Last week we looked at some of the traditions we have become used to at Christmas time, which are probably only myths. Events such as; Jesus being born in a stable, Mary riding on a donkey while she is 9 months pregnant and 3 kings arriving for the birth. These things are not necessarily false, but they are certainly not mentioned in the bible.
Today I’m going to explore the age old question of whether Jesus was actually born on this day or not. I don’t want it to spoil your celebrations, the fact is He was born and it really doesn’t matter when it happened. I just thought it would be interesting to compare the assertions of those who say “yes it was December 25th” and those who think it must have been some other time.
It wasn’t December 25th
Let’s start with those who don’t believe it was this day;
They say It would be unusual to see Shepherds “abiding in the field” in December at a very cold time of the year when fields were unproductive. The normal practice was to keep the flocks in the fields from Spring to Autumn. Also, winter would be an unlikely time to hold a Census as fewer people would be able to make the journey. The weather was cold and the roads would have been in poor condition. To have a Census at that time would have been self-defeating.
A more probable time would be late September, at the time of the annual Feast of Tabernacles. when such travel was commonly accepted. This would coincide with an event widely celebrated in the Christian calendar of ‘Michaelmas’ named after the angel Michael the archangel who proclaimed to the shepherds that Christ was born. Michaelmas is celebrated on September 29th.
If September 29th was the date that Jesus was born, December the 25th(almost exactly 9 months earlier) was actually when Jesus was conceived. When you think about it, the darkest time of the year, the pagan celebration of ‘Saturnalia’ when the son is furthest away from the Holy Land, would be an appropriate time for God to give us the ‘light of the world’.
The original significance of December 25th is that it was a well-known festival day celebrating the annual return of the sun. December 21 is the winter solstice (shortest day of the year and thus a key date on the calendar), and December 25th is the first day that ancients could clearly note that the days were definitely getting longer and the sunlight was returning.
Since no one knows the day of His birth (the early church never celebrated it), the Roman Catholic Church felt free to choose this date, hoping to replace the pagan festival with a Christian holy day (holiday). They obviously came to the conclusion that rather than replace an established celebration day they would just compromise dates and change its focus so that the people would not be upset.
The bible itself points to an autumn date based on the conception and birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Stay with me on this one because it is a bit complicated. Since Elizabeth (John’s mother) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36), we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple during the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Historical calculations indicate this division of service corresponded to June 13-19 in that year (The Companion Bible, 1974, Appendix 179, p. 200). It was during this time of temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and travelled home, Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23-24). Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John’s birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus (Luke 1:35-36)) brings us to the end of September as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.
Although it is difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated December 25th as Christmas Day, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century. This is an amazingly late date. Christmas was not observed in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, until about 300 years after Christ’s death. Its origins cannot be traced back to either the teachings or practices of the earliest Christians.
It was December 25th
There are a few arguments that people use to support December 25thas the date of Jesus’ birth.
Firstly, the earliest Christian tradition dating back to the 3rd Century when an early church father, Hyppolytus (ca. 170-236) stated the date as 25th December. The earliest mention of some sort of observance on that date is in the Philoclian Calendar, a Roman Calendar dated around 336 ad. Another early church father John Chrysostom (349 to 407ad) also favoured December 25thas did Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) who had access to the original Roman birth census, which also documented that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. These early church ‘heavyweights’ should not be ignored according to those who subscribe to the date we use today. They were after all, a lot nearer to the event than we are.
The second argument really disputes the assertion that Shepherds couldn’t have been outside in the fields in December because it was too cold. There is strong historical evidence that unblemished lambs for the Temple sacrifice were in fact kept in the fields near Bethlehem during the winter months. December is not the coldest month in Bethlehem, January is. Even then the temperature rarely goes below freezing. In fact the average temperature is 8 degrees (a couple of degrees warmer in December), which although cold, would not be beyond the possibility of hardy shepherds being out in the fields, with shelter and fire etc. Even in the bible there is evidence of someone looking after sheep outside in the cold. When Jacob wanted to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel, he had to work 20 years in total, tending the sheep. This was in Paddan-aram which was more northerly and therefore colder than Bethlehem. Jacob said;
These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks.What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. (Genesis 31: 38-40)
Thirdly, the issue of the timing of the census was not an issue. The census could still have been in the Autumn. Mary and Joseph could have completed the Census but not wanted to travel back whilst Mary was heavily pregnant, so they stayed in Bethlehem until after Jesus was born. This is quite a simple solution and fits perfectly into the biblical record, although slightly troublesome is the fact that there was still no room for them months later.
Fourthly, if the Romans had wanted to overtake a pagan ritual, why didn’t they choose December 21stwhen the winter solstice was celebrated?
The truth is we simply don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. In fact, we don’t even know for sure what year He was born. Scholars believe it was somewhere between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. One thing is clear, if God felt it was important for us to know the exact date of the Jesus’ birth, He would certainly have told us in His Word. The Gospel of Luke gives very specific details about the event, even down to what the baby was wearing, where he was laid, a bit of a guest list etc but not the date.
The fact is that He was born, that He came into the world to save us from our sins and to bring us into a relationship with Him. That’s the true meaning and reason to celebrate the incarnation. Enjoy the rest of your day!