The birth of Jesus, also called the "nativity of Christ," is a topic of religious significance and scholarly interest. According to the Christian scriptures, the event was miraculous and fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures.
The earliest sources on the birth of Jesus are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The other two gospels, Mark and John, do not mention Jesus' birth at all; they begin their narratives with Jesus' adulthood.
When Was Jesus Born?
The Christian calendar, established by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 5331 and now in use throughout most of the Western world, centers around the birth of Jesus. The abbreviation "AD" stands for the Latin anno domini, "in the year of our Lord," and "BC" stands for "Before Christ." The secular equivalent "CE" means "Common Era" or "Christian Era."
The Christian Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide several historical references for the birth of Jesus:
- Jesus was born "during the time of King Herod" (Matt 2:1)
- John the Baptist was conceived about 15 months before the birth of Jesus, "in the time of Herod king of Judea" (Luke 1:5)4
- Jesus was still a child when Herod died (Matt 2:19-20)
- "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)"(Luke 2:1-2)
- John the Baptist began his ministry "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene" (Luke 3:1)
- "Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry." (Luke 3:23)
- At the time of Jesus' baptism, the Temple in Jerusalem had been under construction for 46 years (John 2:20)
The rulers mentioned above are actual historical figures documented in other sources, so this helps establish the date of Jesus' birth. Here is what is known about the dates of these rulers:
- Herod the Great died in March or April 4 BCE5
- Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, ruled 4 BCE - 39 CE6
- Augustus was emperor 27 BCE - 14 CE7
- Augustus conducted no known census of the entire Roman Empire8
- Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE9 10
- Quirinius conducted a census in Judea in 6-7 CE11 12 13
- the 15th year of TIberius' reign (14-37 CE)14 was 27-28 CE15
- construction on the Temple in Jerusalem began in 19 BCE, so 46 years later puts Jesus' baptism at 27 CE16 17
It seems Jesus could not have been born during both the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE) and the governorship of Quirinius (began 6 CE). The reference to Tiberius in Luke 3:23 also indicates a date before Quirinius.15
Therefore most scholars conclude that Luke made a mistake in his dating of Quirinius11 12 18 and use the remaining information to date the birth of Jesus, concluding he was born at the end of the reign of Herod or c. 6-4 BCE. This aligns with Luke's mention that Jesus was about 30 years old in the 15th year of Tiberius (27/28 CE) and John's mention of the 46th year of the Temple (27 CE).
When is Jesus' Birthday?
What about the day Jesus was born? The Gospels offer no indication as to the day of Jesus' birth. The only potential clue is the shepherds "keeping watch over their flocks by night" described in Luke 2:8. This was not done in the coldest winter months. However, many modern scholars regard the story of the shepherds as a pious invention full of symbolism; if so, there is no information on Jesus' date of birth in the Bible.
The birthday of Christ has been celebrated on December 25 since at least the fourth century. However, this is an acknowledged adaptation of pagan festivals that reflects no actual information on Jesus' birthdate. (See Christmas for details.)
Where Was Jesus Born?
According to the New Testament, Jesus was widely known to be from Nazareth and was referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth" (e.g. Mk 1:9, 1:24, 10:47; Mt 2:23, 4:13, 21:11, 26:71; Lk 1:26, 2:39, 4:17; John 1:45-46, 18:5-7, 19:19; Acts 2:2, 4:10).
However, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke emphasize that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecies about the Messiah.
Luke explains that Joseph and Mary were visiting Bethlehem from Nazareth during the birth because the Roman emperor had decreed all families register for a census in their ancestral hometowns (Lk 2), while Matthew says Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Mt 2:1-12) and the family later moved to Nazareth (Mt 2:23).
The Virgin Birth
According to the Gospels, Jesus was born to a devout Jewess named Mary and a carpenter named Joseph. Matthew and Luke report that it was a "virgin birth" - Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she had any sexual relationship with Joseph (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:26-38).
