TURRETIN: WHEN WAS THE BIRTH OF JESUS CHRIST?

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Excerpted from Francis Turretin‘s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. II,  The Beginning of the Christian Era: What was the Natal Year, Month and Day of Christ?

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 …we judge the celebration of [Christmas] to be most pious and useful …

 

I. Although there are various epochs (both sacred and profane) by which times are wont to be marked, still there is not one which approaches the dignity of the Christian era. The nativity of the Savior is unques­tionably the chief of all epochs. To it all preceding times look as their happy and prosperous center and from it all posterior times flow as from a fountain to the end of the ages. “The generation of Christ,” says Leo, “is the origin of the Chris­tian people, and the birthday of the head is the birthday of the body, and while we adore the birth of the Savior we are found to celebrate our own beginning” (“On the Feast of the Nativity,” 6.2 [NPNF2,12:137; PL 54.213]).

II. Now although the excellence and utility of that era is so great, still it is true no less than wonderful that Christians have only lately thought of settling and using it. For before the seventh century, we do not read of the Lord’s birthday being applied to the designation of any business either civil or ecclesiastical. Justinian, it is true, who reigned 500 years after Christ, by an edict concerning the notation of times and the documents of public acts wished a fourth mark from the emperors to be added to the ancient designations of times from the building of the city, from the names of consuls, from taxes (Corpus luris Civilis, III. NoveUae 47 [ed. R. Schoell, 1968], pp. 283-85). But he says not a word about a Christian era. Nor with the fathers and the councils held in those early ages is there any mention of it. First Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk or Roman abbot, indignant at his own and former ages that in the Paschal Cycles, which proclaimed the times of the Passover and of festivals, the years were spe­cially designated from the persecution under Diocletian (having expunged this mark of a heathen and most cruel persecutor), substituted the birth of Christ in his private calendar about the time of Justinian (a.d. 532). Having been discovered, this was followed by the Venerable Bede in the seventh century after Christ and by many others (but privately). For neither in any public acts either sacred or civil did the era of Christ begin to be employed before the time of Charlemagne, 800 years after Christ.

 

III. However after that time Christians may agree in the use of an era drawn from the birth of Christ, still it cannot be said how much both chronologists and theologians disagree with each other in fixing the certain and true beginning of that era. Some refer it to one, others to another year. About this, a twofold question is agitated which must be distinctly examined: (1) concerning the true terminus of the natal year; (2) concerning its month and day.

 

IV. As to the first, it would be tedious to enumerate here all the opinions of chronologists; much more laborious, if not altogether impossible, to reconcile them with each other. In passing, we note only the principal ones. Calvisius and Helvicus refer the natal year of Christ to the year of the world 3947; of the Julian period 4711; of the founding of the city 750; of Nabonassar 745; of Augustus for the assassination of Julius Caesar 41; of the calendar corrected by Julius 43; of the kingdom of Herod 33 and of his life 70 (from the consuls Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and M. Valerius Messalinus). Lansbergius agrees in the years of the city and the Julian and Nabonassar, but adds three to the years of the world, bringing it down to the year 3950. Petavius holds it to be 3979. Salianus (running out still further) extends it to the year of the world 4052. Torniellus subtracts one. Not to mention others (who depart more or less from this)—the vulgar era of Dionysius commences about the year of the world 3949.

 

V. However, as these are rather chronological than theological matters, we think that anxious labor should not be spent upon it. Nor do we believe that it contrib­utes much to the security of our faith to know precisely in what year Christ was born, provided we hold that in his nativity the marks of the time pre­dicted by the prophets truly concur. And thus various involved questions agitated here being dismissed, it suffices now indeed to observe that it is most safe to acquiesce in what the Scripture wished to relate to us on this subject for the confirmation of our faith. It sets before us rather the common marks of the birthday of Christ than the special. These circumscribe indeed in some measure the natal time and nowhere, however, precisely designate the year. Three princi­pal marks are given in the New Testament from which a judgment can be formed of the time of Christ’s birth. The first in the notation of the kingdom of Herod, in whose days he is said to have been born: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the king” (Mt. 2:1). The second in the designation of the taxing of the whole world, instituted by Cyrenius, governor of Syria, by a decree of Augustus (Luke 2:1, 2). The third in the concurrence of the fifteenth year of Tiberius and the thirtieth of Christ, when he was baptized (Lk. 3:1, 23). Christ is said to have been about thirty years of age (hos eton triakonta) after he was bap­tized by John, to whom the word of God is said to have come in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. But all these marks are general and indefinite. They indeed teach that Christ was born in the days of Herod and in the time of the taxing first made by Cyrenius, but they neither designate precisely the year of Herod’s reign, nor that of the taxing. Two things only are certain and indubitable. First, that Christ was not born either before the sway of Augustus and the reign of Herod, or afterwards. Second, that his nativity fell upon the last times of Herod, since after the death of Herod Christ is said to have returned from Egypt, still as a young child (paidion, Mt. 2:20), i.e., in a tender age. Finally, that the death of Herod is immediately subjoined as God-inflicted (theelaton), after the snares laid for Christ and the most cruel massacre of children at Bethlehem.

