When was Jesus born?

W

December 25th 0 AD would be most people’s answer to this question.  But there isnothing 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 ofthe 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 thistime that Christianity arose as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and becamecorrupted with pagan elements coming in.  This corrupted form of Christianity becamethe Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  These churches turned againstthe 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 leaderswere opposed to this.  During this time eight specific dates were proposed by variousgroups, including March 28, April 2, May 20 and November 18. In the East, January6 was chosen, a date the Greeks had celebrated as the birth of the god Dionysus andthe Egyptians as the birth of the god Osiris.  This date still used by Greek andRussian 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 datewas probably chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti [nativity ofthe 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 rulein 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 acceptanceof the faith by the pagan masses, the Church of Rome found it convenient to instituteDecember 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 conquerorof darkness’ (Manual of Liturgical History, 1955, Vol. 2, p. 67).

Protestant historian Henry Chadwick sums up the controversy: ‘Moreover, early inthe 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 remembranceof the birth of Jesus (truth).    When you mix truth and error, error tends to becomedominant.  Today we have mostly the pagan elements of the midwinter festival withoutthe truth of the birth of Jesus.  We have excessive eating, drinking and the mythicalfigure of Santa Claus / Father Christmas, all of which connect to the pagan midwinterfestival, not the birth of Jesus.  Santa Claus is seen as fantastic being whom youcan 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, eventuallythey realize it is all a made up story.  If they then associate this with the storyof Jesus being born, they may make the obvious connection that this too is a madeup 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 whichwe 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 anyway of fixing the time of the birth of Jesus from the New Testament.  First we willlook 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 ADis believed to be the date of the birth of Jesus from which all other dates followtoday.  This date was fixed retrospectively and obviously did not exist at the timeof Jesus.  One of the problems of fixing events in ancient history is the absenceof a fixed universally observed calendar.  For this reasons most modern historianstrying to fix dates of events recorded in ancient history usually give a margin oferror when trying to put these dates into our calendar.   This applies to tryingto 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 timeit happened, the birth of Jesus was an obscure event, only recognised by a handfulof people.  Neither the Roman nor the Jewish authorities would have had any reasonto 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 JohnI in AD 525 to establish a feast calendar for the Church. Dionysius estimated theyear of Christ’s birth based on information available to him, but unfortunately becauseof insufficient historical data he arrived at a date at least a few years later thanthe 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 theJews, Josephus, Book 17, Chapter 8) and occurred in the spring of 4 BC (New TestamentHistory, F.F. Bruce, Anchor Books, p.23). Therefore, Christ’s birth had to take placeat least four years before the traditional date!  It could have been from 7BC to4BC although a date near the death of Herod is likely.  

Herod was a cruel and ruthless tyrant who killed many people.  He murdered his belovedwife 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 isnot mentioned in Josephus.  From the historian’s point of view this would just havebeen just one of many such atrocities he carried out.  Suppose someone was to recordthe 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 itwas with Herod.  

Herod died lonely and hated by everyone, for he had butchered his own family andnation for gain. He died of the most horrible afflictions and diseases, which couldnot be retarded or alleviated at all. He died in absolute torment of a combinationof rage and fear, according to Josephus in ‘paroxysms of fury.’ He died a few monthsafter 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 thatthe 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, accordingto Josephus, Quirinius was governor of Syria after the reign of Archelaus who ismentioned in Matthew 2 as succeeding Herod.  In fact from the reference in Josephusit 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’seffects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus.’   We know from other historicalrecords that  Archelaus was deposed in AD 6, so this census must have taken placearound then. So, the question goes, if Herod the Great died in 4 BC and Josephustells us Quirinius’ census was not until AD 6, then this makes a 10 year gap betweenthe 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.  Lukespeaks about the ‘first census’ (Luke 2.2) implying there may have been more thanone census.  History confirms this.  Caesar Augustus was the type of leader who orderedmany censuses in his day. Records exist to show that Roman-controlled Egypt had beguna census as early as 10 BC and it was repeated every 14 years. And Augustus himselfnotes in his Res Gestae (The Deeds of Augustus) that he ordered three wide-spreadcensuses of Roman citizens, one in 28 BC, one in 8 BC and one in AD 14.  In betweenthere are several other censuses that happened locally across Rome.

