His Birth Year: 6 B.C. or A.D. 6?

James W. Deardorff
Updated April, 2001

Giving Luke more emphasis
Questioning the reliability of Matthew
Further support for A.D. 6

Introduction. The birth of Jesus is usually placed around 6 B.C. because of King Herod's involvement in chapter 2 of Matthew, his death in 4 B.C., and the implication from Mt 2:16-19 that Jesus had been perhaps a couple years old when Herod died. On the other hand, a 10- or 12-year uncertainty in the birth date exists because Luke 2:2 indicates the birth was during the period of jurisdiction of Quirinius in Syria-Cilicia, commonly believed to have been from A.D. 6-9.

Giving Luke more emphasis. The other key point of reference from Luke 2:2 is the decree from Caesar Augustus to enroll "the world." Historian T. P. Wiseman has pointed out that this decree could well be the known imperial edict of A.D. 6,1 that introduced a 5% inheritance tax upon Roman citizens, and which would likely have required census data. He suggests that governor Quirinius conducted a local census of Jews in Syria and Judea, which was also under the jurisdiction of the new prefect Coponius, at the same time as the general Roman census in A.D. 6-7. He would likely have wished to ascertain the registration of tax-paying Jews under his jurisdiction and that of Coponius. With the whole Roman empire affected, plus many Jews, this might indeed have been referred to loosely as enrolling "the world." Investigator Michael Molnar has also noted that Quirinius conducted a census for the purpose of levying taxes on Jews.1.1

With this reasonable suggestion, we find that the last two out of the three primary reference points in time (King Herod, Caesar's decree and Quirinius) agree if Jesus had been born around A.D. 6. Therefore, in researching a cause for the contradiction in dating, one needs to reexamine the first reference point, King Herod, for possible reasons it may be in error within the Gospel of Matthew.

Questioning the reliability of Matthew here. The first critical point is encountered at Mt 2:13-20 because of the very close parallel between the reported massacre of the infants along with the return of the Holy family from Egypt, and Moses's rescue from the slaughter of Hebrew children in Egypt along with his later return to Egypt in Ex 4:19. Matthew's massacre of the infants is considered non-historical mainly because neither Josephus nor any other historian, including the writer of Luke, seems to have been at all aware of such a dreadful event,2 and because it appears to have been developed as a setting for the verse from Jer 31:15 appearing in Mt 2:18.3 The fact that the Holy family was returning from Egypt while Moses was returning to Egypt, and that the Jeremiah story relates to much older children, are prime reasons why the analogy with Moses appears to have been a forced one and thus a redaction of the writer of Matthew.

This then raises the likelihood that the reported massacre and its association with King Herod were introduced by the writer of Matthew in order to give Jesus at least as high a human standing within emerging Christianity as Moses held within Judaism. This would have been very helpful in drawing converts from the Jews. Also, King Herod was still very bitterly remembered, and there would have been few qualms associated with attaching an infant massacre to his other crimes, as no one could deny that he was incapable of having done such. However, one need not assume that the entire episode of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and return was non-historical, as is done within some branches of NT scholasticism largely because no accounts of it occur within Mark and Luke. Instead, there could be good reasons for the latter. Thus we here consider the likelihood that the name of King Herod is one of the many redactive embellishments the writer of Matthew added to his gospel source material.

Had the Matthean source material contained the basic story of the flight to Egypt, and if the A.D. 6 dating is the correct one, the flight likely would have been to escape a death threat from Herod Antipas, assuming for consistency the Magi story is basically correct. Antipas reigned over Galilee from about 4 B.C. to A.D. 39, and acquired the dynastic title of "Herod" in A.D. 6.4 In Matthew's source the angel's statement to Joseph would then have been, in effect, to return from Egypt because Herod Antipas had had a change of heart, since evidently he had not died. However, this statement would have been noticed as paralleling Ex 4:19 if Herod had died. This result the writer of Matthew could easily arrange for, nearly a century later, by replacing the first mention in his source of Herod Antipas with King Herod in his gospel, and deleting any further mentions of "Antipas" within the Nativity section. Then the Ex 4:19 phrase "for all the men who were seeking your life are dead" could be used in Mat 2:20 with only slight alteration. That this verse alludes to the Exodus verse has been known at least since McNeile's work.5 That it likely contains redactive input is further suggested by its not being an attributed citation, and by the improbability that those (plural) who were seeking the child's life would all be dead within a very short time period. Although the length of stay in Egypt is unknown, it is usually considered to be only a few months.6

