Tag Archives: Jesus

When was Jesus born?

Every last one of us leaves our mark on history. Most only make a tiny shallow line for our family and friends to notice. A few leave deep grooves that countless other marks align with. Whether you’re a believer or not, the historical figure of Jesus Christ is inarguably one of the latter. Much of the western world as we know it was shaped by his life and the stories people tell about him, his life philosophy (as we know it, of course), and a religion others built around him.

Image credits Greg Montani.

One of the widest-used calendars in the world today — the Gregorian Calendar — is timed from the birth of this person. It separates history into two large parts: B.C., “before Christ”, and A.D., “anno Domini”, loosely meaning “year of the Lord”. The birth of Jesus is obviously when we shift between the two.

At least, that’s the theory. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus wasn’t born on what we consider to be the 1st anno Domini. With that in mind, though, “the best of our knowledge” on this topic is quite muddy. So roll up your sleeves and let’s dive right into it.

Tweak for glory

For starters, although Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas (25th December), we’re pretty sure that’s not actually when it happened. But we can’t say when it happened for sure, either. Part of the problem is that Jesus wasn’t born famous, so nobody actually bothered to record the exact date. There’s also the issue that our current dating system was not even invented yet when it happened, and equating dates between systems is imperfect at best. Factor in the huge spans of time involved here, and accuracy is out of the question.

However, what we do know is that at some point Christianity was an underdog of religions. It had quite an uphill battle gathering new followers in several communities, especially those who were polytheistic. This new, one-god religion was simply very strange to them and the customs they held. People who were better-off were also wary of it, as adopting a new religion would often come with a social cost. Not to mention that following teachings which decried slavery and looked down on riches wasn’t high on the priority list of people who enjoyed owning slaves and being rich.

In the Roman Empire, the largest single community that Christianity was trying to get into at that time, both of these issues were at work at the same time.

So what Christianity did was a little bit of PR. Christmas today is celebrated very close to the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples aligned their celebrations with significant natural events, such as the solstice. Whether this was intentional or not on their part is a very interesting question, but it’s not particularly relevant right now. What is relevant, however, is that by changing dates around a bit, Christian customs would better reflect the pagan ones they were competing against. In other words, it would be more familiar to those it tried to convert. It felt less like a completely new celebration, and more of an updated, reskinned celebration — and, so, easier to accept.

In the case of Rome, the end of December marked the start of Saturnalia. This was a celebration in honor of their god of the harvest (Saturn) and lasted between the 17th and 23rd, roughly. Symbolically speaking, this was a good celebration to try and associate yourself with, as it was customary for everyone to enjoy freedom during this time, so social norms would be laxer, even discarded altogether. Well, to be more specific, Saturnalia saw an inversion of one’s fate.

Slaveowners, for example, would dress, feed, and entertain their slaves like they would a friend. The slaves, in turn, could tell their masters their grievances during this time without fear of reprisal. It was a celebration meant to ‘reset your karma‘, so to speak. Gambling was also allowed on Saturnalia, and carnivals were common. In the grand scheme of things, someone celebrating Christmas would probably stand out far less during Saturnalia than any other time of the year.

This is also probably where we get the custom of gifts during Christmas. Romans exchanged gifts with their friends for Saturnalia, although they were either small figures or gag items, and there most definitely weren’t any trees involved.

Of course, none of this actually proves that Christmas was shifted around the calendar to make it more palatable to pagans. But it’s very likely that it was, because we’re seeing too many coincidences. Further proof that the 25th of December date isn’t true to the historical date of Jesus’ birth is that the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire set the date of Christmas at January 6th. If one church can change the date, why couldn’t another?

The Christmas date origin topic is way broader than I have a taste to get into here, but the Washington Post has a nice breakdown of it here.

Not exactly on time

“Saturnalia” sculpture by Ernesto Biondi, in Buenos Aires. Looks like a fun celebration.

So we already know the birth date is probably off, although we don’t know by how much. The thing to keep in mind here is that the texts which make up books such as the gospel weren’t written while Jesus was around, by people who were around him. They were written some time after — often, a very long time after — by people working mostly off hearsay. It’s not a criticism on their part, it’s just the product of a day when writing was still a rare skill, and par for the course of the time.

