"looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
All cultures are informed by a sense of honor and shame but what is considered honorable and dishonorable may differ according to the values of that culture. Ultimately, when we fail to honor God as Creator, our lives degenerate into disgrace (Rom. 1:18-23). But when Jesus came to inaugurate God's kingdom, he also came to reclaim our honor and restore our dignity as human beings. But he did so in the most ironic way; by suffering the ultimate shame of the cross, Jesus maintained his honor and even gained honor.
Honor is the public recognition of worth
Honor is the public recognition of one's social standing and worth. In the ancient world, honor was viewed as a limited social currency. It was thought that when one gained honor it was at the expense of another's. For example, Philo condemned polytheism because in honoring others as deities the honor due to God was diminished: "God's honor is set at naught by those who deify mortals..." (EBR. 110). The disciples of John the Baptist, operating under the auspices of an honor/shame system, were worried that Jesus was gaining more honor than John. They viewed Jesus' gain as John's loss. But John, who knew his role, was happy to concede (Jn. 3:22-30). He said famously, "He must increase, but I must decrease." But whereas John honored Jesus, the Pharisees did not. They perceived Jesus' growing fame as a threat to their honor and, being envious of him (cf. Mt. 27:18; Jn. 11:47-48), constantly challenged it (Mt. 21:23ff).
There were two types of honor in the ancient world:
- Ascribed honor - this is honor inherited by birth. Those born into noble, priestly, senatorial or royal families were ascribed honor by virtue of their birth, apart from any accomplishments. This cultural value is evident in places like 1 Timothy 1:4 and Titus 3:9, where Jews placed undo importance on genealogies.
- Achieved honor - this is honor gained by reputation, by doing righteous deeds in the community. This honor was gained or lost in a perpetual struggle for recognition. One's honor could be challenged by verbally and publicly calling it into question. If the challenge was worthy of respect then it was met with a retort. This process of challenge and reposte always ended with a public verdict where either the challenged defended his honor and the challenger suffered shame or vise versa.
Shame is the public loss of honor
Shame is the public loss of honor. To suffer shame is to suffer contempt or to lose face. Like honor it could either be achieved or ascribed.
- Achieved shame - this is public disgrace brought upon by one's foolish choices, cowardice, reckless living or a failure to defend one's honor (Prov. 13:5; 18:13; 19:26; 25:9-10; 29:15).
- Ascribed shame - this is a public declaration of disgrace against a person who is deemed by the elite as having no honor.
Crucifixion was the ultimate "shame"
Crucifixion in the Greco-Roman world was the ultimate expression of ascribed shame (Heb. 12:2). Every step of crucifixion was designed to progressively humiliate the victim, depriving him of all honor and dignity (Hengel: 22-32). It was reserved for slaves, bandits, prisoners of war and revolutionaries. Public trials were not so much attempts at administering justice as they were status degredation rituals, which labelled the accused as a shameful person. Victims were usually flogged and tortured (Jos. War 5.449-51 & 3.321; Livy 22.13.19; 28.37.3; Seneca, On Anger 3.6; Philo, Flac. 72; Diod. Sic. 33.15.1; Plato, Gorgias 473bc & Republic 2.362e) and often befouled themselves with urine and excrement (m. Mak. 3:12, 14). Victims often carried their own cross beams to their place of execution (Plutarch, Delay 554B). The victims' clothing was normally confiscated leaving them nude (Diod. Sic. 33.15.1). Pinioning one's arms in the open posture of crucifixion displayed them as utterly powerless and vulnerable (Philo, Post. 61; Somn. 2.213). Executions by crucifixion were crude forms of public entertainment where the crowds joined in on ridiculing the victims (Philo, Sp. Leg. 3.160). Of course, death by crucifixion was often slow and protracted. "Ultimately the victims were deprived of life and thus the possibility of gaining satisfaction or vengeance" (Neyrey, Johanine Passion Narrative). Once dead, most victims were denied an honorable burial; corpses were often left on display and eaten by carrion birds or scavengers (Pliny, H.N. 36.107-108).
Though victims of crucifixion would endure brutal pain, this was not the main ingredient of their suffering. In an honor/shame culture, warriors viewed enduring pain as a mark of honor (e.g. Hercules' labors; Paul's hardship catalogues: e.g. 2 Cor 6:3-10; 11:23-33), especially if it was endured silently (see Isa 53:7; Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.162; Josephus, War 6.304). Even more than the physical pain was the public mockery and degredation. Notice how the New Testament writers give more attention to this than the physical torture of Jesus. His face, an honorable part of the body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:22-25), was covered, struck and spit upon (Mk. 14:65). He was ridiculed (Mk. 15:20, 31), insulted (Mk. 15:32) and was treated as though he were worthless (Lk. 23:11; cf. Acts 4:11).
