We are barreling down on Christmas! For the blog this year, that means: seasonal Posts! I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what we know about the birth of Jesus, and don’t know, based on the Gospels and our knowledge of the history of the period. It’s amazing what we don’t know. In fact, we know almost nothing, apart from the fact that Jesus was born to a poor Jewish couple who were probably named Joseph and Mary around, what?, 4 or 5 BCE?
I’ll try to explain what we do know and probably don’t know in various posts. As it turns out, that was the topic of the first Christmas post on the blog, done almost exactly eight years ago. Here it is slightly edited! So, from 2012:
Right now I have the Christmas on my mind — as makes sense this time of year. But I have some other reasons. First, I have agreed to write a brief (2000-word) article for Newsweek this week, to be published in a couple of weeks, about the birth of Jesus, and this has made me think about the other Gospels (from outside the New Testament) that tell alternative accounts of Jesus’ birth and young life. [Interjection from 2020: I may post the article over the next couple of days]
Second, just as I was about ready to start writing the article I learned that the Pope [Remember: this is the pope as of 2012! A theologian/scholar] has published a book on the birth of Jesus, where he, among other things, dispels many of the myths that people subscribe to about the Christmas story.
I have just gotten my copy today and will read it, hopefully, tonight. But it is clear at first glance that among other things the Pope wants to affirm many of the things that scholars have long known about the popular beliefs about Christmas.
First, We don’t know what year Jesus was born. (It will be interesting to see if the Pope suggests a particular year.) None of the Gospels says. According to Luke (and only Luke) Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he began his ministry. According to John (and only John) the ministry lasted between two and a half and three and a half years. And according to all the Gospels he died during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. We know from other sources that Pilate was governor between 26-36 CE. So if (a BIG if: it’s not clear that either Luke or John really had biographically reliable data available to them on these matters) Jesus was 33, then he had to be born somewhere between 7 BCE and 3 CE. But if the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are right that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod then he would have had to be born by at least 4 BCE, since that is when Herod died. And so most historians indicate that Jesus was born in 4 BCE or so, which of course creates a nice irony, since it means that Jesus was born 4 years Before Christ. (!)
The rest of this post is for blog members. Not a blog member? Hey, give yourself an early Christmas present! C’mon, go for it! It’s the gift that never stops giving. At least as long as I’m a reasonably sentient human being….