Pinpointing Christ's Birth Date

by Jeffrey G. Elias Dorrance

For most people, the most accessible and therefore the primary sources of information about the time of the birth of Christ are almanacs, encyclopedias, or dictionaries. Most of these, however, would seem to indicate doubt and confusion about the date of the birth of our Lord. Such doubt is usually indicated by "c.", which stands for circa, Latin for "around." Some even have Him born seven years B.C. or in the seventh year A.D., which makes very little sense. Obviously, then, our primary source must be the nearest that we have to first-hand information. Everything else is commentary on the first sources or commentary on the commentary, and comment on that commentary, ad infinitum.

       There are two kinds of reliable sources of information about the time of Christ's birth:
(1) Scriptural (the Holy Bible), and (2) extra-Scriptural (the writings of the early Christian Fathers, oral tradition, iconography, relics, inscriptions, the writings of Roman historians, graffiti, etc.).

       Before considering all the evidence before us, however, we must first be equipped with a means of guiding us through the process, a means to prevent us from going astray. Such a tool was designed for us by a simple monk, St.Vincent of Lerins. Therefore, our investigation has to begin with the year 434 when St.Vincent wrote, and with what he wrote.

The Vincentian Canon

       Early in the fifth century, the entire Mediterranean Sea was still a Roman lake, despite a recent barbarian invasion. The Pax Romana remained in force, and so the Roman emperor continued his rule of the then known world. He no longer ruled from Old Rome, however, but from Byzantium near the Black Sea, officially renamed New Rome and commonly called Constantinople. It was to this city that St. Constantine the Great had moved the entire Roman bureaucracy after he had accepted the teachings of Jesus Christ.

       While the Roman Empire had become Christian in the official sense, it was still an evil world, not fully converted to Christianity. Moved by a desire to turn their backs on worldly wealth, pleasures of the flesh, and the Satanic pursuit of power and glory, thousands of Coptic and Ethiopian Christians had fled to the Thebaid Desert on the west bank of the River Nile. Here they lived lives of self-denial, unceasing prayer, hard physical labor, and asceticism. Inspired by the Egyptian example, Christians in the West did the same. Their refuge, however, was a small barren island in the Mediterranean, just off the coast of France -- Lerins, the Thebaid of the West.

       One of the many ascetic athletes who lived on Lerins was St. Vincent. He was a contemporary of St. Ambrose of Milan, a city which had surpassed Rome in importance as a municipality. He was also a contemporary of St. Leo the Great, although St. Leo had not yet been selected to be the Bishop and Pope of Rome and Patriarch of the West. Another contemporary and possible companion of St. Vincent was St. John Cassian. It was St. John who had visited the monks in the Thebaid and brought their way of life to Lerins. St. Vincent would also have been familiar with the prolific writings of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.

       In his hours of profound thought, St. Vincent became concerned that there was so much needless confusion about what was and what was not the one true Gospel, what he called "the universal faith" of Jesus Christ. There were then, as there are today, many competing "Christian" denominations. It seemed as if almost every preacher had a different message, a different interpretation, all of which could not possibly be right, given that they differed one from another. How was an ordinary person to make sense of it? St. Vincent pondered this, and he prayed, and he fasted. Finally he wrote down his thoughts for posterity in an essay entitled "Commonitory." Within that essay is a rule of faith or "canon" which we today call "The Vincentian Canon." An extract from it, containing the most critically important segment, is included in Bettenson's Documents of the Christian Church, a widely available standard source collection. The Vincentian Canon is not a rigid law to be followed on pain of torture or death. Rather, it is a tool, a means of separating the wheat from the chaff. It has been used by Orthodox Christians through the centuries as a guide through the morass of conflicting teachings on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It also provides them with a remedy for heresy, one which calls for self-discipline rather than inquisitory methods.

       According to St. Vincent's "Commonitory," (1) ". . . . the canon of Scripture is complete and is in itself abundantly sufficient." That being so, one need go no further than the Holy Scriptures themselves to resolve a problem involving a Gospel message, such as when our Lord was born, so long as — again quoting St. Vincent — our conclusion agrees with "that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all . . . or certainly nearly all bishops and doctors alike." The doctors to whom St. Vincent referred in A.D. 434 were not medical doctors, but Orthodox Christian philosophers, such as St. Justin Martyr, a former Samaritan. Jewish scholars have abounded as well, and the lively exchange of ideas has inspired such classics of early Christian literature as St. Justin's Dialog with Trypho the Jew.

       Many philosophers, Jewish, Christian, and pagan, studied at the great University of Alexandria in Egypt, at that time the center of academic experience in the Roman Empire. This university, still in existence today, was the hub of sound learning in the known world when St. Vincent was writing. Acting under the authority of the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and the Pope of Alexandria, Orthodox Christian scholars at this institution, for example, had created the Paschalion, a formula still used by Orthodox Christians to calculate the annual date of Pascha. (2) Copies of this Paschalion may be found in older editions of the Roman Catholic Missale Romanum and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer because until 1582 the Nicene Paschalion was used by almost all calling themselves Christian. Jewish scholars in Alexandria had produced the Hebrew- to-Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint (LXX), (3) still the canonical Orthodox Christian text. When St. Vincent wrote of doctors, he would certainly have had the University of Alexandria in mind.