On another occasion, an enrolment of all the people of the empire happened to swearan 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 orderand Roman people all called me father of the country, and voted that the same beinscribed in the vestibule of my temple’. Josephus also mentions a time ‘When allgood people gave assurance of their good will to Caesar’. These types of tributeswould also require an enrolment of individuals from across the empire.  Orosius,a fifth century Christian, links this registration with the birth of Jesus sayingthat ‘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 whetherLuke was mistaken in ascribing this census to the time when Quirinius was in therole of Syrian Governor. Since Quirinius was not governor of the Syrian provinceuntil after Archelaus was deposed, critics claim Luke misidentified the census sohis 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 whatwe call ‘micrographic’ letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Ciliciafrom 11 BC until after the death of Herod.  This means either there were two mencalled Quirinius or the same Quirinius had authority on both occasions.  Neitheris 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 nameof 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 wasnot a trustworthy leader, a fact that was disastrously demonstrated in AD 9 whenhe 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 rebellionof the Homonadensians in Asia Minor. When it came time to begin the census, in about8 or 7 BC, Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate problem in the volatilearea of Syria (which included Judea in the Roman administration). It has also beenproposed that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two separate occasions, once whileprosecuting the military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 BC, andlater beginning about AD 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpretedto 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, Lukedoes not use the official political title of ‘Governor’ (‘legatus’), but the broaderterm ‘hegemon’ which is a ruling officer or procurator. This means that Quiriniusmay not have been the official governor, but he was in charge of the census becausehe was a more capable and trusted servant of Rome than the actual governor.  In betweenthese two events he could have been recalled to Rome from where he was sent to Syriaat 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, thenwe 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 totheir place of origin?  In regard to the practices of enrolment, a papyrus foundin Egypt gives directions for the conduct of a census.  It reads; ‘Because of theapproaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away fromtheir homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order thatthey may complete the family registration of enrolment and that the tilled landsmay retain those belonging to them.’

Putting this together we have good reason to believe that Matthew and Luke agreeand place the date of the census and therefore the birth of Jesus somewhere between7 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 1990press release that the area has three months of frost: December with 29 F. [minus1.6 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 Decemberand January. These were the winter months of increased rain in Christ’s time, whenthe 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 atnight. ‘Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields,’ wroteone Gospel writer, ‘keeping watch over their flock by night’ (Luke 2:8). A commonpractice 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 shelteredthem.

The Companion Bible, Appendix 179 says:

Shepherds and their flocks would not be found ‘abiding’ (Gr. agrauleo) in the openfields at night in December (Tebeth), for the paramount reason that there would beno pasturage at that time. It was the custom then (as now) to withdraw the flocksduring the month Marchesven (Oct.-Nov.) from the open districts and house them forthe winter.

The census described by Luke

Other evidence arguing against a December birth of Jesus is the Roman census recordedby Luke.   The Roman and Judean rulers knew that taking a census in winter wouldhave been impractical and unpopular. Generally a census would take place after theharvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect theeconomy, 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 ofChrist’s birth.

One author states that this census ‘could hardly have been at that season [December25], however, for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authoritiesfor a public enrolment, which necessitated the population’s travelling from all partsto their natal districts, storms and rain making journeys both unsafe and unpleasantin winter, except in specially favourable years’ (‘Christmas at Bethlehem,’ Holy-Daysand Holidays, Cunningham Geikie).

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

The birth of John the Baptist.

Actually from the Bible, we can at least determine the probable season and year ofJesus’ birth. The most important pointer to time when Jesus was born comes in understandingthe evidence that is presented in the book of Luke concerning the birth of John theBaptist.  Luke 1:5-17 tells of Zechariah’s encounter with the Angel while ministeringin 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, thepriests 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 ourmodern calendar. According to Talmudic and Qumran sources, the turns rotated everyweek until they reached the end of the sixth month, when the cycle was repeated againuntil the end of the year. This would mean that Zechariah’s division served at thetemple 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 thetenth week? Because all divisions served during primary feast weeks of the Jewishyear. So all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during Passover and theDays of Unleavened Bread (the third week of the year). Likewise, all of the divisionsof 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 theyear.

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

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

After his service in the temple, Zechariah went home to his wife. Due to the lawsof 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 havea special child, I would get to it just as soon as the law allowed. So we will makea second assumption, that Elizabeth conceived a child two weeks after Zechariah’sreturn.

