When Was Jesus Born?

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.

Comments

  1. Your first paragraph was a revelation to me. It’s all I need to know on the subject. If Jesus’ birthdate did not matter to him, his family or his associates, then it need not matter to me any more than knowing his zodiac sign or some other cultural or subcultural artifact.

    Thanks.

  2. I think Talmage at least quoted some discussion that 6BC could have been the year Jesus was born. That would account for Herod the Great’s death two years later.

    We’re a very literal society these days. We want exact information. What you say though is quite accurate. Back then these details weren’t as important. No one questioned that Jesus was alive, and that he was in his early thirties as he preached. That was good enough for them.

  3. Fascinating, Kevin. Thanks.

  4. John Mansfield says:

    Kevin, here’s an interesting wrinkle you may enjoy. With Jesus’ birth assigned to December 25, that makes nine months earlier, March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. Calendar shift in 1750 and leap day in 1800, moved the old March 25 to the new April 6. (details)

  5. Hmmm…Don’t recall seeing this material in the lesson manual.

    That quibble aside, I would LOVE to be in your Gospel Doctrine class.

  6. Thank you for the mini-review! It will add some spice to my upcoming sacrament meeting talk.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 4, my practice is always to chuck the regular lesson and do something Christmas-related on the Sunday before Christmas. I’ve always done it that way.

  8. I’ve always done it that way.

    Thank heaven.

    This is great, Kevin. Thanks for pulling it together.

  9. Stellar Kev. Wish I could have been in your class, but this is the next best thing. Keep sharing your notes with us, please!

  10. So how do we take this information and share it with those who adamantly adhere to the Roberts/Talmage assertion the D&C 20:1 literally means that the Church was organised exactly 1830 after Christ was born? I’m mostly concerned about those who believe that it is doctrinally true, and being told otherwise is nigh unto apostasy.

  11. –John Whitmer: “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!–

    Kevin, where is this reference? I want to put it in my scriptures. Thanks for a great thought provoking (and faith shattering) post..

  12. Let’s not limit our view of the “east v. west” disputes over calendar. The Ethiopian calendar still in use dates the Annunciation seven or eight years later than the Julian calendar (difference is because Ethiopian new year begins on Sept. 11). It is based on the Egyptian Coptic calendar, like the Armenian calendar cited, and it adopts the March 25 AD 9 annunciation date put forward by Anniaus of Alexandria around 400 AD. Interestingly, Christmas falls on January 7.

    I put this forward just to note that some of the lesser known date theories actually pre-date the ones that became accepted wisdom. From reading Kevin’s lesson, it doesn’t seem like this accepted wisdom is any more valid than other traditions.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 10, the Whitmer sentence is in his history record. The citation is given in the Jeff Chadwick article in BYU Studies, the full citation for which is given in the blog post.

    Also, faith shattering? I guess that’s sort of the point, in that we shouldn’t be putting our faith in (very) questionable assertions such as this.

    I think the quotes from Elder Hyrum Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie, together with President Clark’s position, made the medicine go down very well. It wasn’t just the godless scholars who were saying this, but actual leaders as well (the ones who had actually examined the issue and not simply relied on Talmage).

  14. I’ve always assumed April 6th. I find this post interestijng but not faith shattering. I’m not sure why it matters. I like when church leaders have different views on stuff like this becuase it reminds me that we can have different views as well.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    Kevin, I believe you are a bit off on your explanation of the difference in Roman and Orthodox dating of Christmas and the Annuciation. For the Orthodox, Christmas has always been on December 25, and Annuciation on March 25. The difference with the West came with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, so that the East’s old Julian dates, no different than the West’s, now fall on our January 7 and April 7. Even that distinction is now partially out of date. Most Orthodox churches adopted the New Julian calendar of 1923, which matches the Gregorian calendar through a different calculation method (and thereby not recognizing the authority of Rome); Russians didn’t switch. For example, looking at the website calendar for Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore, Christmas is December 25, and the Annunciation is March 25.

    The differance between East and West on the dates of the Nativity and the Annunciation does not go back to the 4th Century, and is only a matter of 2nd millenium calendar adjustments.

    By the way, the Russian Orthodox of the 19th Century would have observed those events on January 6 and April 6, but there was another non-leap day in 1900, so in the 20th and 21st Centuries, the Gregorian dates are January 7 and April 7. For some reason, the Armenian Church is stuck on the 19th Century dates.

