John Eidsmoe and Ben DuPré
December 24, 2009
The secularizers commonly defend the de-Christianization of Christmas by noting that America is a much more diverse nation than we used to be, that we shouldn't offend others, that saying "Merry Christmas" might be bad for business and that public Christmas observances might even violate the First Amendment.
Then they deliver their crowning blow: "Besides, everybody knows Jesus wasn't born in December."
But saying "everybody knows" begs the question, as saying "all scholars agree" defines anyone who doesn't agree as a non-scholar. At the risk of flying in the face of this collective modern wisdom, we suggest that there is substantial, though not conclusive, evidence that Jesus was born in December.
The biblical evidence
What does the Bible say about the date of Jesus' birth? Luke 2:6 tells us that "the days were accomplished that she should be delivered," so we assume Jesus was a full-term baby, born nine months after His conception. Luke 1:26 says the angel Gabriel announced the conception of Jesus to Mary in the sixth month of her cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy with John the Baptist. So Jesus was conceived about six months after John the Baptist was conceived.
So when was John the Baptist conceived? That's more difficult, but the Scriptures suggest some answers. John's father was Zacharias, a Levite priest "of the course of Abia [Abijah]" (Luke 1:5). According to I Chronicles 24:7-19, King David had divided the priests into 24 orders, and these orders took turns serving in the temple for a period of eight days twice a year, separated from their wives and children. Zacharias and the other priests of the course of Abia served during the 10th and 24th weeks of the Jewish year.
The angel of the Lord spoke to Zacharias "while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course" (Luke 1:8), that is, while he was performing his service in the temple. After his course was finished he left the temple, returned to his wife, Elizabeth, and John was conceived (Luke 1:23-24). If this was after the second course, that is, the 24th week of the year, John would have been conceived around September or October and born around June or July. Jesus' conception six months later would have occurred around March or April and His birth around December or January.
There is no certainty to this theory, especially given that the Jewish calendar (of only 360 days) may have been different from King David's time to Jesus' time. But based on the scriptural account of Zacharias's service in the temple, it is well within the realm of possibility that Jesus was born in December.
The extrabiblical evidence
St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), whose status in eastern Orthodoxy is comparable to that of Augustine in western Roman Catholicism, argued strongly for a Dec. 25 birthdate because of the course of Zacharias' priestly service. But he also based his conclusion on the findings of Pope Julius. Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386 A.D.) had asked Pope Julius to ascertain the date of Christ's birth "from the census documents brought by Titus to Rome" after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Julius then determined the date of Christ's birth to be Dec. 25.
Julius, Cyril and Chrysostom were not alone in their reliance upon the census documents. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), in a detailed statement of the Christian faith addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem "as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing." (Apology, I, 34). Likewise, Tertullian (160-250 A.D.) wrote of "the census of Augustus – that most faithful witness of the Lord's nativity, kept in the archives of Rome" (Contra Marcion, Book 4, 7).
Unfortunately, we do not have access to these census records today. But perhaps the better part of wisdom bids us to assume that these church fathers had access to information that we do not possess, and that they knew what they were talking about.
Some have said that Jesus couldn't have been born in December because shepherds did not keep their sheep in the fields past late autumn. But Alfred Edersheim, in his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883) , cites ancient Jewish sources to the effect that flocks of sheep "remain in the open alike in the hottest days and in the rainy season – i.e. all the year round" (Book 2, p. 186). There was also a special class of Levitical shepherds who kept sacrificial lambs in the field all year round because they were used for sacrifice every month of the year.
Winters can be cold in Palestine, but they vary greatly, and some Decembers are rather mild. A recent study of stalagmites and stalactites in caves near Jerusalem strongly suggests that the average annual rainfall dropped nearly 50 percent from about 3 feet in 100 A.D. to about 1.6 feet in 700 A.D. Average winter temperatures may have varied as well. If Mary could have given birth to a baby in a Bethlehem stable, then hardy shepherds could have watched their flocks in the fields at the same time.
Edersheim concludes, "There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date (Dec. 25). The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable."
In the end, no one's Christian faith should depend upon whether Dec. 25 is the date of Jesus' birth, nor do such questions give us any reason to take Christ out of Christmas. We'd welcome responses from anyone who can prove or disprove this thesis. But sometimes it is comforting, and even fun, to learn that ancient scholars and ancient traditions may have been right all along.
And Merry Christmas, one and all – on Dec. 25!
For more on this debate, see: Christmas Date Does NOT Have Pagan Origins