Most people believe that Jesus was born 1 AD. However, things are not that simple. The Bible records Jesus’ birth around the later time of Herod’s reign (Matt 2:1 and Luke 1:5). Josephus says that there was an eclipse not long before Herod died. The eclipse is reported to have happened March 12 or 13 in 4 BC. Herod died before the Passover that began April 11 in 4 BC. So Herod died between March 12 and April 11 in 4 BC, which would be the latest date for the birth of Jesus.
Luke says that Jesus was born during the census that was ordered by Caesar. However, there are no extra-biblical sources that we can turn to for validation of this event taking place when Jesus was born. Matthew implies that Jesus was close to two years old when Herod ordered the murder of innocent children, which suggests that Jesus was born in 6 BC. Herod could have just extended the age to two years to ensure that the Messiah would not escape the sword; this thereby suggests that Jesus was born between the years 7 BC and early 4 BC. However, scholars believe that a date of 5 BC to be most likely. And because Herod’s decision to kill all those two years old and under was “according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16), a date of 6 or 5 BC is the most probable.
Based upon overwhelming evidence examined, scholars believe that Jesus’ death occurred in the year 33 AD. There is no conflict concerning the Gospel accounts regarding what day of the week Jesus was crucified; scholars agree that the day was a Friday. The Synoptic Gospels and John present the Last Supper as a Passover meal, and the Jews celebrated the Passover in Nissan 14. Therefore, Jesus’ death must have occurred in a year when Nissan 14 fell on a Thursday. It is possible that Nissan 14 fell on a Thursday in AD 30, but that would not allow enough time for Jesus’ ministry, since it is widely accepted that His ministry lasted 3 years. So because it is also possible that Nissan 14 fell on a Thursday in the year AD 33, and taking all other evidence into consideration, this would be a more likely date for Jesus’ crucifixion.
A short chronology of Jesus’ life would look like this: 5 BC Jesus’ birth, 29 AD Jesus begins His ministry, and 33 AD Jesus’ death. Matthew portrays Jesus’ birth as unique. Matthew sees Jesus as the virgin-born Immanuel, “God among us”, and the Savior who will redeem us from our sins. Matthew saw all the events of Jesus’ life, including His birth, as fulfilling Old Testament Scripture. The wise men’s visit to worship Jesus is a prelude to Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles after being rejected by the Jewish leadership. The flight from Herod is reminiscent of Moses’ flight from Pharaoh. The settlement by Jesus’ parents in Nazareth is the fulfillment of the “Branch prophecies” of the Old Testament (Isa 4:2; 11:1; Jer 23:5; 33:15), since the name “Nazareth” is seen by Matthew to have a connection to a similar sounding Hebrew word meaning “branch”.
Far more than presenting a family tree, Matthew presents Jesus’ genealogy as to proclaim Jesus as the son of Abraham who has received the promise that all the nations will be blessed through Him, and as the King, from the line of David, that will rule the people of God. The genealogy also emphasizes Jesus’ superiority over the Old Testament patriarchs and His mission to the Jews and Gentiles. Matthew included four women, besides Mary, in the genealogy who were involved in some type of scandal in their lives; this was to show that the scandal of the virgin birth could not serve to render the account of His birth as not being authentic, since God has worked through scandal in history to bring about salvation.
All of this is to say that it is not important to get the exact date of Jesus’ birth pinpointed in history. Jesus’ birth is the promise made to Abraham, and to the nations, by God. That promise is a Savior who will take away the sins of the world. By the date of His birth we divide time. By His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave we have hope–hope that brings great joy. The importance is that a Savior is born.
As we watch the faces of our children and grandchildren beam with excitement while opening up their presents, we can thank Him (Jesus) for the greatest present ever given to man: eternal life and joy through His death.
Furthermore, with joy our faces can beam with excitement as we open up the pages of the Bible and find wrapped inside the present called Jesus Christ.
In closing, we should already have begun preparing our hearts for the Savior’s birth that we celebrate on December 25th. So that we can rejoice with the shepherds when we read in the Bible the account of when the angels first declared the good news for the world to them saying, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Mark 2:10-11)
Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: an Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2009.