When was Jesus really born? (spoiler: not in December!)

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. 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…

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 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)?


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48 thoughts on “When was Jesus really born? (spoiler: not in December!)”

    • The critical factor is when the division of Abijah would serve. Ian, following the schedule in the link to Schneider, places this 6 weeks after Passover (“assuming Zechariah was on his first duty of the year”) which is end of May or beginning of June. Gavin Ashenden places the service around the time of Yom Kippur, at the end of September or beginning of October. He does not justify this.

      There is a Wikipedia page on this which gives the dates the divisions would serve over the next few years:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_divisions

      However, this seems to imply that the 24 divisions seem to serve in a continuous sequence, without regard to festivals! As a result, each year the division will serve about a month earlier.

      If this pattern is correct, then we need to know the year when Zechariah was visited by the angel in order to determine the month.

      Then a bit more googling found this:

      http://www.torahtimes.org/writings/machloqet-cohanim/article.html

      which points out that we don’t know for certain how the divisions operate, but uses different systems of calculation to work back from the destruction of the temple to round about the right year. It discusses some of the issues in chosing a system. In particular, if the cycle restarts each year, then the early divisions will always have more work to do. If the cycle is continuous, then, as per Wikipedia, the time of year for a given division will shift from year to year.

      Perhaps neither Ian nor Gavin should be quite so certain as to the time of year of Zechariah’s service in the temple.

      The one indication of the time of year is that shepherd were out in the fields ‘keeping watch over their flocks by night.’ Some say the reason for this would be lambing. When does lambing happen in the hill country of Judea?

      Reply
      • David, thanks for this. The Wikipedia article does appear to omit the festivals. I was interested as well in the comment that, following the destruction of the temple, the priestly divisions moved to locations around Israel. Richard Bauckham argues or assumes that they were always thus distributed in his recent article on Cana and the wedding.

        Reply
        • The scheme you are using assumes:
          – the ecclesiastical year starts in Nisan and not at Rosh HaShannah
          – the priestly cycle (re-)started at this point
          – the three week long (actually 8 day) festivals interrupted the cycle with ‘all hands on deck’.

          Are there some pointers to the evidence for this?

          Also, with this scheme, the total cycle length is 51 weeks (2 x 24 + 3). Who fills in the one or two weeks of the short cycle? This ‘unfairness’ is the basis for saying that the cycle just continues without regard to the year (as, indeed, do weeks ending with the Sabbath).

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    • Thanks Will. Gavin appears to have made multiple errors, but they are hidden because he has not laid out his calculation clearly.

      As I mention above, the domestic calendar begins with the month of Nissan, usually our mid-March. For some reason, Gavin has started his year in Av, which is the start of neither the ecclesiastical nor the domestic calendar.

      And he makes no mention of the feast weeks, when all 24 divisions are on duty.

      His goal appears to confirm the tradition of the early church, which elsewhere he maintains expresses a historically reliable record of events, in parallel with the written record of Scripture—without any real evidence.

      A strange argument really…

      Reply
    • Gavin also claims here that Telesphorus, whom Gavin claims is the seventh bishop of Rome, celebrated Christmas on Dec 25th, but I know of no evidence that this was the case.

      This website https://didyouknow.org/christmas/history/ makes the following comment:

      “To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festival, early Christians decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, the celebrations took on a Christian observance. But the early church actually did not celebrate the birth of Christ in December until Telesphorus, who was the second Bishop of Rome from 125 to 136AD, declared that Church services should be held during this time to celebrate “The Nativity of our Lord and Saviour.” However, since no-one was quite sure in which month Christ was born, Nativity was often held in September, which was during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets (modern-day Rosh Hashanah). In fact, for more than 300 years, people observed the birth of Jesus on various dates.

      In the year 274 AD, solstice fell on 25th December. Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as “Natalis Solis Invicti,” the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. In 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ.”

      Again, Gavin wants the tradition to be right, so appears to invent facts to confirm this.

      Reply
  1. When I studied the Gospels for my Bachelor’s degree, I traced these things to the OT Scriptures and back again. I even looked into Lightfoot’s, Schaff’s and other authors writings. I think the concept of Jesus’ birth in September seems most likely. Thank you for posting this information out for others to read.

    At the time I had a Christian friend who discovered his mother was Jewish, and he began paying a lot of attention to calendars, practices, festivals, and more. It served me well to pay attention to what we can learn from putting our attention on facts, rather than on beliefs.

    I appreciate your hard work to keep up with studying, interviewing, and more. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Interesting. Proximity to a festival might also explain why the guest room was already taken up although there could of course be any number of reasons for that, not least the census.

    Taylor Marshall argued in a book and blog post that Jesus was born on 25 December, using priestly division on duty calculations, see https://taylormarshall.com/2012/12/yes-christ-was-really-born-on-december.html. Gavin Ashenden’s post may be based on this.

