Author’s note: I had not intended to write another article on Elder James E. Talmage’s April 6, BC 1 assertion. However, this article in the news about the Pope’s new book is certainly a surprise that deserves comment. Some of this article repeats content from my previous two articles (“Why So Bold a Statement” and “Elder Talmage and the Birth Date of Christ“) on the subject.
With the November 21, 2012 publication and an initial million book printing of his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI declares that the calculation of the Christian calendar was in error and that Christ was probably born between 4-6 BC as most scholars currently believe. In light of this news, the circumstances of the bold assertion by Elder James E. Talmage declaring April 6, BC 1 to be the birth day of Jesus Christ become even more important.
“The calculation of the beginning of our calendar based on the birth of Jesus Christ was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before,” the Pope wrote. The UK Telegraph article on the book publication continues: “The assertion that the Christian calendar is based on a false premise is not new But the fact that doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition have been raised by the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is striking.”
Implications of the Pope’s Statement
The implication of the Pope’s statement, had the apparent error been corrected earlier, would make our current calendar date to be the year 2016 instead of 2012, assuming a 5 BC birth date for Christ. The Pope also said that the December 25th date for Christ’s birth month and day “has no basis in historical fact. ‘We don’t even know which season he was born in. The whole idea of celebrating his birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.'”
Two Churches Claim Direct Line of Authority from Jesus Christ
I remember a talk by LeGrand Richards in 1972 shortly before I left on my mission to Bogot, Colombia. Quoting Elder Orson F. Whitney, he said:
“Many years ago a learned man, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, came to Utah and spoke from the stand of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. I became well-acquainted with him, and we conversed freely and frankly. A great scholar, with perhaps a dozen languages at his tongue’s end, he seemed to know all about theology, law, literature, science and philosophy. One day he said to me: You Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don’t even know the strength of your own position. It is so strong that there is only one other tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Catholic Church. The issue is between Catholicism and Mormonism. If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right, we are wrong; and that’s all there is to it. The Protestants haven’t a leg to stand on. For, if we are wrong, they are wrong with us, since they were a part of us and went out from us; while if we are right, they are apostates whom we cut off long ago. If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need of Joseph Smith and Mormonism; but if we have not that succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism’s attitude is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in latter days.'”
Implications of Changing a Fundamental System in a Society
I remember when all of the freeway signs were changed throughout northern Utah when three miles were shaved off the I-15 freeway to the south and the Orem Center Street exit became #271 instead of #274, including the cascading effect through all documents and maps (computerized or paper) that referenced those exit numbers. What if dates were adjusted to reflect a three or four year change in the beginning year zero of the modern calendar? If you thought Y2K was a problem that would indeed even be a much more interesting, truly gigantic mess.
It is one thing for scholars to debate the various opinions about the birth date of Christ. It is quite another thing for the head of the Catholic Church, the organization that made the calendar change, to say the calendar calculation was in error.
Elder James E. Talmage’s Powerful Assertion
Elder James E. Talmage wrote his classic book, Jesus the Christ, in 1915. He made the powerful statement that “We believe that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, April 6, B.C. 1″ in Chapter 8 of his text entitled “The Babe of Bethlehem.” A renowned scientist and scholar, as well as an Apostle, he cited the various opinions on the birth date in his text and in footnotes. He then said that his very precise “to the very day” assertion was not based on “research or analysis,” but that it was “based on faith in modern revelation.” He cited Doctrine and Covenants Section 20:1 as his source of inspiration.
For the last seven months, I have pondered this question: Why, why would he be so bold in his declaration? Why not “it seems to me that …” in a footnote or the preface? Why not “I believe, after meditation and prayer that …” in the text? Why expand the statement to be exponentially more powerful as “We believe that …” where it becomes almost a catechism of our beliefs applied to the whole Church? Did Elder Talmage not know the risks he was making to his reputation for inspiration as a modern Apostle if he was wrong and too bold? Did he not realize how his assertion might also affect the credibility of President Joseph F.
Smith’s administration and the leadership of the Church? Certainly he knew, as a modern Apostle and as a Prophet, Seer and Revelator. Yes, he must have known, as the author of the authoritative work Articles of Faith, also written “by appointment” from the First Presidency.
Through a series of interesting events a few weeks ago, I found this quote in a CES manual on Church history as follows:
“During eighteen separate sessions over a two-month period, Elder Talmage read the chapters to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for their input and approval. This book is still widely read and is a monument to Elder Talmage’s scholarship and inspiration.”
I knew of the official endorsement of Jesus the Christ by the First Presidency, but I did not know how extensive the review, input and approval process was. It was not just Elder James E. Talmage that had allowed this controversial, powerful statement on the birth date of Christ to be published. It was President Joseph F. Smith, the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles. It was the governing bodies of the Church carefully reviewing the book chapter by chapter, giving input, approving the text, and then endorsing the book.
I have been pondering this as well: If Talmage’s birth date of Christ was wrong and an “April 6th myth,” then why did balancing statements such as President J. Reuben Clark’s and Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s only appear so many years later? And, it seems to me, that theirs was not a strong disagreement. Why were President Clark and Elder McConkie pulling their punches as it were and being so tactful while disagreeing with Elder Talmage in the “afterward” portions of their books, in the preface or in the footnotes (in a microscopic type font size)?
