The Date of Jesus' Birth
Many Christians acknowledge that no one knows the exact day Jesus was born. The precise date of Jesus’ birth is not critical, and speculation and controversy about this topic can cause Christians to lose focus.
It is important that we rejoice and celebrate the central events in the life of Jesus Christ because he is the core and foundation of our faith. When we think about and ponder his birth, there are many issues that are mysterious and profound for us. God came to us, taking human flesh, dwelling with us, so that we might be saved. He never stopped being God, but he also became human. He was born of a virgin, and began his human life as a helpless and dependent baby, just as we all do.
How and why he did all of that for us is beyond our comprehension, but it is a subject that never ceases to cause us to marvel and to worship. Every December Christians (and many others who are not Christians but hear the gospel message nonetheless) center their lives in the miracle and mystery of the birth of our Lord.
And again, no one knows the actual day that Jesus was born. Attempts to calculate an exact date often fall into two schools of thought. Both methods depend on counting from the "course of Abijah." A course was a specific time when priests served in the temple.
The first method begins with Luke 1:5, 8 where we read that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was serving in the course of Abijah in the temple. 1 Chronicles 24:7-19 indicates that there were 24 courses. The assumption is that the eighth course was the course of Abijah and that this period of service started in early June. Assuming this conclusion to be accurate, some believe that we can count forward to discover the dates of birth for John the Baptist, and then by deduction, Jesus (born about six months after John, see Luke 1:24-36).
When was Jesus born?
Some people have claimed that Jesus was born near the fall festivals. That is possible, but it is not proven. Luke 2:1-3 says that "everyone went to his own town to register." Why would "everyone" go to such trouble? Apparently it was required. However, it is not likely that Rome would risk a rebellion by requiring each person to go to his own city at the same time as the local religion required everyone to go to Jerusalem. Most likely, an empire-wide census would take several years, and would be administered locally, by local customs, taking into account local religious festivals.
Some people have objected to the idea that Jesus was born in December, since there were shepherds staying in the fields (Luke 2:8), and shepherds supposedly didn't do that in winter. (I have never seen this documented.) The weather in Bethlehem is sometimes cold, but sometimes quite mild in December, and there would have been a practical need to keep sheep somewhere near Jerusalem for sacrificial purposes. This doesn't prove that Jesus was born in December, but it shows that the chief objection to a December birth isn't conclusive.
In the early third century (long before Constantine), Julius Africanus and Hippolytus came up with December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth. They don't tell us how they came up with this date, but John Chrysostom does. His calculation may have been innocent, or it may have been contrived. We do not know what his motive was. Therefore, we cannot say that the December 25 date was contrived simply because a pagan festival already existed on that date.
When the church first began celebrating Christmas, it had nothing to do with trees and holly and reindeer. All those were added centuries later in northern Europe. The fact that non-Christian customs were later associated with the festival does not prove that the date itself originated in paganism. It may have been based on calculation instead.
However, for the moment let us suppose that Christmas originated as a deliberate substitution for Saturnalia, a pagan holiday. Many of the people who attended church were recently-converted pagans. Some were not-yet converted pagans. They were attracted to the Saturnalia festivities, and sitting at home alone was not a desirable option when merrymaking could be heard in the streets all around. So, the theory goes, the church provided a clean alternative: going to church.
Would it be wrong to have a church service in deliberate opposition to Saturnalia? Of course not. There is no question of the church trying to worship God by the customs of the heathen — the church is fighting against the customs of the heathen. Only the date is the same, and there is good reason to have church services on that date, on which members can invite their unconverted friends and family into church and away from paganism. At some point, Christians could have made the comparison: on this date, pagans celebrate the birth of the sun god, but we are worshipping the sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2). We can celebrate his birth, too.
That may have been the way Christmas started. Apparently in the early centuries it was primarily a church service. And the strategy seems to have been successful: no one celebrates Saturnalia any more. Christians don't observe Christmas in honor of the sun god, just as they don't worship the little figurines that they may have in their homes or gardens. Although December 25, like many other dates, was once used for idol worship, that is not its meaning now.
Therefore, assuming that Elizabeth became pregnant right away, and that the pregnancies of both Mary and Elizabeth were normal in terms of length, John the Baptist would have been born in March, nine months after his conception in June. According to this calculation, Jesus might have been born in the month of September. For some, the fact that the autumn festivals of the Old Testament begin at this time adds credibility to these calculations.
If all these assumptions are correct, the conception of Jesus, when the miracle of incarnation really began, when Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), would have happened in December.
The second method of trying to fix a date for Jesus’ birth counts backward rather than forward. When the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the priestly course of Jehoiarib was serving. If the priestly service was unbroken from the time of Zechariah to the destruction of the temple, this calculation has the course of Abijah in the first week of October. Some early Christian writers (John Chrysostom, 347-407) taught that Zechariah received the message about John’s birth on the Day of Atonement, which falls in September or October. This would place John the Baptist’s birth in June or July, and the birth of Jesus six months later, in late December or early January. Some advocates of this second method view believe that December 25 is the correct day of Jesus’ birth, while others believe that January 6 is the correct day.
Luke 2:1-7 mentions a tax census ordered by Augustus Caesar. The census records were eventually taken to Rome. Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) requested that the true date of Jesus’ birth be taken from the census documents. He reported that the date he was given from these documents was December 25. Unfortunately, these records are no longer available.
So what does all this mean to you and me? It means that no one knows for sure when Jesus was born. The exact date of the first coming of our Lord is much like the date of his return. No one knows the exact day or hour of the Second Coming (Matthew 24: 36, 42, 44, 50; 25:13). Despite this, many Christians have become enthralled with predicting the date of his return, often losing sight of Jesus Christ and the gospel in the process.
Even though we do not know the exact date when Jesus will return, we may celebrate and look forward to the Second Coming. We may celebrate his return on any date we choose, and it is possible to do so without becoming sidetracked with predictions and speculations about an exact date!
The Bible does not command us to celebrate either the first coming or the return of Jesus Christ. However, believers and followers of the Lord are permitted to rejoice because of the significance and meaning of these two events. There can be no Second Coming without the first. We may celebrate his birth on any date we choose, and it is possible to do so without becoming sidetracked with irrelevant debate about the exact day of his birth.
Jesus is the reason for the season. We do not celebrate a day, but rather we celebrate the fact that God, in the person of Jesus ("Immanuel—which means ‘God with us’" — Matthew 1:23) came to save us from our sins." It was in Jesus that God gave us the greatest gift. He came to save us, to give us salvation, and eternal life. He gives us that gift freely, by the riches of his grace. We celebrate the extravagant and lavish love of God that is demonstrated by the birth of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of when Jesus was actually born, our hearts overflow with thanksgiving and joy that God chose to send his Son into the world for our redemption and salvation. The gospel does not require the celebration of Christmas, nor for that matter, that any particular festival occasion be observed. On the other hand, I hope everyone also understands that there is no time that is "off limits" for us to meet together to celebrate the good things God has done for us through his Son. In other words, the gospel does not forbid the observance of Christmas, either.
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It is fitting that we come together as Christian brothers and sisters to celebrate God’s love whenever we meet. Whether it be on Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter, or some other annual occasions, we are free to joyfully give praise and honor to God as his beloved children. Every celebration is an expression of our love and devotion to God. Let each of us learn how to celebrate "unto the Lord" without condemning those who do so in a different way.