Every email, every newspaper, every book alludes to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. For historical dates are measured from His birth. Time is split into two eras, BC and AD, years before and after the birth of Christ.
The biggest annual celebration, both secular and religious, is Christmas—commemorating the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Was Jesus really born on December 25, 1 AD?
Scripture doesn’t specify Christ’s birthday. The date was not preserved because early Christians didn’t celebrate it. They focused on His death and resurrection following the example of the New Testament.
Matthew and Luke each spend only 2 chapters on the birth accounts. The remaining 26 chapters of Matthew and 22 chapters of Luke cover the last 3 years of his life, focusing most heavily on His death and resurrection. Mark and John do not include birth accounts. Jesus Himself instructed His followers to remember his death (Communion). He said nothing about remembering His birth. The NT epistles focus on explaining the significance of His death and resurrection and the application to daily life.
Following this emphasis, the early church did not celebrate Christ’s birthday. Today, however, Christians remember His birth and celebrate the purpose for which He came on December 25.
Is December 25 Jesus’ birthday?
There is no good evidence against that date, and its tradition is ancient. In the 2nd century AD, Africanus and Hippolytus both gave December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, but the eastern church celebrated it on January 6.
Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) accessed Rome’s still-extant census records and reported Jesus’ birth as December 25. In 386 AD John Chrysostom said December 25 was the correct date. Ever since, both East and West have accepted December 25.
A mid-4th century Roman almanac lists dates for bishops and martyrs. It’s first listing is Christ’s birthday on December 25. Augustine of Hippo reports a December 25 tradition that existed prior to 312 AD.
The date has been challenged by claiming that shepherds would not have been outside in fields (Luke 2:8) during winter. But this is only speculation. Judean winters were relatively mild, with the coldest nights occurring in late February.
December nights were plenty warm enough to pasture sheep and ideal for grazing on new grass sprouted by winter rains. December was actually better grazing weather than the hot dry summers. It may have been a mild winter. The shepherds may have been sitting around campfires outside the sheepfolds when the angels appeared.
Since shepherds were tending sheep around Bethlehem rather than out in the wilderness, it was likely winter, for in winter sheep were brought in from wilderness pastures. In fact, the Mishna implies lambs for Temple sacrifices were kept outside year-round in fields around Bethlehem.
Another objection to December 25 states that no census requiring winter travel would be held. Yet December travel was quite feasible. In any case, Rome was not known for compassionate consideration of subject peoples.
Today nobody knows what the census deadlines were. Maybe Joseph purposefully journeyed in December, trying to complete the trip before the birth. Or maybe he delayed till the deadline, hoping for the birth before the trip. Caesar’s census was God’s tool for placing Mary in Bethlehem for the birth to fulfill Micah’s prophecy.
Some in the last few centuries have argued that Christians took over the pagan Saturnalia festival. But there is no historical evidence for this. The first time such a connection is mentioned is in the 12th century, long after Christmas was well established. It was popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries when some scholars latched onto the idea simply to provide a secular explanation for the date.
Is December 25 Jesus’ birthday? Nobody knows for sure. December 25 is as good a date as any to celebrate His birth, and it has early historical support.
Next week I’ll discuss what is known about the year Jesus was born.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Read the sequel:
What Year Was Jesus Born?
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Monday December 7, 2009 A.D.
Read my December 2009 Bible-Science newspaper column:
When Was Jesus Born?