The mention in Mt 2:22 of Archelaus reigning over Judea is then a redactive touch by the writer of Matthew to provide a proper historical context for his altered date of birth of Jesus. By the time of the census in A.D. 6, Archelaus had already been exiled and no longer held jurisdiction over Jerusalem.7 Thus it is not inconsistent that Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, was in Jerusalem at the time of the visit of the magis.

Other redactions could be expected to accompany the ones already discussed, in order to support the redactor's massacre story and Mt 2:20. As noted by Beare, the Hosea (11:1) citation appears to be one such, although for this reason Beare considered the entire flight-to-Egypt story suspect.8 Here the angelic statements associated with it, even if involving some redactions, are considered to provide positive support for the flight to Egypt. The rationale is that if "angels" should turn out to be extraterrestrial entities who have occasionally intervened in human affairs, the tendency even 2,000 years ago on the part of an editor could well have been to minimize their involvement so as not to let angels usurp the powers of God. A real extraterrestrial may then have appeared to Joseph in person, with this encounter (or these encounters) edited into angelic appearances in dreams. Thus I believe that the angelic text that has survived should be treated seriously.

Further support for A.D. 6. A piece of further support for the present analysis comes from the mention of Judas the Galilean in Acts 5:37, where the writer of Luke-Acts stated that he "arose in the days of the census." The revolt led by this Judas is believed to have occurred in A.D. 6.9 Hence it lends support that an important census did occur in that year, and that it could have been no other than the one mentioned in Luke 2:2. The verse of Lk 1:5, which again places the Nativity "in the days of King Herod," may seem to counteract this additional evidence. However, if Luke is dependent upon Matthew, as in some of the Gospel priority hypotheses and as affirmed in statements by Irenaeus, Origen and Augustine, then this verse could easily have been a slip-up by the writer of Luke, who may have started out by following Mt 2:1a before deciding to deviate greatly. There is no shortage of other slip-ups by this writer documented by M. Goulder.10

Additional support for the A.D. 6 birth year comes from the church father, Origen, in his debate with Celsum. One of the statements from Celsum that Origen reproduced includes the information that the occurrence of a new star and the birth of Jesus occurred while Herod the tetrarch ruled in Jerusalem (after Archelaus was exiled from Jerusalem).11 Origen in no way contested this piece of information.

Still additional support for the A.D. 6 birth year comes from the 1904 study of George Macdonald,12 and the 1999 work of Michael Molnar.13
from The Star of Bethlehem,
with permission of Michael Molnar
They noted the importance of an Antioch coin that shows, on its rear face, the symbol of the ram looking up at a bright star. Molnar showed that the ram, or Aries, was the zodiacal sign for the Judean region and as far north as Antioch at that time, while Macdonald found that the earliest mintage of this coin was dated to between September of A.D. 5 and September of A.D. 6 (Actian year 36). The star shown on it is no Star of David, but has 7 or 8 lines radiating out from it, as if it had been a very bright object.

Although Molnar used the coin to support the customary birth year of 4-6 B.C., it is evident that it much more strongly supports a birth year of A.D. 6 if the star on it represents the star of Bethlehem. Although the coin itself did not come with any date on it, Macdonald stated that "there need be no hesitation about assigning the coin to the Actian year 36." The Actian era is considered to have commenced in September of 31 B.C. (36 years later corresponds to a time between September of A.D. 5 and September of A.D. 6 since there is no A.D. 0 or 0 B.C.). Macdonald could deduce the Actian year 36 date from the "Antioch Metropoleos" lettering on the coin, among its other features, in relation to other Antioch coins before and after, and in relation to Antioch becoming the capital of an expanded province in A.D. 6 that included Judea and Samaria as well as Syria.

