In my studies of the Bible, I have noticed many traditions that have entered the church scene that do not correspond with biblical facts. Some of these traditions include the elevation of the King James Version to the level of being the only Bible. I have heard some people state that they believed that Paul wrote the King James Version. Are you kidding me? No wonder some skeptics think that Christians are Fruit Loops. My apologies to Toucan Sam. Other traditions include the ostracizing of remarried individuals. You would think that divorce was the unpardonable sin according to some Christians. Yet, if Jesus could save a woman who was divorced 5 times and was currently living with a man and set her on the right path, why should we Christians stand in the way?
With the ever-increasing intellectual and, sometimes, physical persecution upon modern Christianity, there seems to be an increasing dogmatism on many traditions. Some would even have you believe that Southern Gospel music is the only acceptable form of gospel music. While I appreciate the King James Version of the Bible and enjoy Southern Gospel music, I understand that these are personal preferences and not biblical mandates based upon facts. With this in mind, I was certain that I would find that December 25th was not the correct day of Jesus’ birth. However, I was greatly surprised when I began to research this topic for our radio show “Redeeming Truth.” Before we look into this subject, let’s read Luke’s historical account of Jesus’ birth:
1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Lk 2:1–20.)
Opponents of the December 25th birth of Jesus classically bring three arguments to the table: 1) Sheep would not be in the fields in the winter, 2) there are no early reports of a December 25th birthday of Jesus, 3) and the census would not have been taken during Channukah, it would have been more likely taken around Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). The three arguments against a December 25th date is compelling. According to many who hold that Jesus was born around Sukkot, the date of September 11th is held as the actual birthdate of Jesus. While this is intriguing, especially with the 9-11 tragedy, the main question is based around its’ authenticity. Could one prove that September 11th is the actual date of Jesus’ birth instead of December 25th? And if you could, would it be worth moving the Christmas holiday to September? Well, first we need to look at the other side of the argument. There are many good reasons for holding December 25th as the actual birthday of Jesus. Upon my research, mainly using IVP’s The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, I found 6 arguments for a December 25th birthdate for Jesus. Some of these arguments are based more on the year of Jesus’ birth. However, knowing the year of Jesus’ birth helps us determine the day of Jesus’ birth for reasons you shall see in the following argument. The six arguments for December 25th being the legitimate birthday of Jesus are: 1) Dating of Herod the Great’s Death, 2) Census, 3) The Start of John the Baptist’s ministry, 4) Astral Phenomena, 5) Shepherd and Sheep, and 6) Early Reports.
1. Dating of Herod the Great’s Death
One of the first things we need to do is to find the year of Jesus’ birth. We know from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was born under the reign of Herod the Great. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 2:1.) Dr. Ben Witherington III writes,
“Josephus tells us that Herod the Great was proclaimed King of Judea by the Romans when Calvinus and Pollio were proconsuls, or in late 40 B.C. (Ant. 14.381-85; JW. 1.282-85; Tacitus Hist. 5.9). He then adds that Herod reigned for thirty-seven years from the time of that proclamation (Ant. 17.191; J.W. 1.665)… Most scholars are still persuaded by the work of E. Schurer that Josephus is correct about the time of Herod’s accession and the length of his reign. This would place the death of Herod at about 3 B.C….Thus, it is likely Herod died between March 12 and April 11, 4 B.C. (Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 66-67.
With this in mind, this pushes Jesus’ birth to at least a winter birth.
2. Census Under Quirinius
A lot of complex issues surround the census which would require great exposition. Therefore, we will skip the exhaustive problems surrounding the census but will tell the reader that Herod’s power was coming to an end well before his death occurred. Quirinius could easily planned a census to check the land before taking power. We will have to leave that issue there for this post. However, adversaries of a December 25th birth would have you to believe that the Romans would not issue a census during a small festival like Channukah, but would rather schedule it around Sukkot or another festival. This could be the case. However, there are a couple of problems with the argument. First, the census could have been Jewish in nature. If the census was Jewish in nature, then major holidays would have been avoided for the chaos that would ensue. Second, if the Romans did issue the census, then there may have been sinister motives behind issuing a census during the time of Channukah. Channukah is a national holiday as opposed to a religious holiday. It celebrates the victory of Judas and the Maccabee brothers who took Israel back from the Macedonians. Having the census during the time of Channukah may have been Rome’s way of reminding the Jews that the Romans were in power. This sound very Romanesque to me. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that Channukah would not have been chosen to issue a census. So, December 25th is still a possibility for the birth date of Jesus.
