If you asked most people how many years it has been since Jesus was born, the majority would immediately say 2,017–and for good reason. The standard global dating system is based on the year of Christ’s birth. So when we say we are in the year 2017 A.D. (Anno Domini), we are saying that it is two thousand seventeen years after Christ came into the world. However, this dating system may, in fact, be inaccurate.
The current system of dating was created in the 6th century by an abbot and canonist named Dionysius Exiguus at the request of Pope Saint John I. His dating system originated as a way to calculate the date of Easter, and the methodology he used is unknown. When he devised his system, Julian calendar years were identified by naming the consuls who held office that year (e.g. the 5th year of the reign Diocletian). In his new system, he replaced the Diocletian years that had been used in an old Easter table because he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians.
In trying to ascertain when Jesus was born, scholars look at known dates of major events of the era and try to match those up with what we can learn in Scripture about the events surrounding Christ’s birth. One popular hypothesis, for example, is that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 B.C. because most historians mark King Herod’s death as occurring in 4 B.C. Others have tried to figure out when the Star of Bethlehem appeared–with some identifying the “Star” as comet that appeared around 5 B.C.
Even popes have disputed the current Anno Domini system. In his book “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” Pope Benedict XVI wrote “The calculation of the beginning of our calendar – based on the birth of Jesus – 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.”
Other scholars have used other events in Christ’s life to work backwards to determine his birth year. We know from Scripture, for example, that Christ was about 30 when he began his public ministry and that this was during the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign. We also can determine that Christ was crucified no later than 36 AD because, shortly thereafter, we know that the Apostle Paul was brought to trial. Again, we can count backwards—first subtracting Jesus’ three years of public ministry, and then the thirty years before that.
It is all a bit of a mathematical puzzle. Until historians uncover some other historically verifiable data, we cannot positively pinpoint the exact year of Christ’s birth, but we can come close.
So it may be that it has been exactly 2,017 years since Christ’s birth…or maybe, it should really be the year 2020 Anno Domini.