I did some research today because I was asked about why The Chosen TV show cites Jesus birth year as 4 B.C., and while I’ve read about it countless times, I forgot the answer. If you don’t like nerdy details about dates and historical records, this post isn’t for you.
The short answer is that Herod is recorded to be alive when Jesus was born, but is also widely known to have died in 4 B.C. making 4 B.C. the latest Jesus could have been born (if Luke is true, and if our extrabiblical records are true).
But the bottom line is that we don’t know the exact year for sure. There is no year zero by the way; the calendar starts with year 1. B.C. 1, jumps immediately to A.D 1. So there’s that oddity! So far I’ve been fine with the 4 B.C. date because it seems to line up well with other historical records. 6 B.C. also makes sense if Jesus was 2 years old when the wise men visited from the east, before Herod died. It would just fit nice and neat in the brain if Jesus was born year 1. Interestingly, a 4 B.C. birth year would put Jesus’ death and resurrection at 30 A.D. (a nice round number) — That’s skipping a year 0, and if he died at the age we usually estimate (33). But the concept of BC/AD wasn’t created until 525 by a 6th century monk who had to back through hundreds of years of whatever historical records he had, to come up with Anno Domini (“the year of our Lord”), and it appears he was off or it was never meant to be exact.1 I’m okay with that, because, and more importantly, the year of Jesus’ birth isn’t recorded in the Bible and doesn’t affect the message of the Bible whatsoever: that God, without ceasing to be God, was born as the man Jesus, the long promised Messiah (Christ, savior), who died and rose again to save His people from their sins. Whether he was born 6BC, 4BC, or year 1, I’m just happy it happened.
Here is the longer answer from the Pillar New Testament Commentary if anyone is curious:
” “The first census” … could mean (1) the first general imperial census, (2) the first imperial census in Syria and Judea, or (3) the first census imposed by Quirinius. We know of neither empire-wide censuses nor of further censuses taken by Quirinius. This makes option 2 preferable, suggesting this was the first census instituted by Augustus, which was organized by Quirinius specifically for Judea. According to Luke, (1) the census was decreed by Caesar Augustus (v. 1); (2) Herod the Great was still alive (1:5); (3) the census encompassed the entire Roman Empire (v. 1); (4) it was superintended by Quirinius, governor of Syria (v. 2); and (5) it required Joseph (and Mary?) to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of his (and her?) birth, to be registered (v. 3). Since Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and Luke implies that Jesus was born prior to Herod’s death, this would also place the census of 2:1–2 prior to 4 B.C. This combined information cannot easily be reconciled with that of the Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Luke and our main source of information about the census.12 According to Josephus, (1) Quirinius was made governor of Syria by Augustus in A.D. 6 (Ant. 18.2; confirmed by Tacitus, Ann. 30.30; Suetonius, Tib. 49); (2) Quirinius was sent to Syria to liquidate the estate of Archaelaus (who was deposed in A.D. 6) and to impose a census in order to annex Judea under Coponius as prefect (Ant. 17.355; 18.1–2; J.W. 2.117); and (3) Judas the Galilean and Saddok, a Pharisee, formed a freedom-fighting movement (later identified with the Zealots) in opposition to the Roman census and annexation (Ant. 18.4–10; 20.102). Josephus and Luke thus agree on a census that was administered by Quirinius, but they disagree on its date, extent, and requirement to register in one’s city of birth. Can this conundrum be resolved? Most of the related historical data can be accounted for, but the date of the census remains unresolved. Enrollment in one’s place of birth was not stipulated in Roman law, but it is imaginable that Herod may have added such a stipulation in deference to Jewish custom. Regarding extent of the census, there is no evidence of an empire-wide census at any time in Roman history. Regional censuses were enforced at various times and places in the history of the empire, such as the one at the annexation of Judea under Quirinius. How literally Luke intended “entire Roman world” we cannot say, but he uses “whole inhabited world” (Acts 11:28; NIV “entire Roman world”) to refer to a widespread (although not universal) famine, and he may possibly use “entire Roman world” similarly for an “event that covered much of the Roman of the Roman Empire.”16 of the census as the major problem. Lagrange attempts to resolve the issue by translating prōtē (v. 2) as “before” rather than “first,” i.e., “This census took place before the one that took place under Quirinius governor of Syria.” This suggestion attempts to defend the historicity of the account, but it is grammatically offensive. The near-universal denotation of prōtē (and clearly its connotation in v. 2) is “first in sequence” rather than “before” (which would require proteros). Others have argued that Quirinius served twice as governor of Syria, once during Herod’s lifetime and once in A.D. 6, and that v. 2 refers to the first term of service. Roman records indicate that Sentius Saturninus served as governor of Syria from 9 to 6 B.C., Quinctilius Verus from 6 to 4 B.C., unknown governor(s) from 3 B.C. to A.D. 6, and P. Sulpicius Quirinius afterward. The career history of Quirinius is well documented and does not include an earlier governorship of Syria during the unspecified governorship(s) of 3 B.C. to A.D. 6.The conundrum is made more curious by the fact that a reference to “the census” in Acts essentially agrees with Josephus. Recording a speech of Gamaliel I, Luke writes that “Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt” (Acts 5:37). Judas the Galilean, as Josephus informs us (Ant. 18.4–10), founded a militant protest movement in reaction to the census in A.D. 6 under Quirinius. Luke does not mention Quirinius in Acts 5:37, but his reference to the census would appear to recall the census of 2:2 associated with Quirinius. Why Luke twice refers to the same event, the latter in essential correspondence with external historical records and the former at variance from them, remains a mystery. Given available evidence related to the matter, it appears that the reference to Quirinius in Luke 2:2 is a conflation of the census of Quirinius with the death of Herod the Great. The two events were easy to conflate, for the death of Herod and the census of Quirinius were both epic events, and both incited massive protests that were violently suppressed by the Roman army. A full resolution of the historical problems related to the dating of the census of Quirinius seems impossible on the basis of current historical knowledge. (Edwards, J. R. (2015). The Gospel according to Luke (D. A. Carson, Ed.; pp. 69–71). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos.)
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:1-7
1 Blackburn & Holford-Strevens 2003, pp. 778–79.