Thanksgiving is the unoffical start to the Christmas season. I’m both excited and sad to share this episode with our listeners. I’m excited to introduce you an astronomer, Dr. John Pratt. In this first episode, we’ll talk about dating both the First Vision and the birth of Christ. It turns out that John says these events are related!
John: So, if you look at when is the Friday the 14th of Nisan, it’s either A.D. 30 or 33. you’ve got two choices. When you read the ancient fathers, Eusebius and those, they tell you about when Christ was born, and it’s about either two or one B.C. That would make him 33 years old when he’s crucified. That’s what everybody believed until different things happened, and everybody switched things. If you believe in Josephus, who is wrong on so many things, he gives the date of the death of Herod. He had, I believe, two records in front of him and he gives two different dates. He picked between them, and he picked the wrong date. I have a whole paper on this. So, he says, he basically is saying the Herod died about 3 B.C. Then, modern scholars say, “Well, we don’t like 3, but 4 B.C. there was an eclipse to the moon, when he died.” So, they’re all excited about 4 B.C., eclipse of the moon. Then, if he died in 4 B.C., that means you’ve got to pick the earlier date for his resurrection, AD 30.
John: But, there was a total eclipse of the sun on December 27th, 1 BC, which is the actual eclipse. Anyway, they’ve had it wrong all this time. About 10% of scholars believe in the A.D. 33 date, but something like 90% believe in the A.D. 30 date.
GT: So, you think he was born in 1 BC?
John: Yeah, April 6th, 1 B.C.
GT: April 6th, 1 B.C.
John: It’s right out of James Talmage [book], Jesus the Christ. “We believe Jesus was born…” He’s actually born on the evening before, just like we hold Christmas Eve pageants, the night before, when the shepherds are in the field. So, we would technically call it April 5th, after sunset, but on the Hebrew calendar, after sunset is part of the next day. The day to celebrate is April 6.
GT: This is interesting. I’m just going to throw it out there really quickly. Dr. Jeffrey Chadwick at BYU…
John: Yes, I know.
GT: He thinks it was in December.
John: Oh my goodness.
GT: And then Thomas Wayment says you really can’t pick a date.
John: I know. Bless their hearts. They’re doing the best they can. Everybody’s trying the best they can. I read Chadwick’s 55-page letter to BYU Studies. He’s doing the best he can.
GT: I think we’re going to have to make this a good Christmas episode. This will be good. There’s more dispute about…
John: The thing I have that Chadwick and nobody else has, is there’s a whole series of sacred calendars on his birth date. I mean, I’ll just [say this.] There’s a whole series and his birth date is very important and new stars are appearing and things. It’s a holy day on many calendars.
When do you think Christ was born?
I interviewed Dr. John Pratt back in June, and I’m extremely sad to report that John passed away on October 12, 2021, from COVID pneumonia. I wish he had a chance to see it before he passed. So, I’d like to dedicate this interview to his family. We’ve lost a brilliant mind and spirit and I mourn the loss for all of us.
When did the First Vision take place? The late Dr. John Pratt says it was March 26, 1820. That calculation is based on the Enoch Calendar. We’re going to take a deep dive into calendar systems and find out how John came up with that date.
John: So, in the grand years of 364, he’s born in the year–it should be called zero for astronomers. They call it 1 BC, but they had no zero. So, he’s born in the Year Zero, and then the years 364 and 728, you go up five of those, and it’s the year 1820. So, that’s why it’s such a massive big year and big day because it is it’s all the way from Christ and Christ is more than one of these years, too. So, there you go.
GT: Okay, so this is a really interesting. So, you’re tying the birth of Christ into…
John: Into the First Vision, exactly.
GT: So, you think you’ve nailed the date as March 26, 1820?
John: Well, it was all proposed until– and I can say it in a sentence, John Lefgren rides up on a white horse. [He’s] an independent researcher who finds two confirming things. One, he finds weather reports that shows that March 26 was the best warm day of spring up in New England, when it was snowing on April 6. A lot of people have thought [that] well, he was probably born on April 6. [I mean] the First Vision, they thought might be on April 6. It turned out it was very cold and not good weather that day. But, on March 26th, it’s the one day that had perfect, sunny weather. That’s why Joseph Smith would remember that. He said, “I don’t know what the day was, but it was a warm, clear spring day.” Well, yeah, and because it snowed the whole month after that, so he’s going to remember that. So, he has the weather reports and the first weather reports ever made, in the world, as far as he can figure out, was in the United States in that year 1820.
