The Gospels – Birth Narratives
As we begin looking at a brief life history if Jesus of Nazareth, there are some approximate dates
that must be established. These include a birth date, a date for the beginning of his public ministry, and a
According to our calendar, the approximate birth year of Jesus is 6-4 BCE. Some of you may have
heard this before, but I am going to presume that most have not. How could Jesus have been born before
Christ (or before the common era)? For some time after the founding of Rome, dates in the Roman
Empire were delineated as AUC (which counts since Rome’s founding). In the 6th century CE, a
Christian Scythian monk known as Dionysius Exiguus (Denys the Less) determined to re-write the
calendar with the birth of the son of God as the starting point. Everything before that date would be
designated BC (Before Christ) and all after that date would be AD (Anno Domini – the year of the
Lord). However, Dionysius made an error in his calculations of about 4-6 years. According to his
calendar, Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 BC(E). The NT states that Jesus was born in the latter
reign of Herod the Great, so Jesus could not have been born later that 4 BC(E). By the time this error
was discovered over 200 years later, it was too late to make changes to the calendar and everything else.
Therefore, a “mental footnote” was made in history that the calendar was off. Also, since the rainy
season begins in Palestine in December, it is unlikely that the shepherds would be watching sheep under
starry skies. It is possible that when the early church finally determined to celebrate the birth of Jesus,
they chose December 25, in part, because they were already off for the day for a Roman celebration.
Jesus’ baptism signals the beginning of his public ministry. It is his way of announcing that he is
leaving the carpenter’s shop to begin his public mission. This date would be around 27-28 CE. Luke
writes that John the Baptizer was preaching in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, and Jesus
came to announce his ministry through his baptism. This would have been about 27 CE. If Jesus was
about 30 as Luke states, the date would correspond to about 26 – 27 CE. The author of John states that at
the Passover after Jesus’ baptism the Temple was in the 46th year of reconstruction, which would be
about 27 – 28 CE.
According to tradition and John, Jesus’ ministry lasted approximately 3 years. If the baptism was in
27 CE, then the date of the crucifixion-resurrection would be in 30 – 31 CE.
Having established approximate dates from which to work, we will continue with the birth
narratives. Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels to contain birth accounts. Mark begins with Jesus’
baptism, and John contains a prologue about Jesus’ pre-existence. As we look to Matthew and Luke, we
will talk first about points they share in the birth accounts, and then will look at the differences that fill