I’m confused about this whole matter of when Christ was born: why do people say Christ was born in 4 B.C. if “B.C.” means “before Christ”? Also, I have heard that there is a problem with Luke’s mention of Cyrenius’s being governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth. Please help.
Let’s deal with the B.C. problem first. It is because of an error made a long time ago, several centuries after Christ lived on earth. Among the many systems for dating time, one was the Alexandrian system. In A.D. 525 Pope John I asked a monk named Dionysius Exiguus to map out dates for Easter for the years 527 to 626, probably anticipating future celebrations over the event of Christ’s death. Dionysius decided to start from what he considered the year Jesus was born. In calculating this date, he went back to the year Rome was supposedly founded; then, because of certain evidence given to him, he determined that Jesus was born 753 years later. (He was in reality modifying the Alexandrian system.)
However; he apparently may not have read any of the Bible portions regarding Jesus’ birth, because the Bible obviously notes that Christ was born while King Herod was still living (Matthew 2:1). Historically Herod is known to have died in the spring of 4 B.C., before the Passover and after Jesus had been born. Thus the year 2000, which we reached not long ago, was not really 2,000 years after the birth of Jesus but more accurately 2,004 years. (Some Bible scholars even put Jesus’ birth at 5 B.C.)
As to the month and day Jesus was born, great differences of opinion exist. Some scholars maintain that December 25 is fairly accurate, while many do not, arguing for dates in just about every other month of the year.
Dionysius’s dating system was questioned in the centuries after he lived, but it still prevails today. Since that is so, changing the date of celebrating Christ’s birth should be considered impossible. And if it were possible, whose date would we choose? Our focus should be upon the Lord Jesus, being thankful that we have one day a year set apart to celebrate the anniversary of His birth.
Luke mentioned Cyrenius’s being governor of Syria during Christ’s birth (Luke 2:2, KJV). This does pose a problem, as Cyrenius seems to have been governor of Syria in 3 or 2 B.C. and again, even more surely, in A.D. 6 or 7, and we’re saying that Jesus was born in 4 or 5 B.C. One possible solution to this problem lies in the word “when.” It might be more correctly translated “before” in this context. If that were the case here, the verse would accurately state that Jesus was born before Cyrenius became governor of Syria. Another possibility is that Cyrenius was a governor of a lesser rank during the time of Jesus’ birth, perhaps a type of lieutenant governor or a local or regional governor. Yet he could accurately be called a governor.
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