This material was also heavily curated, edited, tweaked, and cleaned-up by (probably) well-meaning but (in my opinion) extremely biased and damaging individuals as Christianity evolved into a mainstream religion. A mainstream religion, after all, needs to have some mainstream-able texts, and working in media, I can assure you that the first copy is never that. Large parts of the initial bible were taken out, and what was left was re-ordered and re-worded to better suit individual agendas. It was an ongoing process, not a single event, as most people who sought power through religion wanted a bible that would fit their narrative better than those of others.

But we’ll turn the other cheek to that. I’m not telling you all this to invalidate anyone’s faith. If you believe, you believe. Personally, I don’t. But I think we can all agree, no matter what side of that fence we’re on, that understanding the actual historical facts in the story is a worthwhile pursuit. We are, after all, talking about one of the most influential people in the West, and maybe globally.

I’m also telling you all that so you’ll understand why I don’t particularly rely on the texts themselves for answers. They were maintained by people, and people are both fallible and biased. We’re also talking about thousands of years here, so there was probably a lot of failing and biased behavior involved. In other words, the texts themselves are not a reliable source if what you’re after is to understand what happened and when with accuracy. Not only that, but these are religious texts; they were never intended to preserve chronology, but theology. The dates are not as important as the message, as far as they are concerned.

Back to the year

While religious texts aren’t reliable as direct sources, they do offer useful context. Context which we can then bash against what we know from historical records and archeological digs to hopefully arrive at the truth.

One of the first attempts in this regard was to date the birth of Jesus using the figure of Herod. In the bible, soon after Herod dies, the new ruler of Judea orders all male infants under two years old in the Bethlehem region (where Jesus was born) to be killed. The good news here is that we have a rough timeline for when Herod died: around 4 B.C. The bad news is that that’s not a reliable date by any stretch and that the rest of the story seems to be made-up as well. Still, if we take these at face value, Jesus was likely born between the years 6 and 4 B.C.

The story also holds that Jesus’ birth was heralded by a star — the Star of Bethlehem. It has been proposed that this star was actually a slow-moving comet, one that Chinese observers recorded around 5 B.C. This fits well with our previous estimation, which is a plus, but it also basically boils down to “hey these two events fit so they could be the same”. This isn’t necessarily a wrong conclusion, but it definitely isn’t proof.

Reasonable Theology makes a valiant effort of estimating the birth date of Jesus drawing mostly from scripture here (it’s a pretty interesting read). I’m not that familiar with everything going on in the bible, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but the conclusion they draw from several passages is that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 5 B.C. This, again, fits with the previous estimation and is a little more reliable as it ties events going on in the story to historical figures such as Emperor Caesar Augustus and Governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, which are somewhat well-anchored in history.

It also loosely fits with the Aemilius Secundus inscription, a tablet discovered 300 years ago in Beirut, Lebanon, which tells of a census ordered by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, in 12 B.C., according to biblical scholar Jim Fleming. This census is mentioned in the texts, although different gospels disagree on whether Jesus was born before or after it.

However, there are some grounds to believe that Herod actually died around the year 1 B.C., which would put Jesus’s birth around the year 3 B.C.

All things considered, we can estimate with some certainty that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 B.C., and with less certainty that it happened a few years later. But everybody is pretty confident that he — ironically — was not born in ‘the first year of the lord’.

Since we can’t yet know for sure exactly when it happened, this tiny incongruency will have to stick around for a bit longer. With that being said, our calendars are made so practical issues like historical events or yearly tax records can be kept in an organized fashion that future generations will still be able to use, should they need it. Although we think of years as either before or after Christ, they are primarily a chronological tool, not a theological one.