GT: (Chuckling) If it had been 1819, we’d have been out of luck.
John: You’re out of luck. So, it’s 1820 and we’ve got the weather.
GT: The army started tracking the weather, for awhile now.
John: The weather [tracking] started with the army. The Surgeon General of the United States Army saying, “If we knew the weather, we could keep our soldiers healthier.” So, he took 14–now I’m going to try to do short answers. But, in 14 military stations around, he had people take the weather, and notice the wind and the rain and the temperature three times a day, 14 all around.
GT: Like 7am, noon and then…
John: Right, and so we have the weather reports. Number one, there’s confirmation that that was a warm, spring sunny day. This John Lefgren guy happens to be up in New England and he has a maple syrup business, where he makes maple syrup. He knows the process. It turns out by looking– Lucy Mack was the one that knew how to make maple sugar and maple syrup. It turns out that that weather pattern is exactly the day, the time when they would have been working hard doing maple syrup. The story is that Joseph had left his axe in the tree, and he goes to the grove to pray. He couldn’t have prayed on the Friday or the Saturday. But, then on Sunday, it’s the day of rest, and there’s no maple sugar running. You do that when it runs. It has to do with temperature changes. So, he had two different, separate witnesses that the day was correct. So, that’s what made me think…
GT: So, it has to do with the maple sugar runs, and that was a perfect day.
John: It was a perfect day to be after the maple sugar runs were over, to have a day of rest, and it was clear and sunny. Those were confirming. If all it was my Enoch date, nobody would have cared, because they’d say, “Oh yeah, Dr. Pratt and his woo woo calendars. He thinks he knows the date.” But, when you have, “Wait a minute, there’s weather reports. If it’s not that date, what day was it?” They’d say, “Oh, yeah, it snowed all through April, and this is New England.”
GT: So, the idea is if you’re making maple syrup, you need a lot of changes in temperature for the sap to run.
John: Changes, it’s got to go from cold to hot, and then the pressure change. Then you get about two days of that. But, the Sunday was the third day and it was from hot to hot, and there’s no change. So, nothing was running on Sunday, and incidentally you’re supposed to rest anyway, and a perfect day for him to go pray.
What do you think of John’s calculations and these weather reports. Are they convincing?
We latter-day saints (of all stripes) do love that April 6 date. But to paraphrase what Freud may (or may not) have said, “Sometimes a date is just a date.” Speaking only for myself, it doesn’t really matter what calendar date is assigned to either Jesus’ birth or Joseph Smith’s First Vision, but if folks want to spend their time with what I consider “magical math,” then, hey, go for it. There are much, much worse things to ponder.
I wonder if we really looked into it we’d discover that there are 4 different claimed dates for the First Vision. Just kidding.
I don’t really buy into calendar and date type research that tries to wring some sort of religious meaning or significance from this or that astronomical event. But I will note that John Pratt was an early and regular contributor to online Mormon discussions when the Internet first fired up twenty-some years ago. I wish more Mormon scholars would do the same — it would be good for everyone. Best wishes to the family.
You know, the short answer to this post’s title is, “It doesn’t, but wannabe Mormon astrologists like to think so.”
I like the creative arguments and scholarship. I think it’s a fun discussion and appreciate how it aligns with records. I think the arguments for the nativity stories being later creations are very compelling. I think a lot of the Christian world has faced this uncomfortable data, but I don’t think we as Mormons are ready for it. I think the key is understanding some of the early criticisms of Jesus. Celsus claimed Jesus was an illegitimate child. This was an early criticism of Jesus. My hypothesis is that the nativity narratives in Luke and Matthew were a response to these claims. I personally do not feel like there was anything miraculous or extraordinary about his birth and no one really noticed or took note (there is no nativity narrative in Mark, which was written the closest in time, and Paul, which was written even closer, says Jesus was born of a woman and leaves it at that). What he did later became extraordinary and people looked back and wanted to make his birth story extraordinary as well. I think if we went back and witnessed his birth it would be extremely disappointing. However, I do think the nativity narratives are amazing stories which is why we keep telling them. I think there is something powerful in the Luke narrative that relates to finding God in our mundane human experience. My conclusion is that we will never know the actual date and no one at the time it happened would have taken any note, which is why it’s been hard to pin down.