The Olympiad Calendar and the Birth Year of Christ

An explanation of the ancient Greek Olympiad system especially as it relates to the birth year of Christ.

This is part of an unfinished series on the problems and evolution of the calendar system and how it effects dating the year of Christ’s birth.

The ancient Greeks used Olympiads as their yearly dating system. The first Olympiad was conducted in 776 BC. It was calculated in four-year intervals.

For example the first Olympiad happened in 776 and the second occurred in 772 BC.

776 BC = Olympiad 1, not 0. Zero as a mathematical number in the Greco-Roman world was a later invention. Using a calculator without this knowledge to validate later dates can throw off any Olympiad by four years.

The four year interval is not specific enough for most historic purposes. Most modern readers want to know the exact year, not that it happened somewhere unspecified in the four year interval. Later writers tended to use an alpha system to demonstrate which of the four years the Olympiad meant, such as the 184a Olympiad, which would be the first year of the 184th Olympiad.

The first century Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, sometimes used the regnal dating system. This system was popular in ancient times throughout the Mediterranean basin which defined time according to the birth and death dates of a great leader. However, Josephus was conscious of the fact that this was not accurate and combined it with Olympiads and then went a step further and aligned it with historic battles.

The following is an important example of his use of the Olympiad dating system. He wrote that Herod was first given his title as king by Rome on the 184th Olympiad,1 which translates anywhere between 44/43 and 41/40 BC.

Josephus is the closest historian to the time of Christ and his dates are rarely challenged. There are few other texts outside the Bible and Christian history available with the level of detail that he provides with regards to the Middle East during this time. One must keep in mind though that there are potential manuscript errors. There are many copies of Josephus’ writings with variants in dates and times, though these transcription errors do not directly affect the Herodian calendars, it does raise some suspicions.2

An alternative to Josephus is Julius Africanus. He was a second-century chronicler who gave a detailed account of histories related to the Olympiads. He may be the earliest Christian historian who tried to parallel Greek and Jewish histories according to some sort of timeframe. He critically attempted to establish the first Olympiad and use that as his basis. He believed that before the Olympiad system came into being, a timeline of any history from a Greek perspective could not accurately be deduced.3

In the Africanus account available today, one can find a problem with the Olympiad calculation which was likely related to a transcription error. He wrote, “the 16th year of Tiberius Caesar, which was the second year of the 102d Olympiad”4— this would make Tiberius’ reign, based on the 776 BC date, to be approximately 368 BC. Fortunately, the text mentions earlier in the same document regarding Tiberius 16th year as, “the 202d Olympiad”, which made it to be properly around 30 AD.5

The eighth-century British-Christian writer and scholastic monk, the Venerable Bede, used Olympiads among many others to define historic time periods, though our present manuscripts attributed to him may contain errors. He recorded the first Olympiad to Julius Caesar to be the 183rd Olympiad–20 years off.6

Olympiads were not the dating system of preference by most of the ancient Christian writers and it was not accepted as a universal calendar. Its was a legacy system after the fourth-century AD. However, because of Josephus’ usage, it is an important clue, though not the ultimate one, for the birth year of Christ.

Josephus’ account does not directly address Christ’s birth in his copy, but one can correlate from Josephus’ dated chronology of the Herod family and the Biblical description roughly what year the birth was. For more details on exactly how Josephus and other historians dated these leaders, see:
A Chronology of the Herods

To read more, see the introductory article, What Year was Christ Born? or go to the series Christian Calendar System homepage for a listing of all the articles on the subject.

  1. Antiquities of the Jews: XIV:XVI:4
  2. William Whiston trans, The Works of Josephus. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1982. “Dissertation V” p. 696
  3. IBID, III.-The Extant Fragments of the Five Books of the Chronography of Julius Africanus. XIII:1
  4. Extant works of Julius Africanus found at tthp:// Fragment 18:2 This may be an error in the English translation or a typographic error. The Greek has not been checked.
  5. Extant works of Julius Africanus as found at tthp:// Fragment 16:3 .
  6. See Bede, De Temporum Rationem, MPL, Vol. 90, pg. 538, especially the footnote b which discusses how Bede missed those 20 years.

5 thoughts on “The Olympiad Calendar and the Birth Year of Christ”

  1. Phlegon wrote: “In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great eclipse of the Sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the 6th hour the day was changed into night and the stars were seen in the heavens.” This is said to be describing Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 AD. However Joseph Lenard in Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed presents a convincing case that Jesus was crucified in 30 AD. Considering the difficulties with the various dating systems, is it reasonable to believe Phlegon was incorrect in saying the crucifixion was in 33 AD when it should have been 30 AD?

  2. Jesus was crucified on March 25th (Julian) in 31 AD. How is this concluded? – because He begins the destruction of the Temple with His Crucifixion when the earthquake occurred and the Veil was torn. This event would happen in the 40th year before the ultimate destruction of the Temple. 31 AD inclusively would be that year. Also, he was the Light. The Jews observed all of their Sabbaths based on a Lunar calendar along with all appointed times. The weekly Sabbath occurred on the 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th days of the lunar Month which also corresponded to the phases of the moon. The first day of the month was the new moon (no light). The 2nd day of the month was the first day of the first Sabbath week.

    Since we know the Sabbath’s occurred in relation to the Phases of the Moon, we can look at CREATION week and understand that the 7th day would have corresponded likely to the Full Moon. This means that the 4th day of that week when the bodies of the Sun and Moon were given to govern the light was the likely equivalent of the Spring Equinox. That same setup occurs in 31 AD. We have the 4th day of that lunar week being the Spring Equinox. Jesus would likely have had His Last Supper upon that day since the New Year has come and He was the light. Therefore, the Passover and Feast were a festival to teach of the coming of Christ as the Light to overcome Death and Darkness but the Disciples already had the True Light and the new year had begun and they needed no further delay to observe the Passover.

    When you understand that the Sabbaths were based on the Lunar weeks, you can begin to understand the timing. In a Solar year there are always 49 Sabbath weeks. We know that on the 9th of Av was when the Temple was destroyed and the first course of the 24 courses of the Priests was serving. We can see from Luke that Zacharias was of the 8th course (Abia). He is shown to be serving during the Day of Atonement when only the Priest serving can be in the Temple and no other man. We know this because all the people wondered at why he tarried so long in the Temple. Nobody could go and in to determine why. If you simply count backwards by these courses and understand the 9th of Av was the second week of the 5th Lunar Month and the Day of Atonement is the 2nd week of the 7th Lunar Month, you will see that by counting back by these 49 Sabbath weeks per year that the 8th Course (Abia) where Zacharias was serving occurred on the week of the Day of Atonement in 4 BC. You can then do the math and see that Jesus was born in 3 BC. I’ve done the studies and it all fits. It also lead me to know when He will return. I know people dispute whether we can know but we can. They just need to understand that only the Father can reveal it and this is what Jesus was making clear to the disciples in Acts 1. But they can only know by the Holy Spirit (Comforter) which is the Father’s Spirit.


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