The season of Christmas is a time that is celebrated by both secular and spiritual people for different reasons. Some see it as a great time of business driven by giving of gifts. Some others consider it as the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then there are some who take that season as a time off from work and spend as holiday. The word “Christmas” comes from two Old English words Cristes maesse, which means The Mass of Christ. This comes from the Catholic Mass, the practice where the priest re-offers the sacrifice of Christ on the cross during the time of Communion. On the basis of current Christmas celebrations, one might assume that Jesus was born on the night of December 24/25 in 1 AD. What is the New Testament evidence for the date of Jesus’ birth?
How did December 25th become Christmas day?
The origin of the Christmas tradition goes back to before the time of Christ when many ancient cultures celebrated the changing of the seasons. For example, in the northern hemisphere in Europe, the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) occurs around December 25th. During this time, there were celebrations and government and businesses shut down. It was a time of pagan celebration with various forms of sinful behaviour. These celebrations were based on the day where the cold winter days became shorter and shorter. Since during winter, animals were shut in, people stayed indoors, crops didn’t grow, etc., to know that winter was passing away was a time of celebration.
In the ancient Roman religion, Saturn was the god of agriculture. Each year during the summer, the god Jupiter would force Saturn out of his dominant position in the heavenly realm, and the days would begin to shorten. In the temple to Saturn in Rome, the feet of Saturn were symbolically bound with chains until the winter solstice when the length of days began to increase. So December 25th was a time of celebration and exchange of gifts as winter was coming to an end and the days grew longer. So based on this celestial event, Saturnalia became a weeklong celebration beginning on December 17th and ending on 25th.
In the Roman Empire, by the time of Christ, Saturnalia, the winter festival was well known. Also in Rome, the Feast of the Unconquerable Sun celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun. When Christianity became the religion of the Empire under Constantine, the Roman Catholic church either had to suppress the festivals or transform them. The winter solstice seemed an appropriate time to celebrate Christ’s birth. Thus, the festival of the sun became a festival of the Son, the Light of the world. This custom has been part of western culture ever since.
New Testament Evidence for Date of Jesus’ Birth
The Death of Herod
That Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (37 – 4 BC) is attested by both Matt. 2:1-20 and Luke 1:5. Matthew relates the wise men’s questioning of Herod (Matt. 2:1-8), Herod’s slaughter of the babies (Matt. 2:16), and the death of Herod (Matt. 2:15, 19-20). The Jewish historian Josephus describes the death of Herod at some length, noting that it occurred in the thirty-fourth year of his reign and that it was followed shortly thereafter by an eclipse of the moon and prior to the Passover. An eclipse of the moon was visible in Judea on the night of March 12/13, 4 BC, and the Passover that year occurred in March/April. Thus, Herod died probably in March of 4 BC. Jesus was probably born a year or two before the death of Herod, since Herod ordered his soldiers to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old or younger. A date of 6 BC would not be too far for the birth of Jesus. Such a date is supported by Luke 3:1, which dates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry during the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 27/28) and notes that Jesus was approximately 30 years old at that time.
If our calendar is based on the time of Jesus’ birth, why is it 4 to 6 years ahead? The answer is that it is based on an incorrect calculation of AD 533 by Dionysius Exiguus, who wished to establish a calendar based on Jesus’ birth rather than the then-current calendar based on the establishment of Rome. He chose the year 754 of the Roman calendar for Jesus’ birth rather than 750, the year of Herod’s death. In any event, the death of Herod is the most reliable evidence we have for establishing Jesus’ date of birth.
The Date of Jesus’ Birth
Determining the exact date of Jesus’ birth is basically futile. The closest thing to biblical evidence is the reference to the shepherds watching over their flocks at night in the open fields (Luke 2:8). This would indicate a nighttime birth (hence our Christmas Eve traditions). It would also seem to indicate a birth between March and November, since the sheep were usually kept in folds rather than in open fields during the winter months, making our December date of the observance questionable.
Early Christian tradition is not very helpful either. Our earliest reference is probably that of Clement of Alexandria (about AD 200), who mentions two dates suggested in his time, May 20 and April 20-21. Similarly various speculations of the third century give the date of the birth in the spring, among these being April 2, March 25, and March 28. These dates seem to have been related to the spring equinox and the assumption that the earth was created at a time when day and night were of equal length and that Jesus’ birth must have followed the same creation pattern.
The earliest Christians do not seem to have celebrated Jesus’ birth. The earliest celebration of anything even close to His birth was that of “Epiphany” (the coming of the wise men to see Jesus mentioned in Matt. 2:1-12) on January 6th in the eastern churches. Epiphany was primarily a celebration of the incarnation, of the coming of Christ to earth rather than of His birth. The choice of January 6th may have come from pagan celebrations, such as the feast of Dionysus held on that day. The Roman Catholic church seems to have begun celebrating Jesus’ birth in the fourth century, mainly under the influence of Constantine.
Perhaps the questionable origin of the date of our Christmas celebration should remind us of what is primary about the holiday. It is not just the celebration of a birthday. The church father Origen (early third century) was correct in observing that birthday celebrations are not distinctly Christian. He noted that in the Bible only pagans are described observing their birthdays – Pharaoh (Gen. 40:20) and Herod (Matt. 14:6). What should be central about Christmas for us is what was central in the early Epiphany celebrations – the coming of Christ as the incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh, the Light of the world.