The day Christ was born — maybe not April 6

Growing up in the church, I always thought Jesus was born on April 6th. I thought it was Mormon doctrine. I heard it preached by general authorities. But as Elder Christofferson explained, “not every statement made by a church leader, past or present necessarily constitutes doctrine.” (April 2012 Conference)

Although April is a significant month for Mormons — General Conference is the first weekend; Joseph Smith organized the LDS Church on April 6, 1830, and Easter usually falls in April (sometimes March) — the belief that Christ was born on April 6 is questionable. I know, I know, I have heard it from the stand, from apostles, maybe even a prophet or two. (Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball)

Both of these prophets are quoted in the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual for Institute & Religion 324/325. They said April 6. But this date may be inaccurate. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is bringing more information to light. LDS scholars are looking at original documents — the original writings of The Book of Commandments and Revelations given to Joseph — and new evidences may not support this long-held Mormon belief that Jesus was born on April 6.

I have often wondered about that scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants and thought it might refer only to the date the church was established, not the date of our Savior’s birthday. Supposedly, there was no official church stance on the date. But…I had heard it often.

This is the history behind the April 6 belief:

James Talmage, an apostle, wrote a book called Jesus The Christ, in 1915 where he stated that Jesus Christ was born on April 6, 1 BC. [I wonder if this was how he stated it in the original edition as well as the more current ones.] This was/is a much acclaimed book, and one of the books the church recommends to all missionaries. However, there were other opinions. The apostle, J.Reuben Clark, a member of the First Presidency in 1954, wrote that Jesus was born  December, 5 BC or 4 BC. Bruce McConkie in his book, Mortal Messiah stated in 1979,

We do not believe it is possible with the present state of our knowledge-including that which is known both in and out of the Church-to state with finality when the natal day of the Lord Jesus actually occurred” (Vol. 1, p. 349, n. 2).

The scripture that James Talmage based his belief was D&C 20:1 , which refers to the date that the LDS church was organized.

Peter Whitmer home, Church organized, April 6, 1830:

The rise of The Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it (the church) being regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country, by the will and commandments of God, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April. (D&C 20:1)

Many of us have read the scripture as if the Lord were speaking directly to Joseph and revealing that Christ was born exactly 1,830 years before that exact date the church was organized: April 6.

However, that statement, or verse of scripture is actually a heading written by Joseph Smith’s scribe, John Whitmer, which he often did as an introductory to the actual revelation. This is according to the new information being examined in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and volume editor, Steven C. Harper, assistant professor of church history at BYU. Oh, and by-the-way, the date Whitmer wrote in the heading was April 10.

There are several other times when John Whitmer wrote in this 19th Century way of referring to the year:

“It is now June the twelfth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty one years, since the coming of our Lord and Savior in the flesh.”

It appears that D&C 20:1 is the introductory verse of D&C 20 and we should not read it as a revelation from God as the birthdate of Jesus. John Whitmer wrote it as a heading.

And of course, we know now that the year of 1 BC does not work, with more historical documents being produced. Historical records today show King Herod the Great died in the year of 4 BC, and according to the Bible, Christ was born before Herod’s death, which makes the 1 BC impossible.

Another BYU professor, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Jerusalem Center Professor of Archeology and Near Eastern Studies, published his research in BYU Studies, in an article titled: “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ” which also challenges the April 6th date. Looking at all the research, and documents available, (which he lists in the article) Professor Chadwick narrows the date down to December of 5 BC as the probable date of the Savior.

Others believe that Christ was born in April for other reasons. I read an article by John Tvedtnes — “When was Christ Born?”  He explains why Talmage got so much support as being inspired and why our leaders are not always revealing the “word of God” — the fallibility of all our leaders. Tvedtnes believes that Christ was born in April, and gives some good reasons.

And some have left comments that offer good support for one or the other.


