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When was Jesus born?

 

December 25th 0 AD would be most people’s answer to this question.  But there is nothing at all in the New Testament to fix the date of Jesus’ birth at this time.  There was no celebration of the birth of Jesus during the first two centuries of the early church.  Speculation on the subject began in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the idea of fixing Christ’s birthday started.  Significantly it was about this time that Christianity arose as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and became corrupted with pagan elements coming in.  This corrupted form of Christianity became the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  These churches turned against the Jewish roots of the New Testament faith and the Jewish people.  

 

When the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus was first proposed some Church leaders were opposed to this.  During this time eight specific dates were proposed by various groups, including March 28, April 2, May 20 and November 18. In the East, January 6 was chosen, a date the Greeks had celebrated as the birth of the god Dionysus and the Egyptians as the birth of the god Osiris.  This date still used by Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.  December 25, although one of the last dates to be proposed, was the one finally accepted by the leadership of the Roman church.

 

The earliest mention of the observance on December 25 is in the year 336. This date was probably chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti [nativity of the unconquerable sun] by the celebration of the birth of the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ and its observance in the West, seems to have spread from Rome.

 

In Rome December 25 was made popular by Pope Liberius in 354 and became the rule in the West in 435 when the first ‘Christ mass’ was officiated by Pope Sixtus III. This coincided with the date of a celebration by the Romans to their primary god, the Sun, and to Mithras, a popular Persian sun god supposedly born on the same day. The Roman Catholic writer Mario Righetti admits that, ‘to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, the Church of Rome found it convenient to institute December 25 as the feast of the birth of Christ to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honour of the ‘Invincible Sun’ Mithras, the conqueror of darkness’ (Manual of Liturgical History, 1955, Vol. 2, p. 67).

 

Protestant historian Henry Chadwick sums up the controversy: ‘Moreover, early in the fourth century there begins in the West (where first and by whom is not known) the celebration of December 25, the birthday of the Sun-god at the winter solstice, as the date for the nativity of Christ.’

 

So the origins of Christmas are in a mixture of paganism (error) and remembrance of the birth of Jesus (truth).    When you mix truth and error, error tends to become dominant.  Today we have mostly the pagan elements of the midwinter festival without the truth of the birth of Jesus.  We have excessive eating, drinking and the mythical figure of Santa Claus / Father Christmas, all of which connect to the pagan midwinter festival, not the birth of Jesus.  Santa Claus is seen as fantastic being whom you can ask things from and they will appear (miraculously) after he comes in the night.  Even if children believe in Father Christmas when they are very young, eventually they realize it is all a made up story.  If they then associate this with the story of Jesus being born, they may make the obvious connection that this too is a made up story, which they don’t need to believe.  But the account of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus recorded in the Gospel is the truth which we do need to believe in if we want salvation and eternal life from God.

 

But let us move on from the errors of paganised Christendom and ask if there is any way of fixing the time of the birth of Jesus from the New Testament.  First we will look at the date and then the time of year.

 

The date of the birth of Jesus – was it 25th December, 0 AD?

 

First we will deal with 0 AD.  AD = Anno Domini / in the year of the Lord.   0 AD is believed to be the date of the birth of Jesus from which all other dates follow today.  This date was fixed retrospectively and obviously did not exist at the time of Jesus.  One of the problems of fixing events in ancient history is the absence of a fixed universally observed calendar.  For this reasons most modern historians trying to fix dates of events recorded in ancient history usually give a margin of error when trying to put these dates into our calendar.   This applies to trying to fix the actual date of the birth of Jesus.

 

There was no AD or BC at the time Jesus was born.  The Gospels show that at the time it happened, the birth of Jesus was an obscure event, only recognised by a handful of people.  Neither the Roman nor the Jewish authorities would have had any reason to change the date because of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  The date of ‘0 AD’ was arrived at by the scholar Dionysius Exiguus who was commissioned by Pope John I in AD 525 to establish a feast calendar for the Church. Dionysius estimated the year of Christ’s birth based on information available to him, but unfortunately because of insufficient historical data he arrived at a date at least a few years later than the actual event.

 

The Gospels record Jesus’ birth as occurring during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod’s death is recorded by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, Book 17, Chapter 8) and occurred in the spring of 4 BC (New Testament History, F.F. Bruce, Anchor Books, p.23). Therefore, Christ’s birth had to take place at least four years before the traditional date!  It could have been from 7BC to 4BC although a date near the death of Herod is likely.  

 

Herod was a cruel and ruthless tyrant who killed many people.  He murdered his beloved wife Mariamne, his children, relatives, and any suspected competitor.  Caesar Augustus, his friend and patron, said of Herod, ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.’  Some have wondered why the massacre in Bethlehem recorded in Matthew chapter 2 is not mentioned in Josephus.  From the historian’s point of view this would just have been just one of many such atrocities he carried out.  Suppose someone was to record the life of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein today.  This would not contain all his atrocities – they were too many.  But it would record that he was an atrocious tyrant.  So it was with Herod.  

 

Herod died lonely and hated by everyone, for he had butchered his own family and nation for gain. He died of the most horrible afflictions and diseases, which could not be retarded or alleviated at all. He died in absolute torment of a combination of rage and fear, according to Josephus in ‘paroxysms of fury.’ He died a few months after having slain the babies of Bethlehem, as God brought judgment on him.

 

The reference to Herod poses a significant problem which is often used to claim that the Gospels do not agree.  Matthew mentions Herod being alive when Jesus was born.  Luke mentions Qurinius being governor in Syria.  Herod died around 4 BC, and, according to Josephus, Quirinius was governor of Syria after the reign of Archelaus who is mentioned in Matthew 2 as succeeding Herod.  In fact from the reference in Josephus it seems to be referring to about AD 6, ten years after the death of Herod.  

 

Josephus writes,  ‘So Archelaus’ country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius (Quirinius), one that had been consul, was sent by Caesar to take account of people’s effects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus.’   We know from other historical records that  Archelaus was deposed in AD 6, so this census must have taken place around then. So, the question goes, if Herod the Great died in 4 BC and Josephus tells us Quirinius’ census was not until AD 6, then this makes a 10 year gap between the date of the birth of Jesus as recorded in Matthew and Luke.

 

More than One Census?

 

Although on its face we seem to have a difficulty here, there are answers.  Luke speaks about the ‘first census’ (Luke 2.2) implying there may have been more than one census.  History confirms this.  Caesar Augustus was the type of leader who ordered many censuses in his day. Records exist to show that Roman-controlled Egypt had begun a census as early as 10 BC and it was repeated every 14 years. And Augustus himself notes in his Res Gestae (The Deeds of Augustus) that he ordered three wide-spread censuses of Roman citizens, one in 28 BC, one in 8 BC and one in AD 14.  In between there are several other censuses that happened locally across Rome.

 

On another occasion, an enrolment of all the people of the empire happened to swear an oath of allegiance to Caesar. In Chapter 34 of Res Gestae, Augustus also notes, ‘When I administered my thirteenth consulate (2 BC), the senate and Equestrian order and Roman people all called me father of the country, and voted that the same be inscribed in the vestibule of my temple’. Josephus also mentions a time ‘When all good people gave assurance of their good will to Caesar’. These types of tributes would also require an enrolment of individuals from across the empire.  Orosius, a fifth century Christian, links this registration with the birth of Jesus saying that ‘all of the peoples of the great nations were to take an oath’.

 

Taking all of this together, we have at least three censuses in the area of Judea – between 8 BC and AD 6. The only point that is really in question, then, is whether Luke was mistaken in ascribing this census to the time when Quirinius was in the role of Syrian Governor. Since Quirinius was not governor of the Syrian province until after Archelaus was deposed, critics claim Luke misidentified the census so his account cannot be trusted.

 

The Governorship of Quirinius

 

In studying this problem, there are two main solutions and each has some good merit.

 

1. An archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, or what we call ‘micrographic’ letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod.  This means either there were two men called Quirinius or the same Quirinius had authority on both occasions.  Neither is impossible. It is not uncommon to have several people with the same Roman names, so there is no reason to doubt why there could not have been two people by the name of Quirinius.

 

2. Luke has not made an error. There are reasonable solutions to this difficulty.  Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria from about 7 BC to about 4 BC.  Varus was not a trustworthy leader, a fact that was disastrously demonstrated in AD 9 when he lost three legions of soldiers in the Teutoburger forest in Germany. To the contrary, Quirinius was a notable military leader who was responsible for squelching the rebellion of the Homonadensians in Asia Minor. When it came time to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 BC, Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate problem in the volatile area of Syria (which included Judea in the Roman administration). It has also been proposed that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two separate occasions, once while prosecuting the military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 BC, and later beginning about AD 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpreted to refer to Quirinius as having served as governor of Syria on two occasions.

 

It is interesting that in stating that Quirinius controlled the Syrian area, Luke does not use the official political title of ‘Governor’ (‘legatus’), but the broader term ‘hegemon’ which is a ruling officer or procurator. This means that Quirinius may not have been the official governor, but he was in charge of the census because he was a more capable and trusted servant of Rome than the actual governor.  In between these two events he could have been recalled to Rome from where he was sent to Syria at a later date because he already had experience of the area.

 

Justin Martyr’s Apology supports this view, writing that Quirinius was a ‘procurator’, not a governor of the area of Judea.  If Quirinius did hold such a position, then we have no contradiction. The first census was taken during the time of Jesus birth, but Josephus’ census would have come later.

 

Did the Romans have such censuses?  Would they have required people to return to their place of origin?  In regard to the practices of enrolment, a papyrus found in Egypt gives directions for the conduct of a census.  It reads; ‘Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of enrolment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them.’

 

Putting this together we have good reason to believe that Matthew and Luke agree and place the date of the census and therefore the birth of Jesus somewhere between 7 and 4 BC.

 

What time of year was Jesus born?

 

There are three clues to the time:

 

1. The shepherds in the fields.  

2. The timing of the census.  

3. The birth of John the Baptist.

 

When were shepherds in the fields?

 

The temperature in the area of Bethlehem in December averages around 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) but can drop to well below freezing, especially at night. Describing the weather there, Sara Ruhin, chief of the Israeli weather service, noted in a 1990 press release that the area has three months of frost: December with 29 F. [minus 1.6 C.]; January with 30 F. [minus 1.1 C.] and February with 32 F. [0 C.].

 

Snow is common for two or three days in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem in December and January. These were the winter months of increased rain in Christ’s time, when the roads became practically unusable and people stayed mostly indoors.

 

This is important evidence to question a December date for Christ’s birth. Note that, at the time of Christ’s birth, the shepherds tended their flocks in the fields at night. ‘Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields,’ wrote one Gospel writer, ‘keeping watch over their flock by night’ (Luke 2:8). A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them.

 

The Companion Bible, Appendix 179 says:

 

Shepherds and their flocks would not be found ‘abiding’ (Gr. agrauleo) in the open fields at night in December (Tebeth), for the paramount reason that there would be no pasturage at that time. It was the custom then (as now) to withdraw the flocks during the month Marchesven (Oct.-Nov.) from the open districts and house them for the winter.

 

The census described by Luke

 

Other evidence arguing against a December birth of Jesus is the Roman census recorded by Luke.   The Roman and Judean rulers knew that taking a census in winter would have been impractical and unpopular. Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel. According to the normal dates for the census, this would probably be the season of Christ’s birth.

 

One author states that this census ‘could hardly have been at that season [December 25], however, for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authorities for a public enrolment, which necessitated the population’s travelling from all parts to their natal districts, storms and rain making journeys both unsafe and unpleasant in winter, except in specially favourable years’ (‘Christmas at Bethlehem,’ Holy-Days and Holidays, Cunningham Geikie).

 

Luke’s account of the census argues strongly against a December date for Christ’s birth. For such an agrarian society, an autumn post-harvest census was much more likely.

 

The birth of John the Baptist.

 

Actually from the Bible, we can at least determine the probable season and year of  Jesus’ birth. The most important pointer to time when Jesus was born comes in understanding the evidence that is presented in the book of Luke concerning the birth of John the Baptist.  Luke 1:5-17 tells of Zechariah’s encounter with the Angel while ministering in the sanctuary and the announcement that he is to have a son.   

 

Zechariah was of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5,8). Back in King David’s day, the priests had been separated into 24 turns or divisions. These turns began in Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar (1 Chronicles 27:2), March or April of our modern calendar. According to Talmudic and Qumran sources, the turns rotated every week until they reached the end of the sixth month, when the cycle was repeated again until the end of the year. This would mean that Zechariah’s division served at the temple twice a year.