Jesus turned shame into honor
The great irony of the gospel is that Jesus, though treated shamefully, not only maintained his honor but gained glory and prestige. In fact, his crucifixion, far from being a status degradation ritual, is portrayed by the New Testament authors as a status elevation ritual. The cross was Jesus' enthronment, his moment of glory when he was "lifted up" (Jn. 3:14; 7:39; 8:28; 12:28; 17:5; see 21:19). What was foolish, weak and shameful to human eyes was wisdom, strength and honor in God's eyes (1 Cor. 1:20, 25). This upside-down perspective is part and parcel of the gospel, that last is first, least is greatest, dead is alive, shame is honor.
Of course, the ancient Mediterranean world, just like our modern Western world, did not understand the cross this way. This is why Paul said of the counter-cultural message of the gospel, "but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23). The gospel of a crucified Jesus is both scandalous and absurd "to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). Though Jesus looked disarmed by the Jews and conquered by the Romans as he hung upon the cross, in reality it was the other way around. Paul says, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:15).
- Jesus' ascribed honor - There was nothing kingly or noble, from a human standpoint, in his entrance into the world and his ascribed honor in society was very low. His neighbors "took offense at him" (Mk. 6:1-3) because he was from a despised town (Nazareth), of a lowly trade (carpentry), from a seemingly unimportant family and was even accused of being born of fornication (Jn 8:41). Though his lineage was royal it was not without its many bad apples (Mt. 1:1-17).
- Jesus' achieved honor - Each time Jesus' honor was challenged in the public arena, he always got the better of his opponents (Mt. 21:23-27). Whether he was being challenged on political matters (22:15-22) or doctrinal matters (22:23-40), "no one was able to answer him a word..." (Mt. 22:41-46) He was denied honor in his home town (Mk.6:4). He was accused of blasphemy (Jn. 10:31-38) and profaning the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-14). He was even accused of being in league with the devil (Mt. 12:22-32). Yet, through it all, Jesus maintained and even gained honor over his accusers. Even so, he was crucified.
Christians are honored through Jesus
Jesus says, "whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38; cf. 16:24-28). Jesus was rejected and treated shamefully (Mk. 12:4) but the early Christians regarded this type of public shame an honor: "...rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). Are you prepared to be associated with Jesus? To live and share a message that is foolish and offensive to most people? To stand up and be publicly counted with him, running the risk of being misunderstood, questioned, ridiculed or even persecuted for his sake? Are you prepared to defend the honor of Jesus when it is challenged by others? If we follow in the steps of Jesus while carrying our cross we will also follow him into the honor and glory of the resurrection (Phil. 2:1-11). May God always be honored in us.
Is it possible for human nature to change? Is it possible for a cruel person to become kind? Or a selfish person to become considerate? Or liars to become honest? Most people (and most religions) would say it isn't possible. There is a Muslim proverb that says, "If thou hearest that a mountain has moved, believe it. But if thou hearest that a man has changed, believe it not." Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century German philosopher, is recorded as having said, "A leopard can change his nature sooner than a man may change his." A Hindu once told the American Methodist missionary Stanley Jones, "A man may change his acts but not his character. This is fixed."
It is against this backdrop of cynicism that the Christian must humbly but confidently disagree. The great future hope (and present reality) of the Christian is God's amazing power to transform and recreate us (Eph. 4:23-24). Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (or from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God." (Jn. 3:3) Through faith in the good news of Jesus' sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, people are reborn and changed, but that change occurs from the inside out.
Our natural inclination is to affect change from the outside in, believing that if we change our habits and our behavior then our character will follow suit. Through keeping religious rituals and certain ascetic practices we mistakenly believe our inner-selves will be transformed. Paul warned the Colossians not to fall for such a ruse, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Col. 3:20-23)
Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes on more than one occasion. "For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Mt. 23:27-28) Jesus knew that to change a person's character requires a complete transformation of the human heart; the inside must be cleansed before the outside can change. (Mt. 23:25-26) Through the new covenant that Jesus established, God's promise to Ezekiel is fulfilled: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezek. 36:26; cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Psa. 51:10)
Jesus always emphasized the heart (see the Sermon on the Mount) because that's where the change must begin. Without Jesus, we try to affect lasting change by manipulating the environment around us and altering external factors. While this may have some effect on behavior it does not transform character. It's the difference between hanging lifeless ornaments on a fake Christmas tree and a healthy, living tree producing its fruit. (Gal. 5:22-23) One is truly alive while the other is a cheap parody of nature.