Landmark historic street discovered under Jerusalem, built by Pontius Pilate

The street extends from the Pool of Siloam in the south to the Temple Mount — two monuments that have a major importance in Christianity and Judaism. There are good reasons to believe that the street was built by Pontius Pilate, the officer believed to have presided over the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

View of the foundations of the Western Wall (left) and the retaining wall that abutted it, built on bedrock (below). To the right are the constructive layers that filled the support system (photograph: M. Hagbi, IAA)

Separating history from religion is sometimes difficult, but the street uncovered by archaeologists is very much real. After six years of digging, researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University have uncovered a 220-meter-long section of an ancient street. The street was first discovered by British archaeologists in 1894, but managing such a long dig in an urban area proved to be extremely problematic.

Overall, the street is 600 meters long and 8 meters wide — an impressive and large construction paved with large stone slabs, as was often the case in the Roman Empire. The construction of the street required significant resources and skill.

The excavations also revealed 100 coins under the paving stones. The coins are dated to 17 to 31 CE, which suggests that the street was completed during the time Pontius Pilate governed Judea.

“Dating using coins is very exact,” says Dr Donald T. Ariel, an archaeologist and coin expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority, and one of the co-authors of the article. “As some coins have the year in which they were minted on them, what that means is that if a coin with the date 30 CE on it is found beneath the street, the street had to be built in the same year or after that coin had been minted, so any time after 30 CE.”

“However, our study goes further, because statistically, coins minted some 10 years later are the most common coins in Jerusalem, so not having them beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate.”

The street would have been quite a sight in ancient Jerusalem. Depicted here: a Roman gate that’s still standing. Image credits: Davidbena.

The fact that the street was so large and lavish is also intriguing. The street starts at Temple Mount, located within the Old City of Jerusalem, which has been venerated as a holy site for thousands of years. It ends at Siloam Pool, where it is said that Jesus cured a man of blindness by having him wash in the pool water.

The street was probably ceremonial in nature, and was used by pilgrims.

“If this was a simple walkway connecting point A to point B, there would be no need to build such a grand street,” says Dr Joe Uziel and Moran Hagbi, archaeologists at the Israel Antiquities Authority, co-authors of the study. “At its minimum it is 8 meters wide. This, coupled with its finely carved stone and ornate ’furnishings’ like a stepped podium along the street, all indicate that this was a special street.”

Location map, marking excavation sites. The street would have connected two of the most important religious sites in the city (drawing: D. Levi, IAA; via Survey of Israel).

However, the street might not be entirely religious in nature. Another hypothesis is that it was a project to show he local population the strength and grandeur of the Roman Empire.

“Part of it may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem, part of it may have been about the way Jerusalem would fit in the Roman world, and part of it may have been to aggrandize his name through major building projects,” says author Nahshon Szanton.

Another theory is that it was built to reduce tensions between Romans and the local Judaic population. The Romans conquered and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE — after the street was built. The soil layer above the street showed mixed pieces of rubble, including weapons such as arrowheads and sling stones, as well as burnt trees and collapsed rocks from buildings. It’s possible that the street was built in an attempt to diminish these tensions and prevent violent conflict — which did not turn out to be the case, unfortunately.

“We can’t know for sure― although all these reasons do find support in the historical documents, and it is likely that it was some combination of the three.”

At any rate, it is a remarkable find, a relic from the intersection of history, religion, and politics.

The findings were published in the Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

jesus tomb

Jesus Christ’s burial tomb sees light of day for the first time in 500 years

jesus tomb

Credit: ODED BALILTY / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, conservators carefully excavated the tomb which is thought to belong to Jesus Christ. Since at least 1,555 AD, the tomb has been completely sealed off, and for many other centuries earlier, most likely.

Inside, the mixed bunch of researchers, conservation experts, and clerics discovered a marble casing with a cross carved into it, which likely dates from the Crusader era. Then, excavating further, they also came across the original rock wall of the tomb.

“It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid,” said Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

“I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this,” he told Nation Geographic which partially funded the expedition and was also the first to break the story. 

