When Was the First Christmas? A Minority Report

You’re a Superstar
What difference does it make when Jesus was born? Answer: Identifying the Star of Bethlehem as both an astronomical event and a meaningful sign. If the star was a natural phenomenon, then which one it was depends on when we date the birth of Jesus. I happen to believe the date most commonly accepted – between 6 and 4 BCE – is open to question and a later date to be preferred – and I’ll tell you why.

The dating of Christ’s birth is calculated from one event: the death of Herod, a specific historical event referenced in the Gospels. And how is the death of Herod dated? It is calculated from a specific astronomical event, namely a lunar eclipse. Most historians assume this eclipse to have been the one that occurred on March 12/13, 4 BCE. But that is not the only lunar eclipse that could be used to date it, and if a later eclipse is more likely, we also find an even more dramatic series of astronomical appearances in the Middle East – whose meaning would have been profound to star-gazers of the day – that occurred before and at the time of this later date for the birth of Jesus. We call these appearances the Star of Bethlehem.

Someone is bound to object that the Star of Bethlehem was a purely miraculous, i.e. supernatural, event. However, there is no explicit statement in the gospel narratives that requires us to believe that the star is something more than a natural, albeit extraordinary, phenomenon. (Regarding Mt.2:9, see below.) It served as a sign, I would contend, because of its timing and its meaning. So what was the timing and the meaning?

When did Herod die?
According to Matthew and Luke here is the order events around the birth of Jesus:

  • Augustus orders a census for tax purposes
  • Joseph and Mary travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem
  • Jesus is born, circumcised and presented in the temple
  • The Magi arrive in Jerusalem and are questioned by Herod
  • The Magi find Jesus in Bethlehem
  • Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s male infants
  • The family flees to Egypt
  • Herod dies
  • The family returns from Egypt

In order to date these events, at least one of them must have a fixed date, and that event is Herod’s death. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the circumstances of his death. Herod ordered the execution of two dissident rabbis on the same night as a total lunar eclipse (Antiquities, 17.167). He died shortly afterward. Most historians hold that the eclipse referred to is one that happened on March 13, 4 BCE. Shortly after his death was a Passover, indicating that it was spring. Herod had ordered the death of all boys two and under in Bethlehem, strongly suggesting that the Magi told him the star had first appeared some two years before their arrival.  Herod concluded that the birth he was worried about had happened sometime in the previous two years. Thus, Jesus’s birth is placed in 6-4 BCE, on the assumption that Josephus’ eclipse was in 4 BCE.

Jesus’ birth                                                   6/5 BCE ?
The Bethlehem Massacre                        5 or 6 BCE ?
Herod’s death                                March/April 4 BCE

Are there reasons to question this dating? Yes, a few.

1. According to Josephus, a lot of things happened between the eclipse and Passover, which fell on April 11 in 4 BCE. That’s less than a month. The other proposed early date of 5 BCE has a lunar eclipse on September 15/16, but Passover is seven months later.

2. A proper reckoning of Herod’s reign begins with beginning of his first full year of reign on April 11, 35 BCE. Josephus places Herod’s death in his 34th year of reign, which began on April 6, 2 BCE.

3. Most of the early Christian scholars date Christ’s birth to 2/3 BCE: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cassiodorus Senator and Orosious. All these people had a much better handle on the reckoning of time in the ancient world, and likely had access to records that no longer exist. No early historians give a 6-4 BCE date.

4. Another, later eclipse fits the timeline better. It was on Jan. 10, 1 BCE (there were no lunar eclipses in 3 or 2 BCE). The Passover was twelve and a half weeks later, allowing time for the events between the two, while Herod’s death could still be described as shortly after the first and shortly before the second.

In other words, Herod may in fact have died three years after the accepted date. In which case, the early historians, forming a consensus, may have been correct in assigning a later birth date. But there are even more compelling facts to consider.

“We Have Seen His Star”
How about celestial occurrences that we could identify as the Star of Bethlehem?

“Some may regard the star as entirely mythical, some as completely miraculous, but it is also possible to suppose and inquire after an actual celestial phenomenon back of the account.” – Jack Finegan (1908-2000)

We should go where the evidence leads, but I favor the  latter approach – investigating an event that can be verified independently of Scripture – for the following reason. The star as presented by Matthew is a sign to the non-Jewish world, and it is a sign that was not to be read about 60 or 70 years later. An immediate sign for people who would take note of it and seek to understand what it meant and what it pointed to. A miraculous star does not rule this out, but how much greater a sign it is, if in fact it is an astronomical event whose factual-historical nature stands unquestioned throughout all history to come – like the stars and planets themselves. So if there is such an event, and it happens to line up with the other events under consideration, we should not rule it out because it is not strictly supernatural. But Matthew 2:9 has this peculiar account:

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.

Not exactly how you expect a star or other celestial body to behave. But the planets could have reached their stationary points at that very time; they would seem to “stand still.” Also, there could have been a concurrence of zodiacal light which creates the appearance along the ecliptic of a beam of light (actually sunlight) and can seem to be shining down on the earth like a spotlight.

In short, a completely natural phenomena, but serving a divine purpose at a divinely appointed time.