       Much of the scholarship at such intellectual centers as Athens and Alexandria was centered on just such problems as dating the Birth of Jesus Christ, and at a time when many documents were available which have long since disappeared. Although collections of old documents such as the now-famous Dead Sea Scrolls are sometimes discovered with considerable attendant publicity, the fact of the matter is that a far greater number of important documents are constantly perishing. To take just one example, by the ninth century A.D., all copies of the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament had vanished, with the exception of the fragments discovered at Qumran in 1947. A Hebrew version was reconstructed by Jewish scholars early in the Middle Ages, but the reconstructed version varies significantly from the Septuagint (LXX). As the heterodox English versions currently on the market, for example the very popular King James version, were largely based on the reconstructed Hebrew text, they are far removed from the original version. As a result, many fundamentalist Protestants are unaware of the fact that the Second Commandment does not forbid icons or icon veneration. What it forbids is idolatry, the worship of false gods.

       Early Christian scholars were not faced with nearly as much in the way of lost documents as today's historians. It was their efforts which produced the martyrologies and the calendar as retained by the Orthodox Church. Remnants of their efforts are to some extent retained among the heterodox, but not always intact. One example would be the Roman Martyrology. Another would be Sabine Baring-Gould's sixteen-volume The Lives of the Saints (London, 1898). Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest whose hagiography is in some ways more inclusive than the standard Roman Catholic equivalent four-volume Butler's Lives of the Saints.

       In today's terminology, one might broaden St. Vincent's "doctors" to mean Orthodox Christian scholars with acknowledged expertise in a relevant field of inquiry, e.g., history, if the problem being considered is of a purely historical nature, such as determining the date of the Birth of Christ. Historian doctors of the Church would include: St. Gildas the Wise of Glastonbury; St. Gregory, Bishop of Tours; Bishop Eusebius of Caesaria; Dionysius Exiguus of Rome; Bishop Augustine of Hippo; and the prolific writer and historian of Jarrow, St. Bede the Venerable. St. Vincent does not even bother to mention the Pope of Old Rome, the bishop of a then-small but respected Orthodox Christian community. (4) This is particularly curious in light of the Roman Catholic dogma that the Pope of Old Rome is "infallible" in matters of faith and morals.

In What Year Was Jesus Christ Born?

       Most of the information needed to establish when our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born in the flesh is contained in the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke the Evangelist. Additional critical information is found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and in a Roman inscription discovered in 1794, as well as the other sources earlier alluded to. According to St. Luke, the Holy Virgin and Theotokos Mary conceived in the sixth month of the pregnancy of her well-aged cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:24-26). St. Elizabeth conceived (miraculously, considering her advanced years), immediately after "those days" (Luke 1:22-24), which were climaxed by a vision experienced by the priest Zacharias as he was offering incense before God in the Temple of Solomon while "the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of the incense" (Luke 1:10, AV; NEB reads: "The whole congregation was at prayer outside," and this was during the reign of "Herod, King of udæa" and prior to when Tiberius became Cæsar Augustus [Emperor] of Rome [Luke 1:5; 3:1], and when Quirinius [Cyrenius] was governor of Syria [Luke 2:2]). St. Matthew confirms that the Birth of our Savior took place while Herod the Great was King of Judæa. If St. Vincent of Lerins is correct, that information, together with ecclesiastical tradition, should certainly suffice to determine exactly when Jesus Christ was born. Could there be other sources of information as well?

       Anglican historian Sabine Baring-Gould is of little help, given that he focuses on various relics of the event that are scattered about Europe. Most such relics are in Old Rome, some having been moved there from Constantinople, possibly when it was sacked by the Franks in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.

       In any event, physical evidence such as properly attested relics may help to date Christ's Birth, although not with precision. Our best sources of information, as St. Vincent of Lerins affirms, are the Gospels which the Orthodox Church has declared canonical.

       Two keys for establishing the exact year in which our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born in the flesh are (1) the year of the death of King Herod the Great of Judæa, and (2) the first gubernatorial tenure of Quirinius in Syria. According to both Saints Matthew and Luke, Jesus Christ was born toward the end of the life of King Herod the Great while Quirinius was governing Syria (Matt. 2:19; Luke 2:2). It is important to understand and accept that these Saints are primary sources of information. Early non-Christian historians who recorded the events of that time in Judæa, most notably Flavius Josephus, did not report the Birth of Jesus Christ. As respected historian W. M. Ramsey admits, the time of Caesar Augustus, when Jesus was born in the flesh, "is enveloped in the deepest obscurity," in contrast to the reigns of Julius Caesar and Tiberius (Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?, 1898, p. 49). Even Flavius Josephus is not an entirely credible source about this period of time. The late Dr. Samuel Sandmel of Hebrew Union College, for example, has argued convincingly that Josephus even calculated Herod's age inaccurately (Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 1962, vol. 2, p. 587). Competent historian though he was, Josephus's primary source of information about King Herod the Great was the court chronicle written by Nicholas of Damascus (see entry "Herod," p. 382, New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, 1970). Since this chronicle has apparently ceased to exist, leaving no way to verify the date of King Herod's death, one is forced to rely on other historians, one of whom is Dionysius Exiguus.

