When Was Jesus Really Born? Early Christianity, the Calendar, and the Life of Jesus, by Steven L. Ware. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2013. 281 pages.
Steven L. Ware, PhD, is Professor of Historical Theology at Nyack College/Alliance Theological Seminary in New York City and Nyack, New York. As a member of both the Evangelical Theological Society and the American Society of Church History, he has presented widely to academic and church audiences on questions of biblical history, the chronological dates of Jesus’ life, the Paschal calendar, and historical foundations of the Christian faith.
The question: “When was Jesus born?” elicits a familiar answer: “December 25th.” The title of this particular work: When Was Jesus Really Born? suggests the traditional answer might be inaccurate.
While this title’s question appears to promise a reliable answer, it very quickly digresses into ulterior tangents. “This book is about the birth of Jesus. Yet it is also about his resurrection, early Christianity, and the historical evolution of our calendar” (3). Instead of pinpointing the precise date of Jesus’ birth, Ware openly admits: “It is not the intention of this author to offer final answer to the many matters of debate” (3), but rather to “present the story of Christian efforts to understand and measure time, and especially to worship the God who created time (9). When Was Jesus Really Born? actually aims to prove Christianity’s welcome and careful use of reason in determining significant dates in the life of Jesus. By tying a secular calendar to the Biblical account, Ware aims to substantiate the historical existence of Jesus while also exposing atheism’s embrace of reason as more of unreasonable non-belief (2-3).
Chapter one introduces the reader to the various debates regarding the events and dates surrounding the birth of Christ. Influential monk, Dionysius Exiguus, dated Jesus’ birth at 25 December 1 BC, but Ware favors an later year. This change aligns the Biblical narrative with Herod the Great’s death in 1 BC (14). Although Quinctilius Varus (and not Quirinius) governed Syria in 6-4 BC, Quirinius held political influence over the same region during the same period. Mention of Quirinius in the gospel account might have resonated more deeply with Luke’s Roman audience (15-17). While sheep do not graze in snowy climates, they could handle Bethlehem’s mild winters (17). Finally, any attempt to correlatethe birth of Jesus to the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist, must be met with suspicion due to the unknown dates of Zachariah’s priestly servitude (18). These details, together with one of several astral influences that could serve as the Bethlehem Star, lead Ware to opine 25 December 3 BC as the birth date of Jesus (18-20).
Church fathers Irenaeus (20), Africanus (21), Hippolytus (21), Clement (24), and Augustine (26) posited different dates for Jesus’ birth, but these stand in opposition to the early, widespread, and accepted date of December 25th (25).
Dan Brown’s fictional tale, The Da Vinci Code, alleged Christmas as a Christian overlay on a pagan celebration, Saturnalia. Closer observation uncovers Christmas celebrations centuries before the creation of Saturnalia (31).
Chapter two explores ancient timekeeping and its relation to an accurate dating of Jesus’ birth. Dawning civilizations noticed the measured movements of celestial bodies and their corresponding connection to changing seasons. Creating a record would not only predict the length of a day (or night), but also aid farmers in their planting. Early attempts to chart these patterns include Stonehenge (42), Native American mounds (43-44), and Mayan temple building (45-47). Published numerical calendars include the Babylonian, Greek (49-51), Jewish (51-52), and Roman (Julian) (53-56).
Chapter three handles the intricacies of timekeeping. Celestial movements involve measured intervals. It takes the moon twenty-nine days, twelve hours, forty-four minutes, and three seconds to travel around the earth (60). The ancients rounded this lunar cycle to twenty-nine and one-half days. Additionally, it takes the earth 365 days, five hours, forty-eight minutes, and forty-five seconds to circle the sun. The Romans rounded this figure to 365.25 days (61). While convenient, compounding these missing minutes creates an ancient calendar that stands years out of tune with present-day timekeeping. The Gregorian calendar of 1582 (and subsequent years) created balance by adding a leap year every fourth year and an additional leap year every 3,200 years (62). These corrections allow present-day students to retrace the years to Jesus’ birth with accuracy.
Chapter four uses the relatively certain date of Jesus’ resurrection to reinforce Jesus’ birth date of 25 December 3 BC. Gospel writer Luke places the start of Jesus’ ministry during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14- AD 37) when Jesus was about thirty years of age (3:23; 8:42). No gospel explicitly mentions the length of Jesus’ ministry, but various events (like the Passover) and various seasons (such as the disciples eating heads of grain) suggest a ministry lasting more than one year (71-72). According to the Jewish calendar, the Passover occurs on 14 Nisan. This places the Passion somewhere between AD 26-36 (the length of Pilate’s governorship) on the Julian calendar (77). Additionally, 14 Nisan occurred on a Friday only twice during this timeframe: AD 30 April 7 and AD 33 and April 3 (77). A full lunar eclipse that could darken the land (Matthew 27:45) occurred only once during this same period: AD 33 April 3 (78). These dates coincide with Jesus’ supposed age, ministry events, and key political leaders of the day.
Chapters five and six outline the creation of Dionysius’ Paschal calendar (104) and Pope Gregory XIII’s correction of the Julian calendar (130). Ware details the debate surrounding Dionysius’ Paschal cycle founded on the unsubstantiated date of 25 December 1 BC for the birth of Jesus. Some scholars accuse Dionysius of deliberately creating a faulty cycle in order to stifle the more popular, but erroneous Victorius calendar (108-109).
Ware concludes his work by pondering the impact future dates might have on Christianity. Many evangelists attempt pinpointing the moment of Jesus’ return (148), with the recent millennium and the Y2K bug serving as possible signs (148-149). Ware understands the criticism these unfulfilled end times predictions receive and turns attention to the primary use of the gospel message (150). Instead of searching the skies for Jesus’ parousia, Ware finds better use of the skies as evidence of a Designer-God (153-154).
A disconnect exists between the title of this work and its content. The author answers his leading question with a commonly accepted date for the birth of Christ by page twenty, and then proceeds to spend the next 135 pages using calendars to prove that Christians are not “uneducated and closed minded hillbillies standing in the way of civilizational progress” (67). (Ware provides an additional 90 pages of date, including the complete calendars for years AD 513 to AD 569 and every Easter date from the year 1956 to year 2200.) Closing chapters five and six spend much time defending Dionysius’ flawed calendar and the Catholic Church’s mishandling of Galileo Galilei’s heliocentric theory (127) with reheated and warmed up conclusions drawn by other scholars. The Epilogue does not return to the title’s question, but rather meanders through the possibility of a hidden God who stands behind the details of his creation (154). It becomes clear this work is not so much interested in exploring the significant dates of Christ in as much as it is interested in proving the existence of God through use of timekeeping (154). While Ware provides adequate arguments that ancient Christians understood and fine-tuned timekeeping, it feels a bit far-fetched to think that modern-day atheism is overly concerned with Christian contributions to the calendar. That left (at least) this reviewer viewing Ware’s book as more of a straw-man argument.
When Was Jesus Really Born? serves as a brief, easy read for parishioner and pastor alike. Those interested in the workings of ancient calendars will gain better understanding. Those curious about the dating of Jesus’ life-events will find answers. Those seeking apologetic material may wish to consider different (or additional) resources.
When was Jesus Really Born? is a ‘peer reviewed’ publication of Concordia Publishing House. “The Peer Review process is designed to enable authors to publish book manuscripts through Concordia Publishing House” (back cover). It becomes quite apparent this work satisfies personal interest rather than a pointed topic. For those curious to know only When Was Jesus Really Born? perhaps a simple Google search will suffice.