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.)