 

VI. If it is inquired why the Holy Spirit wished to stop in these more general marks and did not transmit anything more special concerning the natal year (which He could easily have done), the answer is easy. It was unquestionably: (1) that it might be evident that the hinge neither of faith nor of salvation turned upon the exact computation of times. It suffices for us that Christ was truly born at the time designated by the prophet, although the particular notation of the year is not perceived. Now it does not belong to us to define with danger, what can be unknown without danger. (2) He wished also in this way to present more clearly the harmony of both Testaments. For as in the Old Testament, the advent of Christ is designated by the fall of the scepter of Judah and of Jewish independ­ence (autonomias) (without a more special and precise designation of it), so his nativity is said to have occurred under the reign of Herod and the empire of Augustus. This eloquently indicates that the scepter had been taken away from Judah and the fulfillment of the times (by which the advent of the Messiah had been circumscribed) had been exhibited.

 

VII. And although the natal year itself is not precisely designated, it must not therefore be supposed that the fidelity of the Gospel history is endangered. The accurate determination of time can be unknown without detriment to truth, when the question—Is it?—is acknowledged by all (as is the case here). For although there is disagreement among divines about the notation of the time, still all confess (even the Jews themselves) that Christ was born at a certain time. A general designation, therefore, made by Scripture can suffice here; nor should we labor much for anything further. It is better here to refrain and to speak soberly, than to affirm anything rashly.

 

VIII. The other question respects the natal month day, about which there are three principal opinions. The first, which throws it upon the 25th of December (which is the common opinion of the papists and is received also by our men), which the Christian church follows. The other throws it upon the end of September which is the opinion of Scaliger, Calvisius, Beroald and others. But the reasons for neither are demonstrative, only probable, founded for the most part upon conjecture.

 

IX. The principal foundation of the first opinion is drawn from Chrysostom on Luke 1. The conception of both John and Christ happened on the two equinoxes; the nativity, however, on the two solstices. John was conceived on the autumnal equinox and born on the summer solstice (namely in the month of June). Christ however was conceived six months after on the vernal equinox and born in the winter solstice (which was supposed to fall according to the calendar of Eudoxus and Meton on the 25th of December). Now that John was conceived in the month of September in the autumnal equinox, he gathers from this—that the angel Gabriel foretells to Zacharias the conception of John on the tenth day of the seventh month, called Tishri (which answers to our September). This was the day of expiations on which Zacharias (supposed to have been the high priest) en­tered the holy of holies according to the law and burnt incense before the ark (Luke 1:9). Having performed this duty, Zacharias went home and Elizabeth conceived in the beginning of October. Six months after (in the beginning of April, Luke 1:26), Christ was conceived and born in nine months (at the end of December).

 

X. But it is not difficult to demonstrate that this foundation is rather weak. It rests upon a false hypothesis—that Zacharias was a high priest who must burn incense on the day of expiations. This is rejected by more than one reason from the text itself. For if Zacharias was a high priest, why does Luke say nothing about it, calling him not a high priest (archierea), but only “a certain priest” (hierea tina) (to wit, of the crowd of priests)? How is he said to have performed his priestly duty in the order of his course (ephemerias) (which belonged to ordinary priests who daily served the altar and after a service of a week departed home), not indeed the office of the high priest, who (attached to no order) could be employed about any sacred duties at any time? Why is he said to have obtained by lot that service (leitourgian) of burning incense, when to the high priest alone that solemn ceremony belonged officially without the lot?

 

XI. Nor is the contrary proved either from the fact that he is said to have entered the temple to burn incense (because to burn incense outside of the veil and the sanctuary belonged to any priests chosen to it by lot, as the altar of in­cense was placed outside of the veil and the holy place (Exodus 30:6); or from the fact that the people waited outside of the temple (Luke 1:21) because it was usual for them to await in the court the return of the priest, since the priest alone was allowed to enter the holy place. Therefore the people (after their usual custom) waited for Zacharias while he performed the sacred duties that fell to him by lot. Nor is the contrary proved from the fact that the angel appeared to him on the right side of the altar of incense. This was not within the veil toward the ark, but outside of the veil at the side of the altar of incense, where the allotted priest burnt incense daily morning and evening.

