The Birth of Jesus

 THE BIRTH OF JESUS

Believe it or not, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give three different dates for the birth of Jesus. Matthew placed the blessed event during the final years of Herod the Great, approximately 6-4 BCE. (Herod the Great died in 4 BCE). Most scholars accept this date, as the Herod the Great episode included the “Star of Bethlehem.” The second date comes from Luke’s Gospel. Luke placed his birth date at the Census of Cyrenius. According to Josephus, this Census occurred in 6-7 CE, some ten to twelve years after the “Star of Bethlehem” scenario. The third dating for Jesus’ birth also can be calculated from Luke’s account. Luke stated that Jesus began his ministry at the age of thirty, at the time when John baptized at the Jordan. Luke assigned John the Baptist a beginning date of 28-29 CE. Thus, if Jesus were thirty years old in 29 CE, he must have been born around 2 BCE. This third date splits the difference between the other dates given by Matthew and Luke. The best guess scholars can give based upon these three calculations is that Jesus was born somewhere between 6 BCE and 7 CE.

One other birth scenario exists for Jesus, not recorded in the Gospels. The Slavonic Josephus also has a “Star of Bethlehem” story which actually gives more detail than Matthew’s version. The Messiah’s birth date in this version was around 25 BCE, some twenty years earlier than Matthew’s account. In this version, a younger Herod the Great tried to kill the infant Messiah but was foiled by the three Persian astrologers. So, in actuality, we must try to decide which of the four birth dates, if any, matches up with the majority of information we have concerning the birth of Jesus.

THE “STAR OF BETHLEHEM” – Matt. 2:1-18 and Slavonic Josephus, After War 1.400.

The Gospel of Matthew contains the “Star of Bethlehem” story. A birth narrative was entirely omitted by Mark while Luke’s account did not even mention this star. What meaning did this star have? According to Matthew, the Magi saw the future Messiah’s star in the east. The Magi interpreted this star as representing a child who would be king of the Jews. (Matt. 2:2) The Slavonic Josephus did explain this star a little better than Matthew. This source stated that the priests told Herod that the star represented a prophecy from Numbers 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (After War 1.400) So it can be argued that both sources referred to this “Star Prophecy”.

 Later in the Slavonic Josephus, the following was written about the “Star Prophecy”.

But they [the Jews] were impelled to [make] war by an ambiguous prediction found in the sacred books, saying that in those times someone from the Judaean land would be reigning over the whole world. For this there are various explanations. For some thought it [meant] Herod, others the crucified miracle-worker, [Jesus], others Vespasian. (After War 6.311)

The Messianic Jews favored the explanation that “Jesus” was the predicted world ruler. Others, including Josephus, attributed this prophecy to the eventual ruler of the Roman world, Vespasian. Certainly, after the Jewish war, those favoring Vespasian could simply point to history. Jesus and his movement had been thoroughly crushed in the war with Rome. This may be why the “Star of Bethlehem” story, as told by Matthew, does not overtly mention the “Star Prophecy”. In fact, through the ages, very few have even put the two together. This tendency to stress the miraculous over the historical and political meanings is a trademark of the various Gospels. The truth should not get in the way of a good story.

Herod’s desire to kill the infant Messiah was present in both Matthew and the Slavonic Josephus. In Matthew, this mad plan occurred near the end of Herod’s life. When Herod learned that he had been tricked by the Magi, he ordered that all boys two years and younger, in the town of Bethlehem, should be killed. This dated the birth of Jesus to approximately 6 BCE, as Herod died in 4 BCE. The Slavonic Josephus gave a little more insight into Herod’s soul. His advisors convinced him that he should kill only those infants in Bethlehem. Herod was willing to kill all infants throughout Israel.

Early tradition had the Messiah being born in Bethlehem. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. An angel of God visited Joseph in a dream and convinced him to flee to Egypt. There they stayed until the death of Herod. Once again, an angel announced to Joseph in a dream that Herod had died, and it was safe to return to Israel. On their return, they settled in Nazareth. It is interesting that Matthew had to use an angel twice to move Mary, Joseph and Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth. This use of an angel and miraculous dreams should be viewed skeptically. The angel was necessary to move Jesus to Nazareth when he had originally been in Bethlehem.

