When Was Jesus Born?

When was Jesus born?  While not consequential to our salvation or daily choices, it’s an interesting question to explore.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jeffrey R. Chadwick discussed his research into the question: When was Jesus actually born?  What follows here is a co-post to that discussion (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

When a non-expert Latter-day Saints approach the question of “When was Jesus born?”, they often draw upon a traditional interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants, 20:1 to claim that it happened on 6 April.  Elder James E. Talmage’s widely read Jesus the Christ reinforces this interpretation.  As Chadwick explained:

Growing up as a Latter-day Saint boy, serving a mission, and entering service as a seminary teacher 45 years ago, it was axiomatic in our conversation that Jesus had been born on April 6th of 1 BC, as stated by Elder James E. Talmage in his classic work Jesus the Christ. …

Generally, and also quite specifically, many Latter-day Saints take at face value the statement of Elder James E. Talmage that Jesus was born on April 6 of 1 BC, a position Elder Talmage linked to the passage in Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 which notes the organization of the Church on April 6 of 1830, being that many years since the “coming of … Jesus Christ in the flesh.”

This seemed to Elder Talmage a specific dating tag pointing to April 6, 1 BC, although recent contextual studies of the background and source of D&C 20 suggest that it was not meant to be seen in this way.

Numerous general authorities and other speakers and authors have repeated the April 6 of 1 BC dating in their own teachings—and the date gained a great deal of authority throughout the twentieth century.

This assumption of April 6 is pretty widespread in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But, as Chadwick points out, there are studies that indicate that Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 that do not bear this reading out.  For example, Ben Spackman wrote an article explained that there are three things that would need to be true about Section 20 to make the statement applicable to calculating the Christ’s birth: ‘1) The function of D&C 20:1 must to be “precise calendrical data,” not “common literary convention of introduction” in use at the time. … 2) The date of the revelation must actually be April 6 … 3) D&C 20:1 must actually be revelatory, part of the revelation.’  Based on research, some of which has been made possible by the Joseph Smith Papers project, Spackman’s responses to the three points were that: 1) Contemporary individuals used similar language as literary introductions, while there are not indications that 19th century Latter-day Saints read it as a revelation of Jesus’s birthday; 2) The earliest manuscript for the revelation we have at this time dates the revelation to April 10; 3) D&C 20:1 was originally an introductory head note written by John Whitmer rather than part of the revelation proper.  These facts make it untenable to use D&C 20:1 as a proof-text to an April 6 birthday for Jesus the Christ.

Returning to the interview with Jeffrey R. Chadwick, he also gave some historical context that makes it unlikely for April to be the time of Jesus’s birth.  As Chadwick explained:

As I pursued graduate work in the historical geography and archaeology of the biblical world, it became clear to me that the April 6th notion was difficult to reconcile with well-known historical allusions in the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, as well as will aspects of the material culture and environmental context of the New Testament.

For example:

There is a suggestion that regularly circulates about Jesus having been born in the “lambing season,” which is then assigned to the springtime of the year. This is generally linked to the presence of the shepherds in the Luke 2 narrative, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

This notion, which I call the “myth of the lambing season,” has no real basis in the New Testament text, however. And the season when lambs begin to be born in the Land of Israel (anciently as well as at present) actually begins in early winter—in December, peaking around February, and tapering off to a close by early April.

So, the real “lambing season” in Israel cannot be used to favor either an April or a December birth.

He also added that:

According to almost all scholarly analyses of the references to Herod [the Great]’s death recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod died in early to mid-April of the year 4 BC.

This is a key issue in dating Jesus’ birth since Matthew chapter 2 makes it clear that Herod was alive and reigning as king of Judea at the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem. …

Jesus has to have been born in the very narrow window of time in the early winter of 5/4 BC and most probably in December of 5 BC. The reference to “two years and under” in the slaying of the innocent children of Bethlehem must be regarded as a bet-hedging expansion by Herod, or (in my own opinion) as an error in the text itself.

These notes serve as some of the examples that make it unlikely that Jesus Christ was born in April 1 B.C.E.

For more discussion on the question: “When was Jesus born?”, including a lot of discussion of different perspectives that Latter-day Saints have taken over the years, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview.

8 comments for “When Was Jesus Born?

  1. Hm, well, the interview mentions Bruce R. McConkie, and while it’s clear from it that McConkie didn’t accept the April 6 dating, Chadwick doesn’t mention that point directly in the interview. And several years ago there was an old-style FARMS review eviscerating a book that claimed to date Christ’s birth to precisely April 6. So the interview might exaggerate the degree to which this is or has been universal LDS opinion.

    The month and year seems more relevant than the precise date, but I think I disagree with Chadwick’s claim that the date is all that important. I’m not sure we have super high confidence (or much at stake) that the events relating to Christ’s birth are historical rather than literary.

  2. 3 Nephi 8:1-2 seems relevant here. Mormon had some doubt about the dating of the great storm that signified Christ’s death–perhaps his primary sources disagreed. In verse one Mormon says he’s going with “our record” (presumably Nephi’s) because we know it’s “true” because it was written by a just man as shown by the fact that he did miracles. Then in verse two he adds the caveat “if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time.”

    So Mormon is confident that the record is “true” but that apparently does not exclude the possibility of mistakes. In this context “true” presumably means something like “honest” or “accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge” not “known to be completely accurate.”

    Also, Mormon was well aware he was writing scripture, but he did not expect that the Spirit or other revelation would tell him the correct date if Nephi had gotten it wrong. It’s just not that important.

    If I understand correctly, Oliver Cowdery wrote the first version of what would become D&C 20, and he probably had no idea it would eventually become scripture (after many additions by Joseph Smith). I doubt he intended to make a claim about the date of Christ’s birth in his introduction, but even if he did it may have been a mistake and we, like Mormon, would not expect the Lord to correct it by revelation just because it became scripture later. It’s just not that important.

    Unless we make it important by asserting that modern revelation gives us the precise data of Christ’s birth and creating a faith crisis for people when they learn about the evidence suggesting it was earlier. Let’s not do that.

  3. I can tell you that if Jesus was born in he lambing season that would be in the winter. Sheep are short day breeders or photoperiod breeders as they are called by some. The ewes go into estrus in the fall as the days get shorter. Gestation lasts about 145 days. This works out well for the sheep because the little lambs are born in in the winter and leaned just in time to eat the tender grasses in the early spring. Then you can keep ewe lambs and sell or slaughter the lamb rams. It’s more likely that Jesus was born on Christmas than in April.

  4. rkt and Chad,
    I read the full article by Professor Chadwick from the link you provided. I’m aghast by it.

    1) There is no attempt to articulate a comprehensive literature review of current scholarship on the date of Jesus’ birth to benchmark the LDS perspectives given. I looked for a description of the lit review at the beginning of the article, and found his biosketch, but no concise description of his methodology. There are 60 references/notes, but it seems as thought he evidence was cherry-picked as opposed to comprehensively reviewed or considered.

    2) Since all but three of the sources cited were LDS (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Nature, and Josephus), and no comprehensive lit review was performed, the title is too broad. This article isn’t “Dating the Birth of Christ” ubiquitously, but “Dating the Birth of Christ *from Select LDS sources*”. The title should have reflected the content and been specific. (I raise a flag to the peer reviewers of BYU Studies Quarterly on this point as well. Knock, knock. There is a world outside LDS lit.)

    3) The organization of the article needs revision. For example, Joseph Smith is cited only IN THE FOOTNOTES as revealing the April 6th date, but he isn’t included in the table labeled “Dates Proposed by Latter-Day Saints for the Birth of Jesus Christ” on page 7. Leaving out Joseph Smith, the first to propose April 6, without explanation is a pretty big omission. My jaw is on the floor. Maybe the figure is actually referring to “later-propsed dates by LDS . . .” but then the title of the figure should have said so.

    4) Chadwick almost completely glosses over the whole Christmas star sign and dating technique. As we all know, the star exists in the bible as well as the BoM. But, he doesn’t address this in the body of the article, nor in the section discussing the eclipse at the time of Herod. To find mention of the star(s), you have to look for ONE small sentence in the section “length of Jesus’ life”. This isn’t a logical or helpful place to stash that factoid. Was he afraid of contradicting the star theories (from the Americas, China, Middle-East, etc.)? Even if the star theories cannot harmonize with historical record or each other, it’s important to point out the current state of this theory and its level of utility in helping us with the timeline. Maybe showing contradictions of a lack of present evidence is considered faith demoting and cause for sacking (as the next T&S posts delves into)? This seems like a strange thing to gloss over.