For Your Reading:

The Joseph Smith Papers, Articles and Covenants, 10 April 1830 [D&C 20] (searchable online–read the original manuscript as well)

The Joseph Smith Papers: The Manuscript Revelation Books (Ensign)

What was the Real Date of Jesus’ Birth? (Deseret News, Dec. 24, 2010)

 

  • The important thing is that Jesus was born, and then died for us. Does anything else really matter?

    • Michael John Fisher

      I have this thought in my mind that whenever The Saviour appears on the earth for a special event it is on or near the beginning of April. Can anyone clarify this for me please?

      • well, that would be a good sign if it is true.

  • This is all interesting… my view is that the church has not made any official statement on when Jesus was born, so to me it does not matter. I am only so glad that I know he was and for what reason he was born to. The JS Papers project is very interesting indeed!

  • Thank you .thank you for this thorough document . it matters to me being a convert to the church .April. 6 has never rested easily with me especially being ridiculed from non members for this very doctrine .thank you for your thoughful work .
    Adele Seurynck

  • I don’t feel like we need to know the exact date. It seems like it really doesn’t make any difference. Although a very long time ago when I was barely twenty and married (sheesh I should never have done that) I watched a planetarium (sp?)presentation somewhere. They did a thing of when Jesus was born. The pointed out that astronomically, it couldn’t have been December and the suggestion was that the way everything was lined up in the sky, it probably was in the springtime. It one of those things that doesn’t challenge my faith.

    • It’s my math mind that likes to understand things, but I think it is important to realize that the Mormon faith allows for these kind of discoveries– like the dead sea scrolls. Those were kept secret for a long time because the other religions were afraid they might contain teachings contradictory to what they had set down as their Creed. So, if something comes out new, my faith does not waver. There is another more recent study about why it was probably in December, some Mormon scholars reported: http://www.deilataylor.com/2011/12/christ-was-probably-born-in-december.html

  • Well…, the statement by Elder Christofferson, “not every statement made by a church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.” (April 2012 Conference) is going to become very important to all Mormons because in the coming month we will hear strange statements dredges up from our history to discredit Mitt Romney. We are talking about ancient dates today; next month it will be… take your pick (bring it on, I say.) Accurate information is important. We do have doctrines that are strange to some, and I usually stand up boldly, because usually, if we look at 1st-Century Christians, we will find that they believed the same strange doctrines. Pre-Rabbinic Judaism is another place where we find Mormon doctrines that differ from normative (Trinitarian) Christianity. Regarding the birth of Christ, we may as well know whatever there is to know on the subject; if it come up, we have the most current information. In one sense, no, the time & season do not matter. But the “fact” of the historic Jesus does matter; and the more facts the better, as far as I’m concerned. Happy Easter all. This weekend is certainly a good time to celebrate, as is the Christmas season.

  • Rich

    There are a few points that should be mentioned before abandoning the April 6, 1 BC date which I believe to be accurate. I’ve seen the dates come and go and come again as if they were in and out of fashion. There are old accounts for Christ’s birth that say it was in the spring, either late March or early April. Someone a long time ago estimated it to be March 25th. Later a Catholic minister declared that life begins at conception therefore Christ must have been conceived on March 25 and born nine months later on December 25th. Of course no one believes that today but then again it is gaining popularity with a Christian astronomy video that’s making the rounds. I found it interesting in the early 90s that the Catholic Church revised its official date for Christ’s birth based on evaluating ancient documents and astronomy. The new date proposed was April 5th. Being LDS I found that very interesting and felt they are getting really close.

    In the book “April Sixth” the author used a very novel approach by starting with the known crucifixion date of Friday April 1, 33 A.D. and by counting backwards you could arrive at Christ’s birth date which is also the method Orson Pratt proposed (JD 15:253). According to the Book of Mormon Christ lived 33 Nephite years and three days. During that time there would have been eight leap years, April 1 + 8 leap years = April 9 minus the three days and 33 years bring us to April 6th, 1 B.C.

    Even if the scribe John Whitmer wrote D&C 20:1 as an introduction, could it be that he being closely associated with the Prophet Joseph wrote accurately? The choosing of April 6th as the restoration date is significant because it did not happen by chance, it was the date chosen by revelation.

