In his 1915 classic entitled Jesus the Christ, Elder James E. Talmage maintained that Jesus Christ was born on April 6 in the year 1 BC.Talmage was apparently the first LDS writer to propose this particular date. Nearly a century has passed since his book appeared, and in that time it has become practically axiomatic among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was born on April 6 in that year. But was he?
In the last century, much new information has come to light about the New Testament. New data from archaeological and historical sources, combined with a reexamination of the scriptural accounts involved, suggest that the April 6 dating should be reconsidered. In this article, I strive to show why I prefer a narrow window of time at the beginning of winter for the birth of the Savior and propose that Jesus was quite likely born in December of the year 5 BC.
This proposal will probably come as a surprise, and perhaps even as a shock, to some Latter-day Saints. Aware that some readers suppose April 6 must be regarded, without question, as the authoritatively established birth date of Jesus, and thus that they may be inclined to reject this proposition from the outset, I invite readers to bear with me and to review the evidence presented below. A large amount of data is introduced in this study, and at first, some of these items may seem disconnected from others, but I hope to bring them all together in a series of coherent conclusions at the end of the study.
Published Views of LDS General Authorities
Before considering any other data, a brief review of LDS thinking on this subject is in order. During the nineteenth century, latter-day prophets from Joseph Smith to Lorenzo Snow evidently made no specific comments on the date of Jesus’s birth. It is known that Joseph Smith celebrated Christmas day on December 25, but none of his recorded remarks attempt to justify that date, or any other date, as the birth date of Christ.Nor did he ever interpret the wording of Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 to suggest that April 6 should be regarded as the Savior’s birth date, although he said that it was “by the spirit of prophecy and revelation” that April 6 was pointed out to him as the precise day on which he “should proceed to organize” the Church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation. Similarly, as far as I have been able to ascertain, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow recorded no comments on the subject of Christ’s birth either.
One LDS Apostle in the 1800s did offer a proposal for Jesus’s birth date that was different from the traditional Christian date of December 25. Elder Orson Pratt proposed the date of April 11 in the year 4 BC as the Savior’s birthday, based on his own calculation of the number of days between the signs of Jesus’s birth and death as described in the Book of Mormon.But Elder Pratt’s suggestion of April 11 never captured the imagination of the LDS public in his day and has been largely forgotten. Elder B. H. Roberts, however, felt that the passage in Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 did support the year 1 BC as the year of Jesus’s birth, agreeing with what he called the “Dionysian computation” that produced the numbering of years in our current calendar. And the notion of Jesus having been born in the spring season was not uncommon among the Latter-day Saints in the late 1800s. In a 1901 Christmas message from the First Presidency, President Anthon H. Lund mentioned April as the month he preferred for the birth of the Savior.
During the twentieth century, three different LDS Apostles published major studies on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and in them offered models for the date of Jesus’s birth. The diversity of opinion in these three studies is of particular interest. The first, as already mentioned, was Jesus the Christ by Elder James E. Talmage. This book was commissioned by the First Presidency, written in the Salt Lake Temple, and officially published by the Church, becoming the first systematic commentary on the life of Christ prepared by a Latter-day Saint authority. Talmage based his statement about Jesus’s birth date on the idea that D&C 20:1—which names Tuesday, April 6, 1830, as the date of the organization of the latter-day Church—means that exactly 1,830 years had passed (to the day) since the Savior’s birth. President Joseph F. Smith immediately endorsed Talmage’s book,while Elder Hyrum M. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in his 1919 commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, expressed the view that D&C 20:1 only “means to say . . . that the Church was organized in the year commonly accepted as 1830, A.D.” A significant number of later General Authorities, including Church Presidents Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, and Gordon B. Hinckley, have commented on the April 6 date warmly and acceptingly but without explanation or greater specificity.
Elder Talmage had stated his position in words perhaps implying that this view or belief was obligatory on the entire membership of the Church: “We believe that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, April 6, B.C. 1.”This statement notwithstanding, the two highest-ranking General Authorities who subsequently published their writings on Jesus’s life and ministry took positions different from Elder Talmage’s. President J. Reuben Clark, who served as both First and Second Counselor in the First Presidency, published Our Lord of the Gospels in 1954. This book was reprinted as an official publication of the Church when it was released as a Melchizedek Priesthood manual for 1958. In Our Lord of the Gospels, Clark pointed to the traditional early winter time frame for the date of Jesus’s birth. He explained: “I am not proposing any date as the true date. But in order to be as helpful to students as I could, I have taken as the date of the Savior’s birth the date now accepted by many scholars,—late 5 B.C. or early 4 B.C.” In the timetables he employed in his book, Clark listed his preferred time range for Jesus’s nativity as December of 5 BC, and the time range of the Annunciation to Mary as nine months earlier in March of 5 BC. While not insisting on a specific date (such as December 25), President Clark noted the historical strength of the early winter tradition.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie was the third General Authority to prepare a systematic study of the life of Christ. Deseret Book Company published the four-volume series, The Mortal Messiah, beginning in 1979. In a lengthy study note appended to chapter 20 of the first volume (on the Savior’s nativity), McConkie discussed several models for dating the birth of Jesus. In contrast to Talmage, McConkie stated: “We do not believe it is possible with the present state of our knowledge—including that which is known both in and out of the Church—to state with finality when the natal day of the Lord Jesus actually occurred.”McConkie then reviewed the positions and reasoning of both Talmage and Clark with regard to Jesus’s birth date and stated that he would follow Clark’s course. Accordingly, McConkie dated the Annunciation to Mary in March or April of 5 BC, and the birth of Jesus in December of 5 BC (with the caveat that his birth could also have occurred from January to April of 4 BC). He also opined that the story of the arrival of the wise men could perhaps be construed to point to a birth date earlier than December of 5 BC, perhaps as early as April of 5 BC, again repeating that “this is not a settled issue.” For a review of the substance of Elder McConkie’s study, see the endnotes.
It seems clear from the different approaches presented in these three studies that there is no authoritative agreement or position on the issue of the birth date of Christ that must be regarded as binding on the membership of the Church. Comments by other General Authorities on the April 6 proposal have tended almost always to be heartfelt remarks that occurred during talks given on subjects other than the actual dating of the birth of Jesus.Thus, as far as General Authority statements are concerned, the only three sources offering data that may be scrutinized are Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, Clark’s Our Lord of the Gospels, and McConkie’s The Mortal Messiah. And of these three, the latter two prefer a different time frame than Talmage’s proposal of April 6 in 1 BC. In this regard, and respectfully seeking clarity in light of the available option, the present reexamination of the dating of Jesus’s birth seems appropriate. Toward that end, this article undertakes to address this perennial LDS topic, setting forth the pros and cons of various elements in this complex subject matter and hoping to contribute some new ideas to the discussion, especially about the possible dates for the death of Jesus, about the change in the Nephite reckoning of years at the beginning of 3 Nephi, and about the timing of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary.
Other LDS Researchers
Since the first volume of The Mortal Messiah appeared in 1979, surprisingly little has been done by LDS researchers with regard to identifying or analyzing models for dating Jesus’s birth. In 1980, April Sixth, a short, nonscholarly book appeared, authored by John C. Lefgren.The book, which attempted to support the April 6 of 1 BC proposal for Jesus’s birth, was criticized in a 1982 review published in BYU Studies by S. Kent Brown, C. Wilfred Griggs, and H. Kimball Hansen, all professors at BYU. They noted the impossibility of a 1 BC birth year for Jesus, based on the accepted historical fact that king Herod the Great died no later than April of 4 BC and the clear indication in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus was born prior to Herod’s death (see Matt. 2:1–20). A response to the review of Brown, Griggs, and Hansen was published by John P. Pratt in BYU Studies in 1983, arguing in favor of Lefgren’s interpretations and an April 6 birth date in 1 BC. Brown, Griggs, and Hansen replied to Pratt’s arguments in the same issue, repeating the fact that Herod had died at least three years too early for Jesus to have been born in 1 BC.
Since that exchange, John P. Pratt has written a series of articles in favor of both a birth date for Jesus on April 6 of 1 BC and a date for his death on April 1 of AD 33, utilizing Gregorian calendar dating. Articles in which he argued for these dates appeared in the Ensign in 1985 and 1994.LDS-oriented website Meridian Magazine has featured others of his articles on numerous occasions. Pratt also maintains his own website, where many of his studies, published and otherwise, can be accessed. Pratt is, without question, the most prolific LDS writer to advocate the April 6 of 1 BC date for Jesus’s birth. One of his most significant articles, “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod,” was published in 1990 in a non-LDS venue, a journal called the Planetarian. The proposition in that article, which suggests a date early in AD 1 for Herod’s death (thus accommodating an April 6 of 1 BC birth date for Jesus), will be examined later in the present study.
Most recently, a study published by BYU professor Thomas A. Wayment appeared in 2005 as an appendix to the first volume of The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, a three-volume scholarly anthology published by Deseret Book. Wayment’s appendix, “The Birth and Death Dates of Jesus Christ,” began by saying, “To assume that there is anything like a consensus on the birth date of the Savior would be to underestimate the complexity of the issue.”Wayment then discussed a series of ancient historical references and modern scholarly interpretations of New Testament passages. Like President Clark, Elder McConkie, and Professors Brown, Griggs, and Hansen, Wayment also noted that the most important historical consideration in dating Jesus’s birth must be the date of the death of Herod the Great, which occurred in the spring of 4 BC. Wayment maintained: “The first weekend of April A.D. 30 is the most likely time of the death of Jesus. His birth took place between spring and winter of 5 B.C.” As summarized in table 1, Latter-day Saints have proposed a range of dates for the birth of Christ.
