I was hoping to get this post up a little earlier in the month, but Christmas Eve is still before Christmas, right? I had the pleasure of interviewing 2 BYU professors in regards to the facts and fiction behind the birth of Christ. Over the next several episodes, I’ll be alternating between Dr. Thomas Wayment and Dr. Jeff Chadwick, both New Testament scholars. Dr. Chadwick think Jesus was born in December. Is there such clarity in the New Testament? Thom Wayment and co-author Lincoln Blumell wrote an article in BYU Studies on the dating of Christ’s birth questioning whether Chadwick could be so precise.
Thom: Our intent was to say “We can’t know within that kind of time frame, especially not a month.” A year, we might get within a year or two is about the best we can do.
What is the span of years that we can pinpoint the birth of Jesus?
Thom: It seems that everyone agrees that Herod was alive when Jesus was born. That gives us a pretty good point after which we can start talking. Herod dies in 4 B.C. That’s a date there is not a lot of dispute about. I’ve seen a recent monograph and some are saying maybe spring of 5 B.C.
One real monkey-wrench here is that Luke says that there was a census by a man named Quirinius or Cyrenius in translation that a lot of Latter-day Saints use, and he is governor in Syria in 6 A.D. So there is no possible way that Herod is alive and Cyrenius does a census.
So there is a decade gap between these two dates. What does Thom think is the best year?
Chadwick, on the other hand, makes a strong case that Jesus was born in December of 5 BC. How does he come to that conclusion?
GT: I know you wrote a BYU Studies article about eight years ago, I think it was.
Jeff: It was in 2010, December of 2010. The article appeared, dating the birth of Jesus Christ. So when was Jesus born? Well, [we] have data that we have that are connected to what we call the Christmas story, both from the texts in Matthew, the texts in Luke, the associated texts in Josephus that talk about Herod the Great, and for us as Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon. All of the evidence put together from those texts suggest to me that Jesus was born late in the year 5 BC, actually in early winter of 5/4 BC. So for us, that essentially means December.
In this first episode with Dr. Chadwick, we’ll dig deep into the census mentioned in Luke 2. Many scholars believe this census happened in 6 AD. How does Dr. Chadwick reconcile this?
Jeff: King James is a translation of the Greek and it doesn’t say census there. It’s says enrollment. Let me just see, and pick it up there. But, the idea that is a census is something that has bounced around 20th century scholarship. But, I don’t feel that what was happening there was a census in the word that we’re used to it.
GT: All the world should be taxed, right?
Jeff: Taxed. It’s a taxing. This taxing first occurred, says Luke 2, when Cyrenius, or as we would call him, Quirinius, was the governor of Syria. Well, the word taxing here in your King James version, if you’re using a nice LDS edition, if you go down to the footnote, you will see that the word taxing is called enrollment. It’s not the word census that is used in that Greek alternative. It’s enrollment. And what this was in reality was a city register. If you’ve lived in America, you’ve never had to enroll. But if you go to any city in Europe, I served in Germany for example. If you move to a city, you have to register with the government for that city to let them know you’re moving there and will be a citizen. If you leave that city, you unregister and the new city you go to, you register it. And this is a European tradition that that comes clear from the Roman Empire.
I’ll be posting more information next week regarding Chadwick’s case, but he does reference not only the Book of Mormon to make his case, but Catholic tradition as well. Do you think Jesus was born in December?
In part 3 of my Christmas series, I discussed Christmas legends that we’re all familiar with. Did Herod really kill hundreds of babies? BYU Professor Dr. Thomas Wayment answers these questions.
Thom: I’ve heard it taught in a history class. I’ve heard it taught in Sunday School. I’ve heard it talked about popularly. And there’s always a surprise by the Sunday School crowd that as you said it, “Why doesn’t this crop up in Tacitus or Suetonius or some of our other historians?” And the scholarly community perhaps would note, “I would be surprised if it did.” We’re talking about a very small village, 200-300 people. And I don’t want to minimize this. I want to be really careful that anybody listening understands. I’m not trying to say it’s not a big deal that one or two babies passed away, but one or two babies passing away in a pogrom or this kind of search to get Jesus wouldn’t typically appear in a historical source. So, it’s not unbelievable, but it’s not quite the divide that some crowds make it.
GT: You think it’s as small as one or two babies? Because I always thought it was like hundreds of babies that were killed under the age of two.
Thom: No, no. They said this is a very small area. We’re talking Bethlehem and we’re talking a rural village and we just don’t have the population density.
Where did the Wise Men come from?
GT: In the video that I saw, and I’m just going to call them Iranian. Zoroastrians or whatever, I can’t even say that word. But, the video that I saw said, “Hey, these are people that came from our enemy, Persia. And that Persia and Rome were enemies essentially. So, Herod was greatly troubled. So, what do you think of that?
Thom: That’s a really fascinating insight. To back up just little bit and give everybody here a couple of thoughts to work on. The reason that we think they are Zoroastrian is that that word “magoi” does appear in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. And it refers to people from that area and the fact that we are calling them Magoi, “Magicians” is the modern word, but we favor Wise Men, is not a positive term. So, the modern reader sees these as a positive moment in the story. But if they were appearing in Jeremiah, who uses the word, I believe it’s Jeremiah, he uses it very negatively. These are people that are kind of outside of Israel, they’re condemned, etc. And so, that’s one dynamic in the story.
What else do we know about the Christmas star? What can historians tell us about these stories? Do you think these stories literally happened, or are they spiritual stories Christians held? Do you believe in the Wise Men and the Star? Did they really happen or are they more legendary than fact? Did you think Herod killed more than a handful of babies?