On the Birth of Christ

by Brian Watson

We are a few short days from Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  Contrary to what might seem like common sense, Jesus was not born in the year 1, either B.C. or A.D., and certainly not the year 0, since there is no such thing.  He was most likely born in 6 or 5 B.C.  We know this because Herod the Great died some time between March 13 and April 10, 4 B.C., and the Bible states quite clearly that this Herod was the king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth.  (Herod was visited by the wise men from the east and he quite infamously ordered the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem.)  If Jesus died in A.D. 30, which seems like a slightly more likely date than 33, he would have been roughly 34 (there is no year 0, so if here were born in 5 B.C., you would add 5 and 30 and subtract one year).  That means that he would be “about thirty” when he began his public ministry, as it says in Luke 3:23.

I found this paragraph in Gerald Bray’s God Is Love to be very informative, so I’ll share it here:

     The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible.  It is the result of a series of of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process.  He therefore came up short and was never corrected.  As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace as the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at that time of the year.  Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world.  he cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter.  Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that.  The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.” (p. 564)

There you have it.  We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born (certainly not on December 25, and not on 1 A.D.), yet that hardly matters.  The Gospels do not seem terribly concerned to give us an exact date, but that is par for the course for histories of that era.  That we celebrate Jesus’ birth at the time when a pagan festival was held shouldn’t cause us any concern, either.  Apparently this was done in the fourth century, after the Roman emperor Constantine had made Christianity a legal religion and had converted to the faith himself.  The Gospels were written in the first century, long before Christianity became a legal religion (in 313) or the official religion of the Empire (in 380).   Therefore, neither Christianity nor Christmas relies upon pagan practices.

I mention this simply because I have heard at least one person say that Christianity is false because it is supposedly based on Roman myths.  This friend quite specifically mentioned the dating and origins of Christmas.  He told me had done some research on the Internet about the connection between Christianity and myth.  This man who had once seemed to be a solid Christian – a husband and a father of three daughters – walked away from the faith.  I suppose it’s not irrelevant to say that he later divorced his wife and pursued homosexuality.  Perhaps he was looking for any reason not to believe in Christianity.

Christianity does not stand or fall on when and how Christmas is celebrated, so we should not be concerned about dates at all.  What we do have is excellent testimony that Jesus, the Son of God, was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and that he rose on the third day.  And it is on the truth of the resurrection, according to Paul (1 Cor. 15:12-19), that Christianity stands or falls.