QUESTION TIME By Fr John Flader
My daughter recently came home from school saying that her teacher said Christ was probably born several years BC, which would mean he was born several years “before Christ”. I thought we reckoned the calendar from the year of his birth. Who is right?
Actually, your daughter’s teacher is more right than you and the calendar are. But let me explain.
St Luke says that when Quirinius was governor of Syria the Emperor Caesar Augustus called a census of the whole world and it was this census that made Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem where Christ was born (cf. Luke 2:1-2).
Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth – the Infancy Narratives, before entering into the date of the census offers a very interesting commentary on the relationship between Augustus and Christ.
He says that there is an inscription at Priene from the year 9 BC which says that the day of the Emperor’s birth “gave the whole world a new aspect. It would have fallen into ruin had not a widespread well-being shone forth through him, the one now born … Providence, which has ordered all things, filled this man with virtue that he might benefit mankind, sending him as a Saviour (soter) both for us and our descendants … The birthday of the god was the beginning of the good tidings that he brought for the world. From his birth, a new reckoning of time must begin” (p. 59).
It is not difficult to see that what was said of the Roman Emperor applies even more appropriately to Jesus. After all, it was Christ, much more than Augustus, who gave the whole world a new aspect, who was filled with virtue that benefitted mankind, who was a true Saviour, whose birth was the beginning of truly good tidings and which should usher in a new reckoning of time, as in fact it did.
What is more, in the year 27 BC, three years after Augustus became emperor, the Roman Senate awarded him the title Augustus, meaning “worthy of adoration”, a title which applies most appropriately to Jesus, the Son of God.
As to the date of the census, Pope Benedict comments that since it took place at the time of King Herod the Great, who died in the year 4 BC, it must have been at least in that year or before. Moreover, since Herod ordered the killing of all male babies beneath the age of two (cf. Matthew 2:16), Christ could have been born as early as 5 or 6 BC.
Pope Benedict says that there is considerable debate regarding the actual year of the census. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says the census took place in the year 6 AD, under the governor Quirinius. He says that Quirinius was only active in Syria and Judea from that year on, although this claim is uncertain.
In any case, Quirinius was already in the Emperor’s service in Syria around 9 BC. Some scholars point out that the census was a long process, conducted in two distinct phases and spread out over several years, so this could explain the discrepancy. Indeed, St Luke says that “this was the first enrolment” (Luke 2: 2).
Another attempt at ascertaining the year of Christ’s birth starts from the bright star that the magi followed to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem (cf. Matthew 2:1-2). While some writers, including St John Chrysostom (cf. In Matt. Hom., VI, 2), maintain that the star was not something visible to the eye but rather a light in the soul of the magi, others search for the date of an unusually bright celestial phenomenon that would have drawn the magi.
Johannes Kepler, who died in 1630, calculated that in the year 7-6 BC there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars which could have moved the magi to make their journey to Bethlehem. Likewise, there seems to be a reference in Chinese chronological tables to a bright star that appeared in 4 BC and was visible for a long time.
All in all, much uncertainty remains, with most scholars placing the birth of Christ between 6 and 4 BC, with some widening it to between 7 and 2 BC.
The question then remains as to how the calendar used by the whole world today can be so mistaken. This is related to the further question of when it was that the whole world began to use this calendar.
It was the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who died in about 550 AD, who gave the year for the birth of Christ on which the calendar is based. Around the year 525 he said Christ had been born on December 25 in the year 1. Naturally, he could easily have been mistaken by a few years when 500 years had passed from the birth of Christ.
So it is a very interesting history and perhaps we shall never know exactly in which year Christ was born. What most matters is to celebrate the feast with great joy and solemnity.