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Theology for the common man

WHEN WAS JESUS ACTUALLY BORN?

Perhaps not one of us would be surprised to discover, in the long run, that it is not true that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December in the year one (1), from which time history began to count the period referred to as of our era – A.D. More than likely, the year of our Lord’s birth dates back to 3, 4 or even 7 B.C. More surprising is that this dating was established in the 6th century after Christ. How did we arrive to this day at this state of affairs, in spite of historical inaccuracies, preaching perceptions based for centuries upon erroneous evidence? Perhaps we have never fully reflected on this concept! What is even stranger is that the Church Liturgy and Tradition, which should be concerned above all, makes no fuss over this situation. Could this be about something totally different?

December 25 – the Day
The dating of the birth of Christ was not a unanimous choice, just as no counting or determination of time in ages past was jointly planned. Differences are due to the type of calendar used in any given cultural circle: solar or lunar, set as some reference point for dating existing facts, ultimately lacking interest in history itself for the content and its meaning were far more important. All of these reasons taken together had no little impact on the many errors in the later establishment of a single historical date. Historically, the primary important events of interest to the Christian were the Death and Resurrection of Christ, in keeping with the accounts arising in the Gospels and all the writings of the New Testament. This information introduces a new quality of life for mankind, changing the course of human history. Certain trace references in the Gospels have allowed the approximate determination of the date, trying to draw it out of the reality of the complex world of Jewish culture. Taking into account that the changing dates in the spring solstice is dependent on the movement of the moon, the Easter observance was adjusted to the solar calendar and March 25 became a conventionally fixed date, even as other events were taking place around that time. More convincing was that the fixed date coincided with the spring solstice. In the field of astronomy, this date had been previously designated by learned Jews as the date of the creation of the world. For Christians, it stood out as a symbolic point of reference for two key events relating to Christ: His incarnation and His death. Pursuant to this date, in keeping with the natural duration of pregnancy, December 25 was then determined to be the date of Jesus’ birth. Even more, since on this very day fell the astronomical event of the winter solstice, on which since the third century both Romans and pagans in turn celebrated the birth of the great solar deity, i.e., the birthday of the Invincible Sun, as well as that of Mithra. Christians had no problem replacing this pagan feast, insofar as Christ was referred to as the Sun of Justice, according to the prophet Malachi in the 5th century B.C.(Mal 3: 19-20).

The Era of the Incarnation of the Lord
As noted above, in the beginning there was no special interest in dating the facts of history since it was the message that was more important. Furthermore, even if someone tried to capture the events of time, he did that in respect to some global happening important to the whole of contemporary civilization or to the local community. Such an occurrence could be the foundation of Rome, the reign or death of a certain emperor or king, the opening of the Olympics, etc. For the Christians of the first century, most memorable was the reign of the emperor Diocletian (284), one of the cruelest persecutors of Christians, a time called the „Diocletian Era”. The calculation of time since the birth of Christ we owe to the Roman monk Dionysius of Scythia (d. 544), one of the most eminent scholars of the era, whom the reigning pope John I (d. 526) urged to develop a new liturgical calendar to celebrate Easter. The existing work authored by Cyril of Alexandria was used until 531. Dionysius’ work was developed through the next one hundred years. He then consciously rejected the dating of the „wicked persecutors of the Diocletian era” and introduced a new era of counting from the Incarnation of the Lord; this was established 753 years from the founding of Rome. He justified it as follows:

„We chose to count the years from the Incarnation of the Lord so that the foundation of our hope might be more evident, that the source of mankind’s renewal might be brought to light more clearly, i.e. the mystery of our redemption.”

While this calculation did not immediately gain recognition, it was adopted in time, thanks mainly to its dissemination by a later historian, St. Bede the Venerable (d. 735), and so today it has become the most popular computation of time on earth. That which characterizes this new timing by Dionysius is his Christocentrism, i.e. that the birth of Christ constitutes the demarcation point of world history, initiating a new era in the chronicles of man – an era of salvation. The Incarnation of Christ is the axis of time around which take place all the events of history. It is that very moment which confirms that historical time is on the same footing as salvific time seen, of course, in perspective of the death and resurrection of Christ. Each of us enters into this narrative of salvation through Baptism.

The Year of Jesus’ Birth
Dionysius, however, in spite of all his learning, was mistaken as to the year of Jesus’ birth. As experts on this topic maintain, Dionysius probably did not arrive at these calculations alone, but based them on the findings of his predecessors of the third and fourth centuries. And they, taking into account the only historical mention of the beginning of the public life of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke (Baptism in the Jordan, Lk 3: 1-23) which took place in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, and after deducting the thirty years Jesus had thus far lived, fixed His birth at the turn of the 3rd or 4th century B.C. Taking into account still other historical events not yet included, such as the census during the time of Herod (d. 4 B.C.), the visit of the Magi to Jerusalem and the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, one can place Jesus’ birth during the years between 4 and 7 B.C.

Fortunately, these computational errors did not effect corrections to the existing calendar, for as suggested by certain historians, doing so would require changing all previous historical data, creating quite a stir. Moreover, there was no such need. The fact of Jesus Christ’s birth, no matter what mistake was made in man’s calculation of time, still contains the actual message of salvation: God in Christ became one of us in order to draw us back to Himself. The Church, taking into account the details of the Gospels associated with this event, as well as of traditions existing in individual Christian communities in the East and in the West, began to solemnly celebrate Jesus Birth in its Liturgy. Established at this time were the preparatory period of Advent along with the festivity of Christmas, supplemented with these details from the gospels: the birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the three magi and the slaughter of the innocents. Of these we sing so beautifully in our Carols.