Those who hold to 4 BCE for Herod’s demise can point to a number of astronomical phenomena which could account for the appearance of the star.

The Chinese recorded a nova (or a comet) in 5 BCE (appearing for 70 days, perhaps more), and another in 4 BCE. In 7 BCE there was was a triple conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in Pisces, with Mars also coming close.

But what if we accept a later date of 1 BCE for Herod’s death? If Herod ordered the massacre sometime in the last months of his life, it points back to 3 or 2 BCE for the birth. In those years there were no novae or comets, but there was something even more remarkable for its astrological meaning and its allure to the Magi.

Finegan (550*. Emphasis mine):

On the morning of August 12, 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus rose in the eastern sky, an event which could ave been what was meant when the magi said, “We have seen his star in the East,” or “in its rising” (Matt 2:2). (The word ἀνατολῇ means both the “rising [of stars]” and the “place of the rising [of the sun],” i.e., the East.) In this conjunction Jupiter and Venus were so close they were almost touching each other. From the point of view of astrological symbolism, Jupiter is the king planet and Venus (Ishtar in Babylonia) a female; so their conjunction can suggest a coming birth. The conjunction took place in Leo (the Lion) and near the bright fixed star Regulus. Regulus is the king star and the Lion constellation is the tribal sign of Judah…Afterwards Jupiter moved on to be in close conjunctions with Regulus three times (a triple conjunction on Sept 14, 3 B.C., Feb 17, 2 B.C., and May 8, 2 B.C.), then June 17, 2 B.C., came into again into conjunction with Venus, this time being so close that without a modern telescope the two planets would have looked like a single star. In the fall and winter 3/2 B.C. Jupiter appeared to stop several times against the background of the stars; and on June 17, 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in extremely close conjunction and shone almost like a single bright star in the west – in the direction of Jerusalem as seen from Babylonia. With these phenomena we may compare Matthew 2:9: “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” If the magi were students of astronomical events it can theorized that the appearance of this star on June 17, 2 B.C., was the final heavenly sign that impelled them in the late summer or early fall to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they found the child Jesus, ‘who was born some time during the previous year and a half.’

This is what the magi saw that foretold something they perceived as of immense importance to the world:

The king planet came together with the woman/maiden/mother planet in the constellation of the tribe of Judah – the tribe of David, Joseph of Nazareth and Jesus. Then the king planet came together with the king star – emphasizing the royal significance – not once but three times. And during the first of these, the sun was in the constellation of Virgo – the virgin. Then the king planet and the woman reunited, appearing as one.

Finally, on the winter solstice of 2 BCE, Jupiter reached a stationary point, “in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin) when Jupiter was directly over Bethlehem, about 68 degrees above the southern horizon as viewed from Jerusalem where the magi were.”

I don’t believe in astrology, that our fate is governed or revealed by celestial movements, but the magi probably did; that’s why they followed the ‘star.’ And I believe something even more rational and wonderful: that God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, synchronized the heavens with his unfolding plan of redemption and revelation. He spoke to a watching, wondering people, in the stars and planets sparkling in the night sky. He spoke their language, and bid them Come and see. I don’t know about you, but it fills me with awe.

We know, astronomically, what happened during those months. For those of us who believe, we also know what happened historically there in Bethlehem. It’s easy to imagine how jubilant the magi must have been at the discovery that lay at the end of their long journey and the years of sky watching that preceded it.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
-Matthew 2:10

They rejoiced because what they anticipated from their interpretation of the planetary and stellar paths was the birth of a great King, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and they came to honor and worship Him. The Star – the king planet and the king star shining in the house of the virgin – and words of the prophets, had led them to Him.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
{Psalms 19:1-4a}


*These numbers are Finegan’s section numbers, rather than page numbers.

[This article is essentially a summary of some of the relevant sections from Jack Finegan’s Handbook of Biblical ChronologyRev Ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998). I have done no independent research here. Finegan, a professor of New Testament History and Archeology,  was a master of the subject. The book is extremely complex, and challenging to follow, so I have long wanted to write a digest of this topic that was more accessible.]

Here is a chronology of the period incorporating some of Finegan’s conclusions. Any errors are mine.

EVENT                                          DATE       YEAR         FINEGAN #
Jupiter+Venus near Regulus  Aug. 12     3 BCE          550*
Jupiter+Regulus (1)                Sept. 14     3 BCE          550
The Enrollment             Before Feb. 5     2 BCE          519 – 526
Jesus’ Birth                             January     2 BCE          569
Jupiter+Regulus (2)                   Feb. 17     2 BCE          550
Jupiter+Regulus (3)                     May 8     2 BCE           550
Jupiter+Venus                          June 17      2 BCE           550
Magi leave                                Summer     2 BCE
Magi arrive in Jerusalem              Fall     2 BCE
Jupiter stationary in virgo     dec. 25     2 BCE          551, 547
Magi go to Bethlehem & see Jesus
Joseph, Mary & Jesus flee to Egypt
Slaughter of the Innocents                                       508-510
Total lunar eclipse                 Jan 9/10     1 BCE          514
Herod’s Death                        Jan-March    1 BCE          501-518