What year was Christ born? This may seem like a simple question but it is actually very complex.
It is not a problem of Biblical accuracy that the date is difficult to exactly come by but a problem of human dimensions.
The answer is found in understanding the ancient calendar systems along with their complex histories and reconciling them into a unified corpus. Along the way, one will see a picture of how our present calendar system came into being.
At the time of Christ’s birth, there was no universal time system. Actually, there have been well over 10 major time systems and many more regional ones used over the course of history to define Christ’s birth-year. The majority of these ancient systems are not the most accurate, consistent or in agreement with other calendars.
Here are a few of the more prominent ones which have had an influence on the calendar we use today.
The regnal time system. This is where time is calculated from the time a Roman leader took office. A good example can be found in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Christ ” In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) NIV. Another example can be found in the Bible as well. Jesus was baptized in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius. However, we don’t have accurate historical records when the census happened with Quirinius, and there is also invariably disagreements on when exactly a ruler began and ended his career such as gauging when the 15th year of Tiberius exactly occurred.
The popular first century historian Josephus avoided using this system exclusively and liked to use Olympiads associated with political events for his reckoning. An Olympiad is a time-system invented by the Greeks that ran in 4 year rotations. His political work on the middle-east is so detailed and close to the time of Christ, that it is the de-facto standard to dating the birth year.
He hardly wrote about Jesus and gave no time-frame when he did mention Christ. So many try to apply Christ’s birth-date according to the events of Herod’s life as illustrated by Josephus. This has its problems too.
Many of the Church Fathers preferred to date using the Adamic method, that is dating everything from what they believe was the creation of the world. This is sometimes called the Anno Mundi system or A.M. for short.
Then there is the Roman consular system which dates everything in relation to who were the consuls in Rome at the time. Problem is, not all the records consistently have these people dated.
Around 526 AD, the calendar system we use today had its origins. It was popularized by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus. He wanted to create a new time system that would no longer honour the wicked and cruel Roman emporer Diocletian. This was what the A.D. first stood for-Anno Diocletiani. He changed it to “Anni Domini nostri Jesu Christi” or A.D. for short.
See Dionysius Exiguus and the AD Calendar System for more info.
It was originally used for Easter calculations. It was not intended as a calendar system for daily living and was not accepted initially as a year time system either.
Many medieval Church Fathers preferred to date everything from the passion of Christ, but to the angst of the great 8th century theologian, the Venerable Bede, it was at least two years wrong.
Bede made a strong attempt using his skills in mathematics, astronomy, history, knowledge of regional calendars, and theology to reconcile the calendars into one cohesive system. At one point when he tried to publicly correct the Anno Mundi system, he got into a lot of controversy and was almost branded a heretic. In the end, he set a general basis with some minor variations for the calendar we have today.
He was one of the first authors to differentiate between before Christ and after in an A.D. type calendar system, though his abbreviations are not quite the same as ours.
See Bede on the Problem of 1 AD for more info.
As one delves even more deeper into the subject, it gets into astronomy, lunar phases, solstices, solar calculations and more. To make matters worse, since many of these calendars are based on lunar rather than solar, some years are 11 days shorter than others. So what they thought was March 21 may actually be March 10th or if the lunar calendar has been used for many years without any reconciliation with a solar one, it may be even more.
To top it off, not everyone was in agreement that the year started January 1st. Some thought it to start in March.
There are other calendars used such as the Roman indiction system (which operated on 15 year cycles), and Christian Arabs traced time from Alexander the Great. The Jews at one point, at least according to Bede, liked to use the 49 year Jubilee calendar system.
One must not forget the AUC method too. “Ad Urbe Condita”–from the founding of Rome. Annual times were calculated from the year that Rome was established.
“Modern historians use it much more frequently than the Romans themselves did.”(1)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ab_urbe_condita) Many contemporary writers use 753 AUC as the birth date of Christ. But there are debates with this one too as to what year one should begin dating from.
To top it all off, the mathematics was very primitive. The Romans didn’t use the numeral zero “0” in any calendar calculations. This modification came later. It makes this investigation all the more interesting.
Throughout all of these time systems there is a 2 to 5 to 10 year discrepancy that pops up in a different location with each system that effects accurately dating the birth-year. This is a challenge to figure out.
This is just an abbreviated form of the research done so far. The birth year of our Lord is an interesting journey into human time systems.
This is why this subject is looked into more detail than many others and is listed as a special project under the main menu. More posts will be coming…
References [ + ]