One 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. There’s also a common (mostly anti-Christian) myth that the date of 25th December was chosen to displace the pagan festival of Sol Invictus, but Andrew McGowan of Yale University has demonstrated that this was 12th-century anti-Christmas propaganda. From the earliest times there appear to have been two contesting dates, December 25th in the West, and January 6th in the East of the empire. The December date comes from counting nine months on from the believed date of Jesus’ conception, March 25th, which was also (for theological reasons) believed to have been the same date that Jesus died on.
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…
Each 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|
|Passover Festival||All 24||3|
|Schavuot (Weeks or Pentecost)||All 24||10|
|Zechariah returns home: John conceived||9. Jeshua||11|
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 or around 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.
It is worth pointing out that it is rather unusual that we can be relatively confident of historical events at this kind of level of detail. The root source of this is the Jewish interest in schedules and calendars, in this case, the rota of priestly duties. Such precision and organisation is relatively rare in the ancient world, and it offers a historical framework for the material of the New Testament that is unrivalled.
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)?
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?