Philip Schaff, in his work “A Chronology of the Life of Christ” writes in his typically thorough and convincingly scientific fashion a few points to consider when we reflect on the date and credibility of the nativity story(ies) to which we’ve all grown acustomed.
His research examines whatever historical data was recorded at the time (in antiquity) and attempts to align those data sets and find a range of plausibility compatible with the accounts offered by the four gospels of holy scripture.
I. The death of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:2)
The Jewish historian, Josephus records the death of Herod occurred a.u. 750 (“Anno Urbis” meaning after the founding of Rome or 4 b.c.) three days after the lunar eclipse (march 13th a.u. 750). The astronomical event can be verified on that date independently. Thus we can be sure that the birth of Christ was certainly earlier than 750 a.u. or 4 b.c.
II. The Star of the Magi (Matt 2:1-4, 9)
In the month of March of 1603 and again in 1604 Johannes Kepler observed a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. October 10th of 1604 Mars was added to their company and the union of the three planets’ gravitational effects on a certain more distant star made the star both visible to the naked eye and caused it to shine so brightly in the southern early morning sky that it appeared in Kepler’s own words “like the most beautiful and glorious torch ever seen when driven by a strong wind.”
By Kepler’s calculations (which have been verified by numerous modern astronomers) a nearly identical event would have occurred in the years of 747a.u. and 748. In March of 747 the Magi would have first seen the confluence of Jupiter and Saturn, may have done research and found that Jewish astrologers attached a Messianic significance to the the two planet’s simultaneous presence in the constellation of Pisces. In March of 748 the way westward would have again been marked by the star, and finally from Jerusalem the October 10th phenomenon of the addition of Mars would have marked the was southwards to Bethlehem.
III. The Fifteenth Year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1, 23)
A.u.779 was the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign in Rome, as he took the throne in a.u. 764. Tiberius’ 15th year was the year given that John the Baptist commenced his public ministry at the age of 30. knowing that the Christ was 6 months younger than John we can be fairly certain that the Nativity occurred either in 748 or 749 a.u.
IV. The Census of Quirinius
A very well documented event that took at minimum 4 years to complete and began in 5 b.c.
V. The Fourty Six Year Building of Herod’s Temple (John 2:20)
We learn from the above passage that it took “forty and six” years to build Herod’s temple. If we couple this passage with Josephus’ record of Herod beginning construction of the temple in the 18th year of his reign (or a.u. 735), and add 46 years we come to 781. deducting 31 years (because Jesus was at least one year into his ministry at this point.) we come back to 750 a.u. as the year of the Nativity.
VI. The time of the Crucifixion
Based on Roman records Christ was crucified under the consulate of the two Gemini which lasted a.u. 782 to 783 (a.d. 28 to 29). Deducting 33 years brings us to 4 or 5 b.c.
Though there is still extensive guesswork to come to a day, or month, we can be fairly certain that both ancient records and current analysis agree that the scene of the Nativity unfolded at the earliest 747 a.u. and the latest 750 (or 7 – 4 b.c.).
I hope, at the very least this gives you something to think about. At it’s best it should cause you to believe more faithfully that God, in His infinite wisdom and sovereignty, uses all facets of history and nature to bring about His will for mankind.