Dates Proposed by Latter-day Saints for the Birth Date of Jesus Christ
|Orson Pratt (1870)||April 11, 4 BC|
|James E. Talmage (1915)||April 6, 1 BC|
|J. Reuben Clark (1954)||December, 5 BC (or early 4 BC)|
|Sidney B. Sperry (1970)||April 6, 1 BC|
|Bruce R. McConkie (1979)||December, 5 BC (or January to April, 4 BC; alternatively, as early as April, 5 BC)|
|John C. Lefgren (1980)||April 6, 1 BC|
|John P. Pratt (1982)||April 6, 1 BC|
|Thomas A. Wayment (2005)||Between spring and winter, 5 BC|
Notably, Elder McConkie, who rejected a 1 BC birth year and seemed to prefer an early winter window of time for Jesus’s birth, expanded that window to include at least the possibility of a birth date in either April of 4 BC or April of 5 BC. Likewise, Wayment, who rejects a 1 BC birth year and mentions winter of 5 BC in his window of time, also extends that window back to the spring of 5 BC, thus still allowing for the possibility of an April birth. Only President Clark’s analysis ruled out an April birth entirely. Aspects of each of these proposals will eventually be addressed below.
First, however, three primary issues involved in dating Jesus’s birth need to be discussed. These are (1) the date of the death of Herod the Great, (2) the date of the death of Jesus himself, and (3) the length of Jesus’s mortal life. The first two issues can be confidently addressed in relation to historical, archaeological, and astronomical evidence that has become generally available in recent times, and important information regarding the length of Jesus’s mortal life can be found in the Book of Mormon.
The Death of Herod the Great
The New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew reports that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (Matt. 2:1). This means, of course, that Herod the king was alive at the time of Jesus’s birth.Sometime after the baby Jesus was taken to Egypt, Joseph was told by an angel that “Herod was dead” (Matt. 2:19). That this Herod is the king known to history as Herod the Great is clear from Matthew’s explanation that after the king’s death his son “Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod” (Matt. 2:22). It is well known from historical sources that Herod the Great ruled the entire land of Israel until 4 BC as a client king appointed by Rome, and that he had many sons, among whom were Archelaus, who inherited rule of Judea and Samaria in 4 BC, and Antipas, who inherited rule of the Galilee and Perea in 4 BC (both of these sons also carried the name “Herod”). The main source for this information is Jewish Antiquities, written by the late-first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
Josephus noted that an eclipse of the moon occurred in the days directly preceding the death of Herod the Great.It is the only lunar eclipse mentioned by Josephus in all of his works. Following that eclipse, Herod, who was extremely ill, was taken for a short time to mineral baths at Calirrhoe, across the Jordan River, and then finally to his palace at Jericho, where he expired. The combination of events reported by Josephus places Herod’s death about ten days to two weeks after the eclipse and about ten days to two weeks before Passover. Astronomical research has indicated that the only lunar eclipse to occur during the final years of Herod’s life that was visible in Jerusalem and that occurred near the season of Passover took place on the night of March 13 of the year 4 BC. This eclipse is recognized by an overwhelming majority of researchers as the event referred to by Josephus. From the account provided by Josephus, it appears that Herod the Great died at the end of March or beginning of April in 4 BC.
A lunar eclipse that had occurred six months earlier, on the night of September 15 of 5 BC, has been proposed by a few commentators as the eclipse referred to by Josephus, with the suggestion that Herod died in early winter of 5 BC (which is consistent with a late Jewish tradition that he died on the seventh day of the Jewish month of Kislev—late November by the Roman calendar).However, this date fell months prior to Passover and is otherwise difficult to reconcile with the known length of time Herod is recorded to have reigned, as noted by Thomas A. Wayment’s study. Wayment—and Brown, Griggs, and Hansen before him—seem willing to at least consider the September 15 eclipse of 5 BC as the one mentioned by Josephus, but they seem more convinced by the 4 BC eclipse of March 13. The present study argues that a September eclipse and November death date for Herod in 5 BC are not possible in view of what is known about the length of Jesus’s life.
John P. Pratt’s 1 BC Eclipse Proposal
For all intents and purposes, the strength of the evidence for the 4 BC eclipse of March 13 and a death date for Herod at the end of March or beginning of April that same year should settle the question of how early Jesus was born—the historical and astronomical facts cannot accommodate Talmage’s 1 BC model. However, John P. Pratt again attempted to defend the 1 BC model in his 1990 article “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod” by proposing the occurrence of an eclipse on December 29 of 1 BC, one that previous researchers had not noticed or taken into account. Pratt identified this eclipse as the one referred to by Josephus and proposed that the death of Herod the Great must have occurred shortly thereafter, early in AD 1.Because both of these suggested dates fall several months after April of 1 BC, Pratt concluded that the birth of Jesus can indeed have occurred on April 6 of 1 BC as proposed by Talmage.
