May 29, 2024

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On Dating the Birth of Jesus

The Syriac Infancy Gospel states that Augustus Caesar ordered an enrollment of every man in his native land in the “309th year the era of Alexander”. That statement, if correct, would appear to date the birth of Jesus fairly definitively. However most scholars would almost certainly agree that Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia in 336 BCE, that Alexander’s ascendancy to the Macedonian throne would reasonably have constituted the beginning of the “era of Alexander”, and that the “309th year of the era of Alexander” would therefore correspond to roughly 28 BCE, several decades before the traditional date claimed for the birth of Jesus. Such an early date therefore would suggest that either the Syriac Infancy Gospel was grossly ignorant about the true date of Jesus’ birth or our modern understanding about the time when Jesus supposedly lived is grossly in error.

Curiously a similar dating issue is also clearly present within the Gospel of Luke with respect to the enrollment that preceded Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Luke famously asserts that Caesar Augustus ordered the enrollment and that it was the first enrollment taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Historical records suggest that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE and that, shortly after becoming governor of Syria, he did in fact conduct a census of Judea. It is also quite clear to historians that Quirinius became governor of Syria long after the death of Herod the Great, which is generally believed to have occurred in 4 BCE, and the Gospel of Matthew clearly indicates that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive. These apparent contradictions have led many Biblical scholars to try to claim that Quirinius served as “acting” governor sometime before 6 CE and that there had been another census undertaken by Quirinius in Judea sometime during that time that had somehow never been recorded.

What we have then are two documents that both try to establish the date of the enrollment that preceded Jesus’ birth. One document attempts to date the enrollment by referencing the “era of Alexander”, a strategy similar to the dating method commonly used throughout the Seleucid Empire, while the other document dates the event using the traditional Roman dating method (i.e., by referencing well known rulers and related events). And strangely, it appears that both documents fail to reach any kind of consensus about when the alleged enrollment took place.

Interestingly, had the Syriac Infancy Gospel and the Gospel of Luke both clearly pointed to the exact same event, they would have provided a very convincing dating of Jesus’ birth. Yet, as transmitted through history, these documents both appear to contradict each other as well as some fairly well established facts. Thus, rather than appearing to be in harmony with each other, they appear to be in total discord; two witnesses telling what appears to be completely different stories.

But perhaps there is more to the story (or stories) than first meets the eye.

The dating method that was commonly used throughout the Seleucid Empire (which included Syria and at times Judea) for over 1000 years was to count the number of years since Seleucus I Nicatur returned to Babylon, which scholars claim took place in 311 BCE. The “era of Alexander” effectively ended in that year; thus there never was any such thing as “the 309th year of the era of Alexander”. However, there was a 309th year to the Seleucid Era, and that year corresponds essentially to 3 BCE, very close to the date traditionally given for Jesus’ birth. So it appears fairly likely that the original Syriac text read “the 309th year after the era of Alexander” and that a translation error occurred that led to the word of being replaced with the word after.

One should also take another close look at the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke, as transmitted over the years, claims that the enrollment was the first enrollment that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, like the Syriac Infancy Gospel, all of the dating problems miraculously disappear if the word before is substituted for the word while. In fact, such substitution also helps explain why the word first was used: to differentiate that enrollment from the second enrollment that would take place later when Quirinius eventually became governor of Syria in 6 AD. It appears likely then that someone who was familiar with the census conducted by Quirinius in 6 CE (which was the only census conducted by him after he became governor) mistranslated the passage in Luke so that it referred to that later census rather than to the earlier enrollment.

An earlier enrollment did in fact take place in Judea before 6 CE. On February 5th, 2 BCE, Caesar Augustus was granted the title Pater Patriae, meaning “father of the country”, by the Roman Senate. As has been pointed out by others, as part of the process of granting that title to Augustus, the residents of all Roman provinces were ordered to swear an oath of allegiance to Augustus as their new patriarch. A requirement of the oath was that it be taken in the ancestral home of each adult male; the idea appears to be that each resident would formally renounce their patriarch of old at the same time that they swore an oath to their new patriarch, Augustus. Furthermore, each resident’s oath to Augustus had to be recorded within an official public record or registry; one could not simply state that they either had or had not taken the oath. Such oath taking is in fact practiced to this day; when someone becomes a citizen of the United States, for example, they take an oath of loyalty to the US and, at the same time, renounce their former citizenship, and the taking of the oath is recorded as part of a public record.

Now someone might point out that 2 BCE and 3 BCE differ by a year. However the Babylonian calendar year began in 1 Nisanu, which would be in late March or early April. Thus, as reported within the Syriac Infancy Gospel, February 2nd, 2 BCE would actually have fallen in the tale end of the 309th year of the Seleucid Era.

Of course, stubborn critics could argue that such agreement is pure coincidence and/or the result of extremely clever fabrication. Such critics, however, should ask themselves whether they doubt these things because they are not true or because they wish them to be so. When two unrelated witnesses on close examination appear to tell the same story, one should take heed before denouncing their testimonies.