Today is (probably) not Jesus’s Birthday

thIt’s a fun calendrical coincidence this year that the first general session of General Conference falls on today, April 6. This is a big date for the church. It’s the date we recognize as the date that the church started as a church. (See this guest post yesterday for a discussion of what that actually means). But there’s a tradition in the church that says Jesus was born on April 6, 1 BC, exactly 1830 years to the day before the church was organized on April 6, 1830. This tradition is almost certainly wrong.

The tradition, relying on what is now section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, seems to gotten popular because James E. Talmage used it in his 1915 book Jesus the Christ. But Elder Talmage didn’t invent it, he got it from B. H. Roberts’s 1893 book, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History. And it seems to have started with Joseph F. Smith.

In Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, Elder Roberts quotes the first sentence of the revelation that is now section 20: “The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it being regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws 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.” (B.H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, pg. 16 (Salt Lake: George Q. Cannon & Sons Co., 1893)). He then goes on to quote Joseph F. Smith, who argued from this sentence that Jesus’s birthday was therefore April 6, 1 BC: “Strictly speaking, if this Church was organized ‘one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior in the flesh’ then the sixth of April must have been the anniversary of the Savior’s birthday. If the organization of the Church had been before or subsequent to that date, if by only one or any number of days, the great even would have been more or less than thousand eight hundred and thirty years, by just so many days….Opinions formed by the study of chronological events may or may not be accurate. But we would scarcely think the Lord would make any mistake about dates. Least of all he would was born on that day, and on that day thirty-three years later was crucified” (id. at 17).[1]

This argument is almost certainly a misreading of section 20’s preface. It rests on several assumptions:

  • That this sentence was dictated by Jesus.
  • That “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since” means exactly 1830 years and not a day more or less.
  • That “coming in the flesh” means birth, and not something else.

There is good reason to question all three of these assumptions.

First, it isn’t clear that this revelation is Jesus speaking. Unlike other of Joseph Smith’s revelations, which are dictated in the first person, explicitly in the voice of Jesus, section 20 is not. Section 20 is, rather the “Articles and Covenants” of the Church–the church’s founding constitution. Even if it were in the voice of Jesus, we could further question the premise that every word of a revelation is personally dictated by God, because Joseph Smith frequently went back to revise the language revelations he had previously given.
But section 20 isn’t even presented in the voice of Jesus. It speaks in the first-person plural (“we know…”) and in the third person. I think the best way of reading it is that it is the voice of the church. It’s also relevant that section 20 was not something that was dictated fully formed, like the Book of Mormon translation, but was apparently something that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery both labored over. Oliver Cowdery had previously prepared what some have called a sort of rough draft of the Articles and Covenants, and I think the best way to understand section 20 is that it was something that Joseph Smith used his prophetic gift to work to create, not something that was dictated verbatim by God. For this reason, I think we should be careful about ascribing each word choice to Jesus himself–especially if we’re using particular word choices to draw a conclusion about something that wasn’t even the subject of section 20.

Second, there’s good reason to think that “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord” is just an elaborate, formalized way of saying A.D. 1830, not a statement about Jesus’s birthday. As Kevin points out in this old post about dating Jesus’s birthday, John Whitmer, who was the scribe who copied section 20 down into Revelation Book 1, used the exact same language to date another document to June 12. It appears to be John Whitmer’s formal way of saying “AD” (which is, of course, just an abbreviation for “In the year of our Lord” anyway).

It’s not true that every time we say it has been x years since something happened, we mean exactly x years to the day. When I say it’s been 19 years since I came home from my mission, people generally understand that I’m speaking approximately, and if you called me a liar because it’s actually been 19 years and 2 months, most people would roll their eyes at you. In fact, when we do mean to say it has been exactly x years, we add the phrase “to the day,” because we understand that “x years since” generally does not mean exactly x years to the day. The fact that section 20 does not contain this additional clarifying language suggests to me that this sentence is not a statement about the date of Jesus’s birth.

