Jesus Christ/Date of birth

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Questions


Do Latter-day Saints believe Jesus was born 1830 years before the Church's organization on 6 April 1830?

Answer


Members and leaders of the Church have been of varying opinions on this topic. It is not a matter of great consequence in Latter-day Saint worship.

Detailed Analysis

The common Latter-day Saints belief that Jesus was born on April 6th is based on a single scripture — D&C 20:1. This passage says the Church was organized "one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh...in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April."

Many Mormons have taken this reference to be a literal count of the years from the birth of Jesus to the organization of the Church. On the other hand, several writers, including some modern apostles and prophets, have urged caution in interpreting D&C 20:1 as an exact count of years.[1]

The Joseph Smith Papers Project has demonstrated that D&C 20:1 is not part of the original wording of D&C 20, but was rather added at a later date—probably by John Whitmer, the Church's first historian—to reflect the date the Church was organized. It is thus probably inappropriate to regard it as some type of revealed dating of Jesus' birth.[2]

Most scholars accept that Jesus’ birth year was somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C. (2 B.C. is too late for Matthew's account of Herod the Great and the magi; Herod died in 4 B.C.) D&C 20:1's "one thousand eight hundred and thirty years" is probably just an elaborate or formal way of referring to the year 1830 A.D. without being intended as an actual count of years.

Bruce R. McConkie wrote, "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 [i.e., in which year] the natal day of the Lord Jesus actually occurred."[3] He went on to observe, in a footnote:

What is the date of our Lord's birth? This is one of those fascinating problems about which the wise and the learned delight to debate. There are scholars, of repute and renown, who place his natal day in every year from 1 B.C. to 7 B.C., with 4 B.C. being the prevailing view, if we may be permitted to conclude that there is a prevailing view. How much the answer really matters is itself a fair question since the problem is one, in part at least, of determining whether there have been errors made in the creation of our present dating system....
Elder James E. Talmage takes the view that he was born on April 6, 1 B.C., basing his conclusion on Doctrine and Covenants 20:1, which speaks of the day on which the Church was organized, saying it was "one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the flesh." April 6 is then named as the specific day for the formal organization. Elder Talmage notes the Book of Mormon chronology, which says that the Lord Jesus would be born six hundred years after Lehi left Jerusalem. (Talmage, pp. 102-4.)
Elder Hyrum M. Smith of the Council of the Twelve wrote in the Doctrine and Covenants Commentary: "The organization of the Church in the year 1830 is hardly to be regarded as giving divine authority to the commonly accepted calendar. There are reasons for believing that those who, a long time after our Savior's birth, tried to ascertain the correct time, erred in their calculations, and that the Nativity occurred four years before our era, or in the year of Rome 750. All that this Revelation means to say is that the Church was organized in the year commonly accepted as 1830, A.D." Rome 750 is equivalent, as indicated, to 4 B. C.
President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., in Our Lord of the Gospels, a scholarly and thoughtful work, says in his preface that many scholars "fix the date of the Savior's birth at the end of 5 B.C., or the beginning or early part of 4 B.C." He then quotes the explanation of Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 as found in the Commentary, notes that it has been omitted in a later edition, and says: "I am not proposing any date as the true date. But in order to be as helpful to students as I could, I have taken as the date of the Savior's birth the date now accepted by many scholars,—late 5 B.C., or early 4 B.C, because Bible Commentaries and the writings of scholars are frequently keyed upon that chronology and because I believe that so to do will facilitate and make easier the work of those studying the life and works of the Savior from sources using this accepted chronology." This is the course being followed in this present work [i.e., the work being written by Elder McConkie.]

On the other hand, at least two Presidents of the Church—Harold B. Lee and Spencer W Kimball—have affirmed that April 6th is the actual birth date of the Savior as well as the anniversary of the organization of the Church.[4] (President Kimball's address was printed with different textual details than those of his oral remarks, as is not uncommon when preparing addresses for publication. The original author may make and approve changes.[5]

This view was repeated by Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a conference address in April 2014.[6]

It's unclear, however, if these remarks were based on revelation or on personal interpretation. Elder McConkie would have been aware of both leaders, yet does not seem to have regarded their declaration as official statements of revealed doctrine.

It seems most likely that they assumed, as many have, that D&C 20:1 was a revealed text disclosing the date, rather than a later addition by Whitmer. (As Elder McConkie noted, the suspicion that the dating in D&C 20:1 was more stylistic or rhetorical than revealed was raised by Elder Hyrum M. Smith's Commentary as early as its writing between 1913-1916.[7]

BYU STUDIES

Jeffrey R. Chadwick,"Dating the Birth of Christ", BYU Studies, 49/4 (2010)


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no official position on the exact date of Christ’s birth. In his 1915 classic Jesus the Christ, Elder James E. Talmage maintained that Jesus Christ was born on April 6 in the year 1 BC. Talmage was apparently the first LDS writer to propose this particular date. Nearly a century has passed since his book appeared, and in that time it has become practically axiomatic among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was born on April 6 in that year. Two other Apostles, President J. Reuben Clark and Elder Bruce R. McConkie, published major studies on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and proposed that Jesus was born in late 5 BC or early 4 BC. In this article, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Jerusalem Center Professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies, draws upon many sources—scriptural, historical, archeological, and astronomical—to shed light on the probable date of the Savior’s birth. Using the known date of Herod the Great’s death, information from the Book of Mormon about the length of Jesus’s life, technical details about the Jewish lunar-solar calendar, the timing of the Annunciation to Mary, and other historical data, Chadwick narrows the window of time in which the Savior would have been born to December of 5 BC. The author is careful to deal with statements made by latter-day prophets supporting the April 6, 1 BC, date first proposed by Elder Talmage. Chadwick is able to show that these statements always occur in talks given about other topics (not expressly about the date of Christ’s birth) and probably rely on Elder Talmage’s assumptions. But a careful look at Doctrine and Covenants 20:1, upon which Talmage’s proposal is based, shows that this verse was not a revelation by the Lord about his birth date. In fact, the verse is likely prefatory material dictated by Joseph Smith and recorded by his scribe with the express purpose of establishing the date of the Church’s organization rather than the date of the Savior’s birth.
(Click here for full article)


The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[8]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[9]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[10]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[11]

Notes

  1. See, for example: Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjödahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1972), 138. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Our Lord of the Gospels: A Harmony of the Gospels (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1954), vi–vii.
  2. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ," Brigham Young University Studies 49 no. 4 (2010), 28–29, fn. 12.
  3. Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols., (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1980–1986), 349–50, n. 2.
  4. Harold B. Lee, "Strengthen the Stakes of Zion," Ensign (July 1973), 2. Spencer W. Kimball, "Remarks and Dedication of the Fayette, New York, Buildings," Ensign (May 1980), 54.
  5. The original spoken text is: "My brothers and sisters, today we not only celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the organization of the Church, but also the greatest event in human history since the birth of Christ on this earth 1,980 years ago. Today is Easter Sunday."
  6. David A. Bednar, "Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease," Ensign (May 2014).
  7. Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjödahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1972), viii, of revised edition.
  8. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  9. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  10. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007)
  11. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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