Today Christians all over the world, and millions who are not christian but welcome the excuse for a celebration, remember the birth of Jesus. Seven years ago we also celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of that birth: however, there is some doubt over which year Jesus was actually born.
Anyone with no interest in either religion or historial detective stories should probably skip this post, and let me just wish you a Happy Christmas. But I find it an interesting intellectual exercise to look through the evidence and try to work out when Jesus was actually born.
It's extremely probable that the actual date was between 8 B.C. and 6 A.D. - in other words this year is the last of the likely dates for the real second millennium. It could be this Christmas which is the actual 2000th anniversary.
Prior to the reforms introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582, when he corrected the errors in the calendar brought in by Julius Caesar, the idea of a universal system of dating barely existed. Most people counted dates from the founding of their city, or according to how many years the current monarch had been reigning, or by some similar method. These systems are very hard to collate, and it can be extremely difficult to compare dates of events in neighbouring kingdoms or to establish exactly when ancient events happened.
Ironically, although Pope Gregory's estimate of the year of Jesus's birth now provides the foundation of our entire system of dating, it is fairly unlikely that he got the year precisely right. To work out when Jesus might have been born, we have to consider the known dates of two monarchs and two roman governors: Herod the Great, Herod Archelus, Quirinius, and Pontius Pilate. Two of the four gospels, those of Matthew and Luke, contain accounts of the birth of Jesus: the accounts are very similar but the dates inferred by references to these four rulers do not quite match, and neither correspond to Pope Gregory's dates.
The gospel according to St Matthew, and one very old version of Luke's gospel in which one name is different from the draft usually accepted today, suggest that Jesus was born between 8 B.C. and 5 B.C. while the usually accepted version of St Luke's gospel suggests that he was born in 6 A.D.
Both gospels refer to the birth of Jesus as taking place in the time of "Herod the King." All six of the princes who governed parts of Palestine as client rulers under Roman authority between 37 B.C. and 93 A.D. had "Herod" as one of their names, so there is some potential for confusion about which ruler is meant when the name is used in the bible.
The compiler of Matthew's gospel clearly intended the expression "Herod the King" to refer to Herod the Great. After the death of this ruler, the romans divided the kingdom between three of his sons, Herod Archelus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip, none of whom had the title of King. Matthew's gospel also refers to Archelus as the son of the King Herod in whose reign Jesus was born.
We can be fairly certain that the Herod who put John the Baptist to death and who sent Jesus back to Pilate was Herod Antipas. The dates match, and the Jewish historian Josephus states that Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist (and severely criticises Herod for the killing.) But it is not quite so easy to be certain which was the Herod in whose reign Jesus was born.
Records state that Herod the Great died of a particularly nasty medical condition shortly after a lunar eclipse. We have the advantage over Pope Gregory, in that modern astronomers have calculated the dates of both past and future eclipses: the eclipse a few days before Herod died must have been on 23rd March 5 B.C. pm or 13th March 4 B.C, probably the latter.
So if Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great he cannot have been born in the year which our calendar is based on: if Matthew's Gospel is right then Jesus was born between about 8 B.C. and at the latest 4 B.C.
However, this date is not consistent with the currently favoured text of St Luke's Gospel.
St Luke refers to the birth of Jesus as being in Bethlehem because his mother's husband, Joseph, had to go there for a census. The currently approved draft of the gospel refers to this as "the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria."
The significance of the governor of Syria in this context is that this was the official who supervised the client kings in the area on behalf of Rome. During the period when Judea was run by Roman Prefects such as Pontius Pilate, they reported to the Governor of Syria.
The life of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is fairly well documented in Roman records. After being consul in Rome in 12 B.C. he went to the middle east to put down a rebellion and held various senior positions over the following 20 years. He was governor of Syria from 6 A.D. until 9 A.D. and there was indeed a census (mentioned in history because it was unpopular enough to spark an uprising) at the start of his period in this office.
So if Luke's gospel is right, Jesus was born in 6 A.D. In this case the Herod who ruled at the time of his birth would have to have been Herod Archelus, who ruled Judea and Samaria from the death of Herod the Great until he was sacked by the Romans in 6 A.D.
This is a much later date than is usually assumed for the birth of Jesus, but Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 A.D. to 36 A.D. so birth in 6 A.D. would still give Jesus time to grow to manhood by the time Pilate was in office. Luke's gospel gives the start of John the Baptist's witness as "The 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" which means 29 A.D. If he was born in 6 A.D. Jesus would have been 23 in that year.
Not surprisingly there have been various attempts to explain the apparent contradiction between Matthew's and Luke's gospels. One theory holds that Quirinius might have had some previous authority over Syria before his formal appointment as governor of Syria in 6 A.D.
As Quirinius was a former Consul and held various senior commands in the middle east from 10 B.C. onwards, it is not entirely impossible that he might have been given some such authority during one of his campaigns. The theory goes that there might have been an earlier census during that period.
I am, however, dubious about this idea: if Quirinius was given any authority over Syria while he was suppressing the Homanadensians' rebellion from 10 B.C. to 7 B.C, it would have been as a military commander in chief for the area. Since it was not unknown for a census to provoke revolts - as the 6 A.D. one did - you would think that a military commander who already had one major rebellion on his hands would not want to risk further trouble by organising a census in the provinces surrounding his main area of operations.
Another possible explanation concerns an alternative draft of Luke's Gospel. A copy has survived of a version of this gospel belonging to Tertullian, a North African Christian who lived about 200 A.D. His version appears to have the name 'Saturnius' as governor, instead of Quirinius. And there was indeed a Saturnius who was governor of Syria from 8 B.C. to 6 B.C.
Now it is possible, and was assumed by the scholars who compiled the bible as we currently use it, that Tertullian's version of Luke's Gospel was in error on this point. But suppose that his version is right and the other drafts were wrong.
If Saturnus was the governor of Syria who should have been referred to, and if he held a census the year after Quirinus had put down the rebellion in the neighbouring province of Asia, that would give a date for the birth of Jesus of 6 B.C. which lines up perfectly with St Matthew's Gospel.
So to sum up, the two most likely dates for tbe birth of Jesus are 6 B.C. and 6 A.D. If the former is right, we celebrated the Millenium six years too late: if the latter, we celebrated seven years too early, and should instead be marking the 2000th anniversary of Jesus's birth today. I do not claim to know which is right. But I hope the possibility that this is a very special anniversary gives you every excuse to have a very special and happy Christmas.