Third, “coming in the flesh” doesn’t necessarily mean birth. This gets into pretty esoteric questions about when can we say that a spirit enters a body of flesh and blood, but there are at least two other possibilities: if you believe that life begins at conception and that the spirit enters the body when life begins, then “coming in the flesh” might mean the moment of conception. Or, if you believe that the spirit enters the body at some point after conception, but before birth, then perhaps “coming in the flesh” might refer to that. Now, you might say that that’s too literal, and “coming in the flesh” is just a fancy way to say birth. I would say you might be right. But I would say the same is true of “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord.” But if we assume for sake of discussion that “coming in the flesh” means conception, and we assume Jesus’s gestation period was exactly 9 months, that actually does fit with the Eastern Orthodox tradition that says Jesus was born on January 6.

So in the end, D&C 20, which is not about Jesus’s birth at all in the first place, is not a very good foundation on which to build an argument that Jesus was born on April 6. It’s possible, I suppose, that Jesus was born on April 6, but it’s just as probable that he was born on any other date. As Kevin points out in his old post on this topic, church leaders from have argued for a variety of dates: In the early years of the church, Orson Pratt had argued for April 11. More recently, J. Reuben Clark and Bruce R. McConkie both rejected Joseph F. Smith’s April 6 theory and argued that we don’t know the date.

I think the best approach is that we don’t know the date. The April 6 theory is a fun bit of Latter-day Saint trivia, but it’s too way thin a reed on which to rest a firm conclusion or even a tentative conclusion. And we certainly shouldn’t go around thinking we’re better than the rest of the Christian world because we know when Jesus was born while they celebrate it in December like fools. April 6 is still a cool date to celebrate as the date of the founding of the first branch of the church, but, no, Jesus was most likely not born on April 6. So enjoy conference, but please don’t claim that we have revelation positively identifying today as Jesus’s birthday. Because we don’t.


[1] Elder Roberts doesn’t give a source for President Smith’s quotation, and I haven’t tracked it down yet, so I can’t say for sure that it was “President” Smith and not “Elder” Smith speaking here, but I’ll just assume he said this when he was president of the church. But I want to note that President Smith appears to be tapping into an old Jewish tradition that said that great prophets always died on their birthday.

Comments

  1. Agreed on all counts. The one thing I would add, though, is that the Book of Mormon suggests Christ’s birth was in the same season as his death.

    3 Nephi 1:4 says the sign of Christ’s birth was in the commencement of the year.

    After resetting their calendar (not sure whether this includes months or just years) based on this event, 3 Nephi 8:5 says the sign of Christ’s death was also at the beginning of the year: The fourth day of the first month.

    For what it’s worth.

  2. Agreed. Also, throw in the historically changing calendars, especially the switch from Julian to Gregorian, and we don’t even know what it would mean (but it would be wrong) to say April 6, 1830 in the US was exactly 1830 years (solar years?) from an April 6 birthday of Jesus. It may be, in the US, 11 days off.

    “In accordance with a 1750 act of Parliament, England and its colonies changed calendars in 1752. By that time, the discrepancy between a solar year and the Julian Calendar had grown by an additional day, so that the calendar used in England and its colonies was 11 days out-of-sync with the Gregorian Calendar in use in most other parts of Europe.
    England’s calendar change included three major components. The Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, changing the formula for calculating leap years. The beginning of the legal new year was moved from March 25 to January 1. Finally, 11 days were dropped from the month of September 1752.
    The changeover involved a series of steps:
    • December 31, 1750 was followed by January 1, 1750 (under the “Old Style” calendar, December was the 10th month and January the 11th)
    • March 24, 1750 was followed by March 25, 1751 (March 25 was the first day of the “Old Style” year)
    • December 31, 1751 was followed by January 1, 1752 (the switch from March 25 to January 1 as the first day of the year)
    • September 2, 1752 was followed by September 14, 1752 (drop of 11 days to conform to the Gregorian calendar)”
    http://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/hg/colonialresearch/calendar

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I was familiar in general with the Roberts source but was unaware of that specific Joseph F. Smith quote. Very interesting; thanks!

  4. Bro. B. says:

    Agreed. As Adano mentions, the Book of Mormon adds credence to a close to the first of the year birth of Jesus. Jeffrey Chadwick lays out this and other evidences in his book Stone Manger. It’s a Kindle only book, very inexpensive and worth the read. The book also busts some other myths surrounding Jesus’ birth.

