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Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas

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:

Event Priestly division on duty Month Week
1. Jehoiarib 1
Nissan
1
2. Jedaiah 2
Passover Festival All 24 3
3. Harim 4
4. Seorim 2
Iyar
5
5. Malkijah 6
6. Mijamin 7
7. Hakkoz 8
8. Abijah 3
Sivan
9
Schavuot (Weeks or Pentecost) All 24 10
Zechariah returns home: John conceived  9. Jeshua 11
10. Shecaniah 12

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)?


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12 Responses to Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas

  1. Gerald Cook December 27, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    I always understood as Christianity grew in this part of the world, believers might well have understood that the birth of Jesus was not likely to be Dec 25th. While everybody was celebrating the rebirth of the Sun why not celebrate the birth of the Son

  2. John Squires December 28, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Well, your theological explanation is all nice and neat … except for people like me, who live in the southern hemisphere, where Christmas occurs a couple of days after the LONGEST day of the year, when we are in blazing sunshine and heat, lolling about for our summer holidays! Should we transfer our celebration to June 25????

  3. Steve Walton December 28, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    Good post, Ian. There are some good southern hemisphere carols, as we discovered when I preached in a Melbourne church five years ago on the Sunday before Christmas.

  4. Ian Paul December 28, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Thanks Steve. Do they mention lying on the beach?!

  5. Ian Paul December 28, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    John, greetings from the cold north! I guess I was trying to account for why the celebrations should be established mid-winter is that was *not* the date of Jesus’ birth. But can you make some other theological connections…?

  6. Liz Shercliff November 3, 2014 at 7:53 am #

    i overheard a conversation in a local coffee shop the other day in which a mother was carefully explaining to her 8/9 year old daughter that Jesus wasn’t born at all, but is merely a religious myth. I wonder how many people outside the church believe this to be the case, and whether we ought really to be rehearsing historical arguments for the fact of His birth rather than thinking too much about the time of year?

  7. David Fraser December 29, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    Interesting article, thanks! One question: “Assuming Zechariah was on his first duty of the year” – assuming he’s on the second makes it around six months different… Why would you assume this?

    • Ian Paul January 2, 2015 at 11:24 pm #

      That’s a great question!

      I think the simple answer is that there are traditions supporting the Annunciation in March and Jesus’ birth in December, and the Annunciation in December with Jesus’ birth in September. But to my knowledge there has never been a tradition of the Annunciation in June with Jesus’ birth in March—which is what would result from Zechariah being on his second duty of the year.

      Does that make sense?

  8. Andrew March 31, 2016 at 3:05 am #

    One Australian christmas carol is “The North Wind” ( http://tww.id.au/christmas/carol-day.html ). However, it’s not anachronistic in that the association with summer is the celebration or Christ’s birth, not the birth itself.

  9. Tonja Davidson December 6, 2017 at 4:32 am #

    I have read many references to the fact that Jesus birth is a myth . I guess it comes down to studying our Bible and Faith in Christ

  10. Andrew Jaussi December 7, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    As an agriculturalist/animal scientist, I find that the phrase, “…there were shepherds abiding in the fields, watching their flocks by night.” is instructive. Historically, the shepherds let their sheep out into the pastures in the spring because the grass was newly and freshly green so that the animals could get fresh forage inside them for milk production and lambing. This happens in March/April. The shepherds would not be in the fields by night unless it was warmer and full of green forages. In September and October the forages are beginning to be brittle and dry and not best for lambing and milk production. Because of this, I believe that Jesus was born in the Spring. This could be offset, of course, if the tribe of Judah new about irrigation like the tribe of Joseph discovered in the desert West in the state of Utah in the 1840’s. Have a good day.

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