But there is a flaw in Pratt’s approach to the whole problem of dating Jesus’s birth. In attempting to ascertain Herod the Great’s death date, Pratt (like many other researchers) relies solely on Josephus’s reference to the eclipse preceding Herod’s death and takes no other data, historical or otherwise, into consideration. There is, however, other significant historical information offered by Josephus, entirely separate from the eclipse, that places Herod’s death in 4 BC. As previously mentioned, Herod’s son Archelaus succeeded him as the ruler of Judea—this is noted in both the New Testament (Matt. 2:22) and also in Josephus’s Antiquities.Josephus also reported that Archelaus reigned over Judea and Samaria for ten years and that in his tenth year, due to severe complaints against him from both Jews and Samaritans, he was deposed by Caesar Augustus, who removed him from his office in Judea and banished him to Vienna. The legate or governor of Syria, whose name was Quirinius, was assigned by the emperor to travel to Jerusalem and liquidate the estate of Archelaus, as well as to conduct a registration of persons and property in Archelaus’s former realm. This occurred immediately after Archelaus was deposed and was specifically dated by Josephus to the thirty-seventh year after Caesar’s victory over Mark Anthony at Actium. The Battle of Actium is a well-known event in Roman history that took place in the Ionian Sea off the shore of Greece on September 2 of the year 31 BC. This is a secular Roman historical date, not in any way dependent on the New Testament chronology. Counting thirty-seven years forward from the 31 BC Battle of Actium yields a date of AD 6 for the tenth year of Archelaus and his banishment from Judea. And since Archelaus was in his tenth year, counting back ten years from AD 6 yields a date of 4 BC for the year in which Herod the Great died. (In this counting, the beginning and ending years are both included in the count, since regnal years for both Augustus and the Herodians were so figured.) These calculations provide compelling evidence for the generally accepted date of Herod’s death in 4 BC, independent of any particular eclipse date. Based on reliable historical evidence, Herod the Great could not have died in AD 1.
The Date of Jesus’s Death
All four New Testament gospels appear to report that Jesus’s death occurred on the day of the Passover preparation, when lambs for the festival were being sacrificed.In the Jewish calendar, this occurred on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. The Passover Seder meal took place that very evening. The four gospels also indicate that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, the day we know as Sunday (see Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). Jesus had been specific in explaining that he would rise again on the third day following his death (see Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 9:31; 10:34; Luke 9:22; 18:33). Another relevant fact is that Jesus was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect/governor of Judea and Samaria (see Matt. 27:24; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:24; John 19:16). Pilate’s administration lasted from AD 26 to AD 36. These specific references allow identification of candidates for the year in which Jesus died.
The Jewish festival calendar was based on months that began with the new moon. The spring month of Nisan, for example, always began with the first day of that month marked by the new moon. Since it is possible through astronomical calculation to identify in the past the date and weekday of any new moon, and also the time of its observation on that date and day, the first of Nisan can often be figured to the exact day, and always within a tolerance of one additional day, in any year in antiquity. Through simple counting, the fourteenth day of Nisan can likewise be calculated.
Another factor to keep in mind is that Passover must occur after the onset of spring (after the vernal equinox, which usually occurs around March 20 or 21). Thus, the fourteenth of Nisan on which Jesus died has to have fallen in the few weeks following March 21. And it must also have occurred on a weekday no earlier in the week than Thursday so that no more than three days passed before the arrival of Sunday, the day on which he rose from the dead. (Tradition holds that Jesus died on a Friday, but alternative models have suggested Thursday as the more probable day).Jesus cannot have died on a Saturday, since three days cannot have passed by the time Sunday arrived. Likewise, Jesus cannot have died on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, since the arrival of the following Sunday would be more than three days later. Jesus must have died on a Thursday or a Friday.
From table 2, which has been adapted from the respected study of Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington (who utilized Julian calendar dates),it is evident that during the years when Pontius Pilate was prefect/governor of Judea and Samaria (AD 26–36) there were only three years when the fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Thursday or a Friday, late enough in the week for three days to be counted as having passed away, or for Sunday to be noted as the “third day.” These three years were AD 27, AD 30, and AD 33.
|Year||New Moon Time||Earliest Possible Day for 14th of Nisan|
|AD 26||06:40, April 6||Sunday, April 21|
|AD 27*||20:05, March 26||Thursday, April 10, or Friday, April 11|
|AD 28||02:30, March 15||Tuesday, March 30|
|AD 29||19:40, April 2||Sunday, April 17, or Monday, April 18|
|AD 30*||19:55, March 22||Thursday, April 6, or Friday, April 7|
|AD 31||00:25, March 12||Tuesday, March 27|
|AD 32||22:10, March 29||Sunday, April 13, or Monday, April 14|
|AD 33*||12:45, March 19||Friday, April 3|
|AD 34||05:25, March 9||Wednesday, March 24|
|AD 35||06:10, March 28||Tuesday, April 12|
|AD 36||17:50, March 16||Saturday, March 31|
|* the only instances when the fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Thursday or a Friday.|
The time of the new moon on the first day of Nisan in AD 33 leaves no doubt that the fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Friday that year. In AD 27 and AD 30, however, the time of the new moon on the first of Nisan was such that astronomical calculations can only say that the earliest possible day for the fourteenth of the month was a Thursday. This was the likely weekday, of course, since in Judea the new moons were counted mechanically from the date of the previously sighted new moon (meaning that the Aaronic priests would have counted either 29 or 30 days since the actual sighting of the previous new moon of the month of Adar). But because of the post-sundown appearance of that new moon (at 20:05 hours in AD 27 and at 19:55 in AD 30) there is a possibility that the new month of Nisan might have been counted from sundown the following day, putting the fourteenth of Nisan on a Friday rather than Thursday. This is as much as astronomical calculation can reveal, so the question of whether the fourteenth of Nisan fell on Thursday or Friday in AD 27 or in AD 30 must be settled from other evidence. But for the purposes of this study, it is significant that both Thursday and Friday fall within a window of time three days prior to Sunday.
