Reply to Taylor Marshall on the Date of Christ’s Birth

Dr. Taylor Marshall occasionally dabbles in Biblical chronology, to the detriment of that field of study. In a recent post, based on his book ‘The Eternal City’, Marshall proposes a set of assertions to support his conclusion that Christ was born on December 25th. Although there is nothing wrong with asserting that date as a matter of scholarly and pious opinion, his arguments are faulty.

Dr. Marshall presents his own version of Saint John Chrysostom’s birthday sermon, arguing for December 25th as the date of the Birth of Jesus, based on the timing of the conception and birth of John the Baptist. He states:

“Thus the priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the second week of Av. Consequently, the priestly course of Abias (the course of Saint Zacharias) was undoubtedly serving during the second week of the Jewish month of Tishri—the very week of the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of Tishri.”

Marshall does not seem to realize that all of the courses of the Jewish priests were required to be on duty in the Temple for the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Weeks. [Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, revised edition, no. 241, p. 133.] Therefore, Zacharias did not go home until after the Feast of Tabernacles, regardless of whether his priestly course was scheduled to serve on or about Tishri 10 (Yom Kippur).

Dr. Marshall claims that Tishri 10 would coincide in our calendar with a date from September 22 to October 8. But in reality, the range of dates is much larger. For example:

Tishri 10 =
13 Oct 2005
18 Sept 2010
14 Sept 2013
12 Oct 2015

Later on, Marshall proposes that Jesus was born in 1 BC, which implies that John was conceived in the fall of 2 BC. In that year, Tishri began on September 28th, so that October 7th would correspond to Tishri 10. [See lunar phase data for -1 here]

But for some reason, Marshall does not use any specific year when calculating the year of Christ’s Birth. He states Jesus was born in 1 BC later on, but does not incorporate that into his argument on the day and month of the Birth. As a result, he states that John was conceived in late September, after Tishri 10, when in fact, in the year that he later proposes, Tishri 10 fell in early October.

Moreover, since all the priests were required to be in service for the Feast of Tabernacles, Zechariah could not have gone home to his wife until about 12 or so days later: October 19th (that is to say, if 2 BC were the correct year). Using Marshall’s own argument, this would place John’s birth in late July, not June 24th.

Marshall assumes that the date for the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth (June 24) in the liturgical calendar is the historical date. He distorts his argument to fit his assumptions. Dr. Marshall assumes “forty weeks of gestation” when calculating that the birth of John occurred on the same day as in the liturgical calendar. Now 40 weeks (280 days) is sometimes stated as the usual “due date” for a pregnancy — but only when the due date is calculated from LMP (start of the last menstrual cycle) instead counting from the day of conception. The difference is a couple of weeks. The problem is that Marshall is calculating from the day of conception of John. So he has the birth of John at the far end of the usual window of birth:

The normal length of time from conception to birth is 266 days, plus or minus 2 weeks; 90% of all children today are born within that 4 week time frame. [The Merck Manual of Medical Information, Home Edition, (Whitehouse Station, N.J.: Merck Research Lab, 1997), p. 1139.] The 280 days that Marshall uses (40 weeks) is at a point late in that time frame; the birth could have been 2 to 4 weeks earlier.

As the argument continues, the same type of problem recurs, increasing the inaccuracy of Marshall’s approach. He says:

“The rest of the dating is rather simple. We read that just after the Immaculate Virgin Mary conceived Christ, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. This means that John the Baptist was six months older that our Lord Jesus Christ (Lk 1:24-27, 36). If you add six months to June 24 you get December 24-25 as the birthday of Christ.” (“Yes, Christ Was Really Born on December 25: Here’s a Defense of the Traditional Date for Christmas“)

Marshall assumes that Elizabeth was exactly 6 months pregnant at the time of the Annunciation to Mary. But Sacred Scripture says “she hid herself for five months,” and then, “in the sixth month,” the Annunciation occurred. A woman is in her sixth month of pregnancy after she complete 5 full months, and before she completes the 6th month. So Elizabeth was in her sixth month, meaning 5 months and some number of days pregnant. Again, an uncertainty is introduced of about another 4 weeks.

Marshall asserts that John was 6 months older than Jesus. This claim not only assumes Elizabeth was almost exactly 6 months pregnant at the Annunciation, it also assumes an amount of time in the womb for Jesus of exactly 9 months. Since Jesus is like us in all things but sin (as concerns His human nature), He could have been born anytime in the usual 4-week window: 266 days (38 weeks) from conception, plus or minus 2 weeks. So even if Elizabeth were exactly 6 months pregnant at the Annunciation, this does not support the claim that Jesus was born six months after John.

Dr. Marshall uses a series of assumptions and oversimplifications in order to claim scholarly proof that the dates of the liturgical calendar are the historical dates. But his argument does not support his conclusions. At each point in the argument, an uncertainty is introduced by the facts, totally ignored by Marshall, of 2 to 4 weeks. Thus, in Marshall’s analysis, Jesus could have been born weeks later or weeks earlier than Dec. 25th. His argument does not narrow the time frame sufficiently, not even enough to state that Jesus was born in December.

Marshall cites a number of sources in the early Church as stating that Jesus was born on December 25th. However, he ignores the fact that other early Church sources present different dates. Clement of Alexandria gave a date of Nov. 18th. Saint Epiphanius and several other sources give a date of January 6th. There are a number of dates given by modern scholars, including the above dates, and some dates in fall and spring. (See Handbook of Biblical Chronology by Jack Finegan). Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich says, based on her visions from God, that Jesus was born November 25th. So there is no consensus among Saints or scholars for a date of December 25th, yet Marshall presents that date as if there were a consensus.

