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
2. Jedaiah 2
Passover Festival All 24 3
3. Harim 4
4. Seorim 2
5. Malkijah 6
6. Mijamin 7
7. Hakkoz 8
8. Abijah 3
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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26 thoughts on “Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas”

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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…?

  5. 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?

  6. 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?

    • 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?

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. The part on Jesus’ birth being on the feast of tabernacles bears witness in my spirit as the truth
    AND there are good points made.

  10. Mr Paul.

    Interesting post, thank you.

    I oppose religious harm – racism, sexism, gay and trans hate, as well as all religious involvement in politics.

    I don’t accept the virgin birth, resurrection or miracles.

    However unlike some atheists I do believe there was a revolutionary Jewish preacher and am interested in evidence of the historical Jesus (Yeshua) outside of the New Testament.

    Bart Ehrman puts forward a good case for the historical Jesus – but a less convincing theological case – which would probably put many Christians off investigating his research further.

    Too many Christians aren’t interested in the history of their religion – they have difficulty in separating theology (virgin births, miracles, resurrections) from the history ofJesus and early Christianity.

  11. By Flavius Josephus, Roman Historian, 90 A.D.

    “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” – Jewish Antiquities,

    Josephus also discusses John the Baptist in Antiquities,

    In addition, Josephus tells about the brother of Jesus, James, being brought before the court of the Sanhedrin, as Josephus specifically mentions the names of both James and Jesus. – Antiquities

    The 4 Gospels were all written and distributed during the generation that had witnessed these events. If these were all just “fairy tells” then these writings would have been easily refuted and never seen the light of day. Two of the Gospels were written by apostles and were thus eye-witness accounts.

    Jesus did not have a “day job” of being the Christ and then punch out at night. Wanting to separate His life from His works is what every other religion has attempted to do. Islam calls Him a prophet, but refutes His being the Son of God who died on the cross and rose again. Read the other religions “history” of Christ Jesus for your answer. (Only if Truth is not your destiny)

  12. Few Jewish girls received a basic biblical education, such as boys received in the synagogue schools, and Nazareth probably wouldn’t have rated an exceptional rabbi. Yet Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ is an exceptional document. How did she gain such knowledge? Either (a) Miraculously through the Holy Spirit; (b) Her mother was a godly woman and began training Mary at the beginning on how to raise her divine child;.(c) This is when Elizabeth comes into the picture. The daughter of a priest and the wife of another, Elizabeth tutored Mary in the things of God for at least three months and maybe more. I opt for (c). Why? It seems to me that Elizabeth is more than a bit player in this drama. I am not saying that Elizabeth wrote Mary’s ‘magnificat,’ but I wouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth helped Mary identify with Hannah whose song Mary almost plagiarized. Any reactions?

    • Thanks Bill. There is also the possibility that Mary belonged to a group, the Nazoreans, who were particularly interested in the coming of Messiah and prophecy. So, though perhaps not formally educated, Mary might well have been steeped in these ideas—as indeed many otherwise not-very-literate religious groups often are.

      I don’t think this contradicts your interesting comment about the role of Elizabeth, but perhaps could provide a social context for it.

  13. I have a problem with the birthday of Jesus being at the Feast of Tabernacles.

    This feast is about the end of the world, the final joining of the Jews & the gentiles together into one building. It is also called the feast of ingathering and hints at the end time harvest into Heaven when we all live together in or as one temple. While we can see this being fulfilled through Jesus in the Church (the Church being born on Pentecost), it has yet to be fulfilled in the feast of tabernacles way as the Jews as a nation have not yet converted to their Messiah. Therefore, I don’t believe Tabernacles was the birth day of Jesus.

    The Feast of Tabernacles also does not fit within the sequence of Gods activities. The sequence of the seven major feasts has so far followed the sequence of events for Jesus crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and the birth of the Church. The feasts fulfilled are Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits (fulfilled by Jesus), and Pentecost (fulfilled by the holy spirit). So why would Tabernacles, the last of the seven feasts, be related to the start of the sequence with the birth of the Messiah? The chronological timeline sequence does not fit.

    If God has proclaimed the sequence of events in chronological sequence, then we need to find an event in the Old Testament which is before Passover rather than after it.

    In modern times we read John 1 and find that Jesus has ‘Tabernacled’ amongst us and so also link it with the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’. But what if the tabernacle John mentioned was not the feast but the physical tabernacle that was created by Moses during the Exodus, the tabernacle of the presence of God amongst us rather than the gathering together of all nations into one building?

    If Jesus birth is related to the tabernacle of Moses, according to Exodus 40:2 the tabernacle was first erected on 1 Nisan which is the start of the religious year. When was Moses given the pattern for the tabernacle? The Jews celebrate this as occurring on Shavuot which we call Pentecost. Nine months after Pentecost is 1st Nisan which is the religious new year when everything is made new.

    So, we can see a nine-month period for the creation of the tabernacle of God’s presence, and that matches the human gestation period of nine months or 40-42 weeks.

    1st Nisan is also when everything is made new, the old is disposed of, everything starts again. That sounds so much more like Jesus work that the Feast of Tabernacles.

    So, I have made an assumption that Jesus would have been born on the first day of the week as that would symbolically be appropriate with Jewish understanding of the number 1 (i.e. unity, divinity, and wholeness, as exemplified by God). 1st Nisan falls on a Sunday in 3BC (Jewish year 3758).

    If that is correct (I found a website that would show me the Gregorian and Jewish dates that far back, although it also allowed a Gregorian year 0 which should be 1BC!), working backwards 15 months (approx. 66.7 weeks) from 1st Nisan 3758 we get to week 39 3757 (around 01/12 4BC) which would then be when John was conceived.

