Taylor Marshall’s Errors on the Birth and Death of Jesus

This is a slight revision of an article I wrote last year (Dec 20, 2013) criticizing Dr. Taylor Marshall’s booklet “God’s Birthday”. Dr. Marshall is again promoting this booklet, unrevised, despite blatant errors in the work. Here’s a link to Marshall’s current post on the topic.

In his booklet, God’s Birthday: Why Christ Was Born on December 25 and Why It Matters, Dr. Taylor Marshall also presents a date for the Crucifixion of Jesus: March 25th of A.D. 33. He asserts that Jesus died on Nisan 14 in the Jewish Calendar, but that: “There is some discrepancy in the Fathers as to whether Nisan 14/March 25 marked the death of Christ or his resurrection.” [footnote 19]

Nisan 14 is the date in the Jewish calendar for the preparation day of the Passover. According to the Gospel of John, “it was the preparation day of the Passover” when Jesus was crucified (John 19:14). But according to Matthew, Mark, Luke (and I would say a proper interpretation of John), Jesus died on a Friday. Most Biblical chronologists, therefore, accept Friday, Nisan 14 as the day of the Crucifixion. But there is no possibility that Nisan 14 was the date of the Resurrection.

The year is a matter of some dispute, but more than a few Biblical chronologists propose the year of A.D. 33 for the Crucifixion and Resurrection. A.D. 30 is also considered a viable date. However, every Biblical chronologist who considers A.D. 33 as the year gives April 3rd as the day. The reason is that Nisan 14 fell on Friday, April 3rd in that year.

March 25th of A.D. 33, the date of the Crucifixion proposed by Taylor Marshall, was a Wednesday. In addition, that day could not possibly have coincided with Nisan 14. The Jewish calendar months are based on the phases of the moon, with the 14th of every month occurring about the time of the full moon. There was a full moon on March 4th and then on April 3rd of A.D. 33. On March 25th, the moon was waxing toward its first quarter (of Mar. 26th). [Source: NASA] March 25th in the year 33 was neither a Friday, nor the preparation day of the Passover, nor any day within the feast of Passover.

Marshall’s additional claim, in footnote 19, that Nisan 14/March 25 might have been the day of the Resurrection is also entirely untenable. Jesus died on a Friday and rose from the dead on a Sunday. And while Nisan 14 could possibly fall on a Sunday in some years, in the year A.D. 33 Nisan 14 fell on Friday and March 25th fell on Wednesday.

In support of this date for the Crucifixion, Marshall misquotes Saint Hippolytus of Rome:

“The First Advent of our Lord in the flesh occurred when He was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, which is five thousand and five hundred years from Adam. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.” [Marshall, God’s Birthday, p. 39-40.]

The correct quote is as follows:

“The first Advent of our Lord in the flesh, when He was born in Bethlehem, happened on the eighth day before the calends of January [Dec. 25], on a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of Augustus, in the year 5500, reckoning from Adam. He suffered in His thirty-third year, on the eighth day before the calends of April [Mar. 25], on a Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius, while Rufus and Rubellius were consuls.” [Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 4:23]

So Saint Hippolytus does NOT assert that Jesus died in A.D. 33. How could he, since he lived hundreds of years before Dionysius established the A.D. calendar system? Saint Hippolytus is only saying that Jesus died when he was 33 years old. I believe that assertion is correct. But I don’t take the extreme view that Jesus must therefore have died on the same day that he was conceived (at the Incarnation), so that he would be exactly 33 years old, counting from conception, at His death.

Marshall seems to accept this set of assertions by Saint Hippolytus uncritically. But the date Marshall gives for the Birth of Christ, December 25 of 1 B.C. was a Saturday, not a Wednesday, contradicting Hippolytus. And the date that Marshall gives for the Crucifixion, March 25th of A.D. 33, was a Wednesday, not a Friday, contradicting Hippolytus and the four Gospels. And the forty-second year of Augustus was 3/2 B.C. (according to Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, n. 562.), not 1 B.C. This point also shows that Marshall is not in agreement with Saint Hippolytus.

And if you accept that Jesus died in A.D. 33, that year does not seem to have been 18th year of Tiberius, nor the year of the consulship of Rufus and Rubellius, according to the research of renowned Biblical chronologist Jack Finegan in Handbook of Biblical Chronology. Some sources give A.D. 30 as the year of their consulship; Finegan places their consulship in A.D. 29. Then, too, A.D. 29 or 30 each fits in some methods of counting the 18th year of Tiberius, but A.D. 33 does not.

One of the many problems with this booklet of Biblical chronology by Taylor Marshall is that he accepts the assertions of Saints, Doctors, and Fathers of the Church uncritically. At the same time, he ignores all modern works in Biblical chronology. And he does not bother to check his facts, for example, to see if March 25th fell on a Friday, or if the 18th year of Tiberius and the consulship of the twins can be placed in A.D. 33.