In fact, the greatest single hindrance to social change is the human heart: greed and the self-centeredness of humanity. It is this inward corruption, the taint of sin, that social reformers have forgotten. And as a result, they have been constantly disappointed and disillusioned. Beatrice Webb, the famous English social reformer, said, "Somewhere in my diary – 1890? – I wrote “I have staked all on the essential goodness of human nature…” [Now thirty-five years later I realize] how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts of man – how little you can count on changing some of these – for instance the appeal of wealth and power – by any change in the [social] machinery…. No amount of knowledge or science will be of any avail unless we can curb the bad impulse."
Human beings are never as bad as we could be, sure. But we are never as good as we should be. (Rom. 3:23) We can change circumstances, rebuild neighborhoods and provide a safer environment. Governments can and should offer social programs to help the needy and create and enforce just legislation that rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. These social changes are good but they do not guarantee individual change. Individuals will have more influence on the environment around them than the environment has on the individual. A bull in a china shop is going to have more of an effect on the china than the china will have on it.
Creating new laws and changing the outside will have some effect on human behavior but it is powerless to change the human heart. Laws are introduced despite human desire not because of it. Law discourage criminals from doing harm. This is good and necessary in this fallen world; if there were no lawbreakers there would be no need for law or law enforcement. But how does one go about getting the criminal to stop desiring to do harms? How does one change his heart?
This is an important point for Christians to grasp. In Christ, we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). This is not to say there is no law for Christians. Rather, the "law" we abide by in Christ is "the perfect law, the law of liberty." (Jas. 1:25) We please the law-giver because we have to; we please the grace-giver because we want to. The "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) we render to Jesus is totally motivated by his love and grace toward us. The starting point for all Christian thinking and behavior is what Jesus has already done for us. "We love because he first loved us." (1 Jn. 4:19) We are "obedient" to Jesus "from the heart." (Rom. 6:17)
Let's end with an example from Scripture that illustrates this point. The early church behaved like a family. They took care of one another's needs. The Christians in Jerusalem "were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need." (Acts 4:32-35; cf. 2:44-46) What a society! How did this come about?
This was not some form of communism where people were obligated by law to share their goods with others. There was no specific commandment to give in this instance. Rather, they "had everything in common" because they "were of one heart and soul." This generosity came from their transformed hearts. The law of liberty freed them from materialism and covetousness to love and care for one another. This is consistent with all forms of benevolence we see Christians engaged in in the New Testament. The Christians at Antioch "determined, everyone one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea." (Acts 11:29) Their generosity was something "determined" in their heart and mind to do. The Christians from "Macedonia and Achaia [were] pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.” (Rom. 15:26) No one forced them to give; they were "pleased" to do it. In fact, those from Macedonia had to "beg" Paul to be part of the relief effort. (2 Cor. 8:3-4)
There is a vast difference between Jesus Christ and, say, someone like Karl Marx. They both spoke about "the new man" and "the new society." These expressions are common to the vocabulary of both. But Marx saw the new man as a product of the new society. Change the environment, change the man. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the changed society as dependent upon the making of new men. To quote the Lord, "make the tree good and its fruit good." (Mt. 12:33) Jesus is the only one who has the power to change human nature because he is the only one who can change the human heart. Once the human heart is transformed, there is no limit to the influence for good that a person can have on the world around him. (Mt. 5:13-16)
The last two articles examined the origins of Christmas - not the cultural celebration that many believers and none believers enjoy but the religious holiday. The facts of history challenge many popular beliefs about Christmas, not least of which, that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th and that Christmas was not celebrated as a religious holiday until the 4th century.
Where was Jesus born?
Matthew 2:1 says that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king." But where in Bethlehem? Luke 2:7 tells us that the infant Jesus was "wrapped... in swaddling cloths and laid... in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Thanks in large part to nativity plays and popular culture, most of us think of a manger as being a rustic basinet, possibly lined with hay. But a manger was a feeding trough made of clay mixed with straw or stone and held together by mud. Sometimes mangers were carved into stone. The word "manger" or "crib" can also denote a stall for an animal by metonymy (Lk. 13:15; cf. Prov. 14:4; Isa. 1:3).
Where was the manger?
