him.
3. There were, however, a number of places where I disagreed with him on various points.
4. First, Talmage was not the first one to float the April 6, 1 B.C. theory, but rather Roberts. He cited Roberts, but was using a 1927 reprint of a text that was first published in 1893.
5. At p. 15, he harmonizes the Gospel accounts and has them all agreeing on the date of Jesus’ death, 14 Nisan. It is well known that the Synoptics and John disagree here, if only by a day. I’m obviously less of a harmonist than he is; I would let the difference in perspective stand (one day scarcely affects his analysis).
6. At p. 18, he argues that Nephite years were solar years just like ours. He comes up with a tight time frame for Jesus’ birth by using the BoM. While I agree that the BoM has potential relevance to the question, we can only use it effectively if we understand the Nephite calendar and what “years” mean to them. And I don’t think he has adequately taken into account prior scholarship on the question. He assumes the Nephites would have used a solar year like the Mayan Haab.
Doing this has the potential to wreak havoc with other issues in BoM chronology. For example, what does this do to the 600-year prophecy? Sperry put the first year of Zedekiah at 601 and the birth of Jesus at 1 B.C., for a tidy 600 years. But we now know that the first year of Zedekiah is 597, and if Jesus was born somewhere between 4 and 7 B.C., we only have 590-593 years between those two events. Sorenson suggested that the “years” here were the Tun from the long-count calendar, a 360-day cycle without intercalation. 600 Tuns would have 3,150 fewer days than would 600 solar years (5.25 x 600 = 3,150), which converted to solar years (3,150/365.25) equals about 8.6 years difference. So 600 Tuns would be about 591.4 solar years, or just right to fit the chronology. And since the BoM is keeping track of time over long periods of time, I would think the long-count calendar would be more applicable; that is its whole reason for existence. Further, Randall Spackman has yet another approach to the issue, as I recall based on a lunar year. BoM chronology is sort of a specialized area, and I’m not sure he has fully thought through his assumption.
7. He reads Luke 1:26 “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God” as referring to the sixth month on the calendar, whereas I think it is clearly the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. That is a key nail on which his theory hangs.
8. He also tries to harmonize the census by reading proto as “before”; I disagree with him there.