The Gospels are virtually silent when it comes to Jesus' early life, but some information can be inferred from references elsewhere. Jesus was from a small town called Nazareth (Mt 4:13; Mk 14:67, 16:6; Lk 4:16; Jn 1:46; Ac 24:5), where he probably trained as a carpenter under his father.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, though it seems he knew enough Greek to converse with Roman officials during his ministry.
The Gospel of Luke offers the only account of this period, in which a 12-year old Jesus wanders off from his parents in Jerusalem to discuss religion in the temple. When his frantic parents finally track him down, Jesus asks, "Didn't you know I would be in my Father's house?" (Lk 2:41-50).
Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1998), 167. “The anomaly that Jesus was born "before Christ" results from an ancient mistake in calculating the year of his birth. In 533 Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Short) proposed to reckon years no longer from the foundation of Rome (A.U.C.) but from the birth of the Lord; he chose 754 A.U.C. as A.D. 1, a date too late since Herod died in 750.” ↩
Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1998), 205. “This notice [Matt 2:16]... has led scholars to date Jesus' birth ca. 6 BC, two years before Herod's death. Matthew's opinion on this interval... is not to be easily discounted since Luke dates JBap's conception (some fifteen months before the birth of Jesus) "in the days of Herod the king."” ↩ ↩
Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1998), 549. “In the reign of Augustus there was no single census covering the Empire; and granted the different legal statuses of provinces and client kingdoms, a sweeping universal edict seems most unlikely. But Luke may not have meant a single census.” ↩
Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus (1995), 28. “Quirinius, the governor of Syria whom Luke's Gospel mentions, is known from a careful history of affairs in Judea which was compiled by Josephus, an educated Jew, writing in Greek at Rome between c. 75 and c. 80.... According to Josephus, Quirinius was governor of Syria with authority over Judaea in AD 6, which the province was brought under direct Roman control. The year was a critical moment in Jewish history....” ↩
Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus (1995), 29. “The status of client-kings [like Herod the Great] in the Roman Empire left them responsibility for their subjects' taxation.... It is even doubtful if the Emperor Augustus ever issued a decree to Rome's provinces that 'all the world should be taxed.' .... As that evidence extends through histories, local inscriptions and the papyrus returns of tax-payers in Egypt, it is immensely unlikely that a new edict of such consequence has escaped our knowledge.” ↩
Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1998), 554-55, 666. “The weight of the evidence is strongly against the possibility of reconciling the information in Luke 1 and Luke 2.... Luke seems to be inaccurate in associating that birth with the one and only census of Judea (not of Galilee) conduced in AD 6-7 under Quirinius. Luke also seems to be inaccurate about that census in Acts 5:36.... My own judgment was that Luke confused the troubled times accompanying the formation of the province of Judea and the troubled times accompanying the death of Herod ten years previously.” ↩ ↩
Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ (2000), 31. “Luke's specific references to secular historical events... turn out to testify more to Luke's skills as a storyteller than as an historian, for his references are often muddled by anachronisms. For instance, Herod the Great, King of Judea, ruled until 4 BCE; the census under Quirinius occurred around 6 CE; but the chronology of the birth narrative presupposes synchrony (cf. Lk 1:5, 26; 2:2).” ↩ ↩
Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus (1995), 29. “In Judaea under Quirinius, we know from Josephus's histories of... a local census in AD 6 to assess Judaea when the province passed from rule by Herod's family to direct rule by Rome. Although this census was local, it caused a notorious outcry...” ↩
Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1998), 548. “The combination of these two verses [Luke 3:1,23]... indicates that Jesus was about thirty years old in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 27-28). This would agree with a birth in 4-3 BC at the time of Herod the Great, but hardly with a birth in AD 6-7.” ↩ ↩
Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus (1995), 28. “The Gospel [of Luke], therefore, assumes that Quirinius and King Herod were contemporaries, when they were separated by ten years or more. There is no doubt about the Herod in question.” ↩
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