Another Eclipse for Herod?
There is research data to suggest that the “immovable object,” Herod’s death day in 4 BC, said to exist with such “absolute certainty” by the scholars, could be moved from 4 BC to early 1 AD. For example, something in the proof of the 4 BC date seemed to just not fit, especially to John Pratt, a Ph.D. in astronomy. The scholars referenced a March, 4 BC midnight eclipse, viewed no doubt by hardly anyone in Judea, as the key sign in the heavens referenced by Josephus just before Herod’s death. With lunar eclipses happening every year, treating this obscure eclipse as significant just made no sense.
Inspiration and Revelation through Modern Prophets is Key
I think that this statement by the Pope on the calendar and the birth date of Christ ought to cause us to pause and reflect on the importance of modern revelation and inspiration through our Apostles and Prophets, even in areas where scholarly research is also an important option.
Whatever the current status of scholarly research on the subject of Christ’s birth date, Elder James E. Talmage’s powerful declaration merits prayerful consideration. As latter-day saints, I firmly believe that we should continue to hold April 6 BC 1 as a viable birth date of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Nick Squires, “Jesus was born years earlier than thought, claims Pope,” The Telegraph, 21 Nov 2012.
“The entire Christian calendar is based on a miscalculation, the Pope has declared, as he claims in a new book that Jesus was born several years earlier than commonly believed.”
“Anybody could organize a church and take from the scriptures certain passages and base their church upon that, but how can they take a living branch from a dead tree? How can they put in it the power and the authority to act in the name of the Lord?
“And so we stand here as witnesses of the restoration of the gospel and bear our witness to all the world that we do know that Christ lives, that our Father lives, that they have visited this earth. As was sung in that song about the Prophet Joseph, he announced that in answer to his inquiry as to which of all the churches he should join, he was told he should join none of them, for they taught for doctrines the commandments or precepts of men.”
RPM note: I also remember the powerful testimony LeGrand Richards gave when I was in the Salt Lake Mission home in September, 1972.
 James E. Talmage, , 1915, p. 104, “copyright September 1915 by Joseph F. Smith, Trustee-in-trust for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, free ebook and audio book available here. RPM Note: The following quote from the Chapter 8 text and footnote #6 is interesting in light of the “Lo here, Lo there” account of the confusion related by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price (JSH 1:5). “So far as there exists any consensus of opinion among later scholars who have investigated the subject [of the birth day of Christ], it is to the effect that the Dionysian calculation is wrong …” “Footnote #6. The Year of Christ’s Birth.–In treating this topic Dr. Charles F. Deems, after giving careful consideration of the estimates, calculations, and assumptions of men who have employed many means in their investigation and reach only discordant results says: ‘It is annoying to see learned men use the same apparatus of calculation and reach the most diverse results. It is bewildering to attempt a reconciliation of these varying calculations.'”
Frank B. Salisbury, “The Church and Evolution: A Brief History of Official Statements,” FARMS Review: Volume 18:1, Pages: 307-311, A review of “Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements” by William E.
Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2006
Compare this many year gap in General Authorities writing about the birth date of Christ question to the First Presidency allowing Elder James E.Talmage to give an official talk in the tabernacle in August 1931 to balance Elder Joseph Fielding Smith’s talk to the Genealogical Society in April 1930 on questions relating to aspects of the theory of evolution including the age of the earth.
“So why did Josephus include Herod’s eclipse but no others? An obvious answer is that the eclipse was widely observed and then associated with the executions. If so, then the eclipse occurred in the early evening. Using this criterion, the eclipses of March 13, 4 B.C. and January 10, 1 B.C. are extremely unlikely because they both began the umbral phase more than six hours after sunset and hence would have only been seen by at most a few people. The eclipse of Sept 15, 5 B.C. began three hours after sunset, but that is also late.” [emphasis in original]
On the possible antedating of reigns by Herod’s sons: “If Herod died in A.D. 1, why did his sons Archelaus, Antipas and Philip reckon their reigns from 4-3 B.C.? The best answer seems to be Martin’s: Herod’s sons reckoned their reigns from the beginning of his son Antipater’s regency with him about 4 B.C., which began either when Antipater was named heir to the throne or later at the death of Herod’s two royal sons. One clue that the latter may be the best choice is that Josephus begins many books at the death of a king (marking the beginning of the next king’s reign) and he begins Book XVII of Antiquities with the death of the royal sons. Herod was the only king until the day he died, but he let Antipater rule with him and handle many of the public affairs. One argument against this antedating proposal has been that the successors did not actually reign before Herod’s death, but that is not the point. The question is whether or not they did, in fact, antedate their reigns. The earliest coins known for any of the successors’ reigns is for “year 5,” which is consistent with the antedating theory that A.D. 1, their first de facto year, was their fourth or fifth year de jure. Another apparent argument against antedating has been that Herod’s son Philip built a capital city named Paneas, which second and third century coins imply was founded in 3 B.C. That founding date, however, is easily explained as simply being the first year of Philip’s antedated reign.”
”Total Lunar Eclipse Draws Attention Back to the Moon,” NASA Special Events, 8/21/2007.