 

We find in 1 Chronicles 24:10 that Abijah was the eighth division of the priesthood. Thus, Zechariah’s service would be in the tenth week of the Jewish year. Why the tenth week? Because all divisions served during primary feast weeks of the Jewish year. So all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (the third week of the year). Likewise, all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (the ninth week). Thus, the 8th course of the priesthood would end up serving on the 10th week of the year.

 

Now we must make an assumption here. Remember we said that Zechariah’s division served at the temple twice a year. The Bible does not specify which of the two shifts of service it was. Regardless, nine months after one of the two dates John the Baptist was born. This would place his birth in March or September.

 

We will assume that Luke is recording Zechariah’s first shift of service for the year. We will find that assumption tends to prove true as we discover the dates of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ birth. Therefore, the date of Zechariah’s service would be the Jewish date of Sivan 12-18 (See the Companion Bible, Appendix 179, Section III).  (May – June in our calendar).

 

After his service in the temple, Zechariah went home to his wife. Due to the laws of separation (Leviticus 12:5; 15:19,25), two additional weeks have to be counted. Now I don’t know about you, but if an angel had told me that I was going to have a special child, I would get to it just as soon as the law allowed. So we will make a second assumption, that Elizabeth conceived a child two weeks after Zechariah’s return.

 

Allowing for this and going forward a normal pregnancy places the birth of John the Baptist at the time of the Passover (Nisan 15)!  The Jews always looked for Elijah to return on the day of Passover. Even in modern times there is an empty chair and a table setting for Elijah whenever Passover is celebrated. Little children also go to the door of the home and open it in anticipation of Elijah’s coming. The Old Testament prophets had said that God would send Elijah before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). According to these calculations John the Baptist was born at Passover. Remember the angel’s words to Zechariah? The angel said that John the Baptist was to come ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elijah came at Passover!

 

Luke tells us that Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel visited Mary. The beginning of Elizabeth’s sixth month would have been the celebration of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, which occurs in December of our modern calendar (25 Kislev date of dedication of Temple after desecration by Antiochus).  Hanukkah (Chanukkah) is known as the ‘Feast of the Dedication’ (John 10:22) because it is connected with the dedication of the second Jewish temple and the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean revolt. Mary was being dedicated for a purpose of enormous magnitude: God’s presence in an earthly temple, i.e. a human body (John 2:18-21).  The birth may not have been on December 25th but the incarnation may have been!

 

If Mary did conceive on Hanukkah, John the Baptist would have been born three months later at Passover. And assuming a normal pregnancy of 285 days, Jesus would have been born on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Tishri (September 29 by modern reckoning). This is significant because it is the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). It is a high day, a special Sabbath, a time of great rejoicing.

 

The Feast of Tabernacles and Jesus

 

As you have seen, the birth of our Lord can be reasonably shown to have occurred in the autumn of the year on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles is a joyful feast. Jewish believers would build a tabernacle or booth known as a ‘sukkah’ out of green tree branches. They would eat their meals and sleep in this sukkah for 8 days.

 

There are some very interesting connections in Scripture with Jesus and aspects of the Feast of Tabernacles.

 

John 1:14 says:

 

And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. [literal translation of the Greek]

 

Look at what Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi has to say concerning this verse:

 

‘To introduce the nature and mission of Christ, John in his Gospel employs the metaphor of the ‘booth’ of the Feast of Tabernacles. He explains that Christ, the Word who was with God in the beginning (John 1:1), manifested Himself in this world in a most tangible way, by pitching His tent in our midst: ‘And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son from the Father’ (John 1:14).

 

The Greek verb skenoo used by John means ‘to pitch tent, encamp, tabernacle, dwell in a tent.’ The allusion is clearly to the Feast of Tabernacles when the people dwelt in temporary booths. In his article ‘The Feast of Tents: Jesus’ Self-Revelation,’ published in Worship (1960), David Stanley notes that this passage sets the stage for the later self-revelation of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 and 8. Stanley writes: ‘The most basic clue to the mystery pervading this entire narrative [John 7 and 8] is provided by the symbolic action that gives this feast its name: the ceremonial erection of little bowers, made with branches of trees, in which every Jew was expected to live during the festival. These shelters were commemorative of the forty years’ wandering in the desert when Israel had lived as a nomad in such intimate union with her God. For John this dwelling in tents is a primordial symbol of the Incarnation: ‘Thus the Word became a mortal man: he pitched his tent in the midst of us’ (John 1:14). It is this insight which presides over the composition of John’s narrative which we are considering [John 7-8]. All that happened, all that Jesus said on this occasion has some reference to the Incarnation.’