Having established that there were only three years when the day of Jesus’s death, the fourteenth of Nisan, could have fallen on a Thursday or Friday—namely, the years AD 27, AD 30, and AD 33—the issue that remains for us to determine is the exact length of Jesus’s mortal life, and which of those three years was the most likely for his death. That information will narrow the possibilities for the year of Jesus’s death to only AD 30.
The Length of Jesus’s Mortal Life
The New Testament itself does not specify how long Jesus lived. The record in Luke notes that Jesus “began to be about thirty years of age” (Luke 4:23) at the time of his temptations, but this is a rather imprecise statement. He may have been somewhat younger than thirty or, more likely, somewhat older than thirty. He may have been as old as thirty-one by the time he commenced his ministry. There is also no direct statement in the gospels of how long Jesus’s ministry lasted prior to his crucifixion. However, John gives some helpful evidence in this regard, since he notes three specific Passover festivals that occurred during Jesus’s teaching activities. The first (see John 2:13–23) was at the very outset of his ministry, which involved his initial casting out of merchants from the temple. The second (see John 6:4) occurred while Jesus taught in Galilee. And the third (see John 12:1 and 19:14) was the Passover at which Jesus was crucified, which was also mentioned in the synoptic gospels (see Matt. 26:2, Mark 14:1, Luke 22:1). These references would seem to suggest that Jesus’s teaching ministry lasted two years—the first year being the period from the Passover of John 2 to the Passover of John 6, and the second year being the period from the Passover of John 6 to the Passover of John 12.
Many LDS commentaries, however, are keyed to the so-called “four Passover theory,” which postulates that the “feast of the Jews” mentioned in John 5:1 was also a Passover, thus allowing for a ministry model of three years rather than two. Taking the “thirty years” of Luke 4:23 as a precise statement of age, and utilizing a three-year ministry model, LDS commentaries generally assume that the New Testament is reporting Jesus’s lifetime as having lasted thirty-three years, a figure coinciding with information from the Book of Mormon. It must be noted, however, that while the Book of Mormon may be relied upon for accuracy in its report for the length of Jesus’s life, this does not necessarily mean that Jesus’s ministry lasted three years. For one thing, there is a more likely festival than Passover for the “feast of the Jews” mentioned in John 5:1, namely, the Jewish New Year known as Rosh HaShannah.The imprecision of the reference to “thirty years” in Luke 4:23 could well indicate that Jesus did not actually begin his teaching activities until he was thirty-one, and that his ministry was indeed only two years long. The issue remains unsettled.
It is the Book of Mormon that gives a specific count to the number of years Jesus lived.The book of 3 Nephi reports that a sign appeared in ancient America on the very day that Jesus was born on the other side of the world (see 3 Ne. 1:12–19). Some nine years later, “the Nephites began to reckon their time from this period when the sign was given, or from the coming of Christ” (3 Ne. 2:8). Then, thirty-three full years after the sign of Jesus’s birth, a great storm occurred, accompanied by significant destruction and three days of darkness, marking the day on which Jesus died (see 3 Ne. 8:5–23). In connection with this destructive sign of Jesus’s death, Mormon recorded that “the thirty and third year had passed away” (3 Ne. 8:2) and that the storm hit “in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month” (3 Ne. 8:5). In terms of how many years Jesus lived in mortality, the record in 3 Nephi seems clear. Jesus lived thirty-three full years, not a year more or a year less.
The Length of Nephite Years
It is also virtually certain that the years referred to in 3 Nephi were 365 days long, the same length as the ancient Jewish lunar-solar year, and the same length as the modern secular calendar year.The Nephites were still observing the Law of Moses during the 3 Nephi period. The performances of the Law of Moses, as found in biblical writings available to the Nephites (on the brass plates of Laban), were keyed to the seasons of the 365-day solar year, beginning with a “first month” (see Ex. 12:2, 18), which was the spring month that the biblical record called Aviv (KJV “Abib,” a name that actually means “spring”; see Ex. 23:15; 34:18; Deut. 16:1). But the solar count notwithstanding, those biblical months ran on a lunar cycle, beginning with each new moon. In other words, the ancient biblical months were lunar counts, even though the Jewish agricultural and festival year was based on the seasons of the solar count. This is why the Jewish year is referred to as lunar-solar. The lunar and solar counts were intercalated. A twelve-month lunar year is only 354 days long, on average, which is eleven days shorter than the 365-day year. Without adjustment, the first month of the lunar year would occur eleven days earlier each solar year. Within just a few years it would fall back to winter rather than spring, and within a few more to autumn instead of winter, and so on. So the ancient Israelites devised a system of intercalation that added an extra month to their year every three years or so in order to ensure that their first month (according to lunar count) always stayed in early spring (according to solar count). Thus the Jewish way of counting months and years evolved as a lunar-solar system.
