“What year was Jesus born? What kind of question is that!?”
If our calendar is broken up into B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini, the year of our Lord) doesn’t that mean Jesus was born in year one (since we don’t count year zero)?
Actually, the issue is a bit more complex than that.
Starting the calendar with the birth of Christ didn’t come about until the 6th Century, when a monk named Dionysius did his best to calculate when Christ was born.
He used Scripture and the historical information available to him and calculated that Jesus was born in the 753rd year of the Roman Empire. So that year was redubbed “A.D. 1” and we kept adding on from there.
However, information would eventually come to light which showed that the well-intentioned monk made some errors. By analyzing new information related to the chronological markers provided in Scripture, scholars were able to see that Jesus was born a few years later than initially thought.
What year was Jesus born? Here’s why many scholars say Jesus was born between 5 and 6 B.C.
Although the Gospel writers did not focus primarily on preserving a precise chronological history of Jesus’ life and ministry, we can still approximate some key dates by comparing historical markers with passages of Scripture.
Calculating the Year Jesus Was Born
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
This familiar passage from the Gospel of Luke states that these events took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. While there is some scholarly debate on the matter, many date Quirinius’ declaration of the census in 8 B.C. and believe that it would have taken a couple of years for the decree to be executed.
Additionally, we know from Matthew 2:1-23 that Herod sought to have the child spoken of by the Magi killed. Jesus’ family fled to Egypt and lived there until Herod died. So we know that Jesus had to be born before the death of Herod, and historical evidence suggests that he died in 4 B.C.
This means that Jesus would have been born after 8 B.C. and before 4 B.C. Therefore, a birth date of 5 or 6 B.C. can be determined.
Checking the Math
Clearly, Jesus being born in any year Before Christ (B.C.) is earlier than what we would expect. Can this be right? Is there some way to double check the math?
Thankfully, there is. We can see how this date for Jesus’ birth fits with other chronological markers in Scripture. For example, does this number work out when taking into consideration Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion?
John the Baptist Begins His Ministry
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
This passage speaks about when John the Baptist began his ministry as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’
As highlighe above, it references the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, which began when he became co-emperor with Augustus in A.D. 11.
That would place the 15th year of his reign at A.D. 26, which helps us understand when John began his ministry. From here, we can look to Scripture for an indication of how long Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted before His crucifixion.
Jesus’ Earthly Ministry & Death
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age…
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was roughly 30 when He began His ministry. John’s Gospel mentions at least three Passovers during the ministry of Christ (John 2:23; 6:4; 12:1).
This indicates that His earthly ministry lasted at least two years. It very likely lasted almost three full years.
So if Jesus’ ministry began when He was baptized by John around A.D. 26 and lasted for roughly three years before He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, we can estimate that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred around A.D 29-30.
Taking Luke 3:23 into account, Jesus would have been between 34 and 36 when he died.
If Jesus was 34-36 at his death in A.D. 29-30, this would put his birth at around between 5 and 6 B.C.
Whoah, Woah, Woah. But wasn’t Jesus 33 years old when He died?
Many, if not most of us, have heard sermons which state that Jesus was 33 when He died. The problem is that Scripture does not tell us that explicitly. It is a conclusion reached primarily by the estimate that Jesus’ ministry lasted about three years and that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began His ministry (Luke 3:23).
Keep in mind two things: First, estimates by scholars are fallible and Scripture is not. The above logic could be off or adjusted if archeological findings provided new information. Second, it would not be inaccurate for Luke to say that Jesus was “about 30 years old” if He was really 31 or even 33. We use such language all the time, and the fact that Scripture uses “about” in this instance allows for a few years in either direction.
Does anyone else agree with these dates?
The above information comes largely from Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black’s book The New Testament: Its Background and Message and their conclusions seem sound.
Other scholars have reached the similar conclusions. Dr. Harold Hoerner of Dallas Theological Seminary argues in Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ that Jesus was born around 4 or 5 B.C. and was 37-38 years old at His death (here’s a short summary).
Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor suggest in The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived that Jesus was between 33 and 35 when He began His ministry and 36-38 when He was crucified.
So there you have it. While there is not perfect agreement among Biblical scholars on this issue, many are confident that we can date the birth of Jesus Christ between the year 4 and 6 B.C. Other information from Scripture and history fits this time frame.
Although faith is certainly the “evidence of things unseen” (Heb. 11:1) there is great value in seeing that we can trust the historicity of the Christian Gospel and the life of Christ through various sources outside of Scripture. Properly understanding the historical background of early Christianity allows us to gain a better understanding of the New Testament writings and provides a basis for truth for presenting Christ to an increasingly skeptical generation.
For example, corroboration for information recorded in the New Testament can be found in the writings of ancient historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan. These three sources corroborate information regarding Christ’s crucifixion, the spread of Christianity, and the practice of singing hymns worshipping Jesus.
In the end, our understanding of certain aspects of Biblical events and people can be informed by examining extra-Biblical information. In doing so, we always want to adjust our assumptions and conclusions according to the truth of Scripture and not the other way around.
 Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers), 95.
 Ibid., 97. Note: Tiberius became Emperor in A.D. 14, but it is considered likely that Luke was dating from the time he became co-emperor in A.D. 11.
 Ibid., 96
 Ibid., 86
 Ibid. Note: There is some debate concerning possible Christian additions within the writings of Josephus, as mentioned by Lea and Black on this page.
 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers), 60.