Thursday, December 9, 2010

Birth Narratives: The Dating Game

Yesterday I posted about Matthew and Luke's birth narratives and how both evangelists treat Jesus' birth at Bethlehem and his subsequent move to Nazareth in different ways.  Today I want to talk about the date of Jesus' birth from these two narratives.

There are two very specific events referred to in these narrative for which we have reliable historical dates.  The first is the reign of Herod the Great, and the second is the census of Quirinius.

We know with a high degree of certainty that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.  In fact, we can even narrow it down to a month because Josephus mentions a lunar eclipse in connection Herod's death.  In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is born up to two years prior to the death of Herod, so anywhere from 6-4 B.C.E.  In Luke's gospel, John the Baptist is born during the reign of Herod, and Jesus is born about 6 months later.  So Luke's gospel also dates the Birth of Jesus no later than 4 B.C.E.

Yet, that is not the complete story for Luke, because Luke also mentions another event surrounding the Birth of Jesus for which we have a reliable historical date.  That is the census of Quirinius, which we can date at 6 C.E.  This census was the impetus for getting Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.  Yet, the dates don't match up, they aren't even close.  There is at least a 10 year gap between the death of Herod and the census of Quirinius.  And in this case, it is not a matter of Matthew vs. Luke, it is a matter of Luke vs. Luke.

So, what do you make of this?


  1. How about John in which Jesus' opponents describe him as "not yet 50"? One wouldn't say that about someone only thirty years old, would you? That could put Jesus' birth further back into Herod's reign and really make Quirinius the odd man out. Exactly how old Jesus could be at Herod's death and still be a "child" in Matt 2:20 might further limit the range of possibilities.

    Of course, if this is all rhetorical detail, math will avail us not! ;)

  2. I think it shows just how unique each Gospel is. Luke is know for being the historical Gospel, the one that will stick to the facts. So maybe at the time that he was writing the book those were the facts that he had not knowing that the two dates were so far off from one another. This could also be because of a record keeping error that was fixed later after the book was already written. No matter why the dates are so far apart i do not believe that this discredits in any way the book of Luke or in connection the book of Matthew, they are still important scriptures that help the Christian tradition understand the life of Christ even if there are differences between them, no one is perfect.