Friday, November 23, 2012

When Was Jesus Born?

A new book by Pope Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, has caught the attention of the media and, consequently, has generated quite a few questions. In the book, the Pope acknowledges what scholars have long known; namely, that our current dating scheme is off by anywhere from 4 to 6 years. To put a finer point on it, Jesus was not born in AD 1 as most assume (since AD is a Latin abbreviation for Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” it is assumed that Jesus would have been born in the year AD 1, the first “year of the Lord”); Jesus was likely born sometime around 4 to 6 BC (“Before Christ”). How can that be?

The current dating schema used by most peoples today (not all! The Chinese, Jews, and others yet use different dating schemes) dates only to the 6th cent. AD when a Schythian monk named Dionysus Exiguus (“Dennis the Small” in English) first proposed using the birth of Christ to divide time into epochs determined by what he considered to be the seminal event of history; namely, the birth of Jesus the Christ. Previously, most peoples employed a relative dating scheme; that is, events were dated relative to their proximity to some well-known significant event. For example, in Isaiah 6, Isaiah dates his vision by dating it relative to the death of the king ("In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD"), presumably because everybody would know and remember when the king died. We still do that to some extent. I still remember where I was on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. So it is conceivable to date things relative to that event: “Five years after President Kennedy died, I graduated from high school.” Of course, such a relative dating scheme would be somewhat provincial and circumscribed; only those with a shared history would know the events and date things relative to them. That is, it would not be a universal dating scheme.

The only universal (though not exclusively so) accepted dating scheme in the 6th cent. AD was dating things relative to the founding of the city of Rome, called in Latin, ab urbe condita, literally, "from the founding of the City," (that is, Rome). It was abbreviated in Latin by the letters AUC. The traditional date for the founding of Rome was April 21, 753 BC, proposed by Varro (a first cent. BC Roman scholar who devised a chronology for dating Roman history up to his time), who dated the founding of Rome relative to the ascendency of the Roman consulars. Hence, the year of the first consuls was 245 ab urbe condita, according to Varro, which meant that the first consul was appointed 245 years after the founding of Rome. From this, Varro deduced that Rome was founded in the year 753 BC which, in this dating scheme, equated to 1 AUC. Dionysus, when he proposed dating events relative to the birth of Christ (Anno Domini or AD), first had to align Christ's birth with its date in AUC (relative to the founding of the city of Rome). He dated Christ's birth at 754 AUC which he equated to 1 Anno Domini (AD). However, virtually all scholars now recognize that Dionysius made a four year mistake. He dated Christ's birth ( AD 1) four years later than it should have been.

We know this primarily because we know when Herod the Great died (March/April 750 AUC or 4 BC), and Herod the Great was still alive when Jesus was born. Hence, Jesus could not have been born later than 750 AUC, or in our current dating scheme, 4 BC. Our chief evidence for this dating of Herod's death is the testimony of the first century Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, who states in his Antiquities (Book 17, chp. 8) that Herod the Great died during a lunar eclipse. A partial lunar eclipse took place on March 13, 4 BC (the year 4710 of the old Julian calendar), and most scholars take this eclipse as the one to which Josephus referred. (There is, however, some debate about this in that there were also total eclipses which took place in 5 BC and 1 BC respectively, and, therefore, scholars allow for a 4-5 year variance on the dating of Herod's death.) In any case, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod was alive when Jesus was born. Hence, Jesus could not have been born in AD 1 as Dionysus proposed. On the best dating evidence we have, he must have been born somewhere between 4 and 6 BC (owing to the fact that, according to Matthew, Herod tried to kill Jerusalem's babies 2 years of age and younger as a way of eliminating Jesus).

And so, Jesus was born 4 to 6 years "Before Christ,” rather than in AD 1, as most assume. The good news is that it really does’t make any substantive difference, either to chronology or Christology. The bad news is that you’re four years older than you thought!

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