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When Was Jesus Actually Born?

Christ’s birth is traditionally celebrated in the West on December 25th, but many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7. Neither date is likely correct in light of several clues uncovered by historians and information in the Bible itself.
Contributing Writer
Updated Jan 26, 2024
When Was Jesus Actually Born?

Many have researched and attempted to answer the question, "When was Jesus actually born?" The birth of Jesus Christ was a pivotal moment in history and has long been a subject of scholarly debate and theological contemplation. The Nativity of Jesus Christ is traditionally celebrated on Christmas Day, December 25th, but let's look into whether this was actually Christ's birthday.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide accounts of Jesus's birth, including facts such as - the location of Bethlehem, the names of Mary and Joseph, fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod, and the angels who appeared to shepherds - yet they do not offer a specific date for this momentous event. 

As a result, the question of when exactly Jesus was born has given rise to a multitude of theories and hypotheses throughout the centuries. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of dating Jesus's birth and explore the various historical, astronomical, and theological perspectives that have emerged in an attempt to pinpoint the elusive date of the nativity. The biblical account does not give the year Jesus was born (Luke 2). So how was the date of Christmas decided, and when was Jesus really born?

When was Jesus Born?

The Bible gives no specific date of Jesus' birth. However, the date can be estimated based on when Hebrew shepherds historically tended their flocks in open fields and according to the biblical account of Mary and Elizabeth's pregnancies.

The Bible says in Luke 2:8-9. “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.”

According to Bible commentator Adam Clarke, it was traditional for the Jews to send their sheep to pasture from the spring until early October. As the cold winter months began, the flocks would return from the fields for protection and warmth. Since the shepherds were still tending their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem it can be deduced that the angels announced the news of Jesus’ birth no later than October.

To determine the approximate month of Jesus' birth, we can look at the birth of John the Baptist as described in Luke 1. Zacharias, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife Elizabeth, who was barren, became pregnant with John the Baptist after Zacharias' temple service. Gabriel visited Mary when Elizabeth was six months pregnant and announced that she would give birth to Jesus. By counting from the date of Zacharias' priestly service to the birth of Jesus, we can find additional clues to answer the question of when Jesus was really born.

In those times, Jewish priests were divided into 24 courses that served in the temple throughout the year. The order of Abijah was the eighth priestly course (1 Chronicles 24:6-19) which served in the temple during the 10th week of the priestly cycle. The 10th week started on the second Sabbath in the month of Sivan, which falls approximately from mid-May to mid-June. After Zechariah returned from his priestly duties, Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.

Luke 1:24-28, 31 chronicles these events, “Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’ Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’...And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.”

Based on the Bible text and knowledge of the priestly courses, we can estimate that Jesus was born around the time of Tishri, which falls in mid to late September. This approximation is reached by starting at the conception of John the Baptist, which occurred in Sivan (June). Then, we count forward six months to arrive at Gabriel's announcement of the conception of Jesus, which happened in Kislev (December). Finally, we count forward nine more months, which is the average time it takes for human gestation, to reach Tishri (September) when Jesus was born.

What Year Was Jesus Born?

While many scholars believe Jesus was born sometime between 4 BC and 6 BC, there is no definitive historical evidence that pinpoints the exact year of his birth. The commonly used Christian calendar, which designates Jesus' birth as the starting point, traditionally places it at 1 BC or 1 AD, although these dates are approximate and may not align precisely with historical records.

Confusion in Historical Calendars

Several factors are involved in establishing the year of Christ’s birth. There were two dating systems at the time of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. One was his new Julian calendar, and the other calendar began with the year Rome was established: 753 BC. To complicate matters, Julius Caesar also determined that a year would be calculated beginning with the start of complete authority by the reigning emperor at that time.

About 500 years later, a mathematically-minded monk, Dionysius Exiguus, invented the concept of AD. His purpose was to establish when Easter should be celebrated by working backward using a complicated system of his own. He decided that Christ was born in AD 1, and his system was adopted in Europe around 200 years later.