A holy tomb

An expert carefully brushes away loose dust and dirt from the original limestone that's said to be the tomb of Jesus Christ. The small cross was etched during the Crusades. Credit: ODED BALILTY / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

An expert carefully brushes away loose dust and dirt from the original limestone that’s said to be the tomb of Jesus Christ. The small cross was etched during the Crusades. Credit: ODED BALILTY / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Sometime between 30 and 33 A.D., Jesus’ crucified corpse is said to have been laid on a ‘burial bed’ sculpted from the side of a limestone cave. According to the Bible, the cave was sealed off by a boulder but when a group of women came to anoint Christ’s body three days after he was buried, there were no remains to be found — he had resurrected, Christian faith has us believe.

For centuries afterward, there are no records of Jesus’ tomb. The mist starts fading in 326 A.D. when Helena, the mother of the Christian Roman emperor Constantine, asked the locals in Jerusalem to guide her to the tomb of Jesus Christ. Christian tradition says that she ordered excavations be made around a limestone cave around which 1st and 2nd centuries graves were dispersed. She and company not only got inside the cave, but found three crosses and iron nails.

Now that she had found the holy burial place of Jesus Christ, Helena, later joined by Constantine, got to work. They first ordered a pagan temple to be torn down because it was resting atop the site, then they had the roof of the cave removed and a new shrine built over the tomb for all people of the faith to come and pay their respects. Then and now, this shrine is known as the Holy Edicule. Around that time, the first stones of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were also laid.

Since then, the shrine had gone through various periods of destruction and restoration. In 1,555 A.D., a marble cladding was put over the original limestone to protect it from people who constantly came and chopped parts of the cave. Then, between 1808-1810 the Edicule had to be restored again after a huge fire destroyed it — it’s been very much off limits since.

For the last sixty years, scientists have been trying to convince the six sects that manage the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Syriac Church, the Egyptian Copts and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — to let them on the site and start excavating. It took a long time and a lot of convincing, but eventually scientists from the National Technical University of Athens were given the O.K.

They opened the marble cladding that had kept Christ’s tomb seal for nearly 500 years and found a layer of loose fill material. After they removed the material, they found one last layer of marble and, finally, the original limestone bedrock.

“We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades,” Hiebert said.

Having the original burial bed exposed, researchers can now perform all sorts of studies of what can only be considered the most sacred of all Christian sites. For instance, by analyzing the rocks inside, scientists will be able to determine the original form of the tomb chamber. They should also be able to tell which material was deposited later, like in the time of Helena, and re-construct the Holy Edicle as it looked centuries ago.

“We are at the critical moment for rehabilitating the Edicule,” said Professor Antonia Moropoulou from the National Technical University of Athens. “The techniques we’re using to document this unique monument will enable the world to study our findings as if they themselves were in the tomb of Christ.

Forensic Expert creates the most accurate Jesus you’ve seen so far

Christianity is currently the world’s largest religious movement, with an estimated 2.2 billion followers. And because he plays such a huge role in christian mythos and practice, and because of the influence he’s had on the course of history (we even date our years after his birth), we all know how Jesus Christ looks like. We’ve seen it in paintings, on TV, in church, on Christmas; he’s white, long haired and wears something thorny. Right?

Well, truth is we’ll never really know for certain, but we can approximate what he would have looked like.

Neave putting the finishing touches.
Image via art-sheep

With all the imagery of Jesus that we’ve learned to take for granted it’s easy to forget that not only was he born over 2000 years ago, but for most of you he was also born somewhere very far away — in the region of Galilea, today in northern Israel. So, to help us get a clearer picture, back in 2002 Richard Neave, forensic facial reconstruction expert and former medical artist from the University of Manchester, decided to recreate a typical resident of the region Jesus was born.

Image via Naji.

Neave and a team of Israeli archaeologists started from three Galilean Semite skulls found in the area around Jerusalem. Then they used computerized tomography to create 3D cross-sectional images of these skulls, which they fed into a facial generator software to create a mock-up of what the men looked like.

From these, Neave was able to cast a typical skull of a man from that area. With information on soft tissue thickness from another reconstruction software he applied layers of clay to the 3D cast to recreate the muscles and skin. The team had to turn to ancient drawings found throughout the region to estimate how his hair, skin tone or eyes looked like, with the final result in the picture above.

Image via art-sheep