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Anno Domini – Maybe they got it right after all!

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Looking at the possible dates of Jesus’ birth, it seems like somebody was kind of confused when they set up the BC/AD calendar system. For a while now I’ve assumed this to be the case, but after a good discussion on it yesterday, I see that actually they probably got it just right.

The apparent problem is simply that the dates for Jesus’ birth that various scholars have proposed range from 2BC to 7BC, so whichever one you choose, there’s the question, “Ok, if AD means Anno Domini, “Year of our Lord”, shouldn’t His birth be a little closer to the starting point of the “AD” years?

Maybe the real problem is our tendency to think that we modern folks are so smart – that surely we can do a better job of figuring out these details of Jesus’ birth than the people who lived back then, closer to the actual events. In his 1998 “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” Jack Finegan lists the various possible birth dates that have been claimed for the Messiah, and it’s meaningful to note that all the earliest witnesses place His birth in the year of 3/2BC, with the other dates like 7BC being proposed many years later.

Let’s suppose for a moment that these early witnesses actually knew what they were talking about, and that the monk who proposed the AD/BC system, Dionysius Exiguus, had this info at his disposal. Can we make sense of the gap between 3/2BC and the beginning of the AD years?

Yes, we can. In fact, if we were given the task of setting up the new calendar system, we might have come up with the same answer. Here’s why:

1) The AD/BC system has no zero year. Counting back a year at a time goes like this:

  • 3AD
  • 2AD
  • 1AD
  • 1BC
  • 2BC
  • 3BC

So if Jesus was born precisely 3 years before 3AD as we might ideally expect, counting back 3 years we see that his birth would have been right at the beginning of 1BC. That’s actually the zero point for the AD time scale.

2) However, there’s no reason to expect that He was born right at the zero point, at our modern New Year, on Jan 1 of 1BC. He could well have been born the day before, or a month before, or almost a year before. In all three cases this would place his birth in 2BC.

3) In reporting the beginning of a king’s reign, the usual procedure was to start counting from the New Year after he came into power. It would make sense to do the same for marking the Messiah’s zero year. So if He was born any time between Jan 1, 2BC and Jan 1, 1BC, the starting year would be recorded as 1BC. (Remembering that on the BC time scale, the smaller numbers come after the larger numbers)

4) Taking 2 & 3 together, we see that a 2BC birth implies counting New Year of 1BC as the starting point. And conversely, taking New Year of 1BC as the starting point implies a 2BC birth.

5) Now, when the early witnesses say that Jesus was born in 3/2BC, this refers to the Hebrew year from Sept 3BC through Sept 2BC.

6) It would be reasonable to assume then that His actual birth date fell in the range that 4 and 5 have in common – the portion of that Hebrew year which fell in 2BC, which is Jan 1, 2BC through Sept 2BC.

So, based only on choosing to believe the ancient witnesses, and to accept the validity of the BC/AD system, we now have a proposed date for Jesus’ birth, sometime in the nine months of January through September of 2BC.

This is hard to accept for scholars who are used to saying that Herod died in 4BC, since we know from Scripture that Jesus was born while Herod was still alive. But recent studies say that this 4BC date is in error, and now place Herod’s death in 1BC. Those who accept this 1BC date for Herod’s death have proposed birth dates for the Messiah in Sept 3BC, in Sept 2BC, and at various points in between. This simple study can help narrow these down. If we accept the conclusions of this study, it eliminates Sept 3BC from consideration, making the June 2BC date proposed by Rick Larson of BethlehemStar.net look all the more likely. Sept 3BC is actually quite relevant to the theory of BethlehemStar.net, just not as Jesus’ birth date. It’s taken as His date of conception, and as the date of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, while the June 2BC date 279 days (~40 weeks) later is taken as the time of Jesus’ birth.

Now think about this question. If Jesus was born in June of 2BC, how old was he in 33AD? Don’t answer too quickly. The answer is not 35. If you look it over carefully, considering the same factors that we’ve just examined, you’ll find that up until June of 33BC, his 34th birthday, he would have been 33 years old.

33 in the year 33. It actually makes sense. If I’d been in Dionysius’ position, I think that’s what I would have proposed, too.

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