       One of the first great Christian historians, Dionysius Exiguus was a Roman monk who wrote in the year 532. He examined all the historical evidence from which to calculate the exact year of the Birth of Jesus Christ. He established that Christ was born in the flesh in A.D. 1, a view which was not contradicted until some centuries later. (5) It was also Dionysius who coined the term Anno Domini (A.D., "in the year of our Lord") as a universal reference point. Prior to this coinage, every historian used a different point of reference, such as the year of the death of this or that monarch or the onset of this or that war, to calculate time. By coining the term "A.D.", Dionysius changed the way all future historians would set dates. Saints Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, wrote almost five centuries before Dionysius Exiguus was born, when the terms "B.C." and "A.D." did not yet exist.

       It is ironic, and also significant, that the writings of early heretics such as Tertullian have been translated into English and widely disseminated, but the works of Dionysius Exiguus remain untranslated and available only in Latin. As a result, revisionist historians constantly refer to Tertullian, a heretic, to attack the Gospel of St. Luke, while they freely ignore or disparage Dionysius Exiguus. These same revisionists attack Saints Matthew and Luke as unreliable, but they venerate Flavius Josephus despite the fact that his assertions are not verifiable.

       If Tertullian had not made one specific statement within a polemic which he had written against another heretic, Marcion, then Dionysius Exiguus might never have been questioned centuries later by the revisionist historians. Because of this one statement, however, the revisionists launched a full-scale assault not just on Dionysius, but on the entire Gospel of St. Luke. Tertullian wrote as follows:

       . . . [T]here is proof that at this time [Tertullian refers here to the time when Jesus was told of His mother and brethren being nearby] a census had been taken in Judæa by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their [the Marcionists'] inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ ("Fourth Book Against Marcion," Chapter 19 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, New York, 1908, p. 378).

       "If Sentius Saturninus was governor of Syria," proclaimed the revisionists, "this must mean that the Gospel of St. Luke is in error where it refers to the census 'when Cyrenius was governor of Syria'" (Luke 2:2 AV). The danger was clear. To attack the Holy Gospel, the Word of God, on one seemingly minor historical point is to attack the credibility of the entire Gospel account of the Birth of Jesus Christ in the flesh, and indeed of the entire Gospel itself.

       Seeing this, the more conventional historians charged to the defense of St. Luke. In doing so, however, they cast overboard the calculations of Dionysius Exiguus. In order to "save" the credibility of the Gospel, they allowed the year of the Birth of Jesus Christ to be left in doubt. So matters stand to this day, which is why Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary has Jesus Christ born "ca. 6 B.C."

       Interestingly, however, a Roman inscription, known as the Lapis Tiburtinus [Tiburtine stone(6)] was discovered near Rome in 1794. This inscription, kept in the Lateran Museum, refers to Quirinius as having twice been governor of Syria. Tertullian, it seems, had paid more attention to Flavius Josephus when he wrote in A.D. 207 than he had to the Orthodox Christian tradition from which he had departed. (On this point see Alexander Souter's article on Quirinius in the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, New York, 1948, pp. 778-779).

       On the basis of Tertullian's statement, as opposed to the Holy Evangelists Matthew and Luke, the revisionists claim that the Birth of Christ could not have taken place during the census of Quirinius, as proclaimed by St. Luke (2:1-2), because, they say, Herod the Great was already dead when Quirinius was made governor of Syria. Tertullian, they say, is their witness, and he refers not to Quirinius but to his predecessor, Sentius Saturninus. Tertullian, however, is a secondary, not a primary, source. He wrote some two centuries after the event to which he made reference. One can only wonder why he chose to contradict the Gospel of St. Luke, with which he was certainly familiar. It is a known fact that he wrote as a Montanist, having become affiliated with this heretical group in A.D. 206. Montanists rejected the Christian episcopate and claimed for themselves prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit. They described their denomination as the "Church of the Spirit" and the true Christian Church as merely the "Church of the bishops."

       In any event, Orthodox primary sources are the Gospels supported by the Tibur inscription. Flavius Josephus is silent concerning the Birth of Christ. He does report on the life of Herod the Great, and his writings are therefore used to establish the year of Herod's death. As Dr. Samuel Sandmel has alleged, however, Flavius Josephus was in error in matters of Herodian chronology. Despite this, almost every standard reference currently in print attacks the dating established by Dionysius Exiguus while accepting the assertions of Flavius Josephus, who depended upon a chronicle which has been lost. It would seem that the present intellectual establishment either has its priorities mixed up or has an anti-Christian agenda. In the meantime Orthodox Christians will continue to follow what they have been taught in the Holy Gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke, which have been declared canonical Holy Scripture.

