When was Jesus born?

By Stephanie Ismer

Whatever their theological bent, historians agree that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who was born, baptized, and crucified. Based on the information in numerous non-Christian Jewish and Greco-Roman documents, His existence is historically verifiable. If these documents are compared to one another, an approximate timeline of Jesus' life can also be established, with or without the biblical record. Based on their research, scholars conclude that Jesus was born somewhere between 6 and 4 BC.

The death of Herod the Great, king of Judea between 37 and 4 BC, is a major clue for historians attempting to pinpoint the year when Jesus was born. Historians agree that Herod died in 4 BC, placing Jesus' birth sometime before that. Still, there are nearly 33 years of Herod's reign during which Jesus' birth may have occurred, if we go only by this detail. The Bible records the infanticide Herod decreed in Bethlehem in his attempt to eliminate the threat of a newborn Jewish ruler (Matthew 2:16–18). However, there is no extrabiblical historical record of this infanticide, and Matthew does not give the date. It could be that secular historians deemed the event too insignificant to be recorded (there may have been as few as 20 children of that age living in the small village of Bethlehem at the time).

Providing another clue on when Jesus was born is first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who makes a reference to the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist (cf. Matthew 14:1–12). Based on the details surrounding the Baptist's time in prison and the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, which John the Baptist preached against just before his execution, historians place the death of John at AD 31—32. Josephus also tells us that Jesus was crucified, as the Bible records, at the order of Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor of Judea between AD 26 and 37.

If Jesus was born, at the latest, 4 BC, and died, at the latest, AD 37, that would make Him (at the absolute outside) 41 years old at His death. Adding in the biblical records allows us to narrow the window even further. The Jews of Jesus' day make a reference to their temple being in its 46th year of construction (John 2:20). Scholars estimate this year to be around AD 27—29, which would agree with Luke's detail that Jesus was "about thirty years of age" when He began His ministry (Luke 3:23).

If Jesus was around thirty years old in AD 27—29, and we know that His birth occurred before 4 BC, that would put His birth, at the earliest, around 6 BC—any earlier would make Him between 35 and 40 years old in Luke 3:23, at which point He could no longer be considered "about thirty." Despite the inability of scholars to pinpoint exact dates, it is reasonable from these facts to conclude that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BC, during the last few years of the reign of Herod the Great.

Image Credit: Steve Harwood; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsCelebrating-Holidays  | Controversial-Issues  | History-Apologetics  | Jesus-Christ

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Published 12-19-14