Dear Theophilus: When Was Jesus Born?

Hands holding an open Bible

Dear Faculty,

When was Jesus Born?

Sincerely,

Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

I am writing to you to address the most popular question regarding when Jesus Christ was actually born. Many Christians all over the world celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day, December 25 as the day of Christ’s entrance into the world as Son of God. This date was first considered under Pope John 1 in A.D. 525, using a 365-day calendar (with a leap year) and associating it with the founding of the city of Rome. However, a miscalculation was made by the monk Dionysius that did not include the timing of the reign of Herod the Great.

The four Gospels in the New Testament give us the most evidence for the person of Christ and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give us two brief, but very well-defined birth narratives. Matthew provides us with a historical correlation with King Herod, who, while not popular with his Jewish constituents, reigned with the given title “King of the Jews.” This appointment was bestowed by Caesar Augustus (who came after the famed Antony who hung out with the lovely Cleopatra). Luke gives us a significant detail about Augustus’ reign and rules regarding the mandatory census during the time Mary was yet to be delivered. Herod reigned from 40 to 4 B.C., so many accept a date of 4 B.C. as an early date for Christ’s birth. Still, others estimate this date could be from 4 B.C. all the way to 1 B.C.

The celebration of Christmas, as a new feast in the early life of the Christian community, appears in a Roman document dated A.D. 354. It lists December 25 as “natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.”* From the biblical witness, pagan gods abounded in contrast to the one true and living God and this new feast saw opposition with a pagan festival known more officially as the Unconquered Sun, connected to what we now call the shortest day of sunlight, Winter Solstice.

December 25 is not solely Jesus’ birthday however, in the same way, that human beings celebrate anniversaries. Our Christmas observance is for worship, for giving thanks to God for his literal entrance into our fallen, sinful world. This is a one time, life-changing historical event. There is a unique purpose and all the days since that time testify to a clear trajectory of God’s plan for redeeming humankind.

These historical facts help us understand that this event is a real occurrence in history. While we may not have the precise date, we can trust the biblical witness, to know that the Christ-child came to fulfill the prophecy that Immanuel, the “with-us” God would come to save His people.

Have your own theology questions? Get your questions answered by emailing cotblog@gcu.edu using the subject line “Dear Theophilus.” To learn more about GCU’s College of Theology visit our website or use the request more information button at the top of the page. If you feel called to a life of ministry, visit our Theology and Ministry degree page.

References:

  • Birth of Jesus. (1992). In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Intervarsity Press. Jesus. (1994). In The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Part 2. Intervarsity Press. *White, James F. (2001). Introduction To Christian Worship: Third Edition. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. pg. 61-62

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