Most biblical scholars say that Jesus Christ was born between 6 and 4 BC. However, there’s not much consensus beyond that. BYU scholar Jeffrey R. Chadwick believes he can pinpoint the birth of Christ to December of 5 BC. In this interview, he explains how he uses Latter-day Saint scriptures like the Book of Mormon to estimate when Jesus was born.
Learn more by reading the article by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Christ,” in BYU Studies Quarterly.
Table of contents
- Jeffrey R. Chadwick
- Biblical scholars
- Latter-day Saints
- Bruce R. McConkie
- 2013 Book of Mormon
- Herod the Great
- Wise men
- Christ’s birth
- Why it matters
- Learn more
How did Jeffrey R. Chadwick become interested in dating the birth of Christ?
Growing up as a Latter-day Saint boy, serving a mission, and entering service as a seminary teacher 45 years ago, it was axiomatic in our conversation that Jesus had been born on April 6th of 1 BC, as stated by Elder James E. Talmage in his classic work Jesus the Christ.
But as I pursued graduate work in the historical geography and archaeology of the biblical world, it became clear to me that the April 6th notion was difficult to reconcile with well-known historical allusions in the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, as well as will aspects of the material culture and environmental context of the New Testament.
Rather than dismiss this dissonance, I worked at resolving it, gathering as much evidence and as many references as I could to determine what the window of time of Jesus’ birth might have been.
The result was my published study in 2010.
When do most biblical scholars say that Christ was born?
Scholars (a very broad term) are all over the map in terms of Jesus’ birth date. Those who we might call Latter-day Saint scholars are divided between loyalty to the April 6th of 1 BC suggestion—and the data that essentially require us to understand Jesus’ birth as having occurred prior to the spring of the year we call 4 BC.
In the realm of general Christian scholarship beyond the Latter-day Saint horizon, there is also a division between scholars who favor a 1 BC dating and those who favor dating anywhere from 5 to 7 BC.
In my own studies, I’ve noted that a majority of Christian scholars favor a date in 5 BC, which is also the year (late in that year) that my own research has pointed to.
No scholars actually pinpoint a day (December 25th notwithstanding) but prefer to identify a window of time in which Jesus’ birth likely occurred. Some prefer spring, others winter, and a few even suggest autumn.
I would not say there is any absolute consensus on the matter.
Generally speaking, why do Latter-day Saints arrive at different dates?
Generally, and also quite specifically, many Latter-day Saints take at face value the statement of Elder James E. Talmage that Jesus was born on April 6 of 1 BC, a position Elder Talmage linked to the passage in Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 which notes the organization of the Church on April 6 of 1830, being that many years since the “coming of … Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
This seemed to Elder Talmage a specific dating tag pointing to April 6, 1 BC, although recent contextual studies of the background and source of D&C 20 suggest that it was not meant to be seen in this way.
Numerous general authorities and other speakers and authors have repeated the April 6 of 1 BC dating in their own teachings—and the date gained a great deal of authority throughout the twentieth century.
What are some common Latter-day Saint misconceptions about when Christ was born?
In addition to the April 6th notion, there is a suggestion that regularly circulates about Jesus having been born in the “lambing season,” which is then assigned to the springtime of the year. This is generally linked to the presence of the shepherds in the Luke 2 narrative, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
This notion, which I call the “myth of the lambing season,” has no real basis in the New Testament text, however. And the season when lambs begin to be born in the Land of Israel (anciently as well as at present) actually begins in early winter—in December, peaking around February, and tapering off to a close by early April.
So, the real “lambing season” in Israel cannot be used to favor either an April or a December birth.
How did Elder Bruce R. McConkie influence the discussion?
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, following the lead of President J. Reuben Clark, suggested that Jesus’ birth must have occurred in the window of time from late 5 BC to spring of 4 BC, departing from the 1 BC suggestion of Elder Talmage.
President Clark, in his volume, Our Lord of the Gospels (which was used as a Melchizedek Priesthood manual in the 1950s), favored December of 5 BC as the period of Jesus’ birth, based on the scholarship that he had surveyed in preparing his volume.
Elder McConkie, in his multi-volume work The Mortal Messiah (beginning 1980) took the position of President Clark. However, he slightly expanded it to set the window from December of 5 BC to April of 4 BC, clearly attempting to accommodate those who had a preference for April 6th (even if 1 BC was an untenable year for the nativity).
How did the 2013 edition of the Book of Mormon allow for refining the birth date of Christ?
