Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In what year was Jesus born?

In my epic, award winning post "When was Jesus Born?" we examined the reason for celebrating Christmas on December 25th. This post answers the second part of the question by examining in what year Jesus was born. Again the short answer is "nobody knows." And once again, the modern calendar used the best information at the time to "draw a line in the sand".

That line was drawn in the 6th century by Dionysius Exiguus. He calculated the year of the birth of Christ using all the data available to him. He calculated Jesus' birth as occurring in the 753rd year of the Roman empire, which we now call the year 1 AD. This method of dating the year was not generally accepted for hundreds of years, but has been nearly universally adopted today.

The bible tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, and a contemporary historian, Flavius Josephus, tells us that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the moon. The likely eclipses were:
  • Two total eclipses in 5 BC
  • A partial eclipse in March, 4 BC
  • A total eclipse in January, 1 BC
It is commonly believed today that the eclipse of 4 BC was the one Josephus mentioned, which means Jesus had to have been born before that. Generally 5 to 7 BC is cited. However, some sources claim that this notion is due to an error made in 1544, and Josephus was actually describing the 1 BC eclipse. In support of that theory, Josephus notes that Herod came into power in the year of the consulship of Agrippa and Gallus, which would be 37 BC, and he reigned for 37 years.

The distinction is important in modern theories of the Star of Bethlehem, which will be another post.


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