Molnar showed pictures of three other almost identical coins based on the first; these latter ones had been minted in Antioch in A.D. 11-12, A.D. 12-13 and A.D. 13-14. Thus, with the minting of coins in Antioch having been done on a frequent basis of every few years, it makes good sense that this coin was first minted shortly after the event that occasioned the image shown (A.D. 6). This can explain why it was not minted many years earlier, around 4 B.C.: Jmmanuel was not born until A.D. 6.

Now if word of the "bright star" event indeed soon reached Antioch, it is likely that it would have become a part of oral tradition in that city for sure, as well as in Bethlehem and surrounding area, and the existence of this coinage, which had several re-mintings, would have helped maintain the tradition. It is then noteworthy that in the early 2nd century Bishop Ignatius of Antioch mentioned this "star" of Bethlehem in his epistle to the Ephesians. The tradition, as he stated it, was as follows:

A star shone forth in the heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and the moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came so unlike to everything else [in the heavens].14

Since this is much more than what the Gospel of Matthew has to say about it, it is consistent with the deduction elsewhere in this website that Ignatius's epistles were written before Matthew was. In that case Ignatius indeed knew about the "star" from oral tradition and not from the later Gospel of Matthew. The novelty of this great light mentioned by Ignatius is consistent with the description of it in the Talmud of Jmmanuel as the "bright light with the long tail."15 In fact, one may look again at the image of the coin and notice that one of the eight rays of the "star" (the one in the "4-5 o'clock" position) is peculiar, and, if not due to a slip of the stylus, may be a representation of a tail-like feature that Roman witnesses in Bethlehem described.

Implications. An A.D. 6 birth date would mean that Jesus was significantly younger than commonly supposed during his Palestinian ministry -- only in his mid twenties -- and that his education during his youth was a remarkably advanced one, for him to have become known as "Teacher" at such a young age. His relatively young age may have given psychological reason why his teachings were rejected so quickly by scribes, Pharisees and elders. It similarly gives reason why theologically committed scholars and influential church leaders alike prefer the earlier birth date, as it yields a more mature Jesus during his ministry. It appears that the writer of Luke felt the same way, in saying, in Lk 3:23, that Jesus was "about thirty" years of age when he started his ministry.

In summary, an A.D. 6 birth date for Jesus (Jmmanuel) is consistent with all three primary, temporal reference points, considering the redactional behavior of the writer of Matthew. It is also consistent with the dating of the impressive coin depicting what may have been the "star" of Bethlehem.


1. T. P. Wiseman, "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus," NTS 33 (1987) 479-480.

1.1 Michael R. Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2000) 49.

2. Michael Grant, Herod the Great (New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1967) 262.

3. Francis Wright Beare, The Gospel according to Matthew (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981) 82.

4. Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1972) 105-106.

5. Alan Hugh McNeile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London, Macmillan & Co., 1915) xxxiv.

6. Beare, Gospel according to Matthew, 83.

7. Josephus, Antiquities XVII, xii, par. 2, and beginning of XVIII.

8. Ibid., 82.

9. Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War II.8.1; or see The Anchor Bible commentary on Acts 5:37.

10. Michael Goulder, Luke -- A New Paradigm, vols. 1 and 2 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1989).

11. Origen, in "Contra Celsum" (Book 1, Sec. 58).

12. Macdonald, George, "The pseudo-autonomous coinage of Antioch," Numismatic Chronicle, Series IV, vol. 4 (1904), pp. 105-135: see pp. 106-111.

13. Molnar, Star of Bethlehem, p. 50.

14. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, in A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993) vol. 1, p. 57.

15. See TJ verse 2:14 listed under Matthean verse Mt 2:9 in the Mt 2 file.

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