  5. Joseph Smith papers point to the statement being added later by John Whitmer.

  6. On the topic of Julian dates, the 6th of January (NS) is just the current Gregorian equivalent of the 24th of December (OS), since the Julian calendar tends to be favoured for liturgical use by the Eastern Orthodox. The two calendars are, of course, drifting relative to one another by three days every 400 years, due to the difference in leap year reckoning, so this correspondence has only been true since 1900.

    Also, AD was introduced some time after Christ’s life, and whether what we call 1 AD was actually a correct calculation of the year of Christ’s birth is rather dubious, considering it was after Herod the Great’s death.

  7. Before jumping to any conclusions, I would recommend reading and studying John Pratt’s great study into this area. Here is one article to begin with.

    https://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/2018/birth_of_christ.html

  8. If B.H. Roberts is quoting Joseph F. Smith in a book published in 1893, it wasn’t when Smith was President of the Church.

    I’m in total agreement with you here. D&C 20:1 definitely does *not* establish 6 April 1 BC as the date of Christ’s birth. This does leave us with the question of why God specifically directed that the Church be formally organized on that day, especially since it was a Tuesday.

  9. Mark B. says:

    It would seem odd to make a big deal out of the date of Jesus’s birth, since Jesus never instructed us to remember or celebrate it. Which is my short-cut to the same conclusion as the OP reaches.

  10. Anon this time says:

    John Pratt the Snufferite? That John Pratt?

  11. I remeber 2 decades ago, when I was doing Seminary reading for Doctrine and Covenants, think that what I read said that Christ rose from the tomb on April 6th. Then if Christ started his ministry on his 30th birthday, and it lasted for three years, was crucified and was resurrected three days later, that meant that he was born on April 3rd.

  12. MrShorty says:

    The thing about this issue that really struck me was a few years ago (I think it was Apr. 2014), Elder Bednar sated in General Conference that we (speaking of the Church collectively, I guess?) know that Apr. 6th is Christ’s birthday by revelation. In the Ensign publication of this speech, he included several references to past apostles and prophets to support his statement. Ron Millet wrote an article for Meridian magazine this past winter that leaned rather heavily on the idea that this is revealed truth and that, eventually, the rest of us will fall in line because “scientific” evidence must eventually support revealed truth.

    As Mark B. says, the actual date of Christ’s birth is not something to make a big deal out of. However, in a Church that claims to be built on the rock of revelation, claiming something like this as revelation is a significant thing. What does it suggest if apostles and prophets declare something revelation that is not revelation? The OP mentions other apostles who did not accept this truth, so what does it mean if an apostle can declare something not revelation that is revelation? I agree that the date of Christ’s birth is not important. However, dealing with the questions of discerning what is and is not revelation kind of hits at part of the foundation of Mormonism — that rock of revelation.

    I have sometimes thought that this could make an excellent “case study” in examining the issue of “prophetic fallibility” that we have such a difficult time addressing in the Church.

  13. Just wondering says:

    If you are interested in a scholarly, peer-reviewed look at the ideas presented in the OP and those discussed in the comments, you should read these articles in BYU Studies. The first link is to an article about dating the birth of Jesus Christ and the second article deals with the timing of his death.
    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/dating-birth-christ
    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/dating-death-jesus-christ

  14. I have sometimes thought that this could make an excellent “case study” in examining the issue of “prophetic fallibility” that we have such a difficult time addressing in the Church.

    McShorty, that’s a brilliant suggestion. As a case study it would allow us to concentrate on the issue itself without much heartache over threat to faith because, as you and Mark B. have noted, it’s not a matter of theological significance. Add to that the fact that there are so many publicly available statements … Thanks for the idea. I hope someone qualified takes it up.

  15. If the April 6 date is based on revelation then it might change in, say, three and a half years

  16. Ron Millet also suggested that kangaroos teleported back to Australia after the flood, so…

    A friend who works in the COB reported to me that when E. Bednar was shown the JSP data after his talk, he said, in essence “oops.” But it’s certainly an example of why understanding (or not, in this case) the history, context, textual criticism, etc. of a passage affects us.

  17. Also, it appears none of Millett’s stuff is posted at Meridian anymore. Good riddance.

  18. MrShorty says:

    @Anon: I wonder if that was a glitch or something at Meridian. I still show him as a columnist with a link to the article I mentioned: https://latterdaysaintmag.com/author/ronald-p-millett/

    The post-conference anecdote of Elder Bednar is interesting — but a little bit frustrating for me. The published talk still has the statement and all of the footnotes. Other than a “rumor” (first heard as a comment on a progressive blog), Elder Bednar has — to my knowledge — never retracted his claim that this is revelation. I often wonder how much easier it would be to talk about prophetic fallibility if our apostles would point out the times when they misunderstood revelation.