 

XII. The second opinion is that of Scaliger, Calvisius and others, who think Christ was born in the autumnal equinox or about the end of the month of September. To prove this Scaliger thinks he can bring a demonstration from “the course” mentioned in Luke 1:5 (to wit, from the distribution of the families of priests who ought each in his own order by turns to devote himself to the divine service, according to the order established by David (1 Chronicles 24:7-18) by which they were distributed into twenty-four classes and by lot thrown by David the first class fell to the family of Jehoiarib, the second to the family of Jedaiah [in which Zacharias was] and the rest to the other families there men­tioned. And because in two hundred and twenty-four years, all the courses returned to the same days, by the help of this sacred circle the courses of particular families can be investigated most certainly. However, the calamity of the Babylonian captivity, the idolatry of various kings of Judah and the neglect of divine worship (and so of the priestly orders in the temple) introduced confusion into this order. Judas Maccabaeus (purging the temple from the pollutions of Antiochus) so re­stored this order of the courses that Josephus testifies they were never interrupted up to the last siege of Jerusalem by Vespasian (cf. JW 6:269-70 [Loeb, 3:454-55]). According to this computation of the heiratic circle, Zacharias (in the eighth class of Abia) entered upon his course on July 21, one hundred and sixty years (and one hundred and ninety-two days) after the dedication festival of Mac­cabaeus. It was finished on July 28, after which day (Zacharias returning home) Elizabeth could conceive John the Baptist in the beginning of August and was hid (according to Luke) five months. In the commencement of the sixth (to wit, January), after visiting Elizabeth, Mary conceived Christ, who after nine months or in the beginning of October near the autumnal equinox, brought him forth.

 

XIII. But this demonstration, however subtle and ingenious, does not seem sufficiently solid. It rests upon so many hypotheses, one of which slipping away, the whole edifice falls so that it cannot obtain a ready assent. Here it is specially taken for granted that a restoration of this order was made by Judas Maccabaeus and was never afterwards disturbed nor interrupted. But besides the fact that nothing is said of the restoration of this order (1 Maccabees 4), by what argument can we be persuaded that no interruption ever took place afterwards (as Josephus holds) while so many chances could have disturbed this order (ibid.)? For exam­ple, if any family had been tainted with legal pollution, if any one of the twenty-four families had perished or was not present and other things of that kind. And whence will it be certainly evident that the families always remained in the same order, since they are not always enumerated in the same degree? Add that it is also supposed (without sure foundation) that Elizabeth conceived at once one or two days after the return of Zacharias, since Luke simply says this happened “after those days” which implies a certain latitude of time.

XIV.    Besides this demonstration of Scaliger, other arguments are urged to the confirmation of this opinion, but of no greater weight. For instance that Christ ought to be born at the time when the shepherds could live out of doors and pass the night in the open air; such however was not the time of winter. But this reason seems less strong to Casaubon (De rebus sacris et. . . exercitationes . . . Baronii, 2, Anni I, Num. 14 [1614], p. 174) because we are not to form our judgment from France or Germany concerning Judea and other warmer and more southerly countries, especially since in colder and more northerly countries this is also the case (as in England, where there is no fear from wolves or other wild beasts, the flocks are accustomed during the whole year to pass the night in the fields). Why then couldn’t the shepherds in Judea (far warmer) live in the fields keeping watch over their flocks?

 

XV. Now although the time of the census instituted by Augustus seems less fit if it is the winter, it does not follow that it ought to be another time. For that time is to be sought from no other source than the will of the emperor, at whose pleasure all things were done. Yea, such subjection to those harsh commands was a part of the Jewish servitude. Nor were the Jews held in such estimation by the Romans that they would consult their advantage or disadvantage.

 

XVI.     It was not necessary for Christ to be born at the same time of the year in which the world was created (namely in the autumn). Nothing hindered the world from being renewed by Christ, even though his nativity occurred at another time. Nor should the promulgation of the Gospel Jubilee be made in the same time as the legal. Any year and any season under the Messiah is the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of salvation.

 

XVII. The third opinion is that of those who suspend their judgment maintaining that the natal month and day of Christ can or ought to be fixed by no one, since the Scripture is silent and we read of nothing being settled concerning it in the first ages of the Christian church. With them we agree, that we may not rashly define what cannot be solidly defined; but may be ignorant of what the Scripture wishes us to be ignorant (which might easily have pointed out that year, month and day, if it had seemed necessary for our consolation and faith). Hence we think that no controversy should be waged over this argument. And as we judge the celebration of the natal anniversary to be most pious and useful, still we think the precise observance of the 25th of December rests rather upon the custom and the long practice of the church than upon any apostolic command or example. He who wishes more may consult Ussher’s Annals (The Annals of the World [1658]), Spanheim’s Doubts (Dubia Evangelica [1639]), Baillie’s Chronology (Open’s historici et chronologici [1668]), and others of our teachers who have treated this argument fully.

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