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When Was Jesus Born?


When Was Jesus Born? (originally posted December 2018)

In his 1915 classic book “Jesus the Christ” Elder James E. Talmage stated that Jesus Christ was born on 6th. April in the year 1 BC. This assumption was based on his interpretation of D&C 20:1, which states the date when the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organised. Elder Talmage was apparently the first Church writer to interpret the verse in this way, but as a result many Church members have assumed that the 6th April 1 BC is indeed the actual date of the first Christmas. However, although this belief is widespread, it is not an official position of the Church.

Other Church leaders have interpreted D&C 20:1 to be a typical flowery mid-19th century manner of expressing an important date – in this case that of the Church organisation – and not a literal statement of the exact time span from the birth of Jesus. There is also some doubt that the verse is part of the original revelation and there is good reason to suggest it may have been added as an introduction by a clerk.

In 1954 J. Rueben Clark Jr., who served as a counsellor in the First Presidency, published another influential book, “Our Lord of the Gospels” which was reprinted as a Melchizedek Priesthood study guide by the Church. In it, Elder Clark indicated that the date of Christ’s birth is not known, but that his own preference was a day in December, 5 BC. In 1979 Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s four-volume series “The Mortal Messiah” began to be published. In it he agrees with Elder Clark concerning a December date in 4 or 5 BC, though he emphasises that “this is not a settled issue” and leaves the possibility of an April date open.

In fact, numerous Church leaders before “Jesus the Christ” and after “The Mortal Messiah” were written, expressed different views and disagreed with each other. Three Church Presidents: Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley, have supported the 6th April date, though not to the extent of making it an official position of the Church. Other Church leaders and scholars have had different opinions.

This is not the place for a detailed analysis, but the following three issues are worth considering.

One known, fixed historical date is the death of Herod the Great, which was no later than the beginning of April of 4 BC. Since Herod was still alive when Jesus was born, the birth must have been at least several months prior to this and could not have been in 1 BC.

According to Luke, the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary was in the “sixth month”, which in the Jewish calendar was between mid-to-late February and mid-to-late March in our calendar. It’s reasonable to suppose that her conception occurred soon after Gabriel’s message and not three or four months later, especially because of the timing of her visit to Elisabeth. The birth therefore would have occurred approximately nine months after Gabriel’s appearance: between mid-to-late November and mid-to-late December.

In the Book of Mormon, times are given for the birth and death of Christ. Calculations based on this record suggest a December rather than an April date.

There are many other factors to take into account, some favouring April, some December and some another date entirely, but there is no room here to consider them all. The most comprehensive, balanced and persuasive study I know of is a paper by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Christ”, in BYU Studies Volume 49, issue 4 – an interesting read, though be warned, it’s thirty-five pages long. For now, this is still an unsettled issue and we are free to make our own choice.

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