3. The Beginning of John the Baptist’s Ministry
Witherington III helps us out with two key important facts:
“Luke also tells us that John the Baptist began his ministry during the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign. Since Augustus died in the summer of AD 14 and Tiberius assumed the throne later that year, this would place John’s ministry about AD 29, though possibly it might be reckoned as early as AD 27 (Hoehner)….Luke then tells us that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. The Greek word ‘hosei’ indicates an approximation or round number which would allow for a few years on either side… If Jesus did begin his ministry by working with our at the same time as the Baptist, as the Johannine tradition suggests (cf. Jn 3:22-30), and if rabbinic tradition is correct in saying that Jesus was age 33-34 when he began his ministry (b. Sanh. 106b), Jesus’ ministry may have begun as early as AD 29, if not shortly before then. This would mean that Jesus was born about 4 B.C. or perhaps a little earlier” (Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 68.
So this again confirms that Jesus was probably born around BC 4 or 5.
4. Astral Phenomena
There were some strange cosmological phenomena going on around the birth of Jesus. The Star of Bethlehem, if it was a star, is such an example. Some have postulated that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. However, astronomers have shown that such an event was not possible due to the fact that the two planets would not have been close enough to appear as one star. Others have postulated that a supernova could have occurred. A supernova is a massive star explosion. It would appear as a large object in the sky.
Such an event is recorded…around December. Witherington tells us that a supernova was seen in France at the turn of the year of 5 going into 4 BC. Additionally, Jupiter would have been positioned over Bethlehem two years after Jesus’ birth. It may have been that Jupiter was what guided the wise men to the town of Jesus’ birth. Jupiter was over Bethlehem December 25th, 2 BC. Remember, the wise men came to visit Jesus 2 years after Jesus was born. Contrary to popular belief, the Maji were not in the Nativity scene.
5. The Shepherd and Sheep
Okay, what about the sheep? Opponents of a December 25th birth claim that the sheep would not have been in the fields in the winter time. This is one argument that led me to believe earlier that December 25th could not have been the birthday of Jesus. But, were sheep found in the fields in December in ancient times? One thing we must remember is that Israel has a dry, arid environment. So, Israel may not get as cold as many parts of the United States. However, there is evidence that shepherds did indeed allow their sheep out in the fields during winter months. “The Mishnah (m. seqal. 7.4) suggests that sheep around Bethlehem might also be outside during winter months (Hoehner). Therefore, though there is no certainty, it appears that Jesus was born somewhere between 4-6 BC, perhaps in mid-winter. Both the traditional Western date (Dec. 25) and the date observed by the Armenian Church (Jan. 6) are equally possible” (Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 69.
6. Early Reports
Although there are no first-century Christians who spoke of the birth date of Jesus, there are early Christians who record the date of Jesus’ birth. Second-century Christian Hippolytus (AD 165-235) and fourth-century Christian John Chrysostom (AD 345-407) both record December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth (Witherington, 69). We must remember that these Christians would have had earlier resources than we do today. Therefore, their testimony of this date is pretty good evidence for a December 25th birth date of Jesus.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I would never have guessed that I would be saying this, but I do believe that December 25th is indeed the date of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas tradition is indeed based upon good support to be claimed to be the actual birthday of Jesus. With all the information in hand, it appears that Jesus was born on December 25th, 5 BC. According to the best evidence available, it seems that Jesus died on Friday, April 7th, 30 AD and resurrected on Sunday, April 9th, 30 AD.
However, we must remember that Jesus did not originate on December 25th. As John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel, Christ was in the beginning with God and was God. Christmas represents the ultimate personal relationship that God had with His creation. God put on flesh, bore the penalty of our sins, showed us how to truly love, and defeated death to give us life eternal. If that is not something worth celebrating this Christmas season, I don’t know what is.
God bless and remember that Christ is the reason for the season. Merry Christmas!!!
Pastor Brian Chilton