Christ Really Was Born Exactly 2013 Years Ago! The Chronology of Josephus Was Wrong

The following post is derived from Dr. Marshall’s new book The Eternal City: Rome & the Origins of Catholic Christianity:
As you know, B.C. refers to “before Christ” and it is therefore confusing to hear scholars say that Christ was born in 4 B.C. This would mean that Christ was born four years before Christ. However, recent and more precise chronological studies have validated the traditional date of Christ’s birth at December 25 in 1 B.C.[i]

As way of background, the dating of B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini or year of the Lord) derives from the calculations of the Dionysius Exiguus. Exiguus means little, so he is often called Dionysius the Little. Dionysius was a Scythian monk living in Rome. He died in about A.D. 544. Incidentally, when you write dates, B.C. goes after the number and A.D. goes in front of it. For example:
754 B.C.
or
A.D. 1492
In Rome, Dionysius worked with the best Roman records and Church documents to compute the birth of Christ. This new computation divided time before and after Christ. Dionysius did not include a year zero. December 31 in 1 B.C. would have passed to January 1 in A.D. 1.
Now Dionysius identified Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin and the incarnation of Christ in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary on March 25 in the year 1 B.C. He recognized the birthday of Christ as being December 25 in the year 1 B.C. The circumcision of Christ, eight days after His birth, was on January 1 of A.D. 1. His crucifixion was in the year A.D. 33.
The Venerable Bede took up the dating scheme of Dionysius the Little in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and the rest is history. We still use his dating system to this day—B.C. and A.D.
Doubts over the birth year of Christ arose in the 1600s. Scholars became aware of the chronology provided by the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus places the death of King Herod the Great in what Dionysius called 4 B.C. Since Herod tried to kill the infant Christ, then it would necessarily be the case that Christ would be born before the death of Herod. If Herod died in 4 B.C., then Christ would need to be born before 4 B.C. And so, ever since the seventeenth century, people have been claiming that Dionysius got it wrong and that Christ was born four years before Christ.

What do we make of all this? Well, either Josephus is correct or Dionysius is correct. Both cannot be right. Until recently most scholars agreed with Josephus because: A) Josephus lived in the century of Christ, B) Josephus was Jewish, and C) Josephus was a professional historian. Dionysius was just a monk living in Rome over five hundred years later.
However, there is now good reason for believing that Josephus got it wrong. Further studies of Josephus reveal that he was most certainly not consistent or accurate in dating several key events in Jewish and Roman history. In fact, Josephus contradicts verified history, the Bible, and even his own chronology about one hundred times. His dates are not very accurate. The French archaeologist, jurist, and historian Theodore Reinarch was one of the first to document the many factual and chronological errors of Josephus. Reinarch’s translation of Josephus is steadily interrupted by comments such as “this is a mistake” or “in another book his figures are different.”[ii]
The following is an example of the poor chronology of Josephus. Josephus records in his Jewish War that Hyrcanus reigned for thirty-three years. Yet in his Antiquities of the Jews, that Hyrcanus reigned thirty-two years.[iii]Yet in another place in his Antiquities, Josephus says that Hyrcanus reigned only thirty years. That’s three contradictory claims—two in the same book!
In his Jewish War, Josephus records that Aristobulus set the diadem on his head 471 years after the exile. Yet in his Antiquities, he says it was 481 years, a ten-year difference. By the way, modern historians now know that it was 490 years. Josephus is wrong on all accounts.
More examples could be supplied. The fact is that Josephus was sloppy with dates, especially when they regarded monarchs. So let us take a look at the dates he gives for King Herod. We discover that Josephus actually gave two contradictory dates for the death of Herod—4 B.C. and A.D. 7 or 8.
Josephus writes that Herod captured Jerusalem and began to rule in what Dionysius would call 37 B.C., and that Herod lived for 34 years after this. If you do the math, this means that Herod died in 4 or 3 B.C. Scholars site this as the authoritative proof that Jesus was born before 4-3 B.C.
However, Josephus records a different dating for the death of Herod elsewhere. In his Antiquities, Josephus writes that Herod was fifteen years old in what we would call 47 B.C. when Caesar appointed Hyrcanus as ethnarch.[iv]But, twice elsewhere Josephus states that Herod was seventy years old when he died. So if Herod was 15 in 47 B.C., that means he died at age 70 in either A.D. 7 or A.D. 8.
We have a serious discrepancy in the dates of Josephus—a window of more than ten years. Moreover, who really knows if either number is accurate given his mistakes on other historical dates? 
Why is this important? It reveals that we should not allow Josephus to have the last word on the chronology of Christ. Josephus’ dating of Herod’s death to 4 B.C. is truly only one version of his calculations. Why not use his date of A.D. 7 or 8? It is rather arbitrary for modern historians to endorse the date of 4 B.C.
The best way to date Herod’s death is by focusing on the testimony that Herod died a few months after a well-observed lunar eclipse. With modern astronomical models, we know that such a lunar eclipse occurred at Jerusalem before sunset on December 29 in 1 B.C. This would mean that Herod died sometime after A.D. 1. This lines up perfectly with the chronology of Dionysius the Little. This means that Christ was born on December 25 of 1 B.C. and that He was circumcised on January 1 of A.D. 1. 
Our Calendar is perfectly accurate!
Did you enjoy this post? If so, please read Dr. Taylor Marshall’s new book: The Eternal City: Rome & the Origins of Catholic Christianity available in paperback and Kindle format.
  

