Saturday, December 19, 2009

NT Pod 20: When Was Jesus Born?

Episode 20 of the NT Pod asks When Was Jesus Born?

It is eleven and a half minutes long. Feel free to leave your comments below.

NT Pod Episode 20: When Was Jesus Born? (mp3)

Key texts: Matthew 2:1; Matthew 2:19; Matthew 2:22; Luke 2:1-2; Luke 3.1-2; Luke 3:23.

Thanks to Ram2000, Me and You, for the opening theme, released under a Creative Commons agreement.


  1. Facinating, helpful, interesting and wel written... and lots of other positive adjectives. Happy Christmas and New Year to you and yours.

  2. Grace to you Professor Goodacre.

    I am the owner of ErrancyWiki which hosts the article Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ's Birth by Richard Carrier, Ph.D. (2006). In my opinion, this is the foremost article arguing for contradiction between the dating of Jesus' birth ("Matthew" vs. "Luke").

    You mention in your Podcast two reasons to think that "Luke" intended to date the birth to Herod the Great:

    1) "Luke" refers to "Herod the Great".

    In 1:5 "Luke" only mentions "Herod" with no "the Great" added. Carrier gives the following reasoning to doubt that "Luke" intended to refer to Herod the Great here:

    "Some observe that Luke says John the Baptist was born during the reign of "Herod the King" (1:5) and appears to have Jesus born less than a year later (1:22-24, 1:31-36, 1:80, 2:1, 2:40-42), which appears to agree with Matthew. However, Matthew does not mention or date the birth of John, and despite the impression given by English translations, Luke is unclear how much time actually passed between his birth and that of Jesus. More importantly, Archelaus was also called Herod (even on his own coins) and even Josephus calls him a king (Antiquities of the Jews 18.93). Unlike Matthew, Luke provides no detail indicating either he or his source meant anything other than Herod Archelaus when dating the birth of John. Therefore, unless we assume Luke is contradicting himself, we can't assume he dated either the birth of John or Jesus to the time of Herod the Great. So there is no case to be made from 1:5 that Luke agreed with Matthew."

    I'll add to Carrier that the qualifier, "Judea" also favors Archelaus over the Great.

    2) "Luke's" time marker of the 15th year of Tiberius combined with the "about 30" comment places Jesus' birth near Herod the Great.

    Carrier likewise argues:

    "when Luke dates the start of John's ministry to 28 C.E. (3:1) and then over twenty verses later says Jesus began his own ministry at "about thirty" (3:23) some assume the two ministries began the same year, which would place the birth of Jesus at "about" 3 B.C.E. which for a "rough" estimate is close enough to fit Matthew. But Luke never says the two ministries began the same year, and for various reasons it's unlikely they did. Luke clearly didn't know the year Jesus started his ministry, since he didn't know how old he was, despite claiming to know exactly when he was born. Since "about" thirty can be off by at least four years (26-34), and since Luke allows some time to pass between the start of John's ministry and the baptism of Jesus, and since scholars agree Jesus could have begun and ended his ministry anytime between 28 and 33 C.E., we are left with a window between 7 B.C.E. to 7 C.E. for his birth, far too wide to pin down. So there is no good case to be made from Luke 3:1-23 that he agreed with Matthew.2"

    If you accept Carrier's reasoning to some extent, "Luke's" reference to Quirinius is unequivocal while the possible references to Herod the Great are equivocal. Thus it makes more sense to move the equivocal to the unequivocal = "Luke" meant 6 CE.

    The other problem with trying to exorcise "Luke's" reference to Quirinius as an isolated detail is that the Quirinius' census is one of the most important details in "Luke's" Infancy Narrative as it provides the reason for the move to Bethlehem.

    The most common defense of the apparent dating contradiction I've seen is the "before" translation so I note with interest that you reject it as unlikely. I assume that you also reject Stephen Carlson's similar defense of "foremost" for the same reasons.


  3. Thanks, Trevor, for your encouraging words.

    Thanks, Joseph, for your helpful comments. I wish I had time to respond in detail. Briefly, on Herod, no one calls Herod "the Great" in this period, and Herod King of Judea, without qualification, is naturally thought of as that Herod, and not Archelaus, the ethnarch. On the time issue, Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary visits her, so they have overlapping pregnancies.

  4. Thanks for your response Professor Goodacre:

    "Briefly, on Herod, no one calls Herod "the Great" in this period"

    If your point is that "Luke" would not have written "Herod the Great" to describe Herod the Great, I agree. My related point was that your Podcast says "Luke" said "Herod the Great". She did not, she said "Herod".

    "Herod King of Judea, without qualification, is naturally thought of as that Herod, and not Archelaus, the ethnarch"

    We disagree here. Josephus (who looks like "Luke's" source here) describes Archelaus as "King" (as well as ethnarch) so "king" here looks equivocal to me. On the other hand, the qualification of Judea looks unequivocal as referring to Archelaus.

    "On the time issue, Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary visits her, so they have overlapping pregnancies"

    This is not relevant to Jesus' age at the start of his ministry. I'll summarize Carrier's argument that "Luke" is not inconsistent here as to the dating of Jesus' birth:

    We agree that per "Luke's" Quirinius' time marker, Jesus was born c. 6. The next relevant marker is:

    Luke 3

    1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,

    2 in the highpriesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

    The date here can be c. 30. Note that the time marker is the start of John's Ministry and not Jesus'. That is Carrier's point. "Luke's" narrative is describing a time lag between the Ministries:

    "And he came into all the region round about the Jordan"

    "And the multitudes asked him"

    "Now it came to pass, when all the people were baptized"

    The final time marker is:

    Luke 3:23 And Jesus himself, when he began [to teach], was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the [son] of Heli,

    So let's do the Matthew. Jesus born 6 CE. John's Ministry starts 30 when Jesus is 24. If Jesus' Ministry started 2 years later, than Jesus would have been 26 at the start of his Ministry. If Jesus was 26 here than "Luke" could have described him at this time at "about 30".

    What's strange here is that "Luke's" time marker for the Ministry is for John and not Jesus. My guess is that the original time marker was for Jesus here as evidenced by Marcion:

    The Gospel of the Lord

    1. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
    2. [Pontius Pilatus being the Governor of Judaea,] Jesus came down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was

    What I find especially interesting are the Christian harmonies before Canon. Tatian has no infancy narratives. My guess though is that it's because he did not think them original (as opposed to a theological reason).

    When we go to The Protoevangelium of James

    "17. And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled."

    We see that the author has exorcised the reference to Quirinius. Presumably he knew that it would contradict with his later infancy reference to Herod the Great. I suspect that "Luke", having researched even more carefully, would likewise know.


  5. Thanks for your interesting comments, Joe. I particularly like "Let's do the Matthew"!

  6. Mark,

    I suggest you look at this:

    Michael Heiser had blogged about this in 2008. Also, you should get the The Star of Bethlehem DVD at