Date Evidence in the Bible

Bible scholars work from what Scripture tells us regarding the history of Jesus. The events took place within the living memory of the writers or their families, such as the reign of Herod, during which time Matthew tells us Christ was born.

We know there was a celestial event that alerted the Magi, and this can also be dated. John the Baptist’s preaching took place during “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius” (Luke 3:1). Jesus’ approximate age at the start of His ministry (30) is also supplied in the book of Luke, so we can determine that Christ was likely born around 2 or 3 BC.

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness." (Luke 3:1-2)

What Month was Jesus Born?

One hypothesis suggests that Jesus may have been born in the month of December. This idea is largely based on the mention of shepherds in the Gospel of Luke who were tending their flocks at night when the angelic announcement of Jesus's birth occurred. Some argue that this activity would have been more likely in a warmer month, implying that Jesus might have been born in a mild Mediterranean climate during the winter. Additionally, the early Christian church established December 25th as the date to celebrate Jesus's birth, possibly to coincide with existing pagan festivals, such as the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus. This choice could have influenced the association of Jesus's birth with December.

However, it's essential to note that this evidence is circumstantial and inconclusive. Other scholars argue for alternative months or even different years for Jesus's birth based on historical and astronomical data. The uncertainty surrounding the precise month of Jesus's birth underscores the challenge of dating an event that occurred over two thousand years ago and the various factors that have influenced the development of Christmas traditions over time. Ultimately, while December 25th remains the widely accepted date for celebrating Jesus's birth, the exact month of his birth remains a mystery.

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25th?

The day and month of Jesus’s birth are even more challenging to establish. Theologians typically agree that December 25 is far from likely. In the late Roman Empire, there was a festival called "Sol Invictus" (the Unconquered Sun) that celebrated the sun god on December 25th. Some have suggested that the choice of this date for Christmas was influenced by the desire to Christianize or replace this pagan holiday - conceived as an effort to establish a pagan substitute for a date that already held a degree of importance for Roman Christians. 

Another argument takes a different view. December 25th falls close to the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, which is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In many pagan traditions, the winter solstice was a significant event associated with the rebirth of the sun and the return of longer days. Some festivals, like the Roman festival of Saturnalia, were celebrated around this time, often involving feasting and gift-giving. Saturnalia, in particular, is often cited as a possible influence on the dating of Christmas. Saturnalia was a Roman festival that celebrated the god Saturn and included various festivities, including gift exchanges and feasting. Some argue that the early Christians chose December 25th to celebrate Jesus' birth to co-opt or replace Saturnalia with a Christian holiday. 

When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it was easier for the newly formed church to repurpose the pagan observance of the winter solstice between December 17-25 since citizens were already prepared to celebrate the day. Thus, a celebration and festival filled with family and friends exchanging gifts meant these traditions would continue as Christmas.

Another intriguing theory proposes that December 25 was officially designated as Christmas Day by Sextus Julius Africanus in AD 221. This assertion is rooted in meticulous calculations that Africanus undertook, embarking on a historical journey that began with his estimation of the world's creation in 5499 BC. With an unwavering dedication to precision, Africanus meticulously traced the lineage of biblical figures and significant events, meticulously aligning them with historical and astronomical data. His goal was to pinpoint the most appropriate date for commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, a task that required an intricate web of chronology and celestial observations. Africanus's determination to find this date led him to December 25, marking it as the momentous day when Christians should celebrate the birth of their savior. His extensive calculations and scholarly dedication have left an enduring legacy, contributing to the rich tapestry of theories surrounding the birth date of Jesus Christ.

Dating Based on King Herod

Dating the birth of Jesus around the death of King Herod is a historical puzzle that involves a combination of biblical and extra-biblical sources, along with some scholarly interpretations. Here's how it's typically done:

  1. Biblical Accounts: The primary source for dating Jesus's birth in relation to King Herod comes from the New Testament, specifically the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 2:1, it mentions that Jesus was born during the time of King Herod. It also describes Herod's attempt to have Jesus killed by ordering the massacre of infants in Bethlehem, commonly known as the "Massacre of the Innocents."