The Nephites apparently had a method of counting lunar months (as noted in the counting of “nine moons” in Omni 1:21), but their agricultural calendar, like that of the Jews and virtually every other ancient society on the planet, would undoubtedly have been a solar calendar that accounted for the equinoxes and solstices that mark the four seasons of the 365-day year. To properly observe the Law of Moses, the Nephites would have observed Passover in the “first month” (Ex. 12:2; 12:18), which their biblical record would have called Aviv, or spring (Ex. 23:15; 34:18; Deut. 16:1). That the first Nephite month did indeed fall in spring, at least at the time of Jesus’s death, seems clear from the account in 3 Nephi 8:5.
So, notwithstanding differences that must have developed between the ways the ancient Near Eastern Jewish calendar and the ancient American Nephite calendar separately evolved, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the Nephites were (1) observing a 365-day solar count, which (2) accommodated a first month that began in close proximity to the vernal equinox. LDS scholarly consensus currently identifies Nephite-Lamanite culture in general as a component of ancient Mesoamerican society and, in particular, the preclassic Mayan society of southern Mexico and Guatemala.The ancient Mayan calendar system is quite well understood by modern scholars. It featured a solar year of 365 days, which was called Haab and which was the primary annual count. Other counts, including lunar cycles, were known and utilized by the Maya, but the primary annual count for agriculture and human events was the Haab. This, too, points to the likelihood that the years referred to in 3 Nephi were 365 days long.
Thirty-three Years and a Few Months
The reference to thirty-three full years in 3 Nephi is most helpful in determining the general time of the birth of Jesus. But there is yet another factor involved, because thirty-three full years counted back from April of AD 30 arrives at April of 4 BC, a month impossible for the birth of Jesus to have occurred if we accept the historically established fact that Herod the Great died within days of the beginning of that very month. Jesus has to have been born a minimum of eight weeks prior to Herod’s death in order to accommodate the events reported in Luke 2 and Matthew 2 that occurred between his birth and Herod’s death. Those events include Jesus’s naming and circumcision at age eight days (see Luke 2:21) as well as the forty-day purification period Mary would have completed (see Luke 2:22) before she and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem for a day to present the baby Jesus in the temple (see Luke 2:22–38)—this all equals six weeks. And it was only after the presentation in the temple that the “wise men from the east” arrived at Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem seeking the newborn “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1–11). After the Magi departed, Joseph and Mary immediately took Jesus to Egypt (see Matt. 2:13–16), a trip of more than two hundred miles, which would have taken some two weeks. And it was only after their arrival in Egypt that an angel revealed to Joseph in a dream that Herod had died (see Matt. 2:19).
So, at a minimum, Jesus would have been born eight weeks prior to Herod’s death at the beginning of April. And it is likely that the above events were not compressed together without any intervening days, meaning that there were probably a few weeks between the presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem in Luke 2 and the arrival of the Magi in Matthew 2, and likewise a few weeks of Joseph and Mary living in Egypt prior to Herod’s death. All this would put the birth of Jesus as much as three or four months prior to Herod’s passing and points to a window of time around December of 5 BC for the birth of Jesus.
But this would also mean that Jesus was not exactly thirty-three years old when he died at the beginning of April in AD 30, but was closer to thirty-three years and three or four months. Of course, nothing in the New Testament would conflict with such a calculation of his age. But can the account in the Book of Mormon accommodate this suggestion? The answer is yes. One thing that the account in 3 Nephi does not specifically explain is whether the Nephites counted back to the actual day of the sign of Jesus’s birth (3 Ne. 1:15–19) as the beginning day of their new “year one,” or whether they had continued to utilize their regular monthly count and had simply regarded the normal arrival of their next New Year’s Day after the sign of his birth as the onset of their new “year one.” This is where evidence from the New Testament and Roman/Jewish history actually allows for a more precise understanding of a Book of Mormon issue, because from the discussion of historical and New Testament issues presented earlier it seems clear that Jesus must have lived a few months longer than thirty-three full years. Therefore, the Book of Mormon question can be answered: the Nephites, after deciding to count their years from the sign of Jesus’s birth, seem to have designated their new “year one” not from the very day of that sign, but from the arrival of their regular new year a few months later. As a consequence, and based on 3 Nephi 8:5, it seems that the Nephite year continued to begin in the spring, which is to be expected since the Nephites in 3 Nephi were still observing the Law of Moses and were likely still utilizing the month count noted in Exodus 12:2. In other words, from the Book of Mormon it is clear that Jesus lived at least thirty-three full years, and absolutely not thirty-four years. And from the New Testament and Roman/Jewish history, it is demonstrable that Jesus lived about three months or so longer than thirty-three years. In any event, there is nothing in the Book of Mormon account that would necessarily conflict with this conclusion. A flexible reading of the Book of Mormon regarding the length of Jesus’s life, one that does not arbitrarily impose the idea that Jesus lived exactly thirty-three years and no more, would allow for his birth to have occurred in December of 5 BC.