I would not say that the 2013 edition of the Book of Mormon made any specific attempt to refine the understanding of when Jesus was born. On the contrary, it seems to have attempted to widen the window of time that Nephi’s narrative might allow for the mortal coming of Jesus.
The notation that Lehi departed from Jerusalem (in 1 Nephi 2:4) is usually pared with Lehi’s prophecy that God would raise up a Messiah six hundred years from the time that Lehi departed (1 Nephi 10:4).
Elder Talmage, who edited and added the study notes to the 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon, marked the passage in 1 Nephi 2:4 with an asterisk referring to 600 BC, designating that year as the year of Lehi’s departure, six hundred years prior to 1 BC.
The changes in the 2013 edition of the Book of Mormon included discarding the asterisk/footnote date for 1 Nephi chapter 2, and instead including a less specific notation of “about 600 BC” in the heading for that chapter. This effectively de-emphasizes 1 BC as the birth year of Jesus, at least in terms of Book of Mormon chronology. I like to think that my 2010 study had some effect in bringing about that change, although this may be wishful thinking.
When did Herod the Great die?
According to almost all scholarly analyses of the references to Herod’s death recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod the Great died in early to mid-April of the year 4 BC.
This is a key issue in dating Jesus’ birth since Matthew chapter 2 makes it clear that Herod was alive and reigning as king of Judea at the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
How soon after Jesus’ birth did the “wise men” visit?
Generally, the answer that is given in Latter-day Saint circles is around two years, based on the reference to the children of Bethlehem “from two years old and under” being killed by Herod’s order (Matthew 2:16).
My own view, however, is that this passage is unreliable for determining when the “wise men” arrived, and contradicts the immediacy of their journey that is indicated in Matthew 2:1-2:
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
I suggest that the “wise men” had come immediately to Judea “when Jesus was born” (2:1) and that they did not wait two whole years after seeing the sign of the star to make the six-week journey from Babylon or Persia to Judea. If they had waited two years after Jesus’ birth to come to Judea, it would be necessary to push Jesus’ birth back to 7 BC, a date which cannot be possible for a number of historical reasons (which I outline in my several studies).
Jesus has to have been born in the very narrow window of time in the early winter of 5/4 BC and most probably in December of 5 BC. The reference to “two years and under” in the slaying of the innocent children of Bethlehem must be regarded as a bet-hedging expansion by Herod, or (in my own opinion) as an error in the text itself.
I’ve written about this in my popular book on the birth of Jesus, Stone Manger – The Untold Story of the First Christmas, and also alluded to it in my three “dating” articles in BYU Studies, two of which focus on dating Jesus’ life terminae.
Who was Lehi—and how does he figure into calculating the birth date of Christ?
Lehi was a prophet in Jerusalem in the late 7th century BC who left Jerusalem in the late autumn or early winter of 605 BC (by my calculation).1
Because of Lehi’s prophecy that the Messiah would come six hundred years after his (Lehi’s) departure from Jerusalem (see above, and 1 Nephi 10:4), we might expect that Jesus’ birth would have occurred very close to 600 years after Lehi’s exit from Jerusalem.
When was Jesus Christ born?
Jesus was born in December of 5 BC, according to my calculations. Or, some 600 years after Lehi’s departure in late autumn or early winter of 605 BC.
Why does Jesus’ real birthday matter?
When Jesus was born matters a great deal to those seeking to know as much as they can about Him—such as His life, His doings, His travels, His teachings, and the biographical details of His mortality.
Christ calls us His “friends” (John 15:14). Generally, a close friend will know basic information about another friend, including that friend’s birth date. To many, who wish to know all that can be known about the Savior, to have a more accurate sense of His birthdate, or at least the season in which it occurred, is part of the package of coming to know Him fully.
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About the author
Jeffrey R. Chadwick is Jerusalem Center Professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies, and a Religious Education Professor of Church History and Jewish Studies at Brigham Young University. He is the author of several books and articles, including “Dating the Birth of Christ,” “Dating the Death of Christ,” and “Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem.”
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Jesus Christ birthday resources
- Dating the Birth of Christ (Article)
- Dating the Death of Christ (Article)
- Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem (Article)
- Dating Jesus Christ’s Birth and Death (Podcast)
- Why is Christmas on December 25? (Article)
- When was Jesus Born—BC or AD? (Article)
- Chadwick, Jeffrey R. “Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem.” BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2018).