       It is interesting to note that St. Justin the Philosopher, writing in A.D. 150, closely follows St. Luke. According to St. Justin, the Birth of Jesus Christ in the flesh took place during the census of Quirinius. Moreover, says he, the enrollments of Quirinius were, after all, a matter of public record. When he wrote, these records were indeed public. It is unfortunate that they have since been lost, but it is noteworthy that St. Justin could write with such confidence on the subject. (7)

       In the revisionists' attack on Dionysius Exiguus and the reports of Saints Matthew and Luke, they face an additional problem: how to account for a life on earth which ended by general consent at age 33. If Jesus Christ was crucified at age 33 and during the governorship of Pontius Pilate which commenced A.D. 26, He could not possibly have been born as early as 6 B.C. as the revisionists claim. Hence their employment of the historian's all-purpose fudge factor in such situations, "c." or "ca." for circa before the numeral 6.

       The information which is known from Flavius Josephus concerning Pilate's rule indicates that Pilate was rebuked by the Roman Senate, the revisionists say, in A.D. 31, because he demanded tribute money from the Jews. Does this not sound familiar? Could the rebuke have been issued, or could it have arrived, or could it have been acted upon later than A.D. 31, say as late as A.D. 33? If so, this makes it all the more difficult for the revisionists to make their case. St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus was in Capernaum, "They that received tribute came to Peter and said, 'Doth not your master pay tribute?'" (Matt. 17:24 AV, with quotation marks inserted by this writer). All three of the synoptic Gospels relate the story of the tribute money which concludes with "Render to Cæsar . . ." This took place in the Temple after the triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, when the senatorial rebuke had not yet effected its intended objective, namely, to put an end to the payment of tribute money by the Jews. The issuance of the rebuke, however, clarifies why Pilate vacillated when Jesus was brought to trial. The Roman governor did not wish to risk another senatorial rebuke by offending a Jewish ruling establishment well connected in Rome, politically speaking. St. Luke tells us that on Great and Holy Friday when our Lord was crucified, "Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves" (Luke 23:12 AV). That such a feud had developed suggests a serious problem of some long standing. In other words, the Crucifixion had to have taken place when Pilate had been governor for more than just a few months, i.e., no earlier than in A.D. 33.

       The conclusion of the matter is threefold:

  • The Holy Gospels are 100 percent credible and reliable,
  • The computations of Dionysius Exiguus have been attacked forcefully, but not definitively, and
  • The revisionists' alternatives have created more problems for the historian than the ones they were intended to solve.

Having established that it is at least probable that Jesus Christ was born in the flesh in A.D. 1, as Dionysius Exiguus maintained, attention may be turned to establishing the day on which He was born.

On What Day Was Jesus Christ Born?

       To ascertain the day when our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born, we need to know when St. John the Baptist was conceived, because all the events which follow proceed from that day. Six months afterward, according to Holy Scripture and Orthodox Christian Tradition, the Archangel Gabriel announced the Conception of our Lord to the Holy Theotokos and Blessed Virgin Mary. The birth of St. John the Baptist occurred on June 24, nine months from his conception. The Church assigns the Conception of St. John to September 23 on the calendar, for reasons which shall shortly be made clear. More supportive data are required, however, and for them we must go beyond what is found in the Holy Bible.

       In the West the tendency has been to rely solely on Holy Scripture, or else on logic, without reference to Orthodox Christian Tradition. This has led to a number of absurdities inherent in Roman Catholicism and Fundamentalist Protestantism. Gnostic cults, such as the Cathars, Freemasons, Mormons, and Rosicrucians arose in the West in reaction to such perceptions. These cults appeal to people who feel instinctively that the Bible is insufficient by itself, and that there is more to the world than logic alone can explain.

       Turning to the conception of St. John the Baptist and why it is celebrated on September 23, we need go no farther than what St. Luke reports concerning the vision of St. Zacharias: "The whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense," on a day which climaxed a series of days -- "those days." Incense was frequently offered in the Temple, of course, but there was a day when the whole multitude of Jerusalem would assemble in the Temple or as near the Temple as possible. It was a day considered the holiest in the entire Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the whole multitude of the Jewish people would be blessed, the one day of the year when the High Priest would utter the Name of God while blessing the people (Hebrews 9:7).

       At this point, however, there is a problem. St. Zacharias could not possibly have offered incense on Yom Kippur. On that day all the priestly functions were reserved to the High Priest (Ibid.). One must look, then, for a day when the father of St. John may have offered incense, when the whole multitude of the people would have assembled, and a day which would have been the last of a sequence of "those days." Since no priest other than the High Priest was permitted to offer incense more than once in his entire life, the Temple kept careful records of who had offered incense and when. If such records still exist, one would look for the record of a Zacharias of the course of Abia having offered incense on just such a day in the equivalent of 1 B.C.