  16. John Mansfield says:

    Actually, I see that the Armenian Church stuck to January 6 for the Nativity, but advanced the Annunciation to April 7.

    http://www.armenianorthodoxchurch.org/v17/index.htm

  17. John Mansfield says:

    I think I get what the Armenians are doing now. They are celebrating the Nativity on the day of Epiphany and using the Gregorian calendar to place Epiphany on January 6. This confused me with the Russian Orthodox celebrating the Nativity on Christmas using the Julian calendar, placing it on January 6 by the Gregorian calendar for the 19th Century and January 7 for the 20th and 21st Centuries.

    Here is a cool photo from last Epiphany in Bulgaria:

    Local men perform the traditional Bulgarian Horo dance in the the river Tundzha

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/picture/2010/jan/06/bulgaria-bulgaria

  18. Antoinette says:

    Very interesting post.
    Many people have speculated on Jesus’ birth, and I like to think that it was later than December 25. I’m going for sometime in the spring based off of the little shreds of evidence about the cosmology, social customs and calendrical patterns of the time I’ve read.
    In fact, as a little kid, it never sat well with me how “perfect” and convenient the timing was between Christmas and Easter. At about 10, I began to think the opposite was true, that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated in the spring, not his resurrection. Our western view was too neat and packaged for my 10 year old self:)
    I definitely believe that Jesus’ birth was around March/April. That jives better than in December.
    I think we celebrate December 25 as his “birthday” because it’s the time of miracles, giving, and newness. It’s symbolic, not meant as fact (for some). But there were some kids I knew growing up who thought that Jesus’ birth actually happened in the course of Christmas week: the conception, the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the birth, and the blessings of the Wise Men happened all in the same week. Oh, and Santa was somewhere in there too.
    When presented with evidence to the contrary, they would argue me down, too!
    I think Jesus was a Spring baby!

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    My understanding, and I’m not an expert on this calendar business, is that those Christians who celebrate Xmas on January 7 are following the Julian calendar, which is now 13 days removed from the Gregorian (December 25 + 13 days = January 7). And those who use a Julian calendar for Epiphany celebrate on January 19 (Jan. 6 + 13 days). Some Christians still use the Julian calendar for determining feast days. But this is different from the original split between December 25 and January 6. That wasn’t a Julian v. Gregorian thing; those dates existed contemporaneously in the third and fourth centuries. IIRC I think the differences were influenced by the (different) Greek calendar used in the East.

  20. John Mansfield says:

    Kevin, from what I have read, the only ones to observe the Nativity with the January 6 Epiphany (and not necessarily as an anniversary) were the Armenians, not “the East,” and even for them the Nativity was a small part of it, with Jesus’ baptism and his first miracle at the marriage in Cana as more prominent parts of the celebration of the manifestation of the Son of God to the World. Below is a link to something written by an Armenian priest on the topic:

    http://www.myarmenianchurch.org/dershnork/christmas%20date.asp

    An odd thing with the Armenian church is that they are using the Gregorian calendar for Epiphany and the Julian calendar for the Annunciation.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    No, anciently it was “the east,” not just the Armenians, in particular Egypt and Asia Minor. See this article from Bible Review, which was my source for that claim

    How December 25 Became Christmas
    Andrew McGowan

    On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. But how did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday? …

    By the fourth century we find references to two dates that were widely recognized and celebrated as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6. For most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

    The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

    So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in midwinter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6? There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).

    The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. Early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

    It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

    But the earliest celebrations of Jesus’ birth that we know about (c. 250-300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

    This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals.

    There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, March 25. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born — on Dec. 25.

    Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation — the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.

    The idea that Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25 appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled “On Solstices and Equinoxes”. The treatise appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. Based on the March 25 date for Jesus’ conception, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

    Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In “On the Trinity” (c. 399-419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

    In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar — April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6 — the eastern date for Christmas. Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

    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 and January 6).

    Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is reflected in ancient Jewish tradition. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date. Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was 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, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.

    Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism — from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year — than from paganism.

  22. Cynthia L. says:

    Kevin, as always, you are a rock star.

  23. This post was incredibly insightful to me, especially the part about Christ not even knowing his birthday. I sure wish you’d post more of your lessons.

  24. 13 –Also, faith shattering? I guess that’s sort of the point, in that we shouldn’t be putting our faith in (very) questionable assertions such as this.–

    I totally agree. My “Faith Shattering” comment was in jest as unfortunately I have many faithful friends that couldn’t read this post and not be offended. I find it inspiring to hear other leaders perspectives (Clark, McConkie, etc), and the “godless scholors (jk)”. Thanks for your research. I really have referenced these thoughts.

  25. John Brockbank says:

    Luke 1:23 And it came to pass, that, as soon as the adays of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.
    24 And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying,
    25 Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my areproach among men.

    In verse 24, how long a period is “…after those days…”? The only way we can chronologically get the Savior born on April 6th is to have Zachariah and Elizabeth wait a few months before conceiving John. I bet God could do that.

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