Was Jesus born in December? If not, when was he born? And in what year? Any way, what difference does it make? These are questions often asked. It is time they were answered!
In late December of each year, thousands of tourists flock into the small town of Bethlehem in the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem to participate in annual Christmas celebrations there. Some make the 6-mile journey from Jerusalem on foot. Upon arrival, they crowd with silent awe into the paved expanse of Manger Square in front of the revered Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.
Inevitably, some of these tourists arrive in Israel unprepared. They have not thoroughly studied their guidebooks. As they step off their plane, they receive a real shock!
November through early March is “winter” in Israel! The weather gets cold, especially at night. Often it rains–or even snows! Yet many arrive in Israel carrying luggage bulging with summer attire, reasoning that it is always hot and arid in the Middle East. So they hurriedly purchase coats and sweaters in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem so they can make their pilgrimage down to Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, most of those who stand in Manger Square on December 25 each year–prepared and unprepared alike– fail to perceive the message being proclaimed by the very weather around them!
Notice this plain testimony of your Bible: On the day of Jesus’ birth “there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).
The shepherds were living out in the open fields, tending their flock through the night. The point?
Ask any biblical scholar, or any modern Israeli: This never could have occurred in Judea in the month of December – nor even in November, or late October as far as that is concerned!
In ancient times as today, shepherds brought their flocks in from the fields and penned them in shelters not later than the middle of October! This was necessary to protect them from the cold, rainy season that usually followed that date. (The Bible itself makes it clear that winter in Palestine is a rainy season; see Ezra 10:9,13; Song of Solomon 2:11.)
Yet Luke 2:8 tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the shepherds were yet abiding in the fields–by night, at that! They had not yet brought their flocks home to the sheepfolds. Clearly the cold, rainy season had not yet commenced.
Thus, on the basis of Luke’s testimony alone, we see that Jesus could have been born no later than mid-October–when the weather is still pleasant at Bethlehem. A December 25 nativity is too late!
Additional biblical evidence lends further support to the foregoing conclusion.
Luke 1:24-38 informs us that the virgin Mary miraculously became pregnant with Jesus when her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant with a child who would later be known as John the Baptist. Jesus, then, would have been born six months after John.
If we could know the time of John’s birth, we could then simply add six months and know the time of Jesus’ birth.
Does the Bible reveal the general time of John’s birth?
Notice: Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias was a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. Luke 1:5 records that Zacharias was “of the course of Abia [in Hebrew, Abijah].” In the days of King David of ancient Israel (10th century B.C.), the number of priests had so increased that they had to be divided into 24 courses or shifts, which would take turns in performing the priestly duties (I Chron. 24). Each course served one week at a time, beginning and ending on a weekly Sabbath day (II Chron. 23:8). The course of Abijah was the eighth course or shift in the rotation (I Chron. 24:10).
The Talmud (collection of Jewish civil and religious laws and commentaries) records that the first course performed its duties in the first week of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. This month (called Abib or Nisan) begins about the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
The second course worked the second week. The third week–being the annual festival season of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread–found all 24 courses serving together, sharing the heavy duties of that special time. The third shift then took its turn during the fourth week of the year.
Projecting forward, the eighth course–the course of Abijah, in which Zacharias served–worked the ninth week of the year. But Zacharias’ course then stayed on at the Temple to serve the 10th week also–the week of the annual Pentecost festival–along with all the other courses.
It was during that two-week period of work–near the end of spring–that the announcement by the archangel Gabriel came to Zacharias regarding his wife’s imminent conception (Luke 1:8-20). When his two weeks’ service was completed, Zacharias and Elizabeth went back to their home and Elizabeth conceived (verses 23-24)–sometime late in June or early July.
The rest is a matter of biology and arithmetic. Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy would have been in December. She would have given birth three months later–in late March or early April of the following year. Six months after that, Jesus would have been born, in late September or early October–before the sheep were brought in from the fields, as we have seen! Clearly, Jesus was not born in December.
Late September or early October was also the time of year that taxes were customarily paid–in the fall, at the end of the harvest. Joseph and Mary, it will be remembered, had journeyed to Bethlehem to be taxed (Luke 2:3-5).
The fact that there was “no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) also suggests the time of the autumn harvest, because the annual fall festivals occurring at that time attracted multitudes of Jews to Jerusalem and nearby towns, filling all available accommodations.
Each December, articles inevitably appear in newspapers and magazines pointing out the ancient origins of today’s Christmas customs. All authorities agree that the customs surrounding Christmas–the Christmas tree, mistletoe, holly wreaths, yule logs, stockings on the hearth, exchanging gifts and so on–were practiced in connection with pagan religious celebrations centuries before the birth of Jesus. None are of Christian origin! Anciently, December 25 was the date of the pagan Roman Brumalia, the final day of the popular week-long Saturnalia celebration, celebrated in honor of the god Saturn. It was the day of the “invincible sun”–a winter solstice festival.
“Christmas” was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. It was not until the mid-fourth century that Pope Julius I decreed December 25 to be Christmas (“Christ-Mass”) Day. He sought to overshadow the popular Brumalia by imparting “Christian” connotations to the day.
But again, some will ask: What is so wrong with borrowing some of those early customs and using them to honor Jesus? May we not continue to celebrate December 25, as long as we do it in Jesus’ name?
Can pagan practices be “Christianized” in this way?
More than 34 centuries ago, the rebellious children of Israel fashioned a pagan idol–a golden calf–in the wilderness (Ex. 32). It