nearer the truth with the years 3 or 2 B.C. (see Irenaeus, Haer. 111. xxi. 3 [xxiv. 2]; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. i. 21, p. 147; Hippolytus, in Danielem, iv. ed. Bonwetsch, p. 242; [Tertullian], adv. Judaeos, 8). What may be called the received chronology during the last two centuries has pushed the date farther back to 4 B.C. But the considerations now to be adduced make it probable that the true date is earlier still.
(a) Evidence of St Matthew’s Gospel (i. 18-ii. 22).—The birth of Christ took place before the death of Herod, and the evidence of Josephus fixes the death of Herod, with some approach to certainty, in the early spring of 4 B.C. Josephus, indeed, while he tells us that Herod died not long before Passover, nowhere names the exact year; but he gives four calculations which serve to connect Herod’s death with more or less known points, namely, the length of Herod’s own reign, both from his de jure and from his de facto accession, and the length of the reigns of two of his successors, Archelaus and Herod Philip, to the date of their deposition and death respectively. The various calculations are not quite easy to harmonize, but the extent of choice for the year of Herod’s death is limited to the years 4 and 3 B.C., with a very great preponderance of probability in favour of the former. How long before this the Nativity should be placed the Gospel does not enable us to say precisely, but as Herod’s decree of extermination included all infants up to two years of age, and as a sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt of unknown length intervened between the massacre and Herod’s death, it is clear that it is at least possible, so far as the evidence of this Gospel goes, that the birth of Christ preceded Herod’s death by as much as two or three years. What is thus shown to be possible would, of course, be necessary if we went on, with the astronomer Kepler, to identify the star of the Magi with the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn which occurred, in the constellation Pisces, in May, October and December of 7 B.C.
(b) Evidence of St Luke’s Gospel (ii. 1-8).—The birth of Christ took place at the time of a general census of the empire ordered by Augustus: “it was the first census, and was made at the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Against this account it has been urged that we know that the governorship of Syria from 10 or 9 B.C. down to and after Herod’s death was held successively by M. Titius, C. Sentius Saturninus, and P. Quintilius Varus; and further, that when Judaea became a Roman province on the deposition of Archelaus in A.D. 6, Quirinius was governor of Syria, and did carry out an elaborate census. The notice in the Gospel, it is suggested, grew out of a confused recollection of the later (and only historical) census, and is devoid of any value whatever. At the other extreme Sir W. M. Ramsay (Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?, 1898, pp. 149 ff.) defends the exact accuracy of St Luke’s “first census” as witnessing to the (otherwise of course unknown) introduction into Syria of the periodic fourteen years’ census which the evidence of papyri has lately established for Egypt, at least from A.D. 20 onwards. Reckoning back from A.D. 20, the periodic census should fall in 9 B.C., but Ramsay alleges various causes for delay, which would have postponed the actual execution of the census till 7 B.C., and supposes that Quirinius was an imperial commissioner specially appointed to carry it out. The truth seems to rest midway between these extremes. St Luke’s statement of a general census is in all probability erroneous, and the introduction of the name Quirinius appears to be due to confusion with the census of A.D. 6. But the confusion in question would only be possible, or at any rate likely, if there really was a census at the time of the Nativity; and it is no more improbable that Herod should have held, or permitted to be held, a local census than that Archelaus of Cappadocia in the reign of Tiberius (Tacitus, Ann. vi. 41) should have taken a census of his own native state “after the Roman manner.” But St Luke’s account, when the name of Quirinius is subtracted from it, ceases to contain any chronological evidence.
(c) Evidence of Tertullian.—Strangely enough, however, the missing name of the governor under whom the census of the Nativity was carried out appears to be supplied by an author who wrote more than a century after St Luke, and has by no means a good reputation for historical trustworthiness. Tertullian, in fact (adv. Marcionem, iv. 19), employs against Marcion’s denial of the true humanity of Christ the argument that it was well known that Sentius Saturninus carried out a census under Augustus in Judaea, by consulting which the family and relationships of Christ could have been discovered. This Saturninus was the middle one of the three governors of Syria named above, and as his successor Varus must have arrived by the middle of 6 B.C. at latest (for coins of Varus are extant of the twenty-fifth year of the era of Actium), his own tenure must have fallen about 8 and 7 B.C., and his census cannot be placed later than 7 or 7–6 B.C. The independence of Tertullian’s information about this census is guaranteed by the mere fact of his knowledge of the governor’s name; and if there was a census about that date, it would be unreasonable not to identify it with St Luke’s census of the Nativity.
The traditional Western day for the Christmas festival, 25th December, goes back as far as Hippolytus, loc. cit.; the traditional Eastern day, 6th January, as far as the Basilidian Gnostics (but in their case only as a celebration of the Baptism), mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, loc. cit.
2. The interval between the Nativity and the Baptism.
Evidence of St Luke’s Gospel (iii. 23).—At the time of his baptism Jesus was ἀρχόμενος ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα, of which words two opposite misinterpretations must be avoided: (i.) ἀρχόμενος does not mean (as Valentinian interpreters thought, Iren. 11. xxii. 5 [xxxiii. 3]; so also Epiphanius, Haer. li. 16) “beginning to be thirty years” in the sense of “not yet quite thirty,” but “at the beginning of His ministry,” as in Luke xxiii. 5; Acts i. 22, x. 37; (ii.) ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα does not mean “on attaining the full age of thirty, before which he could not have publicly taught,” for if there was by Jewish custom or tradition any minimum age for a teacher, it was not thirty, but forty (Bab. Talm. ed. 1715, fol. 19 b; Iren. loc cit.). St Luke’s phrase is a general one, “about thirty years old,” and cannot be so pressed as to exclude some latitude in either direction.
3. The date of the Baptism.
(a) Evidence of St Luke’s Gospel (iii. 1).—A terminus a quo for the Baptism is the synchronism of the commencement of the Baptist’s public ministry with the fifteenth year of the rule (ἡγεμονία) of Tiberius. Augustus died on 19th August A.D. 14, and, reckoned from that point, Tiberius’s fifteenth year might be, according to different methods of calculation, either A.D. 28, or 28–29, or 29. But any such result would be difficult to reconcile with the results yielded by other lines of investigation in this article; among alternative views the choice seems to lie between the following:—(i.) The years of Tiberius are here reckoned from some earlier starting-point than the death of his predecessor—probably from the grant to him of co-ordinate authority with Augustus over the provinces made in A.D. 11 (see, for the parallel with the case of Vespasian and Titus, Ramsay, St Paul the Roman Traveller, p. 387), so that the fifteenth year would be roughly A.D. 25; or (ii.) St Luke has made here a second error in chronology, caused perhaps in this case by reckoning back from the Crucifixion, and only allowing one year to the ministry of Christ.
(b) Evidence of St John’s Gospel (ii. 13, 20).—A terminus ad quem for the Baptism is the synchronism of the first Passover mentioned after it with the forty-sixth year of the building of Herod’s Temple. Herod began the Temple in the eighteenth year of his reign, probably 20–19 B.C., and the Passover of the forty-sixth year is probably that of A.D. 27. While too much stress must not be laid on a chain of reasoning open to some uncertainty at several points, it is difficult to suppose with Loisy, Quatrième Évangile, 1903, p. 293, that the number was intended
- It is a curious coincidence that a medieval Jew, R. Abarbanel (Abrabanel), records that the conjunction of these particular planets in this particular constellation was to be a sign of Messiah’s coming. It is just conceivable that his statement may ultimately depend on some such ancient tradition as may have been known to Chaldaean magi.