       Alfred Edersheim theorized that for theological reasons the Orthodox Church assigned the feast of the Nativity of Christ, commemorating the Birth of Christ the Light of the World, to the first day of the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple (Chanuchah), the Feast of Lights, the 25th of Chislev (usually in December), an eight-day feast instituted by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C., after the war for Jewish independence from Syro-Greek domination had been won (The Temple, p. 293; II Macc. 10:8). This makes sense, given that one of the Orthodox Christian titles of the Mother of God is "Holy Ark of the New Testament," an allusion to the Ark of the Covenant in which were kept the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament (Covenant), the Word from Mt. Sinai. This ark used to be kept within the section of the Temple called the Holy of Holies, the section before which St. Zacharias was privileged to offer incense before the Lord. Ethiopian tradition has it that the Ark had been translated to Ethiopia during the reign of King Solomon as a gift to the Queen of Sheba.

       According to Ethiopian tradition, The Ark of the Covenant presently reposes within the St. Mary of Mt. Sion Cathedral in Auxum, see of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, so-called. Mt. Sion was the height on which the Temple of Solomon was built as a place of repose for the Ark. Interestingly enough, the original temple of worship at Glastonbury in England, according to Hugh Ross Williamson (following William of Malmsebury), was dedicated to the Theotokos and built by St. Joseph of Arimathea according to the dimensions of the Tabernacle, the tent that once surrounded the Ark and which the Temple of Solomon replaced (The Flowering Hawthorn, p. 27). The Temple, therefore, was a type of the Holy Theotokos. It was thus fitting that Jesus the New Testament was born of her on the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple.

        Edersheim's theory is an intriguing one, but it ignores what the Gospel according to St. Luke has to say about the conception of St. John the Forerunner, Prophet, and Baptizer. Is it possible that Chanucha was the occasion, not of Christ's Birth, but of the vision of St. Zacharias? It was, after all, a feast which lasted eight days and which St. Luke therefore could have had in mind as "those days." Chanucha, however, was a minor feast which the whole multitude would not likely have attended, and so that theory must be rejected.

       Two other possible feasts which lasted for more than just a day were Passover and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Passover must be ruled out as the occasion of St. Zacharias's vision because there is simply no indication of this in the Tradition of the Church, at any time, anywhere, by anyone. In short, to point to Passover would totally conflict with the Vincentian Canon concerning the role to be given to Tradition when interpreting Holy Scripture. Thus only one other possibility remains, Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which ends on the twenty-second day of the Jewish month of Tishri.

       Jewish months are all lunar, and so the Jewish calendar, unlike our present civil calendar and unlike the Julian calendar employed by the Romans when Jesus Christ was born, varies from year to year. As with all Jewish feasts, and as with the Orthodox Christian Pascha, Sukkot is a moveable feast, generally occurring in late September and early October.

       Returning to Alfred Edersheim's research of the Talmud, on its last day, called Shemini Atseret (Solemn Assembly), all the courses [the whole multitude] assembled to participate in the ceremonies. In fact, this was the only feast during the year when all the courses did this (op. cit., p. 66).

       Tabernacles was a harvest festival celebrated shortly after Yom Kippur to commemorate the time during the Exodus when the Israelites lived in tents after their flight from Egypt. (Lev. 23:36; Nm. 29:35). The last day of Sukkot, Shemini Atseret, was the last day of the last feast of the last month of the Jewish year. What could be more fitting than that this should be the occasion to announce the conception of the last and greatest of the prophets of the Old Testament, St. John the Forerunner, the man who would announce to the Jews the coming of the New Testament, the Word Himself in the Flesh, Jesus Christ? Since this was when St. Zacharias experienced his vision, we know from St. Luke that St. Elizabeth conceived that very evening. Jewish days begin and end at sunset. The conception of St. John, therefore, would have occurred on 23 Tishri. Just as Sarah had conceived in her old age (Gen. 21:1-2), so St. Elizabeth conceived in hers (Luke 1:23-24). According to Alan Satin of Hebrew Union College and Alan Corré of the University of Wisconsin, 23 Tishri coincides with what would be September 24, 1 B.C. by the Julian calendar then used in the Roman Empire. The Orthodox Church, however, assigned the Feast of St. John's Conception to September 23, possibly to remind us of 23 Tishri, or to allow for the possibility that the conception took place before sundown on Shemini Atseret.

       Further confirmation of the truth of these accounts is provided by St. Luke's report that St. Zacharias belonged to "the course of Abia," a subgroup which had been established within the priestly tribe of Levi by King St. David, and that it fell to his course on that day to select one of its members to burn incense as he went into the Temple (1 Chron. 23 ff.; Luke 1:5, 8-9 AV). These duties rotated and were determined by lot (Luke 1:9) in order that everyone have the opportunity to perform the more illustrious duties connected with the Temple as well as the perhaps more onerous and mundane but necessary tasks. Careful records were kept to determine which courses had performed which duties on which feasts year by year. Unfortunately these records were lost when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Such a table of feasts showing which courses did what on Shemini Atseret in 1B.C. b.c. would be of immense historical value.

