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Are we celebrating Jesus’ birth at the wrong time?

752px-Gerard_van_Honthorst_001One of the problems about the development of traditions around Christmas is that people writing hymns or plays set Jesus’ birth in their own world rather than in what we know of the first century. In particular, many assume that Jesus was born in winter, since Christmas is celebrated in winter in the northern hemisphere. (It would be interesting to see some genuinely antipodeal hymns: ‘In the deep midwinter’ would become ‘In the height of summer’…)

It is fairly widely recognised that the celebration of Christmas was not determined by the historical date of Jesus’ birth, but by the displacement of pagan winter celebrations by Christian evangelists. So can we know when in the year Jesus was born?


The first clue comes in noting the relation between the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1.26–27)

If Mary conceived soon after this, and assuming that Mary and Elizabeth both went to term, then Jesus was born five to six months after John. (Notice that the visit of Gabriel was in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.)

The second clue comes in noting when John’s father, Zechariah, was serving his term as priest in the temple. Zechariah belonged to the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1.5) and we know when this division served from 1 Chronicles 24.7–19:

The first lot fell to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah,
the third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim,
the fifth to Malkijah, the sixth to Mijamin,
the seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah,
the ninth to Jeshua, the tenth to Shecaniah…

calendar-lgEach of the 24 divisions served for a week, but all divisions served together at major festivals. We need to remember that the ecclesiastical calendar began in the month of Nisan, around the end of March, whereas the domestic calendar began at Rosh HaShannah (‘the head of the year’) at the end of September. (We also need to remember that the Jewish calendar uses lunar months of 29 or 30 days, and has to add an extra month in six years out of every 19 to align with the solar year. So correspondences with months in the Gregorian calendar vary from one year to another.) This pattern of service was interrupted during the exile when Solomon’s temple was destroyed, but it was restored (presumably from this text) on the return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple.

Assuming Zechariah was on his first duty of the year, the timing would look like this:

EventPriestly division on dutyMonthWeek
1. Jehoiarib1
Nissan
1
2. Jedaiah2
Passover FestivalAll 243
3. Harim4
4. Seorim2
Iyar
5
5. Malkijah6
6. Mijamin7
7. Hakkoz8
8. Abijah3
Sivan
9
Schavuot (Weeks or Pentecost)All 2410
Zechariah returns home: John conceived 9. Jeshua11
10. Shecaniah12

So John was likely conceived in the second half of Sivan, which is around the beginning of June. Adding the six months between John and Jesus, and the nine months of Mary’s gestation, brings us to around the middle of September the following year.

So Jesus would have been born in September.


Some interesting points arise from this calculation:

1. This would mean that the shepherds in their fields were outdoors in September (Luke 2.8). Given the mild weather at this time of year, this is highly plausible. The hill country around Jerusalem and Bethlehem is cold in the winter, often with snow, so this would be less likely in December.

2. There is a tradition that Jesus was conceived on 25th December (rather than born then), and this would fit with Elizabeth’s visit to her in her sixth month.

3. There is also a tradition that ‘Elijah’ who comes to prepare the way for the Messiah would be born at Passover, which is John’s date of birth by this calculation.

4. If Jesus was born in September, that would be close to one of the three major pilgrim feasts, that of Succoth, also called Tabernacles or ‘Booths’. This feast commemorates the period of time that Israel lived in tents in the wilderness. ‘Tents’ is succoth in Hebrew, tabernacula in Latin and skenai in Greek; we get our word ‘scene’ from this, since tent material would have been hung at the back of the stage in a Greek theatre. This connects with John 1.14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [Gk: skenoo] among us.

which some have translated ‘tabernacled among us’ to bring out this connection. So it might be that John’s theological reflection on Jesus was prompted by knowing the date of his birth.


A further theological point of interest is that Jesus’ life, death and ministry are then connected with all three of the pilgrim feasts. He was born at Succoth, crucified and risen at Passover (Pesach) and the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost (Shavuot). [Many years ago I read David Pawson arguing that Jesus’ return would happen at Pentecost, to complete the three, but I think he missed the significance of the outpouring of the Spirit at this festival.]

Of course, Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah could have taken place during his second duty as priest, which would have been around six months later, putting the Annunciation in June and Jesus’ birth in March. I have found no arguments either for or against this in the literature.

