The good folks at Kingdom Winds asked me to research the question of the date of Jesus’s birth and if it matched the celebration of Christmas. The study is interesting and led me to some technical research (which I enjoy). So where do we get the idea that Jesus was born on December 25th? A quick study of the Bible reveals that Scripture often provides very specific days and times for some events—such as the Passover celebration, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Crucifixion of our Lord, and His Resurrection. But no definite date is listed for the birth of the Savior. Or is it? Just kidding, it would be a short article, indeed, if I could point to a specific verse that answers the question directly without some digging. However, there are clues hidden in the Scriptures. Let’s first look at what the Bible says about Jesus’s birth then we will explore other evidence from the ancient world.
One note on Jewish ‘days.’ The Jewish day (in the Bible) is measured from sundown to sundown, so beginning and ending at approximately 6:00 p.m. depending on the time of year. This is not exact, as the sunset moves a few minutes each day with the tilt of the Earth. Of course in the United States, our ‘days’ are measured from 12:00 a.m. on one day till the same time on the next.
Dates around John the Baptist’s Birth
Elizabeth (John’s mother and Mary’s cousin) was six months pregnant when Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:36). So the events surrounding John’s birth may reveal some evidence for the date of Christmas. Zechariah (John’s father) was of the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Each of the twenty-four divisions of the priesthood worked for two solo week rotations a year at the temple; plus, all divisions served simultaneously for the three weeks of the Jewish feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Abijah division was eighth in order of service. So Zechariah went to Jerusalem five times a year for his priestly duties; the Bible is silent on which of the rotations is mentioned in Luke, chapter one. Adding nine months (for Mary’s pregnancy) to the six months of Elizabeth’s term, Jesus was born fifteen months after Zechariah’s rotation mentioned in Luke. But the problem is there are five different dates for service in the Jewish calendar year. Further complicating this calculation is the fact that no one knows if the two solo weeks were the same every year for each division or if they moved in a rotation as well. So of the five possible dates, three of them were set feasts, but two of them may have moved throughout the calendar.
Clues in Scripture
One of the most direct pieces of evidence that Jesus was probably not born in our month of December is the record of the message to the shepherds. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8, ESV). The nation of Israel is in the Northern hemisphere, so the seasons of the year in terms of summer and winter ‘match’ the United States. In other words, the weather patterns in terms of seasons are the same across the hemisphere, and the city of Bethlehem is on roughly the same latitude line as central Texas. Bethlehem is also situated in the Judean Mountains (called the Judean hills) at about 2,540 feet above sea level, a higher elevation than Asheville, North Carolina. In winter, most shepherds would have sheep corralled at that elevation because of the snow and bitter cold during December. Shepherds would have been much more likely to have their sheep out in the spring and summer months of the year.
Another problem with the December 25th theory is the Roman census. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1, ESV). Even though the city has a Mediterranean climate, the Roman Empire included such places as Britannia (England), Gaul (France), Judea (Israel), and other cold-weather regions of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Romans would not require a census across their territory during the most difficult and hazardous months to travel.
Neither the shepherds or the census is a definite rebuke of the date December 25th because Jesus could have been born during a warm year, but the references are evidence against the winter date for His birth.
Where Does December 25th Originate?
The earliest reference in surviving records to the specific date of December 25th comes from a Roman almanac in the fourth century A.D. The calculation may have come from the Church Father Tertullian (circa 200 A.D.). For some reason (not fully explained by Tertullian), he believed Jesus came to Earth (conception, not birth) and died on the same calendar day. Tertullian dates Jesus’s death by the Passover of that year as the 14th of Nissan or the 25th of March in our calendar. So nine months after the conception is December 25th.
The same belief in the matching conception and crucifixion dates appears in On Solstices and Equinoxes, a fourth-century Christian treatise from North Africa. The belief about the importance of Nissan may have been something the early Jewish believers brought to their new faith in Christ. In the Talmud, Jewish rabbis record the belief that all events of significance in the Jewish faith—creation, birth of patriarchs, Passover, the Exodus, etc.—happen in the month of Nissan.