       Even without a table of feasts, we still have the ritual of the Church which preserves the historical memory indicated by the Church calendar -- one reason, among many, why the Church is always reluctant to change her calendar and her ritual. Were she to do so she would lose touch with this vital historical memory. One is reminded of the occupational specialty of Winston Smith, the protagonist in the totalitarian state described in George Orwell's novel 1984. Mr. Smith's daily labor was to erase the historical memory of politically incorrect events which had taken place and to add new ones, often totally fictitious, as needed. In his world, therefore, it became increasingly difficult to research the past because vital historical records were constantly being doctored, altered, erased, or invented.

       By adopting the Gregorian calendar of 1582 and making other changes, the heterodox are doing as Winston Smith does — doctoring the historical record for the sake of political correctness. When the Pope of Old Rome did this in 1582, it was to please the then-reigning astronomers in Italy. When the Anglicans did this in 1752, it was to please the King of England, George II of Hanover. The Julian and the Gregorian calendars were then eleven days apart. (8) In Scotland, the last remnants of the Jacobites, who had fiercely resisted the Hanoverian tyranny and had left their glorious warriors slain at Culloden Moor, fled across the Atlantic deep into Nova Scotia and into the southern Appalachian Mountains where "The Cherry Tree Carol" is still sung in protest against the Hanoverian tyranny. It is said that more than a century earlier, King Charles I had admonished his subjects, just before he was beheaded by the Puritans, to "Remember," and remember they did. The last verse of this lovely eighteenth-century Christmas carol goes as follows:

On the fifth day of January My birthday will be,
When the stars and the elements shall tremble with fear,
When the stars and the elements shall tremble with fear.

       When the Archbishop of Athens followed suit in 1924, with the Julian and Gregorian calendars then thirteen days apart, it was to please the cabal of Freemasons determined to bring down the monarchy of King Constantine of Greece and replace it with a republic. Whether it was for political correctness or other reasons, however, the result has always been the same: confusion about when significant historical events had occurred. In 1984's totalitarian state, the dictator BIG BROTHER depended on this kind of confusion to per-petuate his rule. By resisting this, Winston Smith threatened the established order. This may help explain why Orthodox Christian resistance to the calendar change produced a violent police-state reaction in Greece, replete with beatings, exiles, and martyrdoms.

       George Orwell was delivering a warning when he wrote his 1984, although he may not have had the calendar itself specifically in mind as he wrote. He was not the first to warn against such tinkering with time. It will be recalled that the Holy Prophet Daniel delivered this exact warning to the Jews during the Babylonian Captivity when he prophesied that the Antichrist, when he comes, will attempt to change time (Dan. 7:25). While Pope Gregory XIII may not have been the Antichrist, it cannot be denied that by introducing a differently calculated calendar and a new and different Paschalion, he attempted to change the measurement and recording of time throughout the world. To do this he erased ten days from the Roman Catholic calendar. Those who followed his lead have had to take even more drastic measures. In Russia, after the calendar change, the martyrdoms numbered in the millions. Was it worth it? One wonders if the revisionists have ever even bothered to count the bodies. After all, the new calendar is their omelette. And as Robespierre is said to have remarked in regard to what had been wrought by the French Revolution, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."

       It may reasonably be objected that St. Luke should have said "Tabernacles" instead of being vague by making reference to "the days of his ministration" (Luke 1:23 AV). Why would St. Luke have violated a basic canon of sound historical writing by being vague about something so important as exactly when St. Zacharias's vision happened? He was writing for the benefit of Theophilus, a catechumen, who could hardly be expected to know what St. Luke meant by "those days" (Luke 1:3, 23), and he himself claims to have had a "perfect understanding of all things" (Ibid.). As to why he was not more forthright, it is possible that St. Luke was trying to conceal sensitive material from the Roman authorities, given that Christianity, when he wrote, was considered a threat to the Roman Empire. He would have been particularly anxious to protect from official scrutiny the privacy and whereabouts of Mary, the Mother of our Savior. Too closely identifying the day and year when St. Zacharias had offered incense could have been the equivalent, in that age, of releasing a Social Security number, given the extensive nature of the records kept at the Temple of Solomon (more accurately the Temple of Herod but seldom so called because Herod the Great was so despised by Jews and Christians alike).

       There are frequent and usually very unfriendly references in the Holy Gospels to a class of people called scribes. Jesus called the Temple scribes "hypocrites" and "blind leaders of the blind" (Matt. 15:7, 14 AV). The scribes professionally produced, stored, searched, and retrieved documents. That was how they earned their living. We may think of them as first-century theocratic bureaucrats. St. Luke would not have wanted these feared bureaucrats searching their records for information which the Romans would use to hunt down enemies of the state, if the "enemies" in question were his fellow Christians in general, and in particular the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, Mary Most Holy.