The manger could have been right next door to the inn, in a lower-level room outside the inn or a stall for animals attached to the living quarters of a private residence. Jesus could have been born in a stable but we simply can't be sure. In AD 160, Justin Martyr wrote, "Finding no place in the town, Joseph took his portage in a certain cave in the village." Unfortunately, there is no way to verify his words. Jesus may have been born in a cave, but even Justin Martyr was more than 100 years removed from the event.
Jerome, who eventually settled in Bethlehem near this cave in AD 385, recorded that the cave had been “defiled” from the time of Hadrian (AD 135) to the time of Constantine (early 4th century). Hadrian’s men had intentionally desecrated all the places that were sacred to Christians, erecting pagan altars in their place. Later, Constantine made efforts to cleanse these sites. If you visit Bethlehem today, you will see what is known as the "Church of the Nativity," a building constructed in the 4th century over this traditional cave site in Bethlehem.
Although we can be sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to prophecy and laid in a manger, we can't be sure exactly where the manger in Bethlehem was. As mentioned in the previous articles, we must focus on what details Luke and Matthew include and not the ones they leave out.
Luke's account of Jesus' birth
There are only two biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth but, for whatever reason, we have a hard time getting them straight. Here is a basic chronology of the events:
- The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1-7; cf. Mt. 1:18-25).
- Angels visit shepherds with the good news (Lk. 2:8-14).
- Shepherds visit the infant Christ in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:15-20).
- After a period of eight days, the infant Christ was circumsized (Lk. 2:21; cf. Lev. 12:1-8).
- After a period of 33 days, the infant Christ was presented to God at the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 2:22-38; cf. Lev. 12:1-8).
Notice how the traditional nativity scene deviates from Scripture. We are used to seeing a stable and above it a shining star. On one side, shepherds are bowed in adoration, while on the other side, three wise men offer their gifts to the infant Christ. Mary and Jesus sometimes have halos above their heads. And finally, angels are above the whole scene singing. The problem with this scene is that it never happened. The shepherds and the wise men never appear together. The star didn’t shine above a stable. The angels didn’t sing above a stable. They announced the good news and praised God to the shepherds out in the field. Then the shepherds came to the place where Jesus was, showed their reverence and left "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen." (Lk. 2:20)
Matthew's account of Jesus' early childhood
Matthew’s account gives us other details after the birth narrative. As chapter 2 opens, possibly two whole years have passed since the birth. "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem." (Mt. 2:1) How many "wise men" (or "magi") were there? We don’t know but, because "men" is plural, there must have been more than one.
These "magi" came from the "east" which makes sense historically. "Magi" was a term that referred to a priestly caste of people from Persia. They became known as practitioners of the magical arts who also studied Astrology and Astronomy. This explains why God used a star to lead them to Christ (Mt. 2:2). If they came from the east, possibly as far as Persia, they could have traveled more than 900 miles (about the distance between Washington, DC and St. Louis, Missouri). Such a journey would have taken weeks, if not months. Therefore, it would have been quite some time from when they first saw the star until they finally arrived in Jerusalem (Mt. 2:1).
In Jerusalem, the wise men inquired about this "king of the Jews." Herod, in fear of a king usurping his power, gathered the Bible scholars together to find out where the Christ was to be born. Quoting from Micah 5:2, the chief priests and scribes said that his birth would take place in "Bethlehem," a small, insignificant village noted as the home of Ruth and Boaz, and the birthplace of their great-great grandson, King David. (Mt. 2:3-6)
A star guided the wise men from Jerusalem, 6 miles southwest to Bethlehem, where, instead of an "infant" wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger (Lk. 2:12), they found a "child." (Mt. 2:7-11) The family was not in a stable still entertaining shepherds but in a "house" (Mt. 2:11) in Bethlehem. The wise men brought their gifts into the house, worshiped the child and left for home by another way (Mt. 2:12).
Herod wanted to know exactly when the star appeared (Mt. 2:7). When he found out he was deceived by the wise men, he had all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two killed (Mt. 2:16). This tells us something about what he heard: it must have been a considerable time since the star appeared signaling the birth of the Messiah. This is supported by Matthew's use of the word "child" in verse 9. Whereas Luke's word "infant" (Lk. 2:12) can only mean a fetus or newborn baby, Matthew's word "child" (Mt. 2:9) can also mean a more advanced, mature child. Jesus escaped with his family to Egypt where they stayed until the death of Herod, eventually returning to settle in Nazareth (Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23).
We don’t know how much time elapsed from Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to the visit of the wise men, but it was less than two years. We don't know how many wise men there were, but there were at least two. We do know that the story didn’t happen the way so many millions of people think it did.
