Almost everyone throughout the world celebrates Christmas. Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ, and we celebrate it on December 25. But is that really the birth date of Christ? Or was it on September 29, 2 B.C.? We are going on a genealogical treasure hunt and we will also explore a number of topics relevant to Christ’s birth. The first element we must consider is a genealogy—the genealogy of Christ. Genealogies are lists in the Bible that many of us skip over, and yet it is astonishing what they will reveal to the diligent student.
There are important questions that need to be answered. When was Jesus born? Why a virgin birth? Why was He born in Bethlehem? What makes Bethlehem so special? These topics are all worth exploring. There is also a great amount of tradition attached to the birth of Christ. It is so entrenched that even textbooks are full of traditions rather than data.
When Was Jesus Born?
Most serious Bible students realize that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Since the Bible doesn’t explicitly identify the birthday of our Lord, many scholars have developed diverse opinions as to the likely birthday of Jesus. Just what do we know about the time when Jesus was born? We know that the flocks were in an open field (Luke 2:8). That means it was not after October, because it would have been too cold. We also know that no competent Roman administrator would require registration involving travel during a season when Judea is hard to travel through and generally impassable (Matthew 24:20). Therefore, we know the time of year was not in the winter.
It is commonly presumed that Jesus was born in 4 B.C. But, this date is primarily from erroneous conclusions made by Josephus. He recorded an eclipse that was assumed to be on March 13, 4 B.C., just before Herod died. Other scholars believe that the eclipse occurred on December 29, 1 B.C.
Irenaeus, a noted apologist, was born about a century after Jesus, and he also notes that the Lord was born in the 41st year of the reign of Augustus.
We also know that considerable time elapsed between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death since the family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict to slaughter the babes in Bethlehem. They did not return until after Herod’s death (Matthew 2:15; 19-22).
According to the Magillath Ta’anith, an ancient Jewish scroll contemporary with Jesus, Herod died on January 14, 1 B.C. (there is no “0” year Between B.C. and A.D.).
Tertullian (born about 160 A.D.) stated that Augustus began to rule forty-one years before the birth of Jesus and died fifteen years after that event, on August 19, 14 A.D.1 Since Augustus began his reign in the autumn of 43 B.C., this also appears to substantiate the birthdate of 2 B.C. for Christ.
Tertullian also notes that Jesus was born twenty-eight years after the death of Cleopatra (30 B.C.), which is also consistent with a date of 2 B.C.
Eusebius (264 A.D.-340 A.D.), the Father of Church History, ascribes the birth to the 42nd year of the reign of Augustus and the 28th year from the subjection of Egypt upon the death of Anthony and Cleopatra.
The 42nd year of Augustus began in the autumn of 1 B.C. The subjugation of Egypt by the Roman Empire occurred in the autumn of 30 B.C., sometime after the Battle of Actium. The 28th year extended from the autumn of 3 B.C. to the autumn of 2 B.C. Therefore, the only date that would meet both of these constraints would be the autumn of 2 B.C.