Episode 37: The Day of the Lord
A Compelling Examination of the Birth and Death of Jesus Christ
Welcome back to ForeverLDS. The topic of the dates of Christ’s birth, as well as the date of the last supper, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, believe it or not, are unsettled matters in the Christian world, even among Latter-day Saints.
As recently as a decade ago if you asked the average Latter-day Saint on what day was the Savior born, they would likely reply, April 6th of the year 1 B.C. We’d state that with confidence, even pride. Sure, we celebrated Christmas on December 25th, right alongside the rest of the Christian world, even if, as Latter-day Saints, we felt we knew a kind of secret—something that non-Latter-day Saints weren’t quite privy to. April 6th, 1 B.C. Or, if you were educated enough to be familiar with the writings of Bruce R. McConkie or other LDS scholars and General Authorities, you might reply April 6th, 4 B.C. because historical sources are pretty firm about the year that King Herod the Great died.
Not so fast. On any of it. In recent years a number of LDS scholars have brought forth information and research that has compelled us to take another look—to reexamine—the validity of dates that many of us have always assumed were accurate. You might be surprised to learn that this conversation is still ongoing. I was tempted to say the “debate is still raging,” but that’s a bit overdramatic. Suffice it to say there are still questions to be asked and answered.
Whenever you discuss a topic like this there’s always gonna be someone who asks, not without some legitimacy, “Do we really need to know the exact dates of these events? Isn’t it enough to know that He was born and that He died?” Possibly. But I hate to generalize on matters like this, because for many Christians, the answer to these questions is integrally tied to doctrines they have about the Savior. It could be said that it’s not much different for Latter-day Saints. I hope as we reexamine these issues, you’ll comprehend why. Not with object of making listeners confused, but to inspire a deeper appreciation and understanding of the things that we know, and the things that we don’t know.
Since the turn of the Millennium LDS scholars and historians have published four significant treatises, that I’m aware of, on the subject of Christ’s birth and death, sometimes infused with passionate disagreement. One of these was written by Dr. John Tvedtnes who, to the detriment of us all, passed away earlier in 2018. In John’s article from 2014 entitled, “When Was Christ Born” he notes the other contemporaneous articles from LDS researchers, and mourns the fact that all of them didn’t “collaborate to produce a single article” (Tvedtnes, John, “When Was Christ Born”, Interpreter: Journal of Mormon Scripture, 2014) feeling that the outcome of such an effort might have been brought clarification rather than disagreement. This may, or may not, be true. It’s a testy subject, and some LDS scholars—to say nothing of non-LDS scholars—have adopted some rather immovable positions. Dr. Tvedtnes hoped that by examining all of the information that a more reliable picture would fall into focus.
I should admit here that I have personal bias for Dr. Tvedtnes. In the early ‘90s John graciously agreed to read an early draft of my novel Daniel and Nephi. He went to the time and effort to mark up the manuscript and go over it with me in great detail at his home in Magna, Utah. His suggestions made it a much better book. He didn’t have to do that, and I’ve always been deeply grateful.
But, attempting to set aside that bias, I can see why he felt it might’ve been helpful if LDS scholars who simultaneously undertook this project had worked together in search of unity and common ground.
Let’s define the issues at hand. For Protestants, Catholics, and Latter-Day Saints there are at least two mutually-shared cornerstones of belief. First, the Savior is the son of God who was born of a virgin in Bethlehem of Judea. Second, He was crucified and resurrected on the third day, thus breaking the bands of death and offering humankind the gift of salvation and eternal life.
These universal doctrines to virtually all Christians. Considering their universality, it might seem strange that none of us can agree on the dates of these events, even among ourselves. Disagreements persist among theologians in each denomination, as well as among secular historians and scholars. I wish I could report that Latter-day Saints had the answers, but as these recent articles suggest, we’re in pretty much the same boat.
Catholics and Protestants have sought to settle these questions by way of tradition. For most Roman Catholics the tradition is that Christ was born on Dec. 25th, 1 B.C. The first recorded instance of this tradition was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 311 or 336 A.D., depending upon what source is cited ("Christmas and its cycle", New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2002, Catholic University of America Press. Vol. 3, pp. 550–557). Yet more than a hundred years earlier, Christian historian Clement of Alexandria admitted that no one was quite sure of the day, suggesting that some believed May 20th, while others celebrated April 20th or 21st (McGowan, Andrew, How December 25 Became Christmas, Bible History Daily, 12/02/2016). Other early documents suggested May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17, and November 20 (Martindale, Cyril Charles."Christmas". The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).
