The year of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is identifiable, but it presumes some knowledge of historical dates. Until recent years 4 B.C. was generally given as the correct year. For several reasons, however, the 4 B.C. date was questioned by a few biblical experts. Some contemporary calculations lean towards 1 B.C. But the very latest analysis favors 7-6 B.C. The 7-6 B.C. dating is the one which Pope Benedict XVI adopts in his Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives (2012).
Determining that Jesus was born in any year prior to his birth ("B.C." literally means "Before Christ") sounds illogical at first glance. But the problem is really mathematical. For one thing, our present calendar, by which Christmas is computed, is flawed. The problem dates from the work of Dionysius Exiguus (Latin for "Little Denis"), a canonist and a monk who lived toward the close of the fifth century. Today, experts calculate that Denis’s calendar was a few years off the mark – four to seven years, in fact. By this reckoning, Christ was born at least four (and possibly seven) years "before Christ" (i.e., B.C.).
Father René Laurentin, a consummate scholar, long maintained a B.C. date. (See The Truth of Christmas, 1986, translated from the French and probably the best translated work on the subject until Pope Benedict XVI’s Volume III of Jesus of Nazareth.) Fr. Laurentin’s argument stresses arcane references in secular as well as Biblical literature, plus imprints on coins and various artifacts – all of which must be studied, of course, as well as assessed as to meaning in a context. This adds up to calculations highly useful in the process of determining the chronological age of various facts or artifacts. Even to know how this process works, however, would require not only expertise, but years of painstaking study and analysis.
Hence, for solutions, most of us rely on the best scholars we can find. And Pope Benedict is a recognized, dependable theologian, known especially for his attention to the latest solid resources. Without question, his conclusions carry special weight.
Pope Benedict argues that Jesus’ birth occurred around 6-7 B.C. For one thing, he points to Johannes Kepler’s calculations that a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars happened at that time. (Kepler died in 1630.) Moreover, a supernova, comparable to an exploding star, also occurred about then. Pope Benedict interprets Kepler’s observation in terms of a "bright star" – which is how a supernova could be seen from planet Earth. Interestingly, the theory of a supernova has evidently been observed in a Chinese chronological chart indicating that in 4 B.C., "a bright star appeared and was visible for quite a long time." (Another theory cited by Pope Benedict suggests that a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces is the key to the Star of Bethlehem. This latter conjunction, according to Pope Benedict, "seems to be an established fact."
The above assessment of the year of Christ’s Nativity is based, of course, on the time of the star referenced in St. Matthew’s Gospel 2:1 sqq. Yet, as Pope Benedict explains, it would not be right "to dismiss" the date of the star "because of the theological character of the story."
The story of the Magi, who studied and followed the star, however, stands by itself as a fascinating subject. These Magi, from the East, were obviously sages; in other words, learned men who somehow (we do not know precisely how) were knowledgeable enough to understand the "message" of the star and the importance of following its course. Pope Benedict argues that they must have been searching for a sign of hope. They represent, he writes, "the inner dynamic of religion towards self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth…" In one sense, they remind us of Abraham, who began a long and difficult journey in answer to a divine calling. But they also remind us of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who defended the practice of asking questions in order to overcome "conventional religion toward the higher truth." Pope Benedict views the Magi as the forerunners of those who seek ultimate truth in every age and place.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.