The move to Nazareth became necessary because Joseph had been warned in a dream to avoid Judea and its ruler, Archelaus. This suggests that Mary and Joseph never lived in Galilee before Jesus’ birth. It was only after the birth that they put down roots in Nazareth, far from Archelaus. It should not be missed that Judas the Galilean also fled to Sepphoris, in Galilee, after Archelaus had released him in the Barabbas-style prisoner release. Like the story of Joseph and Mary, Judas also feared the rule of Archelaus and thought it safer to go beyond his reaches.

The small village of Nazareth has also raised questions about this time in Jesus’ life. Josephus never mentioned a Nazareth in his writings and John Crossan states that “it is never mentioned by any of the Jewish rabbis whose pronouncements are in the Mishnah or whose discussions are in the Talmud.” (1) So, it is very possible that a Nazareth did not even exist at the time of Jesus’ birth. But why would Matthew steer us in this direction? Could the Messiah figure have been associated with a larger town only a few miles from this Nazareth? This city in question was named Sepphoris. Sepphoris was associated with Judas the Galilean. The change to Nazareth can now be understood. Matthew simply twisted the term Nazirite, or one consecrated to God, into a geographical destination. This move from Sepphoris to Nazareth helped distance Jesus from Judas the Galilean.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the “Star of Bethlehem” story is the dating of Jesus’ birth. According to Matthew, this took place on or slightly before 6 BCE. When we factor in Jesus’ purported age of thirty at the start of his ministry, he must have met John the Baptist around 25 CE. However, according to Luke, John began baptizing in the Jordan around 28-29 CE. These dates do not jibe. In addition, James, the brother of Jesus was reported to have been ninety-six years old at his death in 62 CE. Therefore, James must have been born around 35 BCE. Even if the age of ninety-six was a slight exaggeration, he must have been a very old man at the time of his death. Therefore, we can estimate his birth at between 35-25 BCE, a full generation before the birth of Jesus, according to Matthew’s reckoning. Finally, a passage in John 8:57 had the Jews saying to Jesus, “You are not yet fifty years old … and you have seen Abraham!” This Gospel tradition assumed Jesus was a much older man, one nearer 50 than 40. Once again, this age does not jibe with the birth date of 6 BCE.

The Slavonic Josephus dates the “Star of Bethlehem” story at approximately 25 BCE. First, this is much nearer the birth date of James, his brother. Second, if Jesus were thirty at the beginning of his ministry, then this can be dated at 6 CE, the exact time when the Slavonic Josephus introduced John the Baptist. It is also the same date as the Census of Cyrenius. Judas the Galilean led his nationwide tax revolt against Rome in 6 CE. The age of the Slavonic Josephus’ Messiah would also be much closer to the John tradition, where Jesus was close to fifty years old at the end of his ministry. I have pinpointed the death of Judas the Galilean at between 19-21 CE. If Judas (Jesus) had been born in 25 BCE, he would have been in his mid 40’s at the crucifixion. This is much closer to all the facts than the traditional timeline as given by Matthew.

One other aspect of the “Star of Bethlehem” story should not be missed. The slaughter of the innocents around Bethlehem was used as a way to connect the life of Jesus to the life of Moses. Many scholars have doubted the veracity of this part of the story. Certainly, Herod the Great was capable of ordering this slaughter, but it does not appear in either the War or in Antiquities. Josephus would not have missed such a good story! So, is it possible that this slaughter was a combination of the Moses story and another story related to Herod the Great? The answer is yes. The positioning of the “Star of Bethlehem” story in the Slavonic Josephus can be aligned with a story told in Antiquities but not in the War. In this account, Herod tracked down the last of the Maccabean line and had them killed. (Ant. 15.259-266) These two young men, the sons of Babas, could very well have been the original innocents, incorporated into the story of the Messiah. After all, this Messiah was going to restore the Kingdom of God at the very time when Herod was eliminating the last of the Maccabees. This, in and of itself, would be a miracle.

THE CENSUS OF CYRENIUS – Luke 2:1-40.

