One week ago a large portion of people, Christians and otherwise, celebrated a day set aside in recognition of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. When was Jesus born?
Year of birth
It is possible to get close to the year of Jesus's birth more so than the day, though pinpointing the exact year has some problems. Two approaches from the Scriptures help us estimate when it took place.
The birth narratives
Matthew 2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Luke 1:5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea...
Luke 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
From the birth narratives we find that Jesus's birth took place while Augustus was the Roman emperor (27 BC- 14AD), while Herod the Great ruled in Judaea (37 BC-4 BC), and during a taxing of the people under Cyrenius. This later reign of Cyrenius creates some difficulties with the secular record that has been passed down to us.
The baptism of Jesus and beginning of his ministry
Luke 3:1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, 2 Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness...23 And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age...
At the time of Jesus's baptism by John, he was about 30 years of age. This was during the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (circa 29 AD). This would place His birth at what these calendars would call 1 BC.
The building of the temple
John 2:20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
One other method of calculation figures 46 years of building the temple before the beginning of the ministry of Jesus at 30 years of age, then adds sixteen years for the year of Jesus's birth. The problem here is knowing exactly when the building of this temple began.
My view of Scripture holds the New Testament records as accurate and the secular dates as relatively accurate to sometimes unreliable. Seems the best comparison of all the data would record the birth of Jesus sometime around the years our calendars would recognize as 6 BC -- 4 BC.
Another approach to figuring the year of Jesus's birth from strictly biblical chronology could work from the seventy weeks of Daniel.
Day of birth
Many people are happy celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, even though no Scriptures provide us that information. Circa AD 200, Clement of Alexandria discusses different days suggested for the birth of Jesus, but does not mention December 25. One of the earliest sources to give December 25th as the date of birth of Jesus is Hippolytus of Rome (early the 3rd century). Hippolytus arrived at this date by assuming that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox. He placed it on March 25th for that year and then added nine months. This is related to others who believed that "our Lord was conceived...on the same he suffered (that is, the conception and crucifixion took place on the same day of the month)." Chrysostom (late 4th century) held the December 25th date based on the timing of the conception of John the Baptist. He assumed the offering of incense recorded in Luke 1 was the offering of incense by on Yom Kippur. This would have been in early October. So he counted six months for the time of John's conception to that of Jesus, then nine more for the birth of Jesus.
Luke 1:5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. 8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course,
Others using a method similar to Chrysostom (determining the day of Jesus's birth based on Luke 1) have arrived at a different date -- late September to early October, or around time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Recognizing that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, this assumes that Zachariah, a priest in the division of Abijah, was on duty at the temple in late May to early June. Add to this 15 months to figure the birth of Jesus. This requires numerous assumptions, including that the division schedule of the temple always assigned the first division on the first week of the Jewish calendar, and that each division served one week.
The biblical record of shepherds tending their flocks at night (Luke 2:8) is possible evidence that Jesus was not born in a cold month of like December. Many think sheep would have been corralled in this cold period and that shepherds would have been out among their flocks by night during the spring lambing season. As with all other ideas this involves some assumption and speculation.
Finally, some have tied the "sixth month" of Luke 1:26 to the sixth month of the Jewish calendar and counted nine months from there. This a mistake, since the sixth month refers to the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy.
The biblical information sets the birth of Jesus within a narrow time period, but does not try to pinpoint either the day or year of His birth. Once we have tried and found this to be true, it behooves us to cease trying to date the birthday of Jesus Christ. Read and understand the information given? Yes! Go beyond it? No! The birth of Jesus Christ is an important event in human history. Not because of the birth of one more baby among millions of babies, but because God took on human flesh, came to seek and save that which was lost, and gave His life a ransom for many.