    There has been a little debate about the historical climate of Bethlehem and Jerusalem with some suggesting that two thousands years ago was similar to today, others arguing that it was wetter and milder. Sadly I don’t have details on any research in this area.

    But even if there was some frost and snow in winter, as Bethlehem can experience today, I wonder what would have happened to the sheep. Do we have any evidence that they were kept somewhere else in winter than in summer?

    Reply
  3. Surely if we can tie down the return of Christ to a festival (and I recognise the flaws in attempting such a thing), it must be the Feast of Trumpets. It’s the feast at the end of the harvest period, the trumpet is the sound of the return, and it doesn’t seem to symbolise anything else in the life of Christ.

    Reply
  4. I see a lot of “ifs” in there Ian, and, whilst your theological reasoning at the end is excellent, it does of course only work for the northern hemisphere. Have a meaningful Christmas whenever you celebrate Christ’s birth and thank you for your continuing thought provoking articles

    Reply
    • Thanks Chris. But the only real ‘if’ is whether Jesus was born in September or March, depending on whether Zechariah was doing his first or second duty.

      I would suggest that this is a plausible reconstruction, rather than speculation…

      Reply
      • Foe one who is so far from the events in question it can only be arrogance that would categorically declare that “the only question is”.
        At the end of the day other than fulfilling a need to show oneself to be smarter than everyone else what does it matter? Those who do not believe will continue to glom onto the thought that the story of Jesus is made up, thus saturnalia comes in. Those who question will not accept the stated facts of the story as one respondent above wants to think this explains the extra room being filled. No matter that the story explains that already.
        Why is it so important that your understanding is THE CORRECT ONE? Is this not one of those areas in which we should be able to give great grace to one another and not act as though we possess the divine inspiration?

        Reply
        • Yes, perhaps so. But a couple of things worth noting:

          First, this discussion has mostly been driven by those who staunchly defend the traditional date. I don’t there is any reason or grounds for doing that.

          Secondly, once we sit loose to the date, then we can focus on theological issues.

          Thirdly, it is remarkable that we can have the possibility of knowing at this level of details—thanks to Jewish obsession with calendars.

          And, fourthly, you would be amazed to find out how many people find this kind of historical details fascinating.

          Reply
          • I enjoy it.

            Ian, you say you know of no grounds for defending the traditional date. Edersheim disagrees with you, although he doesn’t go into (enough) detail to defend his case. Just saying.

          • Brian, I know of no argument *based on evidence*.

            All the arguments that have been unearthed in the threads above are based on one argument from a Talmudic source about the timing of the divisions. But this is not really supported with evidence, and goes quite against what we do know about the ecclesiastical year.

            See my replied to Will Jones, Thomas Renz and David Wilson.

  5. ‘As the nights close in, and the days shorten, we long to see light. As the winter gets colder, we long for warmth.’

    Oh dear, personally I prefer autumn & winter to summer, I enjoy the cold and the dark nights!

    Am I the only one?

    Peter

    Reply
    • I think the Hippolytus tradition is interesting, and shows the tradition that developed.

      But it is based on the notion that heroes died on the day they were conceived, and that a woman gives birth nine months to the day after conception.

      I am not sure it tells us more than the early belief in these two realities. And no-one now defends this date of Jesus’ death, since it doesn’t match with what we know of Jewish calendars.

      Reply
    • I always thought the reason that the Russians celebrate Christmas on the 7th January of the Gregorian calendar is that this is the 25th December of the Julian calendar and why the October revolution of 1917 was in November of the Gregorian calendar.

      Reply
  6. Thank you. I do enjoy this matter and I am a firm believer (by mere instinct) in the December 25th date. I’m also content to wait until eternity to be proved right. Meantime, Edersheim does say: “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 I have been unable to track down that article in well equipped libraries and even on the information superhighway. I have a feeling however that the truth is out there…

    Reply
    • This is really frustrating! He talks about ‘plugging it into an astronomy machine’but he doesn’t really explain what he is doing with this passage.

      Worse that than, he ignores *most* of the OT allusions in the passage, and appears to ignore all the correlation with the Python/Leto myth, which all the best informed see as vital to understanding the shape of Rev 12.

      I don’t think this passage has anything to do with the date of Jesus’ birth! Even though he agrees with me on a September date.

      Reply
  7. Would this work for your first verse Ian…..?

    In the height of summer
    desert winds they cry.
    Earth was dry and barren
    sun baked from on high.
    Sands were shifting, sand on sand,
    sand on sand.
    In the height of summer,
    in that Holy Land.

    Reply
  8. I also came to the conclusion that Jesus was born in September, at Succoth, based on a Bible study of 1 Chronicles 24.7–19. For me, it ticks all the boxes, viewed from the perspective of the Old Testament and Hebrew calendar, the Feasts of the Lord. The winter Feast of Dedication, mentioned in John 10:22, Hanukkah, the time of seed sowing, the commemoration of the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 BC, the miracle of the oil, all combine in perfect and beautiful symbolism, pointing to the conception of the Seed/Light of God in the womb/Temple of Mary. Even Mary/Maryam’s name, ‘bitterness’, comes from the same root as the word ‘myrrh’, which can mean distilled oil.

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  9. Ian, many thanks for this thoughtful and careful explanation. Having recently finished Colin Nicholl’s book ‘The Great Christ Comet’, in which he uses a wealth of astronomical data to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus was probably born near the end of October (in the year 6 B.C.) two questions spring to mind: 1) How much margin for error is there in your calculations – and is it sufficient to cover a date a few weeks later? 2) I think your argument for September is independent of the year; is that correct?

    Reply
    • Yes, that is correct. I think astronomical explanations are interesting—but I am persuaded by Dick France who points that that *no* star can stand above and point out a house. He concludes from this that it was indeed miraculous.

      Reply
  10. “The north wind is tossing the leaves,
    The red dust is over the town,
    The sparrows are under the eaves
    And the grass in the paddock is brown
    As we lift up our voices and sing
    To the Christ child, the heavenly king!”

    You can look it up at hymnary.org under the first line. Who knows how they’ve represented the tune, which I remember in terms of clashing chords. This is from a little book of Australian carols which was quite famous in its day, but seems to have faded into obscurity.

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  11. Can you please give a link to the Yale scholar you mentioned? Thanks and Happy (secular) New Year when we celebrate the annual return of unwanted presents and unkept resolutions.

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  12. Hi Ian,
    I know this is on a slightly different matter, but I wondered if you could offer some evidence to debunk the following idea.
    David.

    The first gospel written was Mark in about 66-70 AD. It has nothing about Jesus’ birth or early life. Matthew and Luke were written in the 80s or 90s using Mark and other sources. There were prophesies about the Messiah widely accepted by Jews at the time: that he would be descended from David, be born in Bethlehem, be born to a virgin and come out of Egypt. The birth stories in Matthew and Luke fit with these prophesies. It seems quite possible that the bits which purport to fulfil these prophesies were added to provide evidence that God was behind it all. By the time Matthew and Luke were written, it is unlikely that anyone would have still been around who knew anything about Jesus early life, so the authors could get away with writing anything. The events surrounding Jesus’ early life wouldn’t have been public knowledge anyway, but would only have been known by his parents, who would certainly have been dead by the time Matthew and Luke added them to the gospel. It is unlikely that the magi would have recorded them for posterity as they went back home. And the shepherds would probably have been illiterate and not too concerned about recording history. The claims made about his early life have no historical support outside the bible. In fact, the birth story seems unlikely on historical grounds. Firstly, Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census of Quirinius, then fled to Egypt because Herod (the Great, 37-4 BC) decreed that all boys in and around Bethlehem under two should be killed. But Herod the Great died 9 years before the census. The Census was held when Herod’s son, Herod Archelaus, was deposed when Rome established direct rule over Judea in 6 AD. So even Herod Archelaus couldn’t have given the decree. Secondly, by Roman custom, the census would have required people to be counted in their own town, not in the town of a distant ancestor, so they wouldn’t have needed to go to Bethlehem.

    Reply
    • Hi David. I thin this comment (not sure where it is from) is mistaken on just about every claim it makes. For example, there were no such prophecies widely circulated; the majority of scholars would date the gospels earlier; there is good evidence that eye-witnesses provide information behind all the gospels; Matthew’s account does not fit the OT texts; the historical points are just wrong (See John Hudghton’s long historical comment on the Epiphany article here); and so on.

      There are complex questions about the census; see my article on that.

      Reply
  13. I am not sure that the traditions of East and West account for Christmas on Jan 7th in orthodox calandar. The British Church, society and colonies including America lost 3-13th of September 1742 to transfer to the Gregorian Calendar from the Roman Julian Calendar (and the Continent did the change nearly 200 eyrs earlier than the UK). The reason was to correct the calculation for Easter which had slipped 10 days. That means that the Christmas date of 25 December in the Julian Roman calandar now falls on 7 January. The star is relevant too. I have always gone by the calculation that Jupiter and Saturn aligned as one star in early December 7BC (I believe) which was while Herod the Great (died 4 BC) was still alive.

    Reply
    • Thanks. But I think it is really difficult to tie the alignment of planets with Jesus’ birth. For one, there is a big debate about whether Herod did actually die in 4 BC. For another, planets cannot point to the house where Jesus was born.

      Reply

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