Does this all mean we are wasting our time celebrating Christmas in December? Not at all. The main point of Christmas is not chronology but theology. As I comment elsewhere:

As the nights close in, and the days shorten, we long to see light. As the winter gets colder, we long for warmth. As nature around us seems strangled by death, we need signs of hope and life. And as the inconvenience of going out gets greater, and we are more isolated from friends and neighbours, we long for company…Who can bring us light but the light of the world (John 8.12)? Who can bring us warmth but the one who has poured God’s love into our hearts (Rom 5.5)? Who gives us hope beyond death, but the one who not only tasted death for us but swallowed it up in victory (1 Cor 15.54)? And who else can bring us into friendship with God (2 Cor 5.18–19)?

(First posted in December 2013)


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13 Responses to Are we celebrating Jesus’ birth at the wrong time?

  1. Peter Ould December 29, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    Even better, doing this dating

    (i) places the Annunciation at the end of the Chanukkah festival – check out the liturgy for that and the Magnificat / Gabriel’s words,

    (ii) lets us figure out which conjunction of planets works astrologically (for Babylonians) and cosmologically to have the Magi visit setting out after Jesus’ birth.

  2. James Cooper December 29, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

    Thanks Ian, top stuff as usual! I’ve got the ‘popular’ possible star theories explained over on my Christmas site: http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/star-of-bethlehem.shtml

    I have no problems with having three ‘stars’ as they all involve Jupiter (so ‘a’ central star) and they cover the whole astrologically/cosmologically ‘known’ world at that time!

    • Ian Paul December 29, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

      Thanks James. Does your list include ones that could work in the timing as Peter observes?

      • Ian Paul December 29, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

        Nice list of theories there…I think comprehensive…?

        I wonder if the theory that Herod’s death was recorded incorrectly really has any mileage…?

  3. BG December 29, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

    Would love to hear your comments/thoughts on this from Edersheim’s Life of Christ:

    There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date (i.e. 25th December). The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable. The subject has been fully discussed in an article by Cassel in Herzog’s Real. Ency. xvii. pp. 588-594. But a curious piece of evidence comes to us from a Jewish source. In the addition to the Megillath Taanith (ed. Warsh. p. 20 a), the 9th Tebheth is marked as a fast day, and it is added, that the reason for this is not stated. Now, Jewish chronologists have fixed on that day as that of Christ’s birth, and it is remarkable that, between the years 500 and 816 A.D. the 25th of December fell no less than twelve times on the 9th Tebheth. If the 9th Tebheth, or 25th December, was regarded as the birthday of Christ, we can understand the concealment about it. Comp. Zunz, Ritus d. Synag. Gottesd. p. 126.

  4. Peter Ould December 29, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    So over 316 years one Jewish day in a lunar cycle fell on the 25th December 12 times? Well that’s what you would expect from a 29 day month altering when it starts. 12 * 29 = 348.

  5. David Chislett December 30, 2016 at 1:57 am #

    On the other hand … there is this by historian Bill Tighe.

    http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

    • Dave December 30, 2016 at 8:27 am #

      Another detailed view.
      To my mind, the summary makes room for Ian’s reasoning.

      Thanks.

    • BG December 30, 2016 at 10:26 am #

      Thank you.

  6. Julie Sheppard December 30, 2016 at 4:55 am #

    This is truly an informative post. I have known for a while that the day Christmas is celebrated is the winter solstice but the way you broke down the dates really sheds a clearer understanding of the times.

  7. BG December 30, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    The Edersheim paragraph (above) has intrigued me for years. I would really value more help in understanding it as I don’t, for one thing, understand the religious technical references. I think it is clearly referencing a defence of December 25th as the birthdate of Christ – (can anyone give me a link to the Cassel article?) and I have huge respect for Edersheim.

    I appreciate that it does refer to early centuries but if December 25th was merely an appropriation by the Christians to christianize pagan celebrations why would the Jews be ’embarrassed’ enough by that date to take some evasive action in regards to it? (Am I misunderstanding something here?) Why did Jewish chronologists fix on that day as that of Christ’s birth?

    Honest questions here! Honest plea for further insight. Thank you.

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