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Upcoming Issue 49:4, BYU Studies
The full article will be published in December in our upcoming journal BYU Studies volume 49, number 4. If you purchase a subscription by November 30, you will receive this journal. Additionally, all of our subscribers get online access to the journal and all of our premium content.
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. 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 careful reexamination of the scriptural accounts involved, suggest that the April 6 dating is no longer tenable. In this article, I strive to show that virtually all hard evidence, scriptural and otherwise, now points to a narrow window of time at the beginning of winter for the birth of the Savior, and that Jesus was quite likely born in December of the year 5 BC.
This conclusion 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 exercise patience 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. 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 either.
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, who 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 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.
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. McConkie 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).
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 can 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 remarks-in-passing that occurred during talks given on different subjects having little or nothing to do with actually dating the birth of Jesus. As such, they offer no explanatory information. As far as General Authorities are concerned, the 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, it is significant that the latter two prefer a different time frame than Talmage’s proposal of April 6 in 1 BC. In this regard, the present reexamination of the question of dating Jesus’s birth seems appropriate.
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