When was Jesus born? While not consequential to our salvation or daily choices, it’s an interesting question to explore. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jeffrey R. Chadwick discussed his research into the question: When was Jesus actually born? What follows here is a co-post to that discussion (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
When a non-expert Latter-day Saints approach the question of “When was Jesus born?”, they often draw upon a traditional interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants, 20:1 to claim that it happened on 6 April. Elder James E. Talmage’s widely read Jesus the Christ reinforces this interpretation. As Chadwick explained:
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. …
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.
This assumption of April 6 is pretty widespread in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But, as Chadwick points out, there are studies that indicate that Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 that do not bear this reading out. For example, Ben Spackman wrote an article explained that there are three things that would need to be true about Section 20 to make the statement applicable to calculating the Christ’s birth: ‘1) The function of D&C 20:1 must to be “precise calendrical data,” not “common literary convention of introduction” in use at the time. … 2) The date of the revelation must actually be April 6 … 3) D&C 20:1 must actually be revelatory, part of the revelation.’ Based on research, some of which has been made possible by the Joseph Smith Papers project, Spackman’s responses to the three points were that: 1) Contemporary individuals used similar language as literary introductions, while there are not indications that 19th century Latter-day Saints read it as a revelation of Jesus’s birthday; 2) The earliest manuscript for the revelation we have at this time dates the revelation to April 10; 3) D&C 20:1 was originally an introductory head note written by John Whitmer rather than part of the revelation proper. These facts make it untenable to use D&C 20:1 as a proof-text to an April 6 birthday for Jesus the Christ.
Returning to the interview with Jeffrey R. Chadwick, he also gave some historical context that makes it unlikely for April to be the time of Jesus’s birth. As Chadwick explained:
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.
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.
He also added that:
According to almost all scholarly analyses of the references to Herod [the Great]’s death recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod 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. …
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.
These notes serve as some of the examples that make it unlikely that Jesus Christ was born in April 1 B.C.E.
For more discussion on the question: “When was Jesus born?”, including a lot of discussion of different perspectives that Latter-day Saints have taken over the years, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview.