What year was Jesus born? There is a cultural assumption that Jesus was born in 1CE because it has been largely forgotten that our dating system was invented hundreds of years later. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor, which happened during or shortly after 6CE. But the Gospel of Matthew contradicts this and says Jesus was born whilst Herod the Great reigned over Judea, and Herod died in 5 or 4 BCE. There are strong indications that neither author really knew when Jesus was born, and, no-one could find Jesus' family in order to ask them either. Early Christians debated this frequently and theologians came to the conclusion that as scripture is itself unclear, it was not proper to try to work it out1. Historians as Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer say "Jesus was probably born in 4 BCE, not 1 CE"2. In reality, this is one of things that we know we don't know.
On what date was Jesus born? Luke 2:8 states that shepherds were out watching their flocks by night. Due to the temperature, no flocks were kept out over winter. But it was done in spring, therefore early Christians celebrated Jesus' birth in the spring3. The modern belief that Jesus was born on the 25th is due to Emperor Constantine combining pagan winter solstice celebrations (especially those of Mithras) with Christianity, in order to try to harmonize the two belief systems4,3 although many Christians condemned the pagan influence (including many of the most eminent theologians and Church Fathers)3, it was gradually accepted by most churches (although some today still reject the 25th and some reject the concept of Christmas in its entirety5.
The details of Jesus' birth are mentioned in two of the gospels, Luke and Matthew. Unfortunately, they contradict each other. Luke says that Jesus was born when Quirinius, a roman official, was the governor of Syria. This happened during or shortly after 6CE. Matthew however, claims that Jesus was born whilst Herod the Great reigned over Judea, and Herod died in 5 or 4 BCE. There is a huge 10 or 11 year gap between these two dates, and either Luke or Matthew is wrong (or both of them). We know that neither were eye-witnesses of Jesus' life:
“The Gospel of Matthew is a later copy of the Gospel of Mark6, using 92% of its text. It is anonymous7 and it wasn't until about 150CE that the author "Matthew" was assigned8. It was written after the fall of the Jewish temple in 70CE, in Syria, and almost definitely written before 100CE. It went through several versions, probably edited by different authors, until it reached its final form by the 3rd century. The first two chapters, the birth of Jesus and the genealogy, were not found in the early versions.
Matthew not written by an eye-witness of Jesus. We know this because it is a copy of Mark. No eye witness of such an important person would have needed, or wanted, to simply copy someone-else's memories about him. It is written in Greek and not in the native tongues of anyone who met and followed Jesus, and it was written too late to reasonably be the memóires of an eye-witness.
Matthew specifically set out to correct many mistakes in Mark's gospel, especially regarding comments on Jewish customs and practices. Matthew was also written in order to debate some theological points, and had Jesus comment on those arguments, even though the disagreements hadn't arisen until after the supposed time of Jesus. Therefore, the gospel gives away the fact that it more of a theological argument than an historical account.”
“The Gospel of Luke is the third book in the New Testament. It copies over half of Mark6 and also uses Josephus's Jewish Antiquities as a reference and so must have been written after 93CE, probably after anyone who had known Paul (or Jesus) was already dead. The place of origin of Luke's writing is unknown. Luke existed in a single-book form in 140CE when it was used by Marcion, and this early version was anonymous. There are some major edits in later versions, especially involving the insertion of the virgin-birth in Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:489. Later versions were "padded out" with extra inserted text, and had enough text added at the end that it had become known as the Acts of the Apostles and was included independently as the fifth book in the New Testament10.
It might be that the character of Luke was based on an old Roman pagan story about the healing God, Lykos, from Greek culture, and hence why the text was given the name Luke. Luke uses Mark, and 'Q', as sources of information. Out of Mark, 54% is quoted in Luke, and there are a hundred or so versus that, along with Matthew, he took from the source known as 'Q'. It is surprising that a first-hand eyewitness of Jesus would need to copy so much of other people's text about Jesus. Luke contradicts the rest of the Bible on quite a few points of theology and gets many elements of Jesus' life simply wrong (for example, the Roman-decreed census that never actually happened). For these reasons Luke is best not considered trustworthy.”
The debate over the year of Jesus's birth is not new. Christians themselves in the first centuries did not know which year it was and there were quite a range of disparate guesses. All were sternly held and defended by their proponents. Theologians and early academics noted this lack of knowledge and concluded that it must be scripture itself that is intentionally unclear: "Persons who had given much attention to the subject affirmed that there were not less than one hundred and thirty-two different opinions as to the year in which the Messiah appeared, and hence they declared that it was inexpedient to press for acceptance the Scriptural numbers too closely, since it was plain, from the great differences in different copies, that there had been no providential intervention to perpetuate a correct reading"1.
In modern times, the entire debate has been forgotten, even by the majority of Christians themselves. There is a cultural assumption that Jesus was born in 1CE because it has been largely forgotten that the dating system was invented hundreds of years later. Historians such as Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer think that Matthew's account is less untrustworthy than Luke's: "Jesus was probably born in 4 BCE, not 1 CE"4. In reality, this is one of things that we know we don't know.