The Emperor Constantine did much to elevate Christianity and dampen paganism. December 25th appears to be a syncretization of several Roman holidays including the Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, the festival of Mithras, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (sun not son).
In some villages of Italy and among some Greek Orthodox Christians, Christ’s birthday is celebrated on January 7, which isn’t necessarily a disagreement with Roman Catholics as much as a preference for certain calendars, which I won’t get into here, except to remind listeners that in the Julian or Gregorian Calendars, there is no year “zero.” We jump right from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D., essentially skipping a year.
Latter-day Saints celebrating the Advent on December 25 was considered by many, including me for several decades after joining the Church, a way acquiescing or “going along with” the rest of Christendom. Seems harmless enough. Any day set aside to celebrate the Savior can hardly be a bad thing! For more than a century we’ve sort of had our own alternative tradition that Jesus was born on April 6, 1 B.C., however, among LDS scholars and apologists—including general authorities—there are reasons to believe the matter is still unresolved.
Most of us felt we could definitively answer this question by pointing to Section 20 of The Doctrine and Covenants, emphasizing its opening verse, which reads, "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 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—"
The Doctrine and Covenants is canonized as scripture, right? So there you go. I was surprised to learn no one had ever connected this verse as an authoritative revelation associated with the birth date of Jesus until the end of the 19th century.
The general authority generally credited with popularizing the idea of April 6th as the Savior's birth date is Apostle James E. Talmage. He mentioned it in his seminal volume, Jesus the Christ, published in 1915—a work still considered essential reading for Latter-day Saints, particularly missionaries. The revelatory significance of D&C 20:1 was also suggested by Elder B.H. Roberts 22 years earlier in Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, published in 1893. Prior to 1893, during the intervening decades after Joseph and Hyrum's assassination, no LDS general authority is recorded to have associated these two ideas.
Since the Joseph Smith Papers Project began in cooperation with the LDS Church History Department in 2008, a fresh scrutiny of D&C Section 20 has been undertaken with some suggesting that its opening verse—and perhaps the entire Section—wasn’t originally intended to represent word-for-word revelatory instruction from Deity, at least not in the same vein as other sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. Historians have suggested that Section 20 verse 1 was merely intended as the preamble to an official charter that outlined the Church's "articles of incorporation" as was required in 1830 by the laws of the state of New York ("An Act to Provide for the Incorporation of Religious Societies [5 Apr. 1813]", Laws of the State of New-York (1813), vol. 2, pp. 212–219).
Unlike other revelations received by Joseph Smith, Section 20 employs the pronoun "we", meaning that those who formulated this document intended to establish the organization of the Church in a spirit of unity and common consent. Latter-day Saints naturally deduced that even if Section 20 isn’t made up of first-person pronouns of Jesus Christ speaking directly to Joseph Smith, it is, nevertheless, a completely authoritative and revelatory document in every regard. Understandable. Section 20 establishes principles of the organization of the Restored Gospel that we still follow today. Moreover, even if this section is bureaucratic in nature, outlining a formal system for organizing meetings, selecting leaders, etc., the language is sublime. How could it not be an inspired text?
In early American history charters that established religious and secular organizations were often executed with a certain rhetorical flourish. This has been proposed as an explanation of the formal tone and style of Section 20’s opening verse. Our earliest copy of Section 20 is in the handwriting of John Whitmer, one of the original eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who physically "hefted" the golden plates, but unlike his brother, David, did not have them personally shown to him by the Angel Moroni.
Steven C. Harper, Church historian and editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, noted that John Whitmer, in his capacity as scribe and Church historian, employed this same eloquent language in other documents, meaning that he’d start the text by corresponding the date it was undertaken with the traditional day and year of the Savior's birth. This was a way of ascribing a certain kind of importance or prestige to a document.
I’ve listened to Dr. Harper speak. His knowledge of Church history is vastly superior to mine. His dedication to his subject—striving to be as accurate as possible—is undeniable. However, in this instance, his suggestion that a plurality of documents demonstrate that John Whitmer had a common habit of incorporating this type of rhetorical flourish my be overstated. He cites only one other example where John Whitmer did this—in a manuscript entitled the Book of John Whitmer, wherein the opening paragraph starts: "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."
Okay. This example is noteworthy, but it hardly compares with the grandiloquence of the opening verse of Section 20. Moreover, the Book of John Whitmer is essentially an anti-Mormon tract. Or if not anti-LDS, certainly anti-Joseph Smith. Whatever John Whitmer’s original intent, or how this book evolved over a period of years, I don’t believe its opening paragraph demonstrates Dr. Harper's point, namely that it supports the idea that the first verse of D&C 20:1 is a typical 19th Century literary device. It’s certainly not a literary device that John Whitmer commonly employed.
Dr. Harper’s implication is that there are additional examples of such opening flourishes in documents or letters authored by John Whitmer, although none except the Book of John Witmer are referenced. Maybe John Whitmer wasn’t a notably prolific writer. The Book of John Whitmer appears to be his magnum opus, his only significant written work. Dr. Harper’s supposition might be totally valid, but my hope is that he or other historians will supplement the argument that D&C 20:1 is stylistic rather than revelatory by offering up additional examples from John Whitmer. Perhaps even from other scribes of Joseph Smith, Jr. If none of these can be found, examples from other 19th Century English documents.
I’m convinced that this would help to buttress the idea that D&C 20:1 was simply a traditional rhetorical preamble and that it ought not be considered revelatory, because right now the argument isn’t as convincing as perhaps it should be. I’m not closed to the idea, but as I’ll demonstrate later, there is other evidence that suggests April 6th should not be abandoned as a significant date associated with the birth and death of Jesus the Messiah.
Let me start with a little background. As it states in Doctrine and Covenants Section 47, the Lord commanded John Whitmer to take over the duties of Oliver Cowdery as the official Church historian. It's always been presumed that the historical record John Whitmer undertook to satisfy this commandment was the Book of John Whitmer —a 96-page handwritten history with twenty-two chapters. In the single handwritten manuscript that is still extant, scholars have noted evidence of revisions and alterations in the opening chapters. These particulars can be reviewed in the Joseph Smith Papers in print or online. They do convincingly show that this document may not be the original history that John Whitmer began in 1831. Instead, it’s a copy of a history that John re-transcribed, potentially from scratch, in about 1835 and then completed in the mid-1840s. This conclusion is drawn because there are references in early chapters of the current version that postdate 1831. Why is this important? Let me explain.
The Book of John Whitmer depicts many formative events of the restoration of the Church. Around the Nineteenth Chapter, or about the time that John Whitmer began documenting events contemporary with the expulsion of the saints from Missouri, the tone of the “tome” changes markedly, becoming openly hostile to Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. John Whitmer was excommunicated in 1838, accused of financial improprieties and apostasy. In that same year his brother, David, along with other prominent figures in early Church history, including Oliver Cowdery, were also excommunicated.
Like many others, John Whitmer’s apostasy was a complex event for a complex man, reminding us to take heed in passing any final judgement. Even after his excommunication, John Whitmer still felt compelled to complete his history. It’s true that after 1838 he was no longer an eyewitness of events that he describes. As a result, the manuscript devolves into a collection of media reports and second and third-hand accounts—often salacious—about the Church and its leaders. For example, John summarizes in just a few pages the relocation of the Church to Nauvoo and the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum.
The Book of John Whitmer is an interesting read. At its outset it presents Church history in an affected scriptural style, as if emulating a Pauline epistle or phrases from the Book of Mormon, such as, "And it came to pass . . ." or “About these days Joseph and Sidney arrived at Kirtland to the joy and satisfaction of the Saints," or "Behold, after this revelation was received the elders were called together . . ."
As it progresses the manuscript discards this affected style in favor of more familiar 19th century tone and vernacular. It's clear that the author originally conceived a book that might be regarded as sacred text, much like canonized epistles in the King James Bible. Near the end of John Whitmer's history he offers a curious endorsement of James J. Strang as Joseph Smith Jr.'s successor and suggests that the death of Joseph and Hyrum was God's way of purifying the Church and inaugurating a new, untarnished prophet.
John Whitmer’s manuscript ends midsentence, suggesting that several pages are missing. (http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/john-whitmer-history-1831-circa-1847#!/paperSummary/john-whitmer-history-1831-circa-1847&p=97).
After he completed his history in 1847, John Whitmer abandoned his opinion of James J. Strang and began to insist that his brother, David Whitmer, ought to be recognized as the legitimate successor to Joseph Smith, Jr. What I find fascinating about this is that in spite of John Whitmer’s excommunication, and not unlike other early apostates, John continued searching, continued to hunger and yearn, for something of the spiritual fire and dedication that he’d originally felt and experienced in those heady days when the gospel was first restored.
