Some Questions in Gospel Chronology

1. Jesus' Birth

First it should be said that Jesus was not born in 1 CE. The calendar for the Common Era is the result of the work of a sixth-century legist and chronologist named Dionysius Exiguus (in English Dennis the Puny or perhaps Dennis the Slender). In drawing up an Easter table (a table used to determine the dates on which Easter would fall annually in a given span of time), he pioneered the use of a new way to designate a date: in addition to giving the names of the men that had served in the office of consul in the year in which he was writing, a standard method of dating for the Roman world until the end of the Roman Empire, he also gave the number of years that he reckoned had passed since the Incarnation of Christ. This established year 1 of the new system as the year of the incarnation. It was not a new calendar, per se; the civil year continued to begin in January and end in December, and its length was calculated in accordance with the Julian calendar (established by Julius Caesar but fatally off in its idea about the true length of a year). The basis of Dionysius' calculation is not known, but he was clearly wrong as far as the date of Jesus' birth is concerned, when we look at the evidence in the gospels.

Mark and John show no interest in Jesus' birth or childhood and start their narratives with his emergence into public ministry. Matthew and Luke however offer birth and infancy narratives. Let us look at each in turn and then see how they may be combined, if at all.

The first mention of Jesus' birth in Matthew's Gospel contains no dating information (Mt 1.18-25, the story of Joseph's reaction to learning of Mary's pregnancy). The second mention, in the story of the Magi, gives several dating clues. First of all, Matthew's narrative is set after Jesus's birth and in the time of Herod the Great, who reigned from 37 or 36 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. It describes the actions of a group of 'magoi', magi, that is, astrologer-magicians from Persia: in the East they see a star at its rising which they identify with the king of the Jews; they then travel to Jerusalem to ask King Herod where the child born king of the Jews is, so that they can pay him homage. When asked, the chief priests and scribes tell Herod that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem according to the prophets (specifically Micah 5.2, which is quoted). So Herod finds out secretly when the star rose and then sends the magi to Bethlehem with instructions to return and tell him when they find the child-king so that he too can pay homage.

We the readers, knowing the reputation of Herod the Great, are not surprised to learn that they are warned in a dream not to comply with this request and return to their homeland by a different route than they had come, after visiting the child and his family. Then Joseph is told in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt because Herod planned to destroy the child. After Herod realised he had been tricked by the Magi, he ordered all the male children two years old or under in Bethlehem killed. Obedient to the warning he received, Joseph remained in Egypt with his family until another dream told him that Herod had died and it was safe to return. Even so, he did not return to Bethlehem but settled in Galilee.

What do we learn from this account? First of all, the word used to describe the child Jesus throughout this account, both before the departure to and after the return from Egypt, is 'paidion', normally used to refer to a child under seven. Second, that he may have been as old as two when Joseph relocated the family to Egypt and therefore their time in Egypt was not long, no more than four years or five at the most. So Jesus could have been as young as a year old or as old as six when Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, depending on how old he was when the trip to Egypt took place and how long they stayed there. Thus he could have been born anytime between 10 and 5 BCE.

These deductions depend in part on the story of the Star that the Magi saw at its rising, because it was their account of the time of the Star's rising that led Herod to assume that the child could have been as old as two. Likely they told him the Star's rising had been two years earlier and he assumed that meant the rising of the Star was contemporaneous with the child's birth. Is the Star of Bethlehem a reliable guide? Many if not most exegetes are dubious about the very existence of the Star but astronomers and historians of science still have looked for celestial events in the latter years of the reign of Herod the Great that might underlie such a story and have found candidates in the range of 7 to 5 BCE. For example, Mark Kidger (in The Star of Bethlehem (Princeton, 1999)) argued for a nova in the spring of 5 BCE, preceded by other celestial portents in 7 and 6; Michael Molnar (in The Star of Bethlehem (New Brunswick, NJ, 1999)) proposed a lunar occultation of Jupiter in the spring of 6 BCE; and Nick Strobel ('The Star of Bethlehem', accessed 2013/03/04) suggested planetary conjunctions in 7 and 6 BCE.