[i] Hugues de Nanteuil, Sur les dates de naissance et de mort de Jésus, Paris: Téqui editions, 1988. Translated by J.S. Daly and F. Egregyi.  Paris, 2008.
[ii] de Nanteuil, 2008.
[iii] Josephus, Antiquities, 12.
[iv] Josephus, Antiquities, 14.

Do you enjoy reading Canterbury Tales by Taylor Marshall? Make it easier to receive daily posts. It’s free. Please click here to sign up by Feed or here to sign up by Email. Please also explore Taylor’s books about Catholicism at amazon.com.

Download My Book for Free
Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages
Over 15,000 copies downloaded! This is a quick and easy way to learn the basic philosophy and theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The Popes of the last 300 years have endorsed St Thomas Aquinas. Learn more through this accessible resources. Download it for free.

Comments Policy: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. If your comment contains a hyperlink to another site, your comment automatically goes into "Comments Purgatory" where it waits for release by way of moderation.

  • wj1

    Why is this remotely important? I’m being serious. Who cares whether the date on which we celebrate Christmas is the *actual* date? I smell some fundamentalism here.

    • Nan

      It refutes the claim that the Church designated Dec 25 as Christ’s birthday in order to incorporate a) Saturnalia or b) the solstice, thus gaining converts. It reinforces the date of St. John the Baptist’s birth, 6 months before Christ; it reinforces the thought that a great man’s death takes place on the same day as his conception (March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation).

      • wj1

        So what if it is the case that Christians incorporated traditions of Saturnalia? Shouldn’t they have accommodated pagan practice whenever they could, especially if this made the Gospel more attractive? This was certainly Paul’s position.

        Likewise, who cares if John the Baptist was born exactly six months prior to Christ? It affects nothing substantive.

        And “the thought that a great man’s death takes place on the same day as his conception”? Really? This is just superstition. There’s literally NOTHING here that bears on Christianity.

        Look, I believe every article in the Creed. But nothing in the Creed commits me to the belief that Jesus was born on Dec. 25–or that our Dec. 25 is EXACTLY the same day as it would have been in 1st century Roman Palestine. I find this kind of obsessive and naive literalism scandalizing, because, if you believe that Christianity hinges on such things, then you’ll be in danger of losing your faith when you discover that the Roman Church DID incorporate a great deal of pagan customs into their developing liturgical practices–primary among them being Christmas. But who cares?!

  • MarylandBill

    Okay, your reasoning casting doubt on Josephus is sound. I am perfectly willing, happy in fact, to accept that Jesus might have been actually born in 1 AD. But when you try to connect the partial eclipse of 29-Dec-01 B.C., I think you start running into problems. During the period of uncertainty regarding Herod’s death (4 B.C. to 7 A.D.) that you established, there were a number of lunar eclipses that would have been visible in the Holy Land. Several of them would have been total eclipses as well. Do we have actual evidence that the 29-Dec-01 B.C. eclipse was observed in Jerusalem?

    The other problem I have is that the chronology you propose seems very compressed. If Jesus born on December 25th, the eclipse on the 29th, a month later you have the presentation of Jesus at the temple (on February 2nd). Now presumably all of this happened before the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. So lets assume that shortly there after (say mid February) would be the dating for the Magi’s visit (If the Magi visit before Jesus is presented at the Temple it would have been fool hardy to go to the Temple with Herod looking for the baby Jesus). So now, we essentially have early March for the period when Herod orders the killing of male children, and the flight to Egypt. At the same time however we are now in the period when Herod was suppose to have died… or at the very least been in his final illness. I am not saying it is impossible, but things do seem a little tight. Especially since Jesus was suppose to have spent two years in Egypt.

    • wj1

      MarylandBill points to a few problems in the author’s account, and these problems could be multiplied. This kind of “apologetics,” which mistakes calendrical literalism for theological substance, is not only dubious, but is actually quite dangerous to the Faith.

      Taylor Marshall seems like a good guy, but this whole project and its theological assumptions are seriously misguided. It presents a real danger for intellectually interested Catholics/Christians who do not have professional expertise in late antique history, the history of the development of the liturgy and liturgical seasons, and the cultural practices of the near east.

      For they’ll read this book, and be misled into thinking that its many problematic arguments and conclusions about *all* these areas are sound–until they have the misfortune of running into somebody less charitable than MarylandBill who knows something about one or more of these topics, and who blows their claims to smithereens. They might then be led to think: but if Christ really wasn’t born on Dec. 25 in the exact year 1, then maybe Mary wasn’t really a Virgin, maybe Christ was just one of many itinerant preachers vaguely associated with the zealots from Galilee, maybe the Christians were just the best organized of many outre Jewish sectarian groups that proliferated in Palestine from 100 B.C. up until the destruction of the Temple in 76AD, or thereabouts.

      Those who seek out answers from a naive but comforting literalism often become disillusioned skeptics. This happened to no less a biblical scholar than Bart Ehrman, after all. The whole project reeks to me of seeking to Catholicize the very worst tendencies of American evangelical biblical and historical scholarship.

  • http://jamesfinn.me/ James Finn

    Don’t listen to these people, Doc. “Literalism”? Darn right. Truth is like that, because God is like that. I’ve noticed that ex-Protestants turned Catholic (like you, Doc) often put cradle Catholics to shame in the orthodoxy department. When it comes to orthodoxy, cradle Catholics are allergic. Must be all that good V-2 catechesis they got growin’ up.

    • wj1

      See, this is exactly what I am talking about. James Finn–God bless him–is exactly the kind of person likely to be confirmed in his odd misunderstanding of Catholic orthodoxy by reading this book.