Christians for a few hundred years did not celebrate Christmas and didn't know when Jesus was born11. Early Christian leaders noted that only pagan sun-worshippers celebrate on the 25th of December (by our calendar). Sun worshipping religions have worshipped on Sundays, and on the Winter Solstice, for many hundreds of years before Christianity took up the practice. Jesus was not born in December, or in January. Luke 2:8 states that shepherds were out watching their flocks by night. No flocks would have been out, during winter! The average winter temperature in Israel is 5 or 6 degrees Celsius. Farmers in Israel did not allow their flocks out during such cold nights and instead kept them sheltered - nor did they, when they were sheltered, watch over them.
“No one knows the date of Jesus' birthday, but most Christians celebrate it on December 25. When Christianity spread into northern Europe, believers thought that the coming of Jesus was like a light coming into a dark world, so they celebrated his birth at the darkest and coldest time of year. In the Roman Empire, December 25 was the feast day of the Sun.”
“Early Christian tradition preserved no knowledge of [the date at which Christ was born], and different writers made different guesses, most preferring dates in the spring. The first absolutely certain record which places it upon 25 December is the calendar of Philocalus, produced in 354 and apparently in Rome. From there it seems to have spread to Constantinople, Antioch, and Bethlehem by the end of the century, although it is not recorded at Jerusalem for almost two hundred more years and was never recognized by the Armenian church. The reason for the choice of this date, and the success of it, was stated with admirable candour by a Christian writer, the Scriptor Syrus, in the late fourth century:It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)3
So, where did the Jesus story come from? Many find that the single source that provided most of the details, centering on the solar festivals of the 25th of December, were derived from the pagan stories about Mithras, another son of God.
“Celebrating the light and fire caused from striking of flints is an ancient tradition. Mithra is said to be forced out of a rock, wearing the Phyrygian cap holding a dagger and a torch of light. Mithra's birth is celebrated on the Winter Solstice. Shrines were in caves, as they were in Zoroastrianism; "the fire temple of Zoroastrians [was] called Dar-i Mihr 'the house of Mithras'"12. Also in common with other vegetation myths and gods13 such as Osiris (Egypt), Dionysus (Greece), Attis (Asia Minor), Adonis (Syria) and Bacchus (Italy), Mithras was depicted as a harvester12. The Winter Solstice was the time of his birth and rebirth following his death, another theme that all such beliefs share in common. Some myths had the godman born on December the 25th, whilst others had the date as the 6th of January (both were dates of the winter solistce - the precise date changes as the equinoxes slowly change). As Christianity draw upon these stories, it was unclear which date was most Christian, and there was continued heated debate between proponents of each date14. In 313CE, Emperor Constantine declared December the 25th to be the correct date, therefore setting Christmas on the 25th of December, the birthdate of Mithras.”
The confusion between pagan sun-god religions and Christian celebrations on the 25th still led Christians to condemn the festivities of that period. "Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo the Great, the most famous Fathers of the fifth-century western Church, both felt compelled to remind people that Christ, and not the sun, was being worshipped then. By contrast Maximus of Turin, in the same century, exulted over the appropriation of a pagan festival of sun-worship for Christian use"3.
The Romans were unsure on exactly what day the days started getting longer, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th were common guesses and the Pagan solstice was flanked by various sun festivals. "Saturnalia, in the days after 17th December, the latter the New Year fear, the Kalendae, from 1 to 3 January. [...] The moment at which the strength of the sun was perceived to be returning was an even more powerful, and universal one, and from 153 BCE the Roman year had officially commenced upon 1 January"3. The Kalendae was sacred to Janus, marked by feasting and merry-making, and the exchange of gifts. "The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake"3.
The pagan elements of Christmas were so strong and apparent that the founders of modern Christianity who wanted to separate themselves from its own paganism, often complained about Christmas activities. "Among those who attacked them were some of the most renowned Fathers of the early medieval Church, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chroysologus. Especially concerned, and voluble, were Maximus of Turin, Chrysologus of Ravenna, Caesarius of Arles, and Pacian of Barcelona. In the eleventh century the denunciations had ended with these southern regions, but they were repeated by Burchard of Worms, writing in more recently evangelized Germany. More interesting for the purposes, they were still being issued in England"3.
The stories about Jesus's birth in the Bible are contained in the Books of Matthew and Luke. These two accounts contradict each other in many places. Many elements are certainly untrue. There are no Roman records attesting to the birth (or life) of Jesus15. Events such as King Herod's killing of every male child simply did not occur16,17 - none of Herod's enemies mention it, for example, despite their routine documenting of his many misdeeds of a much lesser nature. Also unhistorical is the curious Roman census that required (for what reason?) everyone to go to cities associated with their ancestors16. But similar stories are found about previous pagan god-man saviours. Likewise with the Virgin Birth, which has now been shown to simply be a mistranslation deriving from the Septuagint. And what of the 3 wise men who follow the bright star to Jesus's birthplace, bearing gifts? Other star gazers of the time, who meticulously recorded many stellar events, did not notice it16,18. It is a Zoroastrian story, even down to the details of the 3 gifts, copied by Christians and made to be about Jesus. The stories of Jesus's birth are rewrites, modernisations, of previous stories from older pagan myths. These facts have led some scholars to cast doubt on Jesus's entire existence.
For more, see: