When I was a child, I (like most children of Christian parents) was told that Jesus was born on December 25th in 1 A.D. This remains a common belief even among adults, but what reason do we have to believe it?
There has been speculation from many different people about potential birth dates of Jesus, so much in fact that depending on who you ask it could be in any month of the year, but the truth is that we just don’t have very good evidence to place it at any specific time.
What is much more difficult to figure out is the year. It is difficult because the Bible gives information which can be historically dated to determine approximately when Jesus should have been born, but unfortunately for people who believe the Bible contains no errors, the historically verifiable facts simply do not match up.
To Egypt or not to Egypt?
In Matthew, Jesus and his family stay in Bethlehem for up to two years, and then in order to escape the "Massacre of the Innocents" they flee to Egypt where they stay until Herod dies. After all of this they finally come back and resettle in Nazareth.
In contrast Luke has Jesus taken to Jerusalem when he is just over a month old, and then the family returns to their home in Nazareth. There is no mention of the "flight to Egypt", and in fact no room for it in Luke’s time line.
There is no need to go through every point here, as those who are interested can read The Date of the Nativity in Luke, a very thorough dissection of this issue done by Richard Carrier, however it is worth mentioning some of the most basic facts.
- Herod The Great died in 4 BCE.
- Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE.
- The first Roman census of Judea happened in 6 CE. Prior to that, Judea was not under direct Roman control.
- Matthew claims that Jesus was born when Herod was still alive, and elements of his account such as "The Massacre of the Innocents" place Jesus’s birth significantly before Herod’s death.
- Luke claims that Jesus was born during Quirinius’s census of Syria, which as of 6 CE included Judea. This is the reason for Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem in his account.
- Jesus could not have been born both in 6 CE and before 4 BCE.
If anyone can read through Richard Carrier’s work and still find a reasonable way to reconcile these dates, please let us (and more importantly him) know.
Unless someone manages to do that, we can only conclude that if Matthew and Luke are attempting to accurately describe the birth of a real historical person, they simply got their facts wrong. Perhaps it is more likely though, given these and other discrepancies in their stories, that the authors of the gospels were writing fanciful accounts of the birth of their religion’s messiah and putting in the details which they thought would be most appealing to their particular audiences.
In either case, given these seemingly irreconcilable differences, we simply have no way of knowing when Jesus might have been born.