Now, I mention these details of John Whitmer's idiosyncratic manuscript to further emphasize the need for additional, more reliable examples of this so-called rhetorical style attributed to John Whitmer while serving as scribe for Section 20. Section 20 has been canonized, while the original Book of John Whitmer, first undertaken in 1831, may not exist. Evidence suggests it may have been lost or destroyed by Whitmer himself—tossed into the fire and started anew. If John Whitmer did destroy and restart the manuscript (or portions of the manuscript) around 1835, his rationale for doing so isn’t clear, but it further diminishes the document's reliability for historical comparison.
In fairness, Dr. Harper isn’t the only, or even the first, historian or scholar to suggest we not authoritatively interpret D&C 20:1 as revelatory confirmation of the Savior's birth on April 6, 1 B.C. Several general authorities, including President J. Reuben Clark, Elder Hyrum W. Smith, and Elder Bruce R. McConkie, have also cautioned against such a strict interpretation.
Multi-faceted arguments exist encouraging us to discard April 6, 1 B.C. as the Savior's birthday. Despite these arguments, the idea, particularly of April 6, if not for the year 1 B.C., will not go quietly into the good night. The concept has staged a bit of revival in recent years, in part galvanized by a statement from Apostle David A. Bednar in his General Conference Address made, incidentally, on April 6, 2014. He stated: "We know by revelation that today (April 6) is the actual and accurate date of the Savior’s birth" (Bednar, Elder David A., "Bear Up Their Burdens With Ease", Ensign, May 2014). When published in the Ensign, this address was augmented by numerous supportive footnotes, including D&C 20:1 and statements from former Church Presidents. I’ve pasted these same footnotes in the text of this podcast on www.ForeverLDS.com (Harold B. Lee, “Strengthen the Stakes of Zion,” Ensign, July 1973; Spencer W. Kimball, “Why Call Me Lord, Lord, and Do Not the Things Which I Say?” Ensign, May 1975; Spencer W. Kimball, Remarks and Dedication of the Fayette, New York, Ensign, May 1980; Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 1: 1995–1999 , 409).
Let me be clear. I’m not certain if Elder Bednar’s statement represents the final word on the matter, but I am suggesting a need for clarification. If nothing else, just clarification that we don’t yet know for certain what day the Savior was born.
As I’m sure many listeners are already aware, the Jews followed a lunar calendar while the Romans followed a solar calendar. If listeners aren’t aware let me just state, the Jews followed a lunar calendar while the Romans followed a solar calendar. Judea, as part of the Roman Empire certainly understood the solar calendar. It was just their custom to follow the lunar calendar. In practical terms all this means is that while the Roman, Gregorian calendar potentially identifies the day of Christ’s birth as April 6th, the Jews would have identified it as the 15th day of Nissan, or Passover, which in the western world we call Easter, the date of which, if you haven’t noticed, changes every year to match up with the Jewish lunar calendar. I know, it can mess with your head trying to keep it straight, but there it is.
Now, let me come full circle to the article by Dr. John A. Tvedtnes. In “When Was Christ Born”, published in 2014 for the online LDS magazine The Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Dr. Tvedtnes re-introduced a statement from early LDS Church history that apparently every other LDS researcher who was simultaneously exploring the birth-date-of-Jesus-Christ question, seems to have missed.
Admittedly, Dr. Tvedtnes wasn’t convinced this statement should be regarded as any more authoritative than Doctrine and Covenants 20 verse 1. He did, however, consider it a buttressing argument for traditionalists who support the idea of April 6 as the date of Christ’s birth and of his death. In his own words, "The best evidence for April as the birth date of Christ is found in Joseph Smith’s declaration of 6 April 1833 " (John A. Tvedtnes, "When Christ Was Born", Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 10 (2014): 1-33).
This statement, found in History of the Church 1:336, reads:
“On the 6th of April, in the land of Zion, about eighty officials, together with some unofficial members of the Church, met for instruction and the service of God, at the Ferry on Big Blue river near the western limits of Jackson county, which is the boundary line of the state of Missouri and also of the United States. It was an early spring, and the leaves and blossoms enlivened and gratified the soul of man like a glimpse of Paradise. The day was spent in a very agreeable manner, in giving and receiving knowledge which appertained to this last kingdom—it being just 1800 years since the Savior laid down His life that men might have everlasting life, and only three years since the Church had come out of the wilderness, preparatory for the last dispensation. The Saints had great reason to rejoice: they thought upon the time when this world came into existence, and the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy; they thought of the time when Israel ate the ‘Passover,’ as wailing came up for the loss of the firstborn of Egypt; they felt like the shepherds who watched their flocks by night, when the angelic choir sweetly sang the electrifying strain, ‘Peace on earth, good will to man;’ and the solemnities of eternity rested upon them. This was the first attempt made by the Church to celebrate the anniversary of her birthday, and those who professed not our faith talked about it as a strange thing.”