    Incidentally, the priestly divisions of Abijah and Jeshua appear to always to fall either side of Pentecost. Abijah means “my Father is Yah” which is short for Yahweh, and Jeshua is Joshua in English which is Jesus Hebrew name. I think the Jews also consider that life starts at conception rather than birth as we do in the west. So, Jesus being ‘conceived’ at Pentecost would seem to me to also be very symbolic, especially with the names of the priestly divisions which served either side of Pentecost. But you will know more of the possible symbolism than I do.

    As a reference, a lot of my inspiration for this was given by the YouTube video There are different versions of this video available.

  14. Of course we will never know the exact date Jesus was born. What matters is that we recognize His birth and celebrate it. This was a very interesting article to read. However I will continue to celebrate the birth of our Savior on this day because it’s what we have. Some orphans have no idea when they were born, yet to set aside a special day just for recognizing their birth…becomes their birthday. Jesus deserves a special day more than anyone else in this world. And I’m proud to serve Him.

  15. I know of nowhere in scripture where we are instructed to commemorate Christ’s birth. We are told to observe baptism (our union with Christ in his death and resurrection) and communion (commemorating his death; 1Cor 11:26). So it doesn’t appear we are obligated to celebrate His birth; we don’t even know exactly when it is.

    I used to say that Christmas was a Humbug for that reason: commercialized and, in the end, an unlikely birth date anyway. But more recently I recognized that we have a rich Christian tradition preserved in carols and an ongoing re-telling of the Lukan and Matthean birth stories. These are a perpetual witness of the appearance of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in a miraculous way 2000 years ago. I’ve seen atheists write in forums that they consider themselves hard core atheists, but they love Christmas music at the holiday times. So… this is good! Even atheists are aware of the first part of the Gospel story because a pope or two back in the 4th century decided to make the birth date of Christ part of the faith of the church. Christians since then have forth-told the gospel in story and carol since then. This is very good! And so I say, Merry Christmas, and God Bless us Everyone!

  16. Yes Jesus does deserve a special day, but he wasn’t born on 25th December, and too many people keep insisting that he was and that this day is in fact his birthday.

    I foresee a problem, which is already gathering pace, where the west is rejecting what can be seen as an imposition of Christian religion onto those who don’t want it. They are rejecting God and not us, but they will aim it at us as his representatives.

    How do we deal with it? Part of the response of some of the Church will be to insist that it did take place then and that it should be celebrated then and by everyone. The problem is that Church doctrine and tradition is, in some Churches, superseding the bible itself. We also find that the World (probably helped by the Church) has embellished the Christmas story to include so many inaccuracies that Christians often do not know what the real biblical narrative is anyway.

    As Christmas day has become embellished and diluted with so many inaccuracies and additional worldly and pagan items (i.e. father christmas, who is actually the Norse god Odin and nothing to do with Jesus but is somehow sharing the activity on his birthday), so the Christian part of the day can therefore be rejected by many by discounting the inaccuracies, and in doing so reject God. This would be the same method that the serpent used in the Garden of Eden when Adam & Eve had embellished God’s command. Eve said that God said ‘do not eat and do not touch’. If you read God’s command to Adam he just said ‘do not eat’. So, as the serpent was able to show that touching the fruit didn’t kill him, he used the embellishment to break down the whole commandment. So we will find the same applies with Christmas Day, and probably Easter as well. Strip away the inaccuracies and the whole day collapses in the minds of others. Too often today we can all reject an item completely if one part can be shown to be false, as that then throws doubt on the rest of the item.

    Our instinct will probably be to defend the Christian traditions and ask ‘why is it being changed?’, but it was never ‘our’ day in the first place. So we will find it harder to witness as we will be seen as fighting with people. We already see this fighting in other areas of life such as sexual sin, but stopping sinning does not make a Christian, one stops sinning because one is a Christian. It should all be about having a relationship with God and not trying to do the correct thing to please God.

    What I do not know is how to easily strip back the embellishments to the true story. And I also expect the world will insist that the embellishments stay as that is the story narrative they already know and therefore expect to hear.

  17. Very nice commentary. It is presented concisely and factually.

    In 2 BCE the year of the conception of John, Nisan 1 was on March 27 and Nisan 14, Passover, was on April 11.
    In 3 BC the year of birth of both John and Jesus, Nisan 1 was on March 13. Nisan 14, Passover, was on March 30.
    By using these dates and looking at the Hebrew calendar and the timeline in your article, John the Baptist was born during Passover, as you wrote and Jesus was born on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, September 25 on Tishri 15. God came to dwell with His people. To Tabernacle with them as when the Glory Cloud entered the Meeting Tent in the desert. The light of the world as the Water Libation ceremony demonstrated. It is also on this day, the year before, when our Lord stood up in the Temple and cried out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.”
    Also, with our Lord being born on the first day of Sukkot, it means he was circumcised, on day eight, as written and according to law, the feast of the Great Last Day also known as the feast of Simchat Torah. It celebrates the number eight, which means new beginnings and becomes the first day of the new beginning of the reign of Christ the King and rejoicing in the Law.
    The biblical prophesies of the other six Feasts of the Lord were fulfilled by Jesus in the same way.

  18. It is all very interesting. So long ago and little proof that any of this is true. Maybe he was just a clever man full of kindness and humility

    • So little proof? The most reliable texts from the ancient world? A movement that changed the world starting with unlearned people in the small corner of a global empire?

      A clever man full of kindness—who said ‘If you have seen me, you have seen God’? Is this what people full of humility say?

  19. In reading the above comments, some researched, some not, I find that we “celebrate” his birth and that since we don’t know exactly what day of the year: we use the current calendar date December 25 as a reference point for his birth. Further, we should not be more concerned with his birth date than what he represents.

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