If the author of Luke was indeed the author of Acts, then we have much to doubt in this Gospel. In Chapter 14, the book of Acts was shown to be one giant anachronism. The Gospel of Luke might not be too far behind in its inaccurate accounts. According to Luke, Jesus was born at the Census of Cyrenius, or around 6-7 CE, during the Roman governorship of Coponius (6-9 CE). (Ant. 18.1-3) Coponius replaced Archelaus, and the Census was meant to raise a tax upon the Jews and to dispose of Archelaus’ money. So, from Luke’s narrative, both Herod the Great and his son, Archelaus, were out of the picture before Jesus’ birth, in total disagreement with Matthew’s account.

The dating for the birth of Jesus at 6-7 CE is also hard to believe. Luke’s date is a good twelve years later than Matthew’s “Star of Bethlehem” scenario. It has already been detailed that the traditional dating of the “Star of Bethlehem” is much too late to explain the age of James and the passage of John, where Jesus was not yet fifty years old. The Census birth is even farther off. Even by Luke’s own set of “facts”, Jesus began his ministry at the age of thirty, and John the Baptist baptized at the Jordan at 28-29 CE. So, if Jesus’ birth was in 6-7 CE and he began his ministry at the age of thirty, the ministry began in 36-37 CE. But John the Baptist, who was also the same age as Jesus, began his ministry eight years earlier. Furthermore, according to Josephus, John was put to death in 35-36 CE. (Ant. 18.116-119) Therefore, the account in Luke cannot be correct. Jesus was not born at the Census of Cyrenius!

Why would Luke put the birth of Jesus at the Census? For starters, Luke was not too concerned about historical accuracy. To miss a date by ten, twenty or fifty years was not as important as the story itself. The Census had two very important functions. First, the movement of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem was explained by the Census, where everyone of the house of David had to register in the town of David or Bethlehem. This Census got Jesus to Bethlehem, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2, where the Messiah of Israel would be born. The fact that Matthew had Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem and then later moving to Nazareth while Luke had the order reversed has been generally ignored by scholars. Perhaps by the time of Luke’s Gospel, the legend of Jesus and Galilee was so strong that only the Census could get him out of Galilee.

The second point concerns Judas the Galilean. Judas was the hero of the Census tax revolt. Luke was simply replacing Judas’ heroics with the birth of the Messiah. For all time, the Census of Cyrenius would be remembered for the birth of the Messiah. It would never be remembered for the exploits of Judas the Galilean.

JUDAS AND JESUS

The two Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus do not jibe. Instead, they have created a mystery for historians. How can these accounts be harmonized? If these are birth scenarios, then they cannot be harmonized, as the two accounts differ by approximately twelve years. However, the two accounts may actually represent two separate events in the life of one individual, that person being Judas the Galilean. Matthew’s account of the “Star of Bethlehem” was placed at the end of Herod the Great’s reign, the same time when Judas and Matthias spearheaded the Golden Eagle Temple Cleansing. That could be a coincidence, but is it not unusual that Luke’s account of the Census of Cyrenius was also an important part of Judas the Galilean’s legacy? Judas led a nationwide tax revolt against Rome as chronicled by Josephus. (Ant. 18.1-4) And it should not be missed that Jesus was crucified for his opposition to Roman taxation. (Luke 23:2)

Not only were the major events in Judas’ life shadowed by the Gospel Jesus, but other smaller ones were also mimicked. Joseph fled to Galilee to escape Archelaus, just as Judas had done after the Barabbas-style prisoner release of 4 BCE. In addition, Joseph and Mary took up residence in Nazareth, just a few miles from Sepphoris, the center of Judas’ Galilean movement.

So when did the birth of Jesus occur? It was not in 6 BCE (Matthew) or in 6 CE (Luke). The Slavonic Josephus’ “Star of Bethlehem” story was placed in 25 BCE. This dating makes much more sense as James, the brother of Jesus, was born somewhere between 35-25 BCE. Also, an older Jesus (Judas) fits the bill when it comes to the passage in John where Jesus was not yet fifty years old. Only the birth in 25 BCE can explain away these difficulties.

1. John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus, p. 18.

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About danielunterbrink

Dan Unterbrink has dual degrees from Ohio State. THE THREE MESSIAHS is his third book on Christian origins, underscoring his passion for the subject.
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