       Just as Metropolitan Sergius Staragorodsky, the Russian Orthodox locum tenens of the patriarchal throne in Moscow and future "Patriarch" (1943) had made a pact with Satan in 1927 when he agreed to cooperate with the USSR, so also had the priests and scribes of the Temple agreed to cooperate with the government imposed by Rome. St. Luke had good reason, therefore, to be careful about what he might reveal to a Roman catechumen, one who could be expected to circulate widely St. Luke's statements. Interestingly, this very circumspection on the part of St. Luke helps us to date his Gospel. It would have to have been written after the commencement of the Neronian persecution in A.D. 64 and before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. After A.D. 70, the Temple scribes were no longer to be feared by anybody and so no circumspection by St. Luke would have been necessary. Prior to A.D. 64, systematic persecution was only a theoretical possibility, and the Roman state had even acted as protector of Christians against Temple authorities.

       All of the information which St. Luke provides, together with Orthodox Christian Tradition, send us to only one possible evening when St. John must have been conceived in the womb of his mother St. Elizabeth by his father St. Zacharias the priest, that of September 23, 1 B.C., according to the Imperial Roman calendar established during the reign of Julius Caesar and therefore called the Julian calendar. The conception of St. John is our linchpin for establishing the date of the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. The rest is simple to calculate. Six 30-day months from September 23 bring us to March 25, the date of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26). Another nine months, the normal human gestation period, bring us to December 25 (Julian), January 7 by the civil calendar presently in use in the United States. This is not brain surgery or rocket science. It is simply a very close reading of St. Luke's Gospel coupled with a healthy respect for and confidence in Orthodox Christian tradition, something that has largely waned in the West and also in the part of the East that is ecumenist.

       According to St. Vincent of Lerins, true Orthodox Christian teaching — what St. Vincent calls "the true Catholic faith" — is based on antiquity, universality, and consent. Since A.D. 336 at the latest, and probably even earlier than that, the Nativity of Christ was celebrated in Old Rome on December 25. From Old Rome, the feast spread to the East. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the feast was celebrated in Antioch as early as A.D. 376. According to St. Sophronius, it was celebrated in Jerusalem from A.D. 638. In all these places, the date set by the Church was December 25. There is no record of the feast ever having been celebrated in the Orthodox Church on any date other than December 25. Antiquity, universality, and consent ("everywhere, always, and by all"), clearly favors December 25 as the date when our Lord was born.

       If, as the revisionists maintain, Christ was born in 6 B.C., an opinion which the Orthodox Church does not accept, it would mean that the conception of St. John the Baptist took place on October 16, 7 B.C., and thus that the birth of Jesus Christ took place on January 18, well outside of the week inclusive of December 25. At no time has any Orthodox bishop or doctor in any place ever even suggested this. There is simply no evidence, therefore, to support any dating other than that established in A.D. 532 by Dionysius Exiguus. Moreover, given that the Nativity of Christ had been celebrated in Old Rome since no later a date than A.D. 336, it may reasonably be inferred that Dionysius Exiguus based his calculations on what he believed to be established Christian tradition regarding the dates of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh and the conception of St. John the Baptist. Not until roughly 1,200 years had passed and numerous records lost (records available to Dionysius Exiguus, but not to us or to his latter-day detractors) did revisionist historians question Orthodox Christian teaching about the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. When heterodox and non-Christians ask, "Why do you celebrate Christmas on January 7 (December 25, Julian), our answer should be simply, "Because that's when Jesus Christ was born."

       There are many Feasts of our Lord, the Theotokos, and St. John the Baptist celebrated throughout the year by churches calling themselves Christian, and a large number of these depend on the date of St. John's conception, September 23. Curiously, however, only in the true Orthodox Church and in some Old Calendar heterodox denominations is St. John's conception remembered. Roman Catholics do not observe it at all, nor do any of the Anglican or Protestant denominations. The New Calendar Orthodox retain it, but not on the true date of its occurrence. None of the standard Bible commentaries, dictionaries, and encyclopedias even mention it, and some even try to reword what St. Luke writes so as to obfuscate the plain meaning of the text being commented on.

       One must conclude that the religious denominations which misdate or ignore this feast do so because they do not hold "that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." The clergy living off the members of these denominations have been trained at seminaries which use Bible commentaries generally accepted, not over time, but only within the last one hundred years at most. Not surprisingly, therefore, a goodly amount of confusion and ignorance prevail among the heterodox about the date of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, so much so that many believe the true date is a mystery incapable of being solved. If these "Christians" do not know or understand the merely historical part of the Gospel, what part of it do they understand? If they do know and understand, but teach something else about the birth of Jesus Christ, what else do they know and understand, but nevertheless conceal? These are questions which anyone should ask and receive an answer to before leaping into involvement with a heterodox or New Calendar Orthodox denomination.