Dr. Tvedtnes notes that if April 6, 1833 ". . . commemorated the [anniversary of the] creation of the world, Passover, the birth of Christ, and the anniversary of the Church’s restoration," the symbolism would be profound. He further writes: "That Christ, who is called both the 'Firstborn' and the 'beginning' of God’s creation in both the Bible and early Christian texts, should be born on the day commemorating the creation is especially significant, for it was through Him that God created the earth."
Wow. It's a rather remarkable concept to ponder. Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints are advised to be cautious. Do not become intractable or firm in any opinion or position to which thoughtful and intelligent Church leaders have expressed alternate viewpoints.
Naturally, it causes one to ask: "Was Elder Bednar's statement on April 6, 2014, which is clearly at odds with statements by other general authorities—was Elder Bednar’s statement prompted by an enthusiastic bearing of his testimony of the Savior on a day that happened to also be the anniversary of the founding of the Restored Church? Or was it prompted by direct revelation—a desire of the Church's Apostolic leadership to present a renewed and unified front supporting a traditional interpretation of D&C 20:1?"
I honestly don’t know. And until the Church pronounces a more official stance on the matter that can be defined as revelatory doctrine—I believe we are well advised to keep an open mind.
As I say, the reasons to doubt April 6, 1 B.C. as the birth date of Jesus Christ are significant and are discussed in numerous articles by LDS scholars and researchers. I’ve provided links to the most recent of these in the text of this podcast online (see Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ", BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 5–38); Lincoln H. Blumell and Thomas A. Wayment, “When Was Jesus Born? A Response to a Recent Proposal,” BYU Studies 51/3 (2012); John A. Tvedtnes, "When Christ Was Born", Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 10 (2014): 1-33; Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Death of Jesus Christ”, BYU Studies Quarterly 54:4 (Dec. 2015), pp. 135-191; John A. Tvedtnes, "When Christ Was Born", Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 10 (2014): 1-33).
Viewpoints expressed in these articles are varied and sometimes challenge one another. That’s okay. I can’t emphasize that enough. As Latter-day Saints we can become fixated on the idea that our leaders are infallible. Joseph dismissed this from the get-go: “A prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such . . .” (Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, 5:265.) It’s a mystery why some of us can’t wrap our minds—can’t allow the mantle of sacred authority to coexist with human fallibility. Our leaders are human. They’re also brilliant, extraordinary, and inspired. Christ is the only perfect person who ever lived, and the errors we often emblazon are as trivial as gnats. I believe that studying out this topic—and others—even if the answer is unclear, can be instructive as well as edifying. A brain teaser. Miracle Gro for our cerebellums. The imperative is to suspend final conclusions until we receive further enlightenment.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are doctrines that are solid, unshakable, and unwavering. The divinity of Jesus Christ and His Atonement. The truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The restoration of His authorized Church. And our leadership from a living prophet.
On the other hand, there are concepts that are not as clear or illumined. They’re still to be revealed. It’s okay—in fact it’s highly recommended—to study these out, to ponder them, and to seek divine guidance regarding them. We’re commanded to read the scriptures daily. If you follow that commandment, chances are you’re gonna have questions. In one of my novels—I think it was The Feathered Serpent, Part 1—I proposed that when we arrive in the next life, those who will be declared “winners” won’t necessarily be those with all the right answers, but perhaps those who arrive with many of the right questions.
I love this gospel. I was brought to it by questions. And even after receiving very specific and foundational answers, it didn’t mean that additional questions didn’t fill the void. This seems to be an essential part of mortality. Embrace it.
Stay close to the Lord. If you don’t feel as close to Him today as you did yesterday, ask yourself who moved, and then consider retrenching in Gospel basics: faith, obedience, love, and service. Step outside yourself and make a difference.
Opinions expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent the views of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental and unintended—Wait. I think that refers to something else. Similarities were intentional. Probably. But no animals were harmed during the recording of this production. I’m sure of that.
Thank you for joining us today. Thanks for listening. This is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS.
Copyright @ 2018, Chris Heimerdinger