    What about Harrods death which makes it impossible for a 1 B.C. date?

    There is a lot of weight put on Josephus’ account of when Harrod died because it is the only account. It is based on an eclipse which LDS astronomer John Pratt believes is based on the wrong eclipse. There were two eclipses within a few years and Harrods death has become associated with the wrong one. Brother Pratt goes to great lengths explaining it though he admits that most people would find that article too dry and technical to read (it’s called “Yet another Eclipse for Harrod”). If the other eclipse is associated with the death of Harrod then the 1 B.C. date works perfectly. John Pratt has written many wonderful articles on astronomy and dates throughout history with several published in the Ensign. He puts Christ’s birth at April 5th p.m. (p.m. being the following day according to Hebrew reckoning or April 6th) 1 B.C. His articles can be found at http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/index.html

    • Well, that is very interesting and worthy of changing my title to “maybe” not april 6. I am always intrigued by the actual dates, it’s just my nature to try and figure it all out. (some people don’t care, and I know it does not affect my testimony) But it’s intriguing.

      I also recently read that his death may have occurred on thursday afternoon, implying that the Sabbath was referring to the Passover holy day. Just kind of interesting since I always count those 3 days and wonder how that lands on Sunday morning. you can read that here: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=16&num=1&id=432

      thanks for the information 🙂

  • Very interesting. April 6th certainly has special significance. (My father died on April 6 and I always consider that to be a “tender mercy” to me because the date is very interesting.) Thank you for providing more meat on the table.

  • Rich

    In addition to the birth of the Savior on April 6th and the birth of His Church in the latter days on April 6th there’s another bit of info about April that is interesting.

    When Christ rose on Sunday morning April 3 (the first Easter) it was the first Sunday after Passover on the Hebrew calendar called the 16th of Nisan. The odds of Easter Sunday falling on April 3 and the 16th of Nisan is less than once every hundred years. The appearance of the Savior, Moses, Elias, and Elijah to the prophet in the Kirtland temple on Sunday April 3 was the only date in the 19th century that Easter Sunday April 3rd and the 16th of Nisan were on the same day. Also, there is an astronomical cycle called the Saros cycle which is 6,585 days or 18.03 years. It represents the time that an eclipse is likely to repeat. From the Resurrection on April 3rd A.D. 33 to the Appearance of Elijah on April 3rd 1836 it was exactly 100 Saros cycles (18.03 x 100 = 1803 + A.D. 33 = 1836).

    There are also other mathematical aspects to April 3rd 1836 which are beyond my skill set but if anyone is interested in reading more you can find it in the June and July 1985 Ensign articles by John Pratt called “The Restoration of Priesthood Keys on Easter 1836.”

    When I look at astronomy and the timing of it I see the grander of the Lord and its awe inspiring.

  • Anonymous

    The aforementioned popular Christian film also states that 1BC is more likely because the later manuscripts of Josephus change the date – – a likely copying error, from 1BC to 4BC.

  • Phyllis

    Well, my feeling about April 6th is that it may not be the exact date, but it is in the ballpark. The shepherds were brought the announcement of the Savior’s birth while they were in the fields with their flocks. Lambing season, in the spring, would bring all of the shepherds out with their flocks to watch over their flocks to ensure good birthings, as well as general protection of the flock. The weather would also have been less than bitter cold. Bitter cold winter weather would bring the shepherds into a more protected location with their flocks, Just a thought. Still… Merry Christmas, Deila!!! I can celebrate my Savior’s birth EVERY day of the year… =) If not for His birth, I would not have life. So I can honor Him every day, right? And THAT is what is most important., not the date on the calendar.

  • Rich

    Deila,

    Thanks for re-posting the comments from the previous website on this topic! When I look back at what I wrote I realized how much time I put into the comments and when I saw the old site go away I was bummed. Now I was able made a copy for my files which I didn’t do earlier. Thanks again