“Christmas & the Bible (part 1 of 3)”
Many people take it for granted that Jesus was born on Christmas day 2,020 years ago. But how did December 25th become associated with the birth of Jesus? It's a long story, and we'll have to go outside the Bible to tell it, but here are the highlights in a question/answer format.
What year was Jesus born?
We calculate years by the birth of Christ. The Latin abbreviation "AD" (Anno Domini) refers to the year of Christ's rule, so the answer to our question should be obvious. It's 2020, therefore Jesus was born 2,020 years ago, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, because our calendar doesn't agree with the facts of history, we don't know the exact year Jesus was born. But we do know it wasn't our year zero. Here are three reasons:
- People used to calculate years based on when Rome was founded. Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th century monk, invented the AD system and placed the birth of Christ at 754 AUB ("Ab Urbe Condita" or "from the founding of the city [of Rome]") which landed at our year zero. He reckoned years by counting the Roman consuls and their time of governance. But he made a mistake in AD 526 which threw everything off.
- It is a historically verifiable fact that Herod the Great (Mt. 2) died in 4 BC by our own calendar. Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great so we know he was born at least before 4 BC. Also, Herod had all the male children under 2 years old killed (Mt. 2:16), which seems to indicate a passage of time between the birth of Jesus and Herod’s act of murder. So we might add 2 years to 4 BC date.
- We don’t know the exact year of Caesar Augustus’ census (mentioned in Lk. 2:1), but they tended to be conducted every 14 years. We have a census on record being conducted in AD 104. If we count back in increments of 14 that puts us in the 8-4 BC range. This lines up with Luke’s account of Quirinius being governor (Lk. 2:2) who served as governor of Syria from 9-4 BC.
All this tells us is that we don't have enough historical evidence to know exactly when Jesus was born. It was probably between 8-4 BC but it almost certainly wasn't our year zero.
What about the month and day of Jesus' birth?
Again, neither secular history or biblical history tells us exactly, but we can be reasonably certain it was not in the month we call December. Luke 2:8, which tells us of shepherds watching over their flock by night, gives us some context. It seems unlikely that Jesus' birth was a winter event. “According to this statement, Jesus cannot have been born in December, in the middle of the rainy season, as has been since the fourth century supposed. According to Jewish history, the driving forth of flocks took place in March, the bringing in of them in November.” (‘Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospels of Mark and Luke,’ H.A.W. Meyer, pg. 273)
This is not conclusive evidence because there are certain unknowns. We don’t know about the temperature, how mild the winter was, etc. but it does seem to raise some questions about a date in December. “It was the 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; during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the Passover occurred in the spring, and the first rain began in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to our part of October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole summer. 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.” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, pg. 857)
The fact is, we do not know what day or even month Jesus was born but it probably wasn't December 25th.
When was Christmas first celebrated?
History tells us that no one claimed Jesus was born on December 25th until well into the 3rd century. It was first celebrated in Rome in AD 354, in Constantinople in AD 379 and then in Antioch in AD 388. "John Chrysostom (AD 349-407, Archbishop of Constantinople) said in AD 386 “It is not ten years since the day was clearly known to us…”" (Unger Bible Dictionary, pg. 196) “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church, and before the fifth century there was no general consensus of opinion as to when it should come in the calendar, whether January 6th, March 25th, or December 25th.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 5, pg. 641)
Consider these revealing comments from various religious perspectives:
- Albert Barnes (Presbyterian) - "The exact time of His birth is unknown. There is no way to ascertain it. By different learned men it has been fixed at each month of the year. Nor is it of consequence to know the time. If it were, God would have preserved the record of it. Matters of moment are clearly revealed. Those which He regards as of no importance are concealed."
- Catholic Encyclopedia (approved) - "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church."
- Adam Clarke (Methodist) - "The time in which Christ was born has been considered a subject of great importance by Christians. However, the matter has been considered of no moment by Him who inspired the evangelist as not one hint is dropped on the subject by which it might be possible to guess nearly to the time. Learned and pious men have trifled egregiously on this subject making of importance that which the Holy Spirit by his silence has plainly informed is of none."
It is impossible to know the exact date of Jesus' birth because the Holy Spirit did not reveal it to us. The date of a person's birth is the sort of basic information that most biographers would include and, yet, all four Spirit-inspired gospel authors do not record it. The authors, and, by extension, the God who speaks through them, believed that the date of Jesus' birth was not important for Christians to know. Perhaps, instead of focusing on what is not in the text, we would be better off giving our attention to what is.
In the next article, we will answer why December 25th was chosen as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ.