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The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical reference, but most biblical scholars assume a year of birth between 6 and 4 BC. The historical evidence is too incomplete to allow a definitive dating, but the year is estimated through three different approaches: (A) by analyzing references to known historical events mentioned in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, (B) by working backward from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus, and (C) astrological or astronomical alignments. The common Christian traditional dating of the birthdate of Jesus was 25 December, a date first asserted officially by Pope Julius I in 350 A.D., although this claim is dubious or otherwise unfounded. The day or season has been estimated by various methods, including the description of shepherds watching over their sheep.
The nativity accounts in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke do not mention a date or time of year for the birth of Jesus.[a] Karl Rahner states that the authors of the gospels generally focused on theological elements rather than historical chronologies.
Both Luke and Matthew associate Jesus' birth with the time of Herod the Great. Matthew 2:1 states that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king". He also implies that Jesus could have been as much as two years old at the time of the visit of the Magi, because Herod ordered the murder of all boys up to the age of two years, "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi". Matthew 2:16 In addition, if the phrase "about 30" in Luke 3:23 is interpreted to mean 32 years old, this could fit a date of birth just within the reign of Herod, who died in 4 BC.
Luke 1:5 mentions the reign of Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus, and places the birth during the Census of Quirinius, which the Jewish historian Josephus described as taking place circa AD 6 in his book Antiquities of the Jews (written c. AD 93), by indicating that Cyrenius/Quirinius' governorship of Syria began in AD 6 and a census took place during his tenure sometime between AD 6–7.[b][c] Since Herod died many years before this census, most scholars discount the census and generally accept a date of birth between 6 and 4 BC, the year in which Herod died. Tertullian believed, some two centuries later, that a number of censuses were performed throughout the Roman world under Sentius Saturninus at the same time. Some biblical scholars and commentators believe the two accounts can be harmonized, arguing that the text in Luke can be read as "registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria", i.e., that Luke was actually referring to a completely different census.[d]
Another approach to estimating the year of birth is based on an attempt to work backwards from the point when Jesus began preaching, using the statement in Luke 3:23 that he was "about 30 years of age" at that time. Jesus began to preach after being baptized by John the Baptist, and based on Luke's gospel John only began baptizing people in "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1–2), which scholars estimate would place the year at about AD 28–29. By working backwards from this, it would appear that Jesus was probably born no later than 1 BC. Another theory is that Herod's death was as late as after the January eclipse of 1 BC or even AD 1 after the eclipse that occurred in 1 December BC.
This date is independently confirmed by John's reference in John 2:20 to the Temple being in its 46th year of construction when Jesus began his ministry during Passover, which corresponds to around 27–29 AD according to scholarly estimates.
Most scholars regard the Star of Bethlehem account to be a pious fiction, of literary and theological value, rather than historical. Nonetheless, attempts have been made to interpret it as an astronomical event, which might then help date Jesus' birth through the use of ancient astronomical records, or modern astronomical calculations. The first such attempt was made by Johannes Kepler who interpreted the account to describe a Great Conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn.
University of Cambridge Professor Colin Humphreys has argued in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society that a comet in the early 5 BCE was likely the "Star of Bethlehem", putting Jesus' birth in or near April, 5 BC.
Other astronomical events have been considered, including a close planetary conjunction between Venus and Jupiter in 2 BCE.
Despite the modern celebration of Christmas in December, neither the Gospel of Luke nor Gospel of Matthew mention a season for Jesus' birth. Scholarly arguments have been made regarding whether shepherds would have been grazing their flock during the winter, with some scholars challenging a winter birth for Jesus and some defending the idea by citing the mildness of winters in Judea and rabbinic rules regarding sheep near Bethlehem before February.
Alexander Murray of History Today argues that the celebration of Christmas as the birth day of Jesus is based on a date of a pagan feast rather than historical analysis. Saturnalia, the Roman feast for Saturn, was associated with the winter solstice. But Saturnalia was held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities only up through 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and in the Roman Forum, as well as a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms. The Roman festival of Natalis Solis Invicti has also been suggested, since it was celebrated on 25 December and was associated with some prominent emperors. It is likely that such a Christian feast was chosen for Christ's marked contrast and triumph over paganism; indeed, new converts who attempted to introduce pagan elements into the Christian celebrations were sharply rebuked.
Alternatively, 25 December may have been selected owing to its proximity to the winter solstice because of its symbolic theological significance. After the solstice, the days begin to lengthen with longer hours of sunlight, which Christians see as representing the Light of Christ entering the world. This symbolism applies equally to the celebration of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on 24 June, near the summer solstice, based on John's remark about Jesus "He must increase; I must decrease." John 3:30 NRSV.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Lord's Day (Sunday) was the earliest Christian celebration and included a number of theological themes. In the 2nd century, the Resurrection of Jesus became a separate feast (now called Easter) and in the same century Epiphany began to be celebrated in the Eastern Churches on 6 January. The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated.
The earliest source stating 25 December as the date of birth of Jesus is likely a book by Hippolytus of Rome, written in the early 3rd century. He based his view on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which Hippolytus placed on 25 March, and then added nine months to calculate the date of birth. That date was then used for the Christmas celebration. 25 March would also roughly be the date of his crucifixion, which ancient Christians would have seen as confirming the date of his birth, since many people of that era held the belief that the great prophets were conceived into the afterlife on the same date they were conceived into the world. Ignacio L. Götz suggests that Jesus could have been born "in the late spring of the year because pregnancies began in the fall after the harvests were in and there was enough money for a wedding feast." John Chrysostom argued for a 25 December date in the late 4th century, basing his argument on the assumption that the offering of incense mentioned in Luke 1:8–11 refers to the offering of incense by a high priest on Yom Kippur (early October), and, as above, counting fifteen months forward. However, this was very likely a retrospective justification of a choice already made rather than a genuine attempt to derive the correct birth date. John Chrysostom also writes in his homily on the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Εἰς τὸ γενέθλιον τοῦ Σωτῆρος ἡµῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) that the date of 25 December was well known from the beginning among Westerners.
Other sources stating 25 December as the date of Jesus are:
Lastly, 25 December might be a reference to the date of the Feast of Dedication, which occurs on 25 Kislev of the Jewish calendar. This would require that early Christians simply translated Kislev directly to December.
Research done by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints generally places the birth of Jesus at some point in early- to mid- April, whereas September or late March have been suggested by theologian, biblical scholar and author Ian Paul.