THERE'LL be more about this later in the year, perhaps a...

salmagundi

February 09, 1994

THERE'LL be more about this later in the year, perhaps a lot more. People who like their Christianity to be as literal as possible, and as chronological, will be pointing at Sept. 15, and exclaiming.

To their minds -- by their reckoning -- that is the time, an even 2,000 years ago, of Jesus's birth.

The scholarly world is pretty well agreed that the event did not occur on Dec. 25, 1,994 years ago. Out of habit and convenience, Dec. 25, an arbitrary date, is and will go on being the generally accepted tradition. But the chief remaining bits of evidence indicate otherwise.

The gospels aver that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died, the records are clear, in the year we now call 4 B.C. If the infant Jesus was by then in Egypt, a refugee, his birth would have been a bit earlier. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, "Jesus of Nazareth . . . was born in Judaea about 6 B.C."

The other datum is from astronomy, which retrocharts a planetary conjunction, one sufficient to have caused a notable night-time light in that region, in mid-September, 6 B.C. For a book about it, try 1979's "The Star of Bethlehem Mystery," by David W. Hughes, a physics professor at the University of Sheffield, in England.

The confusion over dates goes back to a church figure named Dionysus Exiguus (i.e., Dennis the Runt), who early in the sixth century (the depths of the Dark Ages) undertook to calculate how much time had gone by since the founding of his religion.

At that point, western civilization still counted from the founding of Rome, long before Jesus. Dionysus (and his pope) established the Christian Era -- A.D, as opposed to B.C. They left some loose ends, proceeding for instance straight from 1 Before to 1 After, with no year O in between.

Another was the matter of when a new year begins -- Dec. 25? spring equinox? Easter? Subsequent tinkerers settled on Jan. 1.

If you accept the evidence for mid-September in 6 B.C. as the actual date, then there are still about seven months in which to think about the proper celebration.

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