The Flight into Egypt

       An icon of the Flight into Egypt sent to the author by His Eminence, the Most Reverend Metropolitan of Boston, Ephraim, shows our Savior Jesus Christ being carried by Joseph the Betrothed, the Theotokos riding on a horse, and St. James, the brother of the Lord (Joseph's youngest son), carrying their belongings as he urges the horse forward. According to Otto Meinardus, Coptic tradition has it that the Holy Travelers lived in Egypt for three and a half years (Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Cairo, 1999). Going by St. Matthew's Gospel and the reckoning of Dionysius Exiguus, King Herod the Great would have died in A.D. 4 (Matt. 2:19). According to Flavius Josephus, this happened thirty-seven years after he was made king of Judæa by the Roman Senate (Wars of the Jews, 32:8).

The Flight into Egypt

A Word about Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Little)

       Known as Denis the Little by the English Orthodox, Dionysius Exiguus was born in Scythia, in what is now Russia, about 500 A.D., and became Rome's most celebrated canonist of the sixth century. Historically, he is known as the father of the Christian calendar which spread through the practical use of his Paschal tables. In England, the Christian era was adopted with the Paschal tables at the Synod of

       Whitby in 664. St. Bede, who examined Dionysius's dating of the Incarnation of Christ, was responsible for the popularization of the new era through his use of the margins of the tables for annalistic notices and juxtaposition of historical writings with calendar computations. According to Dionysius, dates are reckoned from the Incarnation of Christ, March 25 in the year 754 AUC. According to tradition, Dionysius was an abbot.

       As Rome's most eminent scholar of the time, Dionysius was summoned to Rome after the death of Pope Gelasius I to organize the archives of the Church of Rome. Later at the request of Pope St. John I, he prepared the chronology of the Roman Church which is still in use. This was a modified Alexandrian computation (95-year tables developed by Theophilus, the Pope of Alexandria) which he based on Victorius of Aquitaine's 532-year cycle.

       Dionysius was also an accomplished theologian, mathematician, and astronomer, well versed in Holy Scripture and the Holy Canons. He researched and compiled a list of 401 ecclesiastical canons, including the Apostolic Canons and the decrees of the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Sardis, and the decretals of Roman popes of the fourth and fifth centuries. He also translated many Greek works which are now lost, including the Life of St. Pachomius and an instruction of St. Proclus of Constantinople.

       Dionysius did not regard his chronology as a major discovery. His own letters are dated by the indiction, a cycle of fifteen years reckoned from the accession of Emperor St. Constantine in 312. Years were given according to their place in the cycle of fifteen, the number of the indiction itself being ignored. Use of the indiction diminished rapidly in the thirteenth century.

1. "Commonitory," from the Latin commonere, to remind or impress upon; now obsolete. Meaning: calling to mind.

2. From the Aramaic word for Passover, as in 1 Cor. 5:7-8, mistakenly called "Easter" among the English after an Anglo-Saxon sun deity festival held in spring, an error carried over into the King James Version (see Acts 12:4 AV).

3. See John Bockman's book review in this issue: The Text of Genesis 1-11: Textual Studies and Critical Edition, by Ronald S. Hendel.

4. We should not be surprised that St. Vincent did not mention prominently the Pope of Old Rome. When St. Vincent wrote his tome, Old Rome had not yet placed any outstanding Christian intellects on the episcopal throne, except for the first-century Apostolic Father, St. Clement of Rome.
By St. Vincent's time, Dionysius Exiguus, the great Roman historian, had not yet been born. In many ways the city was still pagan in the fifth century. St. John the Theologian had publicly foreseen Rome as a whore on seven hills whose forehead bore the inscription: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (Rev. 17:5). Protestant publishers of the King James version (also called the Authorized Version or AV) of the Bible, assumed that this passage was obviously aimed at the Pope of Old Rome and so they printed this verse in upper-case letters from beginning to end. Given the post-1924 syncretist policies of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (New Rome) and of the Patriarchate of Moscow (by some considered to be the Third Rome), as well as the more recent syncretist policies of the Pope of Old Rome, this passage could be aimed at any or all of the aforementioned prelates. It certainly is a mystery. For more on the subject, readers are referred to The Struggle Against Ecumenism and Sister Churches. Both are published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 278 Warren St., Brookline, Massachusetts 02146-5997.

Old Rome's Christian community, though respected, was small in comparison with churches elsewhere in the Roman Empire, and the city also lacked importance in comparison with Milan, given that Byzantium had become the New Rome. In southern Italy, called Magna Græcia (Greater Greece), Christians looked to New Rome for leadership.

5. According to John Gerard, S.J., "Dionysius saw to it that dates are reckoned from the Incarnation, which he assigned to March 25 in the year 754 AUC [from the foundation of the City of Rome]" (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5, p. 11). Encyclopædia Britannica disputes the year, but provides no evidence to support its assertion.

6. Tibur was an old town in Latium on both sides of the Anio, not to be confused with the Tiber River.

7. See St. Justin's "First Apology," Chapter 34 in Volume 56 of Ancient Christian Writers, New York, 1997, p. 47.

8. The calendar difference increases by an average of 0.78 days per century.

Return to Table of Contents