Though the Gospels do not tell us exactly when Jesus was born, could the Star of Bethlehem—and when it first appeared—give us insight into what year it could be?
In this excerpt adapted from The Star of Bethlehem: Science, History, and Meaning, Michael Allan Pettem leans into the Gospel of Luke and the writing of Irenaeus to offer his answer to the question: What year Jesus was born?
Herod the Great is an important actor in the story of the Star of Bethlehem as recounted in Matthew’s Gospel.
Because of the Star’s announcement of the birth of Jesus, he kills children aged two or less. These incidents have led to the conclusion that, as Herod died in 4 BC, the latest the Star can have first appeared was January or February 6 BC. For our search, it would now be good to determine the earliest date at which the Star could have appeared.
Matthew’s story does not give any obvious indications of an earliest possible date, so we turn to the other Gospel that writes of Jesus’ birth, the Gospel of Luke, and to the writing of the early Christian Irenaeus. Perhaps these will be able to help us date Jesus’ birth and thus approximate the earliest possible time for the Star.
When was Jesus born according to Luke?
The evangelist Luke certainly tried to date Jesus’ birth and make it clearly known to the readers of his Gospel. In his Christmas story he writes:
In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1–2)
These historical references are clear and specific. Unfortunately, modern historians can make nothing of them. Augustus was born Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 BC. The Roman senate granted him the title of Augustus in 27 BC. He died on August 19, AD 14. Thus Luke’s first historical note creates no difficulties in placing Jesus’ birth during the reign of Augustus.
Problems begin with Luke’s reference to the general census. Modern scholars do not know of any census covering the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus. They know of three censuses of Roman citizens and several local censuses of non-citizens for various reasons, but no general census such as recorded by Luke.
Problems continue with the governorship of Quirinius. According to present knowledge, he was not governor of Syria until AD 6. Known sources indicate that Quirinius conducted a census of Judaea, and Judaea only, in the years AD 6 and 7. This governorship and its census are far too late for the birth of Jesus.
Luke says that an angel announced the birth of John the Baptist during the reign of Herod, king of Judaea (Luke 1:5–20). The story in the Gospel of Luke then goes on to recount that Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptist. Taken together, these assertions mean that Luke believed Jesus to be born during the reign of Herod, or at the very latest, a few months after Herod’s reign.
We have just seen that Herod likely died in 4 BC. This means that a date in AD 6 is far too late for Jesus’ birth. Thus it is that Luke’s apparently very clear dating of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2 causes problems for modern scholarship.
Many theories have been proposed to explain how his dating and the ancient events fit together. However, no theory advanced so far has proven satisfactory. Luke 2 does not help modern scholarship in dating the birth of Jesus. In the following chapter, Luke says that the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1–2). While there are difficulties in deciding just when Luke started to count the years of Tiberius’ reign, he probably means the year AD 28 for the start of John’s career.
He goes on to say that John baptized Jesus (Luke 3:21–22), and Jesus started his public career at about the age of 30 (Luke 3:23). Since Luke places Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod the Great or at the latest in the months immediately after, and presuming John baptized Jesus in the year AD 28, the “about 30” cannot mean exactly 30 or younger, since this would put Jesus’ birth after the death of Herod. Presuming that the rough “about the age of 30” could perhaps mean up to age 34, then a date from 4 to 6 or 7 BC is possible for Jesus’ birth.
The most likely date for what year Jesus was born
Ignoring Luke 2 as presently incomprehensible, and taking the dating implied in Luke 3 to be generally historical and accurate, Luke’s Gospel makes 4 to 6 or 7 BC the most likely time for the birth of Jesus. If Jesus was born sometime in that period, and the Star’s announcement had a period of two years, Luke’s Gospel suggests the earliest possible dating for the Star would be 7 BC (the earliest date for Jesus’ birth) plus two years (the two years the omen lasted)—that is, 9 BC.
Learn more about when Jesus was born in Star of Bethlehem.
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