 

In seeking to describe the Messiah’s first coming to His people, John chose the imagery of the Feast of Booths since the feast celebrates the dwelling of God among His people. This raises an interesting question on whether or not John intended to link the birth of Jesus with the Feast of Tabernacles.’

 

[from: God’s Festivals in Scripture and History Part II: The Fall Festivals, Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, page 241.]

 

According to the Companion Bible, Appendix 179:

 

The word tabernacled here receives beautiful significance from the knowledge that ‘the Lord of Glory’ was ‘found in fashion as a man’, and thus  tabernacling in human flesh. And in turn it shows in equally beautiful significance that our Lord was born on the first day of the great Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, viz. the 15th of Tishri, corresponding to September 29 (modern reckoning).

 

The Circumcision of our Lord took place therefore on the eighth day, the last day of the Feast, the ‘Great Day of the Feast’ of John 7.37 (‘Tabernacles’ had eight days. The Feast of Unleavened Bread had seven days, and Pentecost one. See Lev. 23).

 

From The Seven Festivals of the Messiah by Eddie Chumney we read this:

 

‘As we have stated earlier in this chapter, the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) is called ‘the season of our joy’ and ‘the feast of the nations.’ With this in mind, in Luke 2:10 it is written, ‘And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings [basar in Hebrew; otherwise known as the gospel] of great joy [Sukkot is called the ‘season of our joy’], which shall be to all people [Sukkot is called ‘the feast of the nations’].’ So, we can see from this that the terminology the angel used to announce the birth of Yeshua (Jesus) were themes and messages associated with the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

 

Light was also a prominent feature of the Feast of Tabernacles. At the end of the first day of the Feast, the Temple was gloriously illuminated. According to the Mishnah (Succah 5:2), gigantic candelabras stood within the Court of the Women in the temple. Each of the four golden candelabras is said to have been about 75 feet tall. Each candelabra had four branches, and at the top of every branch there was a large bowl. Four young men bearing 10 gallon pitchers of oil would climb ladders to fill the four golden bowls on each candelabra. And then the oil in those bowls was ignited. Picture sixteen beautiful blazes leaping toward the sky from these golden lamps. There was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by this light (Succah 5:3).’

 

According to Alfred Edersheim (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, chapter 8):

 

The Court of the Women was brilliantly illuminated.   In connection with this we mark, that the term ‘light’ was specially applied to the Messiah. In a very interesting passage of the Midrash we are told, that, while commonly windows were made wide within and narrow without, it was the opposite in the Temple of Solomon, because the light issuing from the Sanctuary was to lighten that which was without.

 

This reminds us of the language of devout old Simeon in regard to the Messiah, as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel.’

 

John 1:6-9 says:

 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 

In these verses John refers to Jesus as ‘the light’; and as we have also seen, verse 14 says that he ‘became flesh and tabernacled [literal meaning of the Greek] among us’. Since John chapter one is a passage about Jesus’ coming, these verses could be references to the Feast of Tabernacles at which time Jesus was born.

 

Conclusion

 

We may question church tradition concerning the birth of Jesus, but we do not question the account given in the New Testament.  The Lord Jesus was born miraculously by virgin birth to Mary (Miriam).  He had to be a virgin to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 and for the Lord to be born as Son of God and Son of Man.   He had to be born in the city of David (Bethlehem) to fulfil Micah 5.2.  In order to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, God overruled Caesar Augustus and brought in the census.   For more information on this subject go to the following articles on this website:  

 

1. Can we believe in the Virgin Birth?  

2. The timing of the Messiah.

 

We may question church traditions which have no basis in scripture.  But we believe the scripture tells us the truth about God and the events concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.  

 

The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus is actually more important than His birth.  But His birth is wonderful.  Isaiah 7.14, 9.6.  The angel announced to the shepherds the truth which God is still announcing to the world.  Luke 2.11.  The baby born in Bethlehem is the Saviour, the Messiah and the Lord.   He is the Word made flesh, dwelling amongst us.  To those who receive Him He gives the right to become children of God and have eternal life.  That is our choice today.

 

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