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The Night when Christ was Born

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Pope Benedict XVI made headlines at the end of November 2012, by publishing a book that stated Dionysius Exiguus (the 6th century monk, and originator of the Christian calendar): “made a mistake in his calculations by several years. The actual date of Jesus birth was several years before.” But this was not shocking to historians. While few question the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth (he is one of the most attested figures in ancient Greco-Roman literature), there is much dispute over the exact date of his birth.

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In the ancient Greco-Roman world, bios (an ancient form of biography) typically focused on the figure as an adult. Thankfully, we have some information on the death of Christ. The Gospels place his death on a Passover, before the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Since Luke places the beginning of Jesus ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar, we can use that to see which Passover(s) landed on a Friday. By factoring in the length of Jesus ministry (around three and one-half years), we find two Passovers that fall within that time-frame. We conclude it is likely Christ’s death happened in 30, or 33 A.D.

But when do we place his birth? The Gospels narrate Joseph traveling with a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, in order to register for (or before) a census under the reign of Quirinius, governor of Syria. In addition to this, Herod the Great is said to have been ruler in Judea. Herod died soon after this (around 5 B.C.). By looking at secular records, this limits the birth of Christ to a time between 2 and 5 B.C.

Can we go further? When looking back at ancient history, it is common for historians to allow wiggle-room of a few years for a date. This makes room for errors and ambiguities in ancient calendars and records. Nevertheless, let us try. For what it’s worth, Clement of Alexandria (an early Christian writer living around 200 A.D.) gives us a more precise date. We assume he was using the Egyptian calendar (after all, he was an Egyptian). This gives us a date of January 6th, 2 B.C. But Hippolytus (a Christian writer living in the early third-century), gives another tradition. In the De Pascha Computus, he claims Christ was born on the Passover. An ancient statue erected in his honor states the date of Jesus birth is April 2nd. The Jewish Passover always falls near this date on the Latin calendar. However, there may be another ancient connection between Hanukkah (the Feast of Lights), and the birth of Messiah (who claimed “I Am the Light of the World”, in John 8:12). The 25th of Kislev (a month in the Jewish Babylonian calendar), is the beginning of this celebration. Amazingly, in 4 B.C. this landed on January 6th. Could this help to explain why the Latin Church eventually claimed the date was December 25th (in the fourth century)?

We cannot say for sure. But we can say this: “One man considers one day more sacred than another, another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord…You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:5-6, 10). Every day was made by God. The question is, what do we do with it?

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