The Annunciation to Mary and the Timing of Her Conception
Another significant piece of evidence that points to a December date of birth for Jesus is actually the first event reported in the story of his birth. It is the account of the Annunciation to Mary found in the first chapter of Luke. That record reports that “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God” (Luke 1:26) to announce to Mary that she would conceive and bring forth a son to be named Jesus (see Luke 1:27–31). In the Jewish context of the account, this would mean the month of Adar, the sixth month of the Jewish year. Adar was the late-winter month that paralleled the period from mid-to-late February through mid-to-late March. Adar was followed by the month of Nisan, which was the spring month in which Passover fell.
Even though for centuries, since Moses’s time, the spring month of Aviv had been regarded as the first month of the year, major changes had occurred in Jewish calendar terminology by the time Jesus was born. For one thing, Mesopotamian names for lunar months had become adopted by the Jewish nation after the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC. The name Nisan came to replace the name Aviv for the spring month in which Passover occurred. Additionally, by the first century BC, the early autumn month called Tishri had come to be regarded as the first month of the Jewish year. Tishri parallels the period from mid-to-late September through mid-to-late October. The first day of Tishri had become known to Jews as Rosh HaShannah, which means “head of the year”—the Jewish New Year.And even though the Jewish months had Mesopotamian names, they were often designated numerically, rather than by name, so that to say “the first month” or “the second month” or “the sixth month” was a common figure of speech. Thus, at the time of Jesus’s birth, the “first month” of the Jewish year was the autumn month of Tishri, and the “sixth month” of the Jewish year was the late winter month of Adar.
So the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary concerning her imminent conception took place in Adar, the “sixth month.” And from the account in Luke it appears that the Annunciation actually occurred near the end of Adar (mid-to-late March) and that Mary conceived immediately or within a day or two of the angel’s visit. This is all evident because Luke reported that after the Annunciation Mary traveled “with haste” (immediately) to Judea, where she stayed for three months with her older kinswoman Elisabeth, and that the older woman, six months pregnant with her own child, instantly recognized that Mary was also carrying a child in her womb (see Luke 2:39–43). (Coincidentally, the “sixth month” spoken of in Luke 1:26 was also the sixth month of pregnancy for Elisabeth.)A young woman like Mary (who was probably not older than seventeen) would not have traveled alone from the Galilee to Judea, a distance of nearly one hundred miles on foot. She probably traveled with family or community members in a journey that is not specifically explained in the Luke account. The unstated reason for this trip could well have been to attend the Passover festival at Jerusalem, which took place during mid-Nisan, just two weeks following Adar. Because of the crowds at Passover, as well as the need to secure lodging, obtain a lamb and other supplies for the feast, and perform requisite washings and purifications, most Passover attendees arrived at Jerusalem several days in advance of the festival. Thus, Mary and her family probably arrived at Jerusalem by the seventh of Nisan or thereabouts, which means they had departed Nazareth four or five days prior to that, about the second or third of Nisan. And remember, Mary (and her travel party) had come very soon (“with haste”) after the Annunciation.
All these indicators point to the Annunciation and conception having happened near the end of the month of Adar, which would be sometime in mid-to-late March. This would place the birth of Mary’s child nine months later, near the end of the Jewish month of Kislev, sometime in December. And since the Jewish festival of Hanukkah began on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev and lasted for eight days, it is quite possible, perhaps even probable, that Jesus was born during Hanukkah at the end of 5 BC.
As noted earlier, the primary model for the timing of events surrounding Jesus’s conception and birth, which was accepted by President Clark and followed by Elder McConkie, was that the Annunciation and conception took place in March of 5 BC, with the birth of Jesus nine months later in December of 5 BC. The above explanation of events, including the Passover festival in Jerusalem as the likely reason for Mary’s journey to Judea, accounts for why the widely accepted March and December dates are so plausible.
Excluding the Historically Impossible
The celebrated mystery novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through the mouth of his famous character, the detective Sherlock Holmes, often made this observation: “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”With this in mind, the summary list of possibilities for Jesus’s birth date, which was outlined earlier, can now be evaluated to see which proposals are unlikely, if not impossible, at least in view of what is known from the scriptural records, historical records, and archaeological and astronomical research. What remains will be the most likely date for Jesus’s nativity, a day in December of 5 BC. However, in contrast to the qualifier in Holmes’s maxim, this date is not at all improbable.
April of 1 BC. It does not appear possible for any date in April of 1 BC to have been the time of the birth of Jesus. The New Testament indicates Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod the Great. Herod is known, with a high degree of historical certainty, to have died within a few days of the beginning of April in the year 4 BC. This timing is secured not only by Josephus’s notation of the lunar eclipse that occurred shortly before Herod died (dated positively to March 13 in 4 BC), but also independently by Josephus’s explanation of the years of the reign of Herod and his son Archelaus in relation to the Battle of Actium. In short, Herod died in 4 BC. Jesus cannot have been born after that year.