When did Jesus die on the Cross for our salvation?

Dr. Marshall claims that Jesus died on March 25th:

“For these reasons, it is reasonable and right to hold that Christ was born on December 25 in 1 B.C. and that he died and rose again in March of A.D. 33.”

He chooses this date partly because of his assumption that Jesus was conceived exactly 9 Christian/Roman calendar months prior to His Birth, and partly because he thinks it fitting that Jesus be conceived/Incarnate on the same Christian/Roman calendar day as His death.

But why should the dates of Jesus’ work in salvation history have to occur on the same day: the Incarnation and the Crucifixion? Why should the dates have to match the Christian/Roman calendar, but not the Hebrew calendar? There is no theological basis for the assertion that it was somehow fitting for Christ to die on the same date as His Incarnation. And then Marshall goes on to say, in a footnote, that maybe Jesus died on the 23rd of March: “There is some discrepancy in the Fathers as to whether Nisan 14/March 25 marked the death of Christ or his resurrection.”

At least Marshall and I agree on this much: Jesus died on Friday, Nisan 14 (the preparation day of the Passover). However, we need to ask which years saw Nisan 14 coincide with a Friday. From 1 AD to 50 AD, March 25th falls on Nisan 14 only a few times:

50 A.D. March 25 Wednesday
31 A.D. March 25 Sunday
12 A.D. March 25 Friday
[See: Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, Appendix I: Chart 2]

The date of 50 AD is too late, and the date of 12 AD is too early, to be the date of the Crucifixion. And 31 A.D. does not work because Nisan 14 fell on a Sunday that year. Also, Jesus could not have died on March 23rd, in any year, because that date only coincides with Nisan 14 in 4 AD, and it was a Sunday, not a Friday.

So if Jesus died on Friday, Nisan 14, He did NOT die on March 25th, nor did He die on March 23rd.

Surprisingly, Dr. Marshall then states his view that Jesus died in March of 33 AD. Why is this surprising? Biblical chronologists rarely agree on anything, but they all agree that Nisan 14 fell on Friday, April 3rd, in 33 AD. This means that March 25th that year was a Wednesday (Nisan 5) and March 23rd was a Monday (Nisan 3). Many scholars think that Jesus may have died in 33 AD, but none of them think Nisan 14 fell in March that year and none of them think that March 25th was a Friday or a Sunday that year.

As for the year 1 BC, that date is problematic for several reasons. First, Herod the great tried to kill the Christ-child, whom he figured was no more than 2 years old: “from two years of age and under, according to the time that he had learned by questioning the Magi.” (Mt 2:16). If Jesus was born on December 25th in 1 BC, the next year would be 1 AD (not that anyone used those terms at that time). This would place the death of Herod no earlier than 2 AD. But no scholar supports such a late date for Herod’s death. The latest date that scholars propose for the death of Herod is early 1 BC, that is to say, the winter of 2 BC to 1 BC. But Marshall proposes that Jesus was born in late 1 BC, many months AFTER the latest date for Herod’s death.

But it gets worse. Taylor Marshall claims that Sacred Tradition — which the Magisterium teaches is infallible — “confirms the date of December 25th” AND that Mary is the source of that tradition.

“Sacred Tradition also confirms December 25 as the birthday of the Son of God. The source of this ancient tradition is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself.”

There is NO BASIS for these two claims. It is an astounding piece of intellectual dishonesty.

Yes, some early Church Fathers give the date as December 25th. But some Saints and early Church sources give other dates. As Jack Finegan reports in ‘Handbook of Biblical Chronology’, Clement of Alexandria gave a date of Nov. 18th; Saint Epiphanius and several other sources give a date of January 6th. There is no unanimous opinion on the date of Christ’s birth, nor on the year of His birth. Without this unanimity among Church Fathers, there is no basis for claiming that an opinion held by several Fathers is infallible Sacred Tradition.

Moreover, the Magisterium teaches from Sacred Tradition as well as from Sacred Scripture. So if the date were a matter of Sacred Tradition, it would have been taught by the Magisterium, especially since several Church Fathers explicitly state that date. And yet the Magisterium has no such teaching. Sacred Tradition is infallible Divine Revelation, but the date of the birth of Christ has never been proposed by the Magisterium as divinely-revealed. There is not even a non-infallible teaching on the month, day, or year for our Lord’s birth. So the claim that “Sacred Tradition also confirms December 25” is entirely unsupportable.

But at least that claim has some support, as a mere opinion, among some Saints. The next claim, that the source of the date of December 25th “is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself” is entirely unjustifiable. None of the Saints claim that they received from the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus was born on December 25th. There are no sources whatsoever claiming that Mary handed on the date of December 25th to the Saints and Fathers, or to anyone. Neither does Marshall even make an unsupported assertion of a source for this claim.

Instead, he uses a circular argument. He begins by assuming that Dec. 25 is the true date. Then he asserts that every mother, including Mary, knows the date of the birth of a child. Therefore, Mary knew that the date was December 25th. And so, he concludes, she must have been the one who handed that information on to the Fathers. And yet not one of them cites Mary as his source. It is a baseless circular argument.

In fact, Biblical chronologists do not agree on the day, month, or year of Christ’s birth, and with good reason. The field of Biblical chronology is vast and complex. There are very many considerations that must go into any proposed date. And it is not generally a matter of doctrine or dogma, so the Magisterium does not give guidance on dates and times.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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