Dr. Taylor Marshall discounts the words of Flavius Josephus as utterly unreliable. He asserts that the chronological evidence from Flavius Josephus and Dionysius conflict, and so they cannot both be correct. Then he cites some problems with the work of Josephus, concludes that his work is unreliable, and then further concludes that Dionysius must be right. This argument is absurd. Some errors in the copious works of Josephus do not imply that all his assertions are in error; each assertion must be judged on its own merits. And if two authors seem to disagree, both could be wrong. The presumptuous assessment of Josephus as unreliable does not imply that Dionysius must be right.

Marshall also cites Saint Augustine as saying that Jesus died on Friday, March 25th. However, this date is not possible. Nisan 14 fell on Friday, March 25th in 12 A.D. — too early for the date of the Crucifixion — and not again until A.D. 31, which was a Sunday, not Friday. The only subsequent date when Nisan 14 fell on a March 25th was Wednesday of A.D. 50. And that is why Biblical chronologists do not consider March 25th to be a possible date for the Crucifixion.

As for the year of Christ’s Birth, Taylor Marshall suggests December 25th of 1 B.C. (a Saturday). There is no real problem with the month and day; many Biblical chronologists support that date. But Marshall gives little evidence to support Dec. 25th. He presents the argument of Saint John Chrysostom in his famous “birthday discourse” [see Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, revised edition, no. 565 to 567], but he does not credit him. He presents the idea as if it were his own. And again, the argument is uncritical; he does not consider that any of the points of the argument might be in error, or might have a different interpretation.

The argument by Chrysostom begins with an attempt to date the service of Saint Zechariah in the Temple, as mentioned in Luke 1:5-23. That starting point is a matter of dispute among Biblical chronologists. Marshall cites one source from the 1800’s (Josef Heinrich Friedlieb) and assumes he is correct. I would also place the service of Zechariah in the Temple about that time. However, Marshall fails to take into account the requirement that all priestly courses be on service in the Temple, at the same time, during the three great feasts: Tabernacles, Passover, Pentecost. So Zechariah could not have gone home to Elizabeth until the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (Tishri 22).

Marshall claims that “In our calendar, the Day of Atonement [Tishri 10] would land anywhere from September 22 to October 8.” But he doesn’t bother to calculate when Tishri 10 fell in 2 B.C. — his year for the conception of John the Baptist, supposedly in late September. In that year, Tishri may have fallen later than usual. The two possibilities for Passover that year are Friday, March 21 — a rather early date — or Friday, April 18th. If the former, then Tishri 1 was August 29th; if the latter, then Tishri 1 was a month later:

Tishri 1 was August 29th, a Friday.
Tishri 10 was September 7th, a Sunday.
Tishri 22 was September 19th, a Friday.

Tishri 1 was September 29th, a Monday.
Tishri 10 was October 8th, a Wednesday.
Tishri 22 was October 20th, a Monday.

Marshall does not take into account this alternate possibility for the Jewish calendar in that year, which would move his dating scheme forward one month. He assumes late September because it fits the conclusion he wishes to reach. The same problem arises in the rest of the argument. There is no discussion of the range of possible interpretations of each point of information and no vetting of each source.

As for the year of Christ’s birth, few Biblical chronologists argue for 1 B.C. Marshall’s choice of the year seems to be based on his desire to confirm the current liturgical calendar as historically correct, so that our celebration of Christmas would have the correct month, day, and year since His Birth. But the Magisterium has no teaching on the month, day, or year of Jesus’ Birth. The placement of a celebration in the liturgical calendar does not constitute a teaching of Tradition or the Magisterium.

Having rejected Josephus as unreliable, Marshall nevertheless uses an assertion by Josephus to establish the year of Herod’s death as early A.D. 1. Josephus describes the deaths of some Jewish martyrs, killed by Herod: “And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon.” Marshall gives no quotation and no citation concerning that eclipse. He should have cited: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.167. Josephus places the death of Herod after that eclipse and before the next Passover.

Marshall claims that the eclipse prior to Herod’s death was the lunar eclipse of 29 Dec. 1 BC, placing Herod’s death in A.D. 1, before the Passover. There are several problems with this claim.

First, most of the eclipse of 0000 Dec 29 (1 B.C.) occurred before moonrise, while the moon was still below the horizon, as seen from Jerusalem. As the moon rose, the eclipse was ending and the sun was setting, but the sky was still bright and by the time the sky was dark, the umbral shadow was no longer on the moon. The time of greatest eclipse was 14:43 hours U.T., which is 16:43 hours JST. Sunset that day was approx. 16:48 hours, but the sky remains bright for some time after sunset. [NASA lunar eclipse data] Josephus describes the eclipse before Herod’s death as occurring at nighttime, but this eclipse was over by the time darkness set in. It is doubtful that the eclipse was even noticeable from Jerusalem.

