- Luke 2:1 mentions that Christ’s birth was during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Augustus Caesar reigned from 44 BC to his death in 15 AD The method of measuring time in the ancient Roman world was based on the reigns of the Emperors. Thus the early Church fathers dated the birth of Christ according to the accepted method used by the Romans, Arriving at the following figures:
- Irenius: states that it was in the 41st year of Augustus’s reign, which would place it at 4/3 BC depending on how you date the beginning of Augustus’s reign.
- Clement of Alexandria: dates it Nov. 18, 3 BC
- Tertullian: 3/2 BC
- Julius Africanus: 3/2 BC
- Eusebius of Caesarea: 3/2 BC
- Hypolotus of Rome: 3/2
- Epiphanius: 3/2 BC
However all of these people are wrong – see Matthew 2:1
- Matthew 2:1 says that Christ’s birth was in the time of King Herod the Great. We know about King Herod from the writings of the Jewish Historian Josephus, who wrote in the 70’s AD. He states that Herod died 37 years from the time the Romans declared him King, and 34 years from the time he actually became King. Both these figures arrive at a date of 4 BC
- Shortly before the death of Herod, Josephus says there was an eclipse of the Moon. This is the only mention that Josephus makes of an eclipse in his entire volume of History (thus demonstrating that he was not fanciful about omens in this area like other historians of the period). Through astronomical calculations we find that a lunar eclipse occurred on Mar.12/13, 4 BC We also know that no lunar or solar eclipse occurred in either 3 or 2 BC
- Shortly after his death the Jewish Passover occurred (which in that year should have occurred on April 11, according to astronomical calculations). Therefore, Herod’s death occurred between March 12 and April 11, in 4 BC Since Christ’s birth occurred during his reign, it would must have occurred prior to the period from March 12 to April 11,4 BC
- Matthew 2:1 also states that, “certain Magi came from the East.” Matthew 2:11 states that they came and saw the child. Matthew 2:16 notes that King Herod ordered all male children under two years of age be slain. Considering the paranoia and brutality that are known to have been a part of Herod’s character, we can be sure that he had good reason to limit the killing to less than two years old. The time that the Magi arrived was prior to the death of Herod, possibly very shortly before his death. Thus Christ was probably born no earlier than 6 BC which would be 2 years prior to Herod’s death (Note that Herod had ascertained from the Magi the time that the star appeared, and apparently based his decree upon this information.) This line of reasoning will not give us an exact date for the birth, it only shows that he was likely born later than 6 BC, and earlier than 4 BC.
- Luke 2:1,2— At approximately this time a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken. We have no record of this census from secular Roman sources. However, there is indication from Egypt that a census was taken approximately every 14 years, and that a census had been taken shortly after 20 BC
- Likewise, Luke says that this census was during the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria. We have no record of where Quirinius was at this time, but prior to 6 BC we know that he was fighting a war in Macedonia. Thus we know that the census referred to had not taken place prior to 6 BC Further, we know that in the early AD years Quirinius was Governor of Syria, and during the years 6-3 BC he was somewhere “in the East,” (a passing comment in Tacitus). Syria was, of course, considered an Eastern Province by the Romans. He could have very easily been Governor of Syria at this time, there being no evidence to the contrary.
- Justin Martyr and Tertullian say that this census can be verified in the archives in Rome. Even though these archives no longer exist, the fact that these contemporaries appealed to them suggests that they did exist at the time. In the 100’s AD these men and others had access to this information and their writings could easily have been refuted if it were not so.
These considerations leave us with the following scenario:
Jesus Christ’s birth would not have taken place prior to 6 BC and no later than Spring of 4 BC which was the time of King Herod’s death.