Thus, if we accept either that the story of the Magi is historical or that an account of some actual celestial phenomenon underlies the story, we can narrow down the possible dates to 7-5 BCE on the basis of Matthew's Gospel. If not, the best we can say is that Jesus was born between 10 and 5 BCE, on the basis of the use of the word 'paidion' to describe him at the time of Herod the Great's death.

Luke's Gospel, which appears to provide some of the most careful dating among the four gospels, actually offers contradictory information. The first mention in Luke of Jesus' birth is provided indirectly, through his account of the birth of John the Baptist in chapter 1. There he says that John was born in the days of King Herod of Judaea, that is, Herod the Great who, as we have seen, reigned from 37 or 36 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. In the course of this account, Luke also tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, travelled to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, shortly after the Annunciation. Upon Mary's arrival, Elizabeth felt her child moving in the womb; so according to this section of Luke, John the Baptist and Jesus were probably born about 6 months apart and in the reign of Herod the Great.

In the well-known account of Jesus' birth in Lk 2 we are told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the 'first registration' ordered by Augustus Caesar when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This date is problematic: Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6-12 CE. This is incompatible with Luke's earlier date of John the Baptist's (and hence Jesus') birth as during the reign of Herod the Great. It is also incompatible with Luke's later statement (Lk 3.23) that Jesus was around 30 when he began his ministry after his baptism by John and John's arrest, since that would mean he began his ministry in 36 CE, a year by which, according to Josephus, John the Baptist was already dead.

Attempts have been made to 'rehabilitate' Luke's statement by, for example, reinterpreting grammar of the Greek text in Lk 2.2 or proposing that Quirinius was governor of Syria more than once, at the time of more than one census. However most scholars have concluded that Luke is simply mistaken in associating the birth of Jesus here with the census of 6 CE. So in the end, Luke does not really help in answering the question, when was Jesus born. The best answer we can give seems to be one based on the statements in Matthew: likely between 7 and 5 BCE.

Although, as I said above, John shows no interest in telling about Jesus' birth or infancy, like Luke and Matthew, he does make two statements that may have bearing on the question of when Jesus was born. They are in Jn 2.19-21 (Jesus answered and said to them, 'Demolish this temple and in three days I will raise it.' The authorities therefore said, 'This Temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it in three days!' But he was speaking about the temple of his body.) and Jn 8.56-7 (Your father Abraham greatly rejoiced at the chance to see my day, and he did see it and was glad.' Then the Jerusalemites said to him, 'You are not yet 50 years old, and you've seen Abraham?') The mention of forty-six years in Jn 2.20 has attracted attention for its possible implications for Jesus' age at the time. If Jesus is figuratively refering to his own body when he speaks of the Temple and the Temple reconstruction had been going on for forty-six years, is that reference to the age of Herod's Temple also meant as a clue to Jesus' age? This supposition gathers some support from Jn 8.57, which strongly suggests that Jesus is in his forties. The usual e stimate of his age as being in his early 30s when he was executed is based on Luke's statement that Jesus was 30 when he began to teach and heal (Lk 3.23). And as we have seen, Luke's evidence taken together with Matthew's suggests a birth date late in the last century BCE, a ballpark estimate of between 7 BCE and 5 BCE. But if Jesus was in his 40s in the spring of 28 CE (forty-six years after the start of the work on Herod's Temple) he must have been born between 19 BCE and 11 BCE.

So if we take seriously John's suggestion that Jesus was in his 40s at the time of his ministry and death, then he must have been born outside the limits suggested by most interpreters on the basis of the dating clues in Matthew and Luke. If Jesus were 46 in 28 CE, as suggested by Jn 2.20, then he must have been born in 18 BCE, though on the basis of the more vague Jn 8.57, the probable date range would be 19-11 BCE if he were in his 40s at the time that conversation likely took place. However, the lower end of this scale (birth in 11 BCE, age 40 in 29 CE) is compatible with a loose use of 'paidion', Matthew's term for the child Jesus both before and after Herod's death in 4 BCE. It is even roughly compatible with Luke's statement that Jesus was 30 when he began his ministry in 28 CE, in the sense that the whole period of the 30s and 40s was considered adulthood in the ancient schema of the stages of human life.

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