April of 4 BC. Though the reasoning is somewhat redundant to the preceding explanation, this month, too, can also probably be ruled out as the time of Jesus’s birth. Orson Pratt’s suggestion of April 11 of 4 BC could have been the nativity date and McConkie’s caveat regarding April of 4 BC do not square with the current research. The reasons just outlined concerning Herod’s death apply to April of 4 BC as much as to any later date. Herod died within days of the beginning of April that year, and Jesus has to have been born at least two months, and more likely three to four months, prior to Herod’s death in order for all of the events described in Luke and Matthew to have taken place before Herod’s passing. This would push the latest historically plausible date for Jesus’s birth back to late December of 5 BC,
April of 5 BC. Any date in April of 5 BC, whether it be April 6 or some other day, is likewise unworkable as the natal date of Jesus. The death of Jesus must have occurred in early April of AD 30, the only year in which Passover fell late in the week and which also allows Jesus to have lived thirty-three full years from his birth. But April of 5 BC was thirty-four full years prior to Jesus’s death, and the language of the Book of Mormon does not allow for thirty-four full years to have passed from Jesus’s birth to his death.
The report in Matthew 2 that Herod had the children of Bethlehem “from two years old and under” slain has led some commentators to suggest that the wise men did not arrive until a year or more after Jesus’s birth. However, since it is virtually certain that Herod’s death occurred at the beginning of April in 4 BC, to count a full year or more back from that event (that is, to suggest a birth date for Jesus in April of 5 BC or April of 6 BC) does not yield feasible results, since those dates would be thirty-four or thirty-five full years prior to the death of Jesus in April of AD 30, and the Book of Mormon reckoning does not allow for that much time.
Spring to Autumn of 5 BC. For the reasons just stated, a date anytime in the spring of 5 BC, as suggested by Wayment, does not appear possible. Summer and autumn of that year can likewise, for all practical purposes, be ruled out. The date of Jesus’s death, in April of AD 30, was more than thirty-three and a half years after the end of the summer of 5 BC, a span too long to fall within even a flexible model of what the 3 Nephi account would allow for Jesus’s lifespan. A date in autumn of 5 BC might fall within such a flexible model, but another factor disqualifies autumn: the reference in Luke 1 to the “sixth month” for the Annunciation to Mary. Elizabeth’s pregnancy notwithstanding, the term “sixth month” is an unmistakable reference to the Jewish month of Adar, indicating that Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the miraculous conception she experienced immediately afterward occurred in March. This necessarily places the birth of Mary’s son nine months later, near the end of the Jewish month of Kislev, which would fall in December.
Any Time Prior to 5 BC, Such as 6 BC or 7 BC. While proposals as early as these are not among the LDS models noted earlier, it is important to eliminate them anyway. A date in 6 BC might be postulated on account of Herod having the children of Bethlehem “from two years old and under” slain (Matt. 2:16). But a birth date in 6 BC would not match Jesus’s thirty-three-year (and a few months) lifespan to any date AD when it was possible for him to have been executed (he cannot have been crucified in AD 28, since the fourteenth of Nissan fell on a Tuesday that year). The year 7 BC could mathematically be reconciled with a death date in AD 27, when the fourteenth of Nissan fell on either a Thursday or a Friday. But AD 27 is too early for Jesus to have died, since Luke noted that John the Baptist’s ministry began “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1), the commencement of which can be confidently dated to autumn AD 27.Jesus cannot have died the same year John began preaching, since Jesus himself only began preaching at Passover (spring AD 28), just months after John’s advent.
December of 5 BC. Because the above proposals all contradict some part of the historical and scriptural evidence, the beginning of winter in 5 BC, specifically the month we know as December, remains as the only proposed window of time in which the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem can logically have occurred. In its favor, this period falls nine months after the Annunciation to Mary in late Adar (March), making it consistent with the time of the nativity from the perspective of Luke’s gospel. It also falls thirty-three full years and three to four months prior to April of AD 30, accommodating the Book of Mormon reference to the thirty-third year having passed away at the time of Jesus’s death. As noted, President Clark utilized the December of 5 BC date in his book Our Lord of the Gospels. And this was also Elder McConkie’s primary preference. Wayment also allowed for the winter of 5 BC in his dating model. When all is said and done, the facts from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the history of Josephus, combined with input from archaeological and astronomical research, all point to a day in December of 5 BC (late in the Jewish month of Kislev) for the date of Jesus’s birth.
Two conclusions emerge from this study. The first is this: in the five-year period examined (5 BC to 1 BC), there is no year in which April 6 could have been the birth date of Jesus. This conclusion may disappoint some Latter-day Saints who have been conditioned to think of April 6 as the Savior’s birthday. However, Latter-day Saints’ appreciation for this calendar date should in no way be diminished, because the intent of Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 was not to fix the date of Jesus’s nativity; rather, the intent (as with D&C 21:3) was to designate April 6 as the day on which the Church of Jesus Christ was organized in its latter-day dispensation. This noble and divinely inspired event makes the date of April 6 a sacred latter-day anniversary in its own right.
The second conclusion perhaps goes without saying: the traditional date of Christmas, December 25, falls within the window of time in which it would appear that Jesus must have been born. It is just as possible that Jesus was born on the calendar date we call December 25 as on any other date in the few weeks preceding it or the week following it, but this study in no way concludes that December 25 was actually the birth date of Jesus.While people may always see things differently, the totality of the evidence presented above allows only one conclusion: that his birth occurred within those December weeks that we now commonly refer to as the “Christmas season.”