Second, the two dates for Herod’s death with the most support among Biblical chronologists are 4 B.C. and early 1 B.C. [not early A.D. 1]. Marshall summarily dismisses 4 B.C. based on his dismissal of Josephus as unreliable. But there are many other points of evidence, outside of the works of Josephus, supporting 4 B.C. (e.g. the work of E.J. Vardaman). The date of 1 B.C. has grown in favor among Biblical chronologists in recent years, based in part on the eclipse of January 9th in 1 B.C. But that eclipse would place the death of Herod before December 25th of 1 B.C. Biblical chronologists who favor 1 B.C. for the death of Herod usually place the birth of Jesus no later than the winter of 3/2 B.C. (for example, in Dec. 25 of 3 B.C.)

Third, there is not enough time between December 25th of 1 B.C. and the supposed death of Herod before the next Passover for all of the events described by the Gospels to have occurred. Herod would not have tried to kill all male children born in the vicinity of Bethlehem who were 2 years age and younger if the Christ child had been born only weeks earlier. The Holy Family would have been very unlikely to flee to Egypt with a newborn child in winter. And they would not have needed to remain in Egypt for several years, as tradition has it, if Herod died only weeks later. Most explanations of the birth of Jesus and the death of Herod place a year or two between the two events, for these reasons.

Another issue is the assertion by the Gospel of Luke that a census (or enrollment) occurred at the time of Jesus’ Birth.

[Luke 2]
{2:1} And it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, so that the whole world would be enrolled.
{2:2} This was the first enrollment; it was made by the ruler of Syria, Quirinius.

Jack Finegan finds no evidence for a census in 1 B.C. And although Qurinius may have been governor twice, 1 B.C. does not fit with any dating scheme for his first stint as governor. The second enrollment is mentioned in Acts 5:37, and is usually placed about 6 A.D. Taylor Marshall does not deal with this issue at all.

There is one strange passage in his booklet. I’m not sure what to say about it. Marshall asserts that Mary, as the Mother of Jesus, would certainly know the date of His Birth. Granted. But then he somehow draws the conclusion that this date must be December 25th. We have no evidence that the Blessed Virgin Mary ever made such an assertion. He somehow leaps from Mary’s knowledge of the date, to the conclusion that she must have told the Apostles the date, to the unsupportable claim that all the early Church Father’s held Dec. 25th to be the date.

To the contrary, if the day and month was so important, why didn’t the Gospel writers and those Apostles who wrote an Epistle report the date? Answer: the day and month is not at all essential to faith, morals, or salvation. In fact, not all early Christian sources give Dec. 25th as the day of Jesus’ birth. Some early sources place His birth on January 8th. And Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich states, based on her private revelation from God, that Jesus was born on November 25th.

It is also contradictory for Marshall to insist that the Saints of the early Church must be right about the day and month, but to contradict them on the year. Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, and Epiphanius all place the year of Christ’s Birth in what scholars today would conclude is 3/2 B.C. [See Finegan, n. 499, table 139.]

And the claim by Taylor Marshall that Sacred Tradition teaches any date for the birth or death of Jesus is unsupportable. The Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium requires no such belief in particular dates.

Pope Benedict XVI writes about the timing of the year of Jesus’ birth in one of his works of private theology:

“One initial problem can be solved quite easily: the census took place at the time of King Herod the Great, who actually died in the year 4 B.C. The starting-point for our reckoning of time— the calculation of Jesus’ date of birth— goes back to the monk Dionysius Exiguus († c. 550), who evidently miscalculated by a few years. The historical date of the birth of Jesus is therefore to be placed a few years earlier.” [Pope Benedict XVI (2012-11-21). Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (pp. 61-62). Image. Kindle Edition.]

Joseph Ratzinger places the birth of Jesus a few years earlier than 4 B.C. (in the winter of 7/6 B.C.). Taylor Marshall disagrees, and he is free to do so. But Joseph Ratzinger has a scholarly approach to the topic. He considers the possibility that Dionysius was wrong, and that the calendar used by the Church does not have the correct count of the years since Christ’s Birth.

Scholars who actually research and write Biblical chronology critically evaluate a wide range of evidence, and draw conclusions based on that evidence. Dr. Marshal does not. What Marshall has written is not scholarly, nor is it Biblical chronology.

He begins by choosing his desired conclusion. He wishes the year, month, and day for the Birth of Jesus to coincide with the current calendar used by the Church. He then disregards or summarily dismisses all evidence to the contrary, including contrary assertions by Saints and all modern work in Biblical chronology. He builds an argument to support the conclusion that he chose in advance. This methodology is not scholarship, but rationalization. His arguments and conclusions are easily refuted, especially his claim that Jesus died on March 25th.

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

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
is available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

Important Dates In The Lives Of Jesus And Mary
is available in print and in Kindle format.

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