  2. Herod's Reign: King Herod the Great is a well-documented historical figure. His reign is generally believed to have started around 37 or 36 BC. Historical records also indicate that he died around 4 BC, which is a crucial reference point.

  3. Astronomical Data: Some scholars have suggested that the "Star of Bethlehem," which guided the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus, might have been a celestial event. Astronomical calculations and computer simulations have been used to try to identify potential astronomical occurrences around the time of Jesus's birth. Some theories suggest conjunctions of planets or other celestial phenomena around 6-4 BC.

  4. Luke's Gospel: While the Gospel of Luke doesn't mention King Herod, it provides additional clues for dating Jesus's birth. Luke 2:2 mentions a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Historically, such censuses were conducted periodically, and there is evidence of one occurring in 6-4 BC.

  5. Scholarly Consensus: Taking into account all the available evidence, many scholars place Jesus's birth between 6 and 4 BC, with the death of King Herod serving as a significant anchor point. This allows for the events described in the biblical narratives to align with the historical context of Herod's reign and the Roman census.

Listen to "Herod: The Monster of Christmas" from The Characters of Christmas podcast.

What Does the Bible Tell Us About Jesus' Birth?

Celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas holds profound significance in Christian tradition, even in light of His life, death, and resurrection. Jesus' birth marks the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies, underscoring Jesus's identity as the promised Messiah. This celebration reaffirms the belief that God's plan of salvation foretold in the Scriptures, came to fruition through Jesus. 

Christmas is the beginning of Jesus's earthly life, leading to His sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Christians view Jesus's birth as the initial step in God's redemptive plan, offering forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith. Christmas is a source of joy and hope, signifying that God entered the world to bring light into darkness and offer hope to those in need.

In summary, Christmas, the celebration of Jesus's birth, remains a deeply meaningful and cherished observance in Christianity. It not only acknowledges the historical and theological significance of His birth but also reminds believers of the foundational events that paved the way for His life, death, and resurrection. It is a celebration of God's love for humanity, the hope and salvation brought by Jesus, and a time to share these profound truths with the world.

Does it Matter When Jesus Was Born?

Even if the global Christian community could clearly decide that Christ was born on a different day, changing the date of Christmas worldwide would pose many problems. Selecting a new date for celebrating Christ’s birth would require massive adjustments at both commercial and institutional levels.

  • School calendars and public holidays have been established to coincide with this time.
  • The economies of developed nations rely on the financial boost provided during the Christmas season.
  • Churches organize special events around this time.
  • Families use this date as a reason to get together.

It is beneficial to fix a date for Christmas Day, even if it seems arbitrary. In an age where “our fast-moving lives have wreaked havoc on our relationships,” as Rick Warren said, and we feel disconnected from one another, celebrating Jesus’  birth unifies the church body both locally and at large.

Moreover, Christmas celebrations provide an opportunity to engage community members who might not otherwise attend church events. The day is set apart even in the hearts and minds of non-believers. Associating Christmas with light-hearted festivities might seem disrespectful in light of its true meaning. Still, the joy of singing familiar carols and lighting candles, the sense of belonging and love connected to the holiday, encourages many unbelievers to attend Christmas services where they might hear the gospel.

Rejoice in the birth of Christ with a FREE 25 Days to a Joyful Christmas Prayer Guide!

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Candice Lucey lives with her husband and daughters in (mostly) tranquil Salmon Arm, BC, Canada. Here, she enjoys digging into God’s word when not working or taking part in ministry activities.

Photo Credit: Getty/Lukbar


This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through His Son, Jesus Christ!

What Is Advent: Meaning, History, and Traditions
Advent Prayers for Friends, Family, and More
What Is an Advent Wreath and How to Use One?
The History of Santa Claus: Origin of St. Nicholas
Christmas Bible Verses & Scripture Story

What is Christmas? True Meaning and Holiday History
Christmas Eve History and Traditions
Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
When Was Jesus Born? Why December 25th
Where Was Jesus Born?

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