Allowing for this and going forward a normal pregnancy places the birth of John theBaptist at the time of the Passover (Nisan 15)!  The Jews always looked for Elijahto return on the day of Passover. Even in modern times there is an empty chair anda table setting for Elijah whenever Passover is celebrated. Little children alsogo to the door of the home and open it in anticipation of Elijah’s coming. The OldTestament 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 atPassover. Remember the angel’s words to Zechariah? The angel said that John the Baptistwas 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 visitedMary. The beginning of Elizabeth’s sixth month would have been the celebration ofthe Jewish feast of Hanukkah, which occurs in December of our modern calendar (25Kislev 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 withthe dedication of the second Jewish temple and the rededication of the temple afterthe 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 birthmay 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 monthslater at Passover. And assuming a normal pregnancy of 285 days, Jesus would havebeen 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 occurredin the autumn of the year on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feastof Tabernacles is a joyful feast. Jewish believers would build a tabernacle or boothknown as a ‘sukkah’ out of green tree branches. They would eat their meals and sleepin this sukkah for 8 days.

There are some very interesting connections in Scripture with Jesus and aspects ofthe 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 metaphorof the ‘booth’ of the Feast of Tabernacles. He explains that Christ, the Word whowas with God in the beginning (John 1:1), manifested Himself in this world in a mosttangible way, by pitching His tent in our midst: ‘And the Word became flesh and tabernacledamong us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son fromthe Father’ (John 1:14).

The Greek verb skenoo used by John means ‘to pitch tent, encamp, tabernacle, dwellin a tent.’ The allusion is clearly to the Feast of Tabernacles when the people dweltin temporary booths. In his article ‘The Feast of Tents: Jesus’ Self-Revelation,’published in Worship (1960), David Stanley notes that this passage sets the stagefor the later self-revelation of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 and8. 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 everyJew was expected to live during the festival. These shelters were commemorative ofthe forty years’ wandering in the desert when Israel had lived as a nomad in suchintimate union with her God. For John this dwelling in tents is a primordial symbolof the Incarnation: ‘Thus the Word became a mortal man: he pitched his tent in themidst of us’ (John 1:14). It is this insight which presides over the compositionof John’s narrative which we are considering [John 7-8]. All that happened, all thatJesus 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 imageryof 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 birthof 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 humanflesh. And in turn it shows in equally beautiful significance that our Lord was bornon 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 dayof the Feast, the ‘Great Day of the Feast’ of John 7.37 (‘Tabernacles’ had eightdays. 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) iscalled ‘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 greatjoy [Sukkot is called the ‘season of our joy’], which shall be to all people [Sukkotis called ‘the feast of the nations’].’ So, we can see from this that the terminologythe angel used to announce the birth of Yeshua (Jesus) were themes and messages associatedwith the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Light was also a prominent feature of the Feast of Tabernacles. At the end of thefirst 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. Eachcandelabra 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 thefour 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 (Succah5:3).’

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 wemark, that the term ‘light’ was specially applied to the Messiah. In a very interestingpassage of the Midrash we are told, that, while commonly windows were made wide withinand narrow without, it was the opposite in the Temple of Solomon, because the lightissuing 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 testifyto 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, wascoming into the world.

In these verses John refers to Jesus as ‘the light’; and as we have also seen, verse14 says that he ‘became flesh and tabernacled [literal meaning of the Greek] amongus’. Since John chapter one is a passage about Jesus’ coming, these verses couldbe 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 questionthe account given in the New Testament.  The Lord Jesus was born miraculously byvirgin birth to Mary (Miriam).  He had to be a virgin to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah7.14 and for the Lord to be born as Son of God and Son of Man.   He had to be bornin the city of David (Bethlehem) to fulfil Micah 5.2.  In order to get Joseph andMary to Bethlehem, God overruled Caesar Augustus and brought in the census.   Formore 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 believethe scripture tells us the truth about God and the events concerning the Lord JesusChrist.  

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

jQuery('.cover-item-container > header.entry-header > h1.entry-title').text("This website is dedicated to giving answers to questions about the Messiah"); jQuery('.cover-item-container > header.entry-header > p.entry-desc').text("Should we wait for Him to come? Has He come? Will He come again?");