If Jesus was born in 5 BC, does that make 1995 actually 2000 AD?

If the birth of Jesus Christ was on Dec. 25, was it in the year zero AD, a week before Jan. 1, 1 AD, or was it Dec. 25, 1 AD, a week before the end of the second year of the common era? And if the former, how did the first "year of our Lord" (which is what the Latin initials AD mean) happen to begin nearly a year before the birth of the Lord in whose honor the chronology for our calendar was restarted?

These questions are asked more as riddles than for serious intent, for as any thinking person will realize, the Roman Empire into which He was born was not aware of the existence of Jesus, much less ready to restart counting of all time based on His birth, until years after His crucifixion (over 750 years as it turned out). This being the case, whether the year was zero or 1, no one at the time—not even Mary and Joseph, His mother and stepfather—thought of the first Christmas as the rebeginning of all time.

Today, most scholars estimate the date of Christ's birth as in the year 5 BC (more about Dec. 25 later). Apparently the present chronology was calculated to begin in the year 754 according to the Roman system of numbering years, which began with the legendary date of the founding of the city of Rome.

According to the late Lutheran historian Lars P. Qualben, the "AD" chronology or calendar system was devised by Denis the Little (Dionysius Exiguus), an abbot and scholar of the early church who lived from about 500 to 560 AD in Rome. Denis' system came into general use during the reign of Charlemagne, 768-814 AD. All dates from 1 AD until 800 AD were applied backwards into the histories beginning at about that time.

However, later scholarship than Denis' has concluded that Herod the Great, king of Rome's Judean province, died in 750, Roman chronology, and inasmuch as the Gospel of St. Matthew places Jesus' birth during Herod's rule rather than after his death, He has to have been born several years before Denis' "year 1."

If He was born the year before the year in which Herod died (and since Herod is believed to have died in the spring, that would have to have been the case) the year would have been 749, Roman chronology, which translates to 5 B.C. on the chronology devised by Denis. So then, according to Denis the Little's system, Jesus Christ was born Dec. 25, zero AD (=5 BC), one week before the end of the first "year of our Lord."

Why Denis placed the birthday of Jesus on Dec. 25 is not discussed in the histories I have at hand, but almost surely it was because the church had already been celebrating Christ's nativity on that date for hundreds of years. The gospels reveal that Jesus' mother Mary was present at His crucifixion, and some legends maintain that Mary traveled in Asia Minor with St. Paul during the Apostolic era (33-95 AD).

Whether that tradition can be trusted or not, the apostles were undoubtedly intimately acquainted with Mary, and she very likely gave them as many details of His birth as she could, so it's not unreasonable to think that the date may be correct, or at least very close to the actual birthdate (Mary and Joseph may not have had calendars hanging on their kitchen walls, but as observant Jews, they were very aware of seasons, sabbaths, and holy-day dates).

Pagan sun festival

The late Orthodox scholar, Alexander Schmemann, gives this scenario for how Dec. 25 came to be celebrated as Christ's birthday in The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy: "...The church had never hesitated in adapting many `natural' forms of religion, usual for paganism, to the service of Christianity. The pagans had celebrated the birth of the Invincible Sun on Dec. 25; Christians allotted to this date the celebration of the birth of Christ, which taught men `to honor the Sun of Righteousness and to come to know it from the height of the East.'" (Schmemann is quoting an Orthodox Christmas hymn which also, apparently, is quoted in the Western carol, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing": "hail the Sun of Righteousness, light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings....") Both hymns also reference the prophecy of Malachi 4:2.

Pagan demons exorcised

Though Schmemann's scenario may appear, seen out of context, to confirm many radical Protestants' or non-Christians' worst suspicions about how some Christian observances and practices came about, Schmemann puts this "adapting" process into context in another book, For the Life of the World, where he writes: "The early church ...instituted Christmas...precisely to `exorcise,' transform, and Christianize an existing pagan festival."

No doubt, too, worldly economics played a part in the establishment of feast days like Christmas in the early church. If the Christians converted from paganism had holidays from work on pagan feasts like the one to the "Invincible Sun," it would have made sense to them to spend such time off celebrating their Lord, especially when the world around them was celebrating idols.

And C.S. Lewis has suggested that, in "the economy of God" many pagan rites foreshadowed Judaism and Christianity. God planted certain beliefs and rites in primitive man in order to reveal their true fulfillment in the old and new covenants.

Published December 1994.

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© 1994, 1995 Jon Kennedy