Each of us leaves our mark in history. Most only make a small, shallow line for our family and friends to notice. A few leave deep grooves on which countless other marks line up. Whether you are a believer or not, the historical figure of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of these. Much of the Western world as we know it has been shaped by its life and the stories people tell about it, its philosophy of life (as we know it, of course) and a religion that others have. built around it.
One of the most used calendars in the world today – the Gregorian calendar – is timed from that person’s birth. He separates the story into two main parts: BC, “before Christ”, and AD, “anno Domini”, loosely meaning “year of the Lord”. The birth of Jesus is obviously when we move in between.
At least that’s the theory. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus was not born on what we consider to be the 1st anno Domini. With that in mind, however, “the best of our knowledge” on this topic is pretty muddy. So roll up your sleeves and let’s dive into it.
Adjust for glory
For starters, although Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas (December 25), we’re pretty sure that’s not when it happened. But we can’t tell when it happened for sure, Is. Part of the problem is that Jesus was not born famous, so no one bothered to record the exact date. There is also the problem that our current dating system was not even invented yet when this happened, and the date equivalence between the systems is imperfect at best. Take into account the huge amount of time involved here, and accuracy is out of the question.
However, what we do know is that at one point Christianity was an outsider of religions. It was a fairly difficult battle bringing together new followers in several communities, especially those who were polytheists. This new one-god religion was just very strange to them and the customs they had. Better-off people were also wary of it, as adopting a new religion would often have a social cost. Not to mention that following the teachings that denounced slavery and despised wealth was not at the top of the list of people who enjoyed owning slaves and being rich.
In the Roman Empire, the largest community that Christianity was trying to enter at that time, these two problems were at work at the same time.
So what Christianity has done is a bit of public relations. Today Christmas is celebrated very close to the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples aligned their celebrations with significant natural events, such as the solstice. Whether this is intentional or not on their part is a very interesting question, but it is not particularly relevant at the moment. What is relevant, however, is that by changing the dates a bit, Christian customs would better reflect the pagan customs they were competing against. In other words, he would be more familiar to those he was trying to convert. It felt less like a completely new celebration, and more like an updated and redesigned celebration – and, therefore, easier to accept.
In the case of Rome, the end of December marked the beginning of the Saturnalia. It was a celebration in honor of their harvest god (Saturn) and lasted between the 17th and 23rd, roughly. Symbolically speaking, it was a good holiday to try and associate with, as it was customary for everyone to enjoy freedom during this time, so social norms would be more lax, if not outright rejected. Well, to be more precise, Saturnalia saw a reversal of his destiny.
Slave owners, for example, would dress, feed and entertain their slaves as if they were with a friend. The slaves, in turn, could voice their grievances to their masters during this time without fear of reprisal. It was a celebration meant to “reset your karma”, so to speak. Gambling was also permitted on Saturnalia and carnivals were common. In the grand scheme of things, someone celebrating Christmas would probably stand out a lot less during Saturnalia than at any other time of the year.
This is also probably where we get the custom of Christmas gifts. Romans exchanged gifts with their friends for Saturnalia, even if they were small figurines or gag items, and there was certainly no tree involved.
Of course, none of this actually proves that Christmas has been shifted in the calendar to make it more palatable to the pagans. But it is very likely, because we see too many coincidences. Another proof that the date of December 25 is not faithful to the historical date of Jesus’ birth is that the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire set the date for Christmas as January 6. If one church can change the date, why can’t another?
The subject of the origin of the Christmas date is much broader than what I would like to address here, but the Washington post has a nice breakdown of it here.
Not exactly on time
So we already know that the date of birth is probably offset, although we don’t know by how much. The thing to keep in mind here is that the texts that make up books such as the Gospel were not written while Jesus was there, by people who were around him. They were written some time later – often, a very long time later – by people working primarily through hearsay. This is not a review on their part, it is just the product of a day when writing was still a rare skill, and by the course of the time.
This material was also heavily curated, edited, tweaked, and cleaned up by (probably) well-meaning but (in my opinion) extremely biased and damaging individuals as Christianity evolved into a mainstream religion. A mainstream religion, after all, needs to have texts suitable for the general public, and working in the media, I can assure you that the first copy is never that. Large parts of the original Bible were taken out, and what was left was rearranged and reformulated to better fit individual agendas. It was an ongoing process, not a single event, as most people who sought power through religion wanted a bible that would fit their story better than anyone else’s.
But we’re going to turn the other cheek at that. I’m not telling you all this to invalidate anybody’s faith. If you believe, you believe. Personally, I don’t. But I think we can all agree, no matter which side of that fence we are on, that understanding the real historical facts of history is a quest worth taking. We are, after all, talking about one of the most influential people in the West, and possibly the world.
I am also telling you all this so that you understand why I do not particularly trust the texts themselves for the answers. They have been maintained by people, and people are both fallible and biased. We’re also talking about thousands of years here, so there was probably a lot of faulty and biased behavior involved. In other words, the texts themselves are not a reliable source if what you are looking for is to understand what happened and when precisely. Not only that, but they are religious texts; they were never meant to preserve chronology, But theology. The dates are not as important as the message, as far as they are concerned.
Back to the year
Although religious texts are unreliable as direct sources, they provide useful context. Context that we can then oppose to what we know from historical documents and archaeological excavations to hopefully get to the truth.
One of the first attempts in this regard was to date the birth of Jesus using the figure of Herod. In the Bible, shortly after Herod’s death, the new ruler of Judea orders that all male children under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem (where Jesus was born) be killed. The good news here is that we have a rough timeline of Herod’s death: circa 4 BC. The bad news is that this is not a reliable date and the rest of the story also seems to be made up. Yet, if we take them at face value, Jesus was probably born between the years 6 and 4 BC.
History also maintains that the birth of Jesus was heralded by a star – the Star of Bethlehem. It has been proposed that this star was actually a slow comet, a comet that Chinese observers recorded around 5 BC. they could be the same ”. This is not necessarily a bad conclusion, but it is certainly not proof.
Reasonable theology made a valiant effort to estimate the date of birth of Jesus mainly drawing inspiration from the scriptures here (it’s quite an interesting read). I’m not very familiar with everything in the Bible so I’m going to have to take their word for it, but the conclusion they draw from several passages is that Jesus was born between 6 and 5 BC. with the previous estimate and is somewhat more reliable as it links the events that take place in history to historical figures such as Emperor Caesar Augustus and Governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who are somewhat entrenched in the history.
It also loosely matches the inscription Aemilius Secundus, a tablet discovered 300 years ago in Beirut, Lebanon, which tells of a census ordered by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, in 12 BC, according to biblical scholar Jim Fleming. This census is mentioned in the texts, although different gospels disagree on whether Jesus was born before or after.
However, there is reason to believe that Herod actually died around the year 1 BC, which would put the birth of Jesus around the year 3 BC.
All things considered, we can say with some certainty that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BC, and with less certainty that it happened a few years later. But everyone is pretty confident that he – ironically – was not born in “the Lord’s first year”.
Since we cannot yet know exactly when this happened, this little incongruity will have to last a little longer. That being said, our calendars are designed in such a way that practical matters such as historical events or annual tax records can be kept in an organized fashion that future generations can always use, should they need to. Although we think of the years as before or after Christ, they are first and foremost a chronological tool, not a theological a.