There are a couple of problems with this theory. The first is we don’t know if Tertullian was basing his belief on the conception and death dates from passing down of the actual date of the birth of Jesus or if he had other reasons to believe this, like the beliefs of the rabbis. In other words, did his theological position come from knowing the date (and then counting backward to conception and noticing a match with the crucifixion), or did his theological position come first? The second problem is that pregnancies do not last exactly nine months. Nine months is an estimate of 280 days of the average pregnancy (or 40 weeks). What Tertullian’s writing and the subsequent document from Northern Africa do exhibit is that December 25th as the date of Christmas was established early in church history.
Other Theories about December 25
The Roman festival of Saturnalia begins on December 17th and culminates on December 24th, while the date of December 25th is a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun). Many other cultures have celebrations around the time of the Winter Solstice as well. A relatively recent, popular theory assumes that the Christian Church just appropriated the dates of pagan festivals for Christmas celebrations. This idea is based on the actions of Emperor Constantine when he ‘Christianized’ the Roman world by decree and renamed many pagan festivals into Christian celebrations by edict.
There are two problems with this viewpoint. The first is that Constantine did this mid-fourth century—after the first mention of the celebrations of Christmas. And the second is that there is not one shred of textual evidence among the Early Church Fathers and Christian writers that, prior to Constantine’s time, the practice was acceptable to the Church. In fact, the first time the charge is indicted about Christmas being pagan appropriation is in the twelfth century by Dionysius bar-Salibi, a Bible commentator who favored January 6th as the date of Jesus’s birth.
We know many pagan traditions have been pulled into the celebration of Christmas: Yule logs, Christmas trees, giving gifts, etc. But most of these traditions can be traced to a specific region (mostly Northern Europe with the aforementioned traditions) when Christianity became the dominant faith of the area. Santa Claus was pulled into Christmas traditions in 1823 when Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” debuted (the poem was later renamed “Twas’ the Night Before Christmas”). The existence of pagan or even just extra-biblical rituals does not negate the origin of the holiday, the meaning, or the date. A celebration that spans two millennia and crosses nearly every society is bound to incorporate parts of those cultures in the traditions. If our Lord tarries, Christmas traditions will probably continue to grow.
A Side Note about Christmas Trees (and Other Pagan Rituals)
The Christmas tree came from the idolatry of Germany and Scandinavia as the various species of trees represented their pantheon. For instance, Thor was represented by the Oak tree. Evergreens were associated with fertility gods and renewal because of their green branches during the bleak, snowy times of the Winter Solstice. They saw the Evergreen as a promise of spring and new life. So when Christianity (and the celebration of Christmas) spread throughout Germany, the Evergreens (trees, mistletoe, holly) were already there and adopted into the traditions.
The Bible addresses the problem of leftover rituals from idol worship directly: “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one'” (1 Cor. 8:4, ESV). It continues, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7, ESV). Paul is stating in these verses that there is nothing to be concerned about with idolatrous practices if you recognize the One True Lord Jesus. But if a person’s conscience is weak and they believe in the power of the false god as a former idol worshipper, then they are defiled.
So the question for each individual is one of idolatry. Do you worship the Christmas tree? Will placing a Christmas tree in your home lead others astray to worship other gods? I think the answer in our culture is obviously ‘no,’ as I have never seen anyone sacrificing a goat to Oden under their living room Christmas tree. All humor aside, the verse does mention ‘former association,’ and most Americans have no familiarity with the Scandinavian gods and their worship.
Many of the earliest Church Fathers were silent on the date of our Lord’s birth. The biblical references to the shepherds and census imply that our Lord was born in what we consider the spring or summer, but they are not definitive. Christians throughout history have argued for a variety of dates throughout the calendar with great reasons for each candidate and theory. However, none has been conclusive or able to displace December 25th in popular culture.
The date is not as important as the celebration and meaning. Our Lord, Creator and King of the universe, left His home in glory. He was incarnated as a baby through the womb of a virgin to grow up, teach us about His Kingdom, live out a miraculous and faithful life, die as a sacrifice for our sins, rise from the dead, and send His Holy Spirit to establish His Kingdom. Jesus will return to this earth to rule and reign. In the gift-giving, feasting, and fellowship that makes this season a happy one, let us not lose sight of that. Merry Christmas.
Featured Image by David Beale
In-Text Image 1 by CC0 Creative Commons
In-Text Image 2 by Pexels