    5) He only cites Josephus. There were other historians, other records. Josephus isn’t the most important source material for Herod’s reign and Roman documentation. He’s a source most amateurs are aware of, but I’d expect a professor of near-eastern studies to be able to really sing here. There’s a whole world of Herodian and Roman records (one which his biosketch alludes to expertise in, but we see un-utilized in the article.) Only citing Josephus and secondary sources (most from the 19th century) seems extremely limiting.

    6) The literalness of this topic, the black- and-whiteness of it demonstrates an inability to think in multidimensional ways. Aslan (Zealot), Wotherspoon (Latter-day Faith) and many other bible scholars bring up another view point. The authors of the gospels provided non-harmonizing backgrounds regarding the birth of Jesus because their intent was not to offer cold facts like the exact date, hour and time of a birth, but to tell us WHO this Jesus was, to set the stage and begin testifying. The Nativity narratives (which differ) in the bible have come under intense scrutiny by historians of late (something he doesn’t mention, or doesn’t know.) The facts contradict each other, and can’t be used as fixed referenced for his calculations. Chadwick is unable to go where other scholars have gone, and call some of the facts in the gospels metaphorical, not literal. The authors of the gospels were telling a story of faith, not fact, per se. For example. Birthing Jesus in Bethlehem tells us something of his divinity, as does Nazareth (different places). Comparing Herod and Ramases and Jesus and Moses, tells us something else about Jesus’ divinity to a Jewish audience. Each event, each re-telling of the story with different facts and events, unfolds a story of faith and spirit to different audiences for different purposes, and one of the least important purposes was historical literalism. Maybe Chadwick isn’t willing to bring out the contradictions in the Bethlehem- tax story, but as an archeologist and scholar or Herod, he should have the scholarly integrity to bring up the contradictions. It’s ok if there is dissonance, that’s how science moves forward. If he is truly vested in a literal interpretation and has full faith in it- then lay the facts out on the line and time and further scholarship will illuminate their authenticity. But do so honestly. If, on the other hand, those contradictions lead us to new insight, what is wrong with that? Ostrich-head-in-the-sand work isn’t scholarship.

    7) What specifically is gained by writing an article scientifically pinpointing the date of Jesus’ birth? I didn’t see the relevance of this work articulated in a thesis statement or discussion. Chadwick doesn’t articulate how this research furthers the study of Jesus for LDS or non-LDS audiences. Shouldn’t the relevance be stated somewhere in the article?

    8) Chadwick doesn’t see or admit that other interpretations, especially metaphorical and narrative interpretations, could be the reason for the contradicting historical and gospel narratives. Nor does he admit that these contradictions could actually enhance our understanding of the nature of Jesus and his times. Nope. They are simple fact that have to be set straight on a shelf- untangled and de-mystified to finally see the perfect agreement. A non-literal (narrative) account in the gospels, the BoM, or LDS revelation or discussion, simply isn’t on his radar. But, a scholar would need to at least consider the fact that the authors of scripture (biblical or LDS) MAY HAVE been using narrative license to teach us on another plane, rather than reporting like Walter Cronkite on CBS. If this literary/testimonial technique had been employed by even one or a few of the gospel writers, it would be a pretty big hindrance in pinpointing literal details regarding Jesus’ historical details. Chadwick has some pretty big blind-spots, to be sure.

    -Sources: Zealot (Aslan), Frontline (4 part series on Jesus- airing now), 4 podcasts from Latter-Day Faith, etc.

  5. Thank you for the detailed review of the article, Mortimer! That’s good to know. While I am generally working from the interviews at From the Desk as part of an ongoing relationship with the site, I don’t always have the chance to read the original piece they are talking about.

    And to Jonathan’s second point, I also disagree that knowing an exact birthday is very important. It’s more of a “fun to think about” rather than a certainty I need to have in my life.

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