  19. Your link works for me, alas. A bunch of things from google, and Meridian’s own search engine, were not bringing him up, so probably a glitch.

  20. Bellamy says:

    Guys look at the B of M . It makes the whole thing clear. Lehi left the first year of the reign of zedekiah .See intro to 3rd Nephi. That was 597 BC. See Babylonian Chronicles. Christ had to be born 600 years later. The other given is that Herod died April 4 BC.We can take both those as fixed. If you take 600lunar years as in the Jewish calendar from 597 you end up at 5 BC. So the fit is perfect and we don’t have to rewrite the nativity narratives to eliminate Herod ,the wisemen,the holy family escaping into Egypt , the massacre of the innocents nor the death of John the Baptist father, all of which are out if Christ is born after April 4 BC. As to the exact date the Bible tells us if we chose to read it . The angel appears to Mary “in the 6th month “ ie 6th month of Jewish calendar our March . Presumably she was or very soon would be pregnant. 9 months later is Dec.The oldest Christian tradition held by the oldest Christian church’s Catholic Greek Orthodox and Coptic. Is Christ was born on or about winter solstice.Dec 22-25 No other date fits all of the scriptural,historical and traditional evidence. As mentioned J Ruben Clark and BR McConkie agree with this analysis. Pick a different date and you have to rewrite scripture or recognized historical sources like Josephus and Tacitus.

  21. Glenn Thigpen says:

    “I think the best approach is that we don’t know the date. The April 6 theory is a fun bit of Latter-day Saint trivia, but it’s too way thin a reed on which to rest a firm conclusion or even a tentative conclusion.”

    And, it does not matter. It could very well be that April 6th is the actual birth date for Jesus, or it could be a misinterpretation of that scripture. It makes no difference as to any Doctrines of Salvation and exaltation. The most important aspect is that Jesus was born and thus His Atonement. Just my two cents worth.
    Glenn

  22. jc: I’ve heard that, but when I went and looked at the earliest extant versions of the Articles and Covenants and the historical context given, I wasn’t able to confirm that, so I decided to leave it out of the post. Do you have the source on that?

  23. John Jenkins: good point, about the dates and Joseph F. Smith. He may have been a counselor in the first Presidency at the time, but he didn’t become the President of the Church until 1901. When you ask why the Lord directed April 6 as the date to organize the church, are you referring to section 20, or to something else? I think section 20 is ambiguous at best. It simply refers to “the rise” of the church on that date, but doesn’t direct that date in particular. I’ve heard people speak casually about the Lord directing the church to be organized on April 6, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a source for that. Do you have one?

  24. Judy, I looked at that, and it didn’t strike me as very persuasive stuff. Lots of unstated and questionable assumptions.

  25. Ardis & McShorty: that’s an interesting suggestion. I think it’s utility would be somewhat limited given that no church leader has ever claimed to have received a revelation affirmatively stating that April 6 is Jesus’s birthday; they’ve only interpreted revelation given to a previous prophet as having done so. So that wouldn’t give much insight into the issue of when a prophet claims something is revelation and it turns out not to be true. But it still would give valuable insight on the issue of prophets interpreting past statements assumed to be revelation, which is something they do pretty frequently.

  26. Anon & McShorty: Most of Millet’s stuff is way too kooky for me. And what I find most unpersuasive about him on this particular issue is that he makes no effort to actually understand the context of the GA statements he hangs his argument on. Most are just repeating tradition, as a very minor, off-hand comment in the middle of a talk that’s substantively focused on some other unrelated point. He just repeats these statements as though we can understand anything at all about them divorced from their context. That’s just bad history.

  27. Ryan Mullen says:

    Bellamy, the matter isn’t quite as simple as you are arguing. You didn’t account for the taxing mentioned by Luke when Cyrenius/Quirinius was governor in Syria and which is dated to AD 6. That’s about 10 years later than a dating based on Herod’s death (4 BC). So we have two canonized Biblical sources that disagree.

    I’ll give you points for creativity, tho.