For a season, at least, much of the world's focus is on Jesus. Sadly, this focus is not always informed by Scripture. Our Lord's entrance into this world is a story worth studying reverently and celebrating joyfully because it climaxes in his sacrificial death, triumphant resurrection and glorious ascension. Christians celebrate Jesus - his life and his death - not once a year nor even once a week in the Lord's Supper, but their whole lives.
Last week, we noted how the facts of history challenge what many of us take for granted about the birth of Christ. We cannot be certain about the exact date of our Lord's entrance into the world. But if that is the case, why was December 25th chosen? We’ve shown that this observance came out of 4th century Christianity. During that time, there was great controversy in the church surrounding Jesus' human and divine nature. Great councils of men convened to discuss and debate it.
A question of Jesus' human & divine nature
Eventually, in the 4th century, some began to observe a festival called "Epiphany" on January 6th. Epiphany (which means "appearing") celebrated the moment when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to rest upon Jesus at his baptism (Mt. 4). It was at that point, they believed, that Jesus “became God.” Jesus, in their thinking, was not God until the Spirit came upon him and that, right before he died on the cross, the Spirit left Jesus and he ceased to be divine (Mt. 27:46). They did not believe that God could ever truly die or be associate with the flesh, so they made this distinction by celebrating Epiphany.
But others believed (rightly) that Jesus was divine from birth. To distinguish themselves from the heretics, they decided to celebrate Jesus birth, thus declaring him to be divine from the very beginning. Essentially, it became a heretic detector. If you observed January 6th, you held the view that Jesus became God at his baptism and ceased to be God before his death. If you celebrated his birthday, you acknowledged his deity from birth. But if the Epiphany-people chose January 6th what would the orthodox believers choose as theirs? Here is where things get interesting.
Constantine and the "Christianizing" of pagan festivals
Constantine became the Emperor of Rome and “converted” to Christianity (or at least aligned himself politically with it), transforming the Roman Empire from being a persecutor of the church to an ally. He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in AD 313 which formally legalized Christianity in the Empire. After the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Roman Empire began to support the worship of Jesus.
No one is certain of the exact moment in history when Christmas was first celebrated. Like many traditions, it seemed to have happened organically over time. An increasingly sympathetic culture began to "Christianize" pagan festivals. The Romans used the winter solstice (when days grow longer) as a yearly marker. Darkness prevailed up to that point in the year (the gods of darkness, that is) but at the winter solstice the Sun took ascendency and the light became victorious. In the 4th century, Augustine said in a sermon, "Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase."
The Romans worshiped the Sun god, Sol Invictus (we see roots of this paganism in calling the first day of the week Sun-day). Since Jesus is the Light of the world (Jn. 8:12) and the true Sun that rises (Mal. 4:2), it wasn't that much of a stretch for Romans to use the winter solstice as the day of celebrating his birth. Bishop Liberius of Rome, on December 25th, AD 360, "consecrated one Marcella who was a sister of Ambrose, a nun or bride of Christ and addressed her with these words: ‘You see what multitudes are come to the birth festival of your bridegroom.'" (Schaff’s History of the Christian Church) The word “Christmas” has a Catholic source as a special mass in honor of the birth of Jesus (Christ-mass).
The Roman Catholic Church of the 21st century puts it like this:
Numerous theories have been put forward through the last 2,000 years to explain December 25th as Christmas Day. The most likely one however, the one most generally accepted by scholars now is that the birth of Christ was assigned to the date of the winter solstice. This date is December 21st in our calendar, but was December 25th in the Julian calendar which predated our own. The solstice, when days begin to lengthen in the northern hemisphere was referred to by pagans as ‘The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ During the third century, the Emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25th as a special day dedicated to the Sun-god, whose cult was very strong in Rome at that time. Even before this time, Christian writers had already begun to refer to Jesus as the Sun of Justice. It seemed quite logical, therefore, that as Christianity began to dominate the Roman Empire, the date of the ‘new-born Sun’ should be chosen as the birthdate of Christ. Apparently, it bothers some people that the date for Christmas has its roots in a pagan feast. Be that as it may, it’s the best explanation we have for the choice of December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus.” (The Question Box, Catholic Catechism, pg. 28-29)
Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th was not something people engaged in until some 300 years after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. It came as a consequence of two forces: (1) Controversy within the church about nature of Jesus and (2) a desire to “Christianize” pagan festivals. Next week, we will answer where Jesus was born and compare the biblical narrative of Jesus' birth with the sometimes confused cultural narrative.
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.