contra Jimmy Akin on the Year of the Birth of Christ

In a recent post, Jimmy Akin does what he does best, take a complex topic within Catholicism, over-simply it, distort it, then over-simplify it some more, then present it to his readers as if he is explaining plain truths that no one could dispute. And judging from the fawning comments at the end of the post, he has succeeded in fooling many readers.

I spent between 4 and 5 years researching and writing a book of New Testament Biblical chronology. To my mind, Akin’s assertions are a gross over-simplification and distortion of this topic. Biblical chronologists do not agree that Jesus was born in 3/2 B.C. It is a fact that no consensus on the year of Christ’s birth exists among scholars. They do not agree because there are numerous contradictory indications of the years for events of that time period. Akin ignores most of the evidence, and vastly over-simplifies the points of evidence that he does mention.

For example, there are many sources indicating approximately 3/2 B.C. as the time of Christ’s birth. But none of those sources say ‘B.C.’ The A.D./B.C. system was not invented until hundreds of years later. And this particular set of sources is not unanimous. Some of these sources actually place the birth of Christ in the 40th, 41st, or 42nd year of Augustus, some in the 28th year of Augustus (apparently counting his reign as beginning at a later point), some in the year given as the ‘Olympiad year,’ or the year from the founding of Rome, and some in the year counting from the time of Adam and Eve (seriously). All of these ways of stating the year are open to argument as to how to align them with our system of B.C./A.D.

According to Finegan, these are the early Christian sources stating a year for the Birth of Christ (Handbook of Biblical Chronlogy, p. 291, Table 139)

The Alogi (an early Christian sect) — 40th year of Augustus
Irenaeus — 41st year of Augustus
Clement of Alexandria — 28th year of Augustus
Tertullian — 41st/28th year of Augustus
Julius Africanus — 194th Olympiad year
Hippolytus of Rome — 5500 or 5502 A.Ad. (a dating system counting from the time of Adam and Eve)
Hippolytus of Thebes — 5500 A.Ad.
Origen — 41st year of Augustus
Eusebius — 42nd/28th year of Augustus
Epiphanius — 42nd year
Cassiodorus — 41st year of Augustus
Orosuius — 752 A.U.C. (from the founding of the city of Rome)
Dionysius Exiguus — 753 A.U.C.
‘the Chronographer’ — 754 A.U.C.

The above sources do not agree. Also, these are mostly late sources, stating a date without evidence or apparent basis. So this is not information that can be relied upon, by itself, to determine the date of Christ’s birth. And many of these statements are clearly not independent. If one Christian source gives the year as the 42nd year of Augustus, and other Christian sources repeat that assertion, the source is not many, but one. The interrelationship of these assertions is such that the number of assertions does not have the same weight as if they were independent.

Therefore, the sources that Akin cites as near proof of the year of Christ’s birth do not indicate one particular year, but a range of years. And those sources are late and (taken by themselves) without corroboration. Biblical chronologists do not give much weight to this particular consideration in seeking the year of Christ’s birth, for the above stated reasons. Instead, they examine many other considerations in order to support varying theories as to when Christ was born. The range of dates for the Birth of Christ in the works of various scholars ranges from 15 B.C. to 1 A.D. They do not all agree on 3/2 B.C.

The year that Akin gives for the death of Augustus, A.D. 14, is arguable. My book presents evidence that Augustus died in A.D. 10. There is also some evidence that Tiberius counted his reign from an earlier point in time, years prior to the death of Augustus. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea” may well refer to an earlier range of years than Akin assumes. Two Biblical chronologists, E. J. Vardaman and Daniel Schwartz, independently theorize that Tiberius’ reign and Pilate’s reign began and ended years earlier than the dates that Akin assumes. My work also supports this earlier time frame for the reign of Pilate.

So this is the basic problem with Akin’s post: he assumes too much. Numerous assumptions are made. Arguable points are treated as facts. Conclusions are drawn that are not warranted, even from these assumptions and arguable points. The years that Akin gives for the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Pilate are all open to dispute. This means that the start of the ministry of John, and subsequently of Jesus, are not established by Akin in any way that is certain or even probable.

Akin’s claim that St. Luke was “almost certainly writing from Rome around the year A.D. 62” is not considered certain by any Biblical chronologists. Here is quote from my book about where Luke was when he wrote the Gospel and Acts:

“According to Saint Jerome, Saint Luke wrote the Gospel while living in the region of Achaia. ‘He was himself a disciple of the Apostle Paul, and composed his book in Achaia and Boeotia.’ Achaia is the ancient region roughly in the location of modern-day Greece. Boeotia is a region within Greece, just northeast of the Gulf of Corinth. It is still referred to as Boeotia today. This location makes sense in the context of the other information we have about Luke. He was not in Rome with Paul during those two years. He was not in the center of a large Christian community (he lived some distance from Corinth); otherwise he might have added events from that community to the last two years described in Acts.”

Luke could not have been in Rome when he wrote Acts because he has no information about the two year period of time when Paul was in Rome. All that Acts tells us is found in two short verses at the end of Acts. Luke could not tell us more, because he was not there. By comparison, Luke was shipwrecked with Paul on Malta, so he could and did give us many details about that entire set of events.

There are other serious problems with Akin’s post on Biblical chronology. He does not relate the year of Christ’s birth to the year of Herod’s death. Most scholars place Herod’s death earlier than 1 B.C. (the year that Akin’s date for the birth of Christ would necessitate). Most of the evidence that Biblical chronologists examine to determine the date of the Birth of Christ is ignored by Akin.

The ‘enrollment’ that Akin claims occurred in 3/2 B.C. is hypothesized by some scholars, but there is no record of such an enrollment. And the basis for the claim is merely that Augustus was honored by the whole people of Rome. This is a weak basis for a claim that a census would be taken that would even include Jews in Palestine. And some sources do indicate that Quirinius was governor at an earlier time, when an actual census and taxation was taken. There are other stronger dates, with more evidence to support them, for the reign of Quirinius over Syria and a census that would compel a Jewish man to return to his home town for registration.

Akin does not relate his date for the Birth of Christ to the other dates of events in Christ’s life. If Christ was born in 3/2 B.C., and (as Akin claims) He began His Ministry after John’s ministry began in A.D. 28 or 29, then He could not have died in A.D. 30 (nor any time earlier). Most scholars give the length of Christ’s ministry as longer than a year or two; three years or so in the most common scholarly conclusion (3.5 years in my assessment). This leaves A.D. 33, 34, or 36 as possible years for the Crucifixion. If Christ died in A.D. 33, then Akin’s date for His Birth would make Christ about 34 or 35 years old at His death, despite sources saying Christ died about the age of 33.

There is a wealth of information on this topic of the chronology of the Birth and of the Crucifixion of Christ in the book: Handbook of Biblical Chronology, by Jack Finegan, and in the books: Chronos, Kairos, Christos I and II. The dates and the ‘information’ given by Akin are pulled selectively from a much larger body of available evidence. Scholars who actually study and write on this topic do not agree that 3/2 B.C. is the probable date for Christ’s Birth. There is more support for A.D. 33 as the probable year of His death and Resurrection, but even that date is not the majority view. Other earlier and later dates have some support and some proponents.

See my website: BiblicalChronology.com

The evidence from eclipse and comet sightings

The Antedating of the Reign of Tiberius Caesar

The Census of Quirinius and the Lapis Venetus

See my book of Biblical chronology:
Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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