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Christmas Unwrapped

Dr. Paul Maier

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Excerpt from Dr. Paul Maier's book, The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story

Taken from the chapter - "The Time: An Undatable Date."

Paul's famous comment that the Nativity happened "in the fullness of time," as the original Greek has it, is usually interpreted to mean that God had a good sense of timing, since conditions prevailing in the Mediterranean world could not have been more ripe for the spread of Christianity. The Old Testament had predicted the birth of a Messiah for centuries, and the Greeks had given their world a universal language through which Jesus' message could spread easily and quickly. The Roman Empire had organized the whole Mediterranean basin into one vast communications network, almost perfectly geared to foster the spread of Christianity, since its missionaries could travel from city to city without fear of piracy at sea or brigands by land. Rome had also spread the welcome blanket of peace across the world, the Pax Romana, a time in which the new faith could thrive.

And so the first Christmas happened "in the fullness of time" indeed. But precisely when was that time? Unfortunately, there is no exact answer. Ironically, the event that has divided our reckoning of time into years B.C. and A.D. is itself almost undatable. "Everyone knows" Jesus must have been born on December 25, A.D. 1, but it is not quite that simple, and certainly this date is wrong. For Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 B.C., and the king was very much alive during the visit of the Magi in the Christmas story. Therefore Jesus would have to have been born before this time, and his birth is usually set during the winter of 5-4 B.C. ("Before Christ," or, incredibly, "Before Himself"). Why, then, is our calendar four or five years off?

It was a sixth-century Roman monk-mathematician-astronomer name Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius the Little) who unknowingly committed what became history's greatest numerical error in terms of cumulative effect. For in reforming the calendar to pivot about the birth of Christ, he dated the Nativity in the year 753 from the founding of Rome, when in fact Herod died only 749 years after Romes founding. The result of Dionysius' chronology, which remains current, was to give the correct traditional date for the founding of Rome, but one that is at least four or five years off for the birth of Christ.

While Jesus may have been born as early as 7 B.C., such earlier datings for the Nativity would make him a little too old for the "about thirty years of age" when he began his public ministry in 28-29 A.D. (Lk. 3:23). Unfortunately, it is not possible to work back to any exact date for Jesus' birth from any later information about his adult life.

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