With the economy showing some signs of recovery, retailers are getting a head start on the Christmas shopping season. They hope to entice the budget–conscious consumer to shop early with attractive price discounts. Amid a growing concern over the increasing commercialism of Christmas, religious leaders are clamoring to put Christ back in Christmas. Christmas has become more of a commercial enterprise than a religious observance, cry the Christian ministries. “Jesus is the reason for the season” has become their slogan.
Have you ever wondered if Christ were even in Christmas at all? “He would have to be” or “He most certainly is” are the more common reactions. “After all,” they say, “Christmas is the day He was born!” But was He born on December 25th? How do you know? Have you taken the time to prove Christ was born on that day?
Perhaps your parents, relatives and friends say He was. Maybe it was what you learned in school. Your minister or priest probably told you to keep it. They can't all be wrong, can they? And, supposedly being Christ's birthday, Christmas is filled with joy and celebration, peace and goodwill. Surely that can't be wrong, either!
It may surprise you to know that most historians and scholars agree there is no solid, documented evidence that Christ was even born on December 25th. In fact, it may be a shock for you to realize that the modern celebrations and practices of Christmas originated centuries before Christ was born:
“Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement…picked November 18. Hippolytus …figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday…An anonymous document[,] believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Jeffery Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, “In Search of Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58).
The Bible does not provide a specific date for the birth of Christ. If God wanted us to keep the day of Christ’s birth, then surely God would have revealed it in the Bible. Yet there are no scriptural accounts of Christ, His apostles or the early Church ever celebrating Christmas as His birthday. The straightforward, truthful answer is we don't know for sure when He was born.
Consider the following excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Christmas”:
The actual observance of the day of Jesus’ birth was long in coming. In particular, during the first two centuries of Christianity there was strong opposition to recognizing birthdays of martyrs or, for that matter, of Jesus…. The precise origin of assigning December 25 as the birth date of Jesus is unclear. The New Testament provides no clues in this regard. December 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus’ birth by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 and later became the universally accepted date. One widespread explanation of the origin of this date is that December 25 was the Christianizing of the dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”), a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer….
In the absence of conclusive historical facts proving the exact date of Christ’s birth, the Bible provides us with sufficient evidence that His birth was in the early autumn—not in the winter.
The Biblical Perspective
One such important indicator is found in Luke 2, describing the events leading up to Christ’s birth in the town of Bethlehem: “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (v. 8). This is an important point because winters could be severe in the land of Palestine, with frequent heavy snowfall not uncommon. Flocks were never kept in the open fields during winter, but rather in barns or similar protected places from about mid–October to mid–March.
The commentary from Adam Clarke on Luke 2:8 is quite interesting:
“It was a custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts, about the passover, and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain… early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November…. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could he have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up.”
Another important chronological feature which will show the season of Christ’s birth is found in Luke 1:5: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” What was the division of Abijah? Why is the understanding of these words so important, so essential, to determining the time of year of Christ’s birth?
The eighth division
During the time of King David, there were very many priests. So much so, David divided them into twenty–four courses, or divisions. Each course was instructed to serve in the Temple for a period of one week, from Sabbath to Sabbath. Each course also had one chief priest who was chosen by lot to represent the whole division in the Temple for that week’s period. The twenty–four courses—or serving schedules—of the priesthood are enumerated in I Chronicles 24:7–19, with the eighth course being assigned to Abijah (v. 10).
Jewish records reveal that the courses served twice in the year, starting in the spring, in the first month Nisan. Thus, Jehoiarib and the first course served in the Temple from Sabbath to Sabbath on the first week of Nisan; Jedaiah and the second course served the second week, and so on. This continued until the twenty–fourth course of Maaziah had completed their service.
Then in the autumn of the year, the first course would commence again and the courses would repeat. Thus on each of the 48 weeks during the year, one particular course of priests served in the Temple. In addition to these 48 weeks are 3 extra weeks in the year during which all the 24 courses served together—the 3 major festival seasons of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
The Scripture clearly tells us the particular course Zacharias was serving in was the eighth course of Abijah during the week Iyar 27 to Sivan 5 in the late spring. During this time of Zacharias’ service, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to conceive and bear him a son, who was to be named John. But because he found Gabriel’s message hardly believable, Zacharias became mute and would not be able to speak “until the day these things take place” (Luke 1:20).
Because the following week was Pentecost week, Zacharias was obligated to serve together with the other 23 courses and extend his service until Sivan 12. Having completed his service, Zacharias “departed to his own house” (Luke 1:23).
Not wanting to prolong his speechless condition a day longer, Zacharias returned home to fulfill God’s command. We can safely assume that Elizabeth’s conception took place some time after Pentecost week in mid–June. With this Biblical record of events, we can now determine the season of John the Baptist’s birth by going forward approximately 9 months from conception in mid–June to his birth in mid–late March.
The wrong season, the wrong reason
When was Christ born? The clue to the answer is in Luke 1:26–27: “Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” Gabriel had this message for Mary: “Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.” (Luke 1:36)
From this biblical reference, we can determine the approximate date of Jesus’ conception as the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy—around mid–late December. John is six months older than Christ. By adding another six months to John’s spring birth, probably in late March, we can confidently place the birth of Christ in the early autumn, probably September, the seventh month Tishri of the Hebrew calendar and not on December 25th.
So while mainstream Christians claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, they are attributing Christ’s birth to the wrong season! In fact, Jesus did not teach His disciples to celebrate His, or anyone else’s birthday. They kept the Biblical Holy Days found in Leviticus 23, which outline the plan of God and point toward His soon–coming Kingdom when Jesus Christ will return as King of kings and Lord of lords to rule the whole earth (Rev. 19:16, 11:15). Now that’s something to celebrate!