When Was Jesus Born—B.C. or A.D.?

How the divide between B.C. and A.D. was calculated

mariotto-albertinelli-jesus

When was Jesus born? This predella panel from an altarpiece by Mariotto Albertinelli (1474–1515) depicts the newborn baby Jesus flanked by Joseph and Mary. In which year was Jesus born—B.C. or A.D.? The evidence suggests he was born in 4 B.C. or before. Photo: John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In which year was Jesus born?

While this is sometimes debated, the majority of New Testament scholars place Jesus’ birth in 4 B.C. or before. This is because most date the death of King Herod the Great to 4 B.C. Since Herod played a major role in the narrative of Jesus’ birth (see Matthew 2), Jesus would have had to be born before Herod died.

This begs the question: How could Jesus have been born in B.C.—“before Christ”?

The terms B.C. and A.D. stand for “before Christ” and “anno Domini,” which means “in the year of the Lord.” These terms are used to mark years in the Gregorian and Julian calendars—with the birth of Jesus as the event that divides history. In theory, all the years before Jesus’ birth receive the label B.C., and all those after his birth get A.D. If Jesus had been born in 1 A.D., these designations would be completely accurate.

However, as mentioned above, it seems most likely that Jesus was born in 4 B.C. or earlier. How then did the current division between B.C. and A.D. come to be?

Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary examines the calendar division in his Biblical Views column “The Turn of the Christian Era: The Tale of Dionysius Exiguus,” published in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. He identifies the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who lived during the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., as the originator of the B.C. and A.D. calendar (based on when he calculated Jesus was born):

Dionysius was born in Scythia Minor, which means somewhere in Romania or Bulgaria, and he lived from about 470 to 544 A.D. He was a learned monk who moved to Rome and became well known for translating many ecclesiastical canons from Greek into Latin, including the famous decrees from the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Ironically, he also wrote a treatise on elementary mathematics. I say ironically because what he is most famous for is the “Anno Domini” calculations that were used to number the years of both the Gregorian and the adjusted Julian calendars.

 


 
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 


 
Although we are not exactly sure how he came to this conclusion, Dionysius dated the consulship of Probius Junior, who was the Roman Consul at the time, to “525 years after ‘the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’”—meaning 525 years after Jesus’ birth, that is, 525 A.D. Because of Dionysius’s calculations, a new calendar using B.C. and A.D. was born. The terms B.C.E (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) also use this calendar.

Even though Dionysius Exiguus calculated his date for the year in which Jesus was born in the sixth century, it was not until the eighth century that it became widespread. This was thanks to the Venerable Bede of Durham, England, who used Dionysius’s date in his work Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Learn more about when Jesus was born and Dionysius Exiguus’s calculations for B.C. and A.D. in Ben Witherington III’s Biblical Views column “The Turn of the Christian Era: The Tale of Dionysius Exiguus” in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full Biblical Views column “The Turn of the Christian Era: The Tale of Dionysius Exiguus” by Ben Witherington III in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.
 


 
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth and a Lunar Eclipse

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible: Lawrence Mykytiuk’s feature article from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR with voluminous endnotes

How December 25 Became Christmas: Andrew McGowan’s full article from the December 2002 issue of Bible Review

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

Where Was Jesus Born?

Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 29, 2017.
 


 

Posted in Jesus/Historical Jesus, Post-Biblical Period.

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  • Dr says

    It seems odd that you seem so sure that Herod died in 4BC and not 1BC as some have now concluded. As you know, Josephus mentions an eclipse of the moon before Herod’s death which then came before Passover. In between he is said to have done a number of things. There was a partial eclipse on March 12/13 in 4 BC only 29 days before Passover. The total lunar eclipse in 1 BC was on Jan9/10 allowing plenty of time for Herod to do what Josephus says he did before this death. The 4BC date seems to be based on calculations from when he started his full reign, and on the start of rule of his three sons after he died. But the start of his full reign has been questioned, and on one of the sons it seems a copyist error changed what Josephus said was 22 to 20 years. It also seems that all early Christian commentators placed the birth of Jesus around 3-2BC. Can you really be so sure, then, that 4BC is the date of the death of Herod? Schurer, who calculated the date 4BC in the 19th century, will surely not have had so accurate tools to date the lunar eclipses as accurately as we now can?.

  • YHWH says

    http://w2.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html

    Yep the Holy See at the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) messed up JESUS’ real birth date. He was born on 6/6/6 BC Julian and was 12 years old on AD 6/6/6 Julian doing business. We know that Christmas Day is really 6/1/6 BC Julian being John the Baptist’s birthday. Here quick fix: Celebrate John the Baptist’s real birthday Christmas Day with Lucifer’s.

    Gregorian Calendar 25th December 7 BC
    Revelation beast One’s birth date
    6/1/6 BC (day/month/year)
    John the Baptist

    Gregorian Calendar 24th May 6 BC
    Revelation beast Two’s birth date
    6/6/6 BC (day/month/year)
    Jesus the Christ

    Germanicus Julius Caesar

    • J says

      Please, don’t come up with nonsense arguments. Don’t try to question authenticity of the Holy Bible.. Apart from a few Christians in U.S., many many Christians across every continents of the world take the Holy Bible as a final truth and God’s perfect revelation of Himself to the humans.

  • Daniel says

    Yeshua has confirmed his Nativity to have been on a Sunday → “Sunday is the day of the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection…”, Assumption of the Virgin, Syriac version Book IV.”; “I came into being on the eighth day, which is the day of the Lord”, The Epistle of the Apostles, Coptic version.

    A.D. 1 began correctly on a Sunday. Calculating back from the day that you read this post and integrated with intercalary days, Dionysius’s calendar began at midnight Sunday, on January 1st → Apocrypha Syriaca: Transitus Mariae; ‘He was in her womb until the Second Kanun (Syriac calendar month conterminous with January) on its sixth (hour – midnight) on the first day of the week, the Holy Day…’

    Yeshua has confirmed this particular Sunday to have been on the day that Augustus Caesar gave peace to the Roman Empire — “I was born the same day on which Augustus Caesar gave peace to the Roman world.” The Archko Volume, Pilate’s Report.

    Roman Historian Dio Cassius has Gaius making peace with Phraates king of Parthia in early A.D 1. Treaties were inaugurated under the auspices of Caesar and formalized in a ritual to their deity Janus at midnight on January 1.

    Yeshua’s word is in lambent concordance with the inauguration of peace for the Roman world as given under the auspices of Augustus Caesar in the year A.D. 1, begun at midnight on January 1st → The Apocryphal and Legendary Life of Christ has the Gates of Janus being closed at the time of Jesus’ birth and Orosius, priest, historian and theologian has chronicled the temple doors closing at the time of Jesus’ birth.

    Dionysius’ calendar aligns with the ceremony of the closing of the doors of the Roman deity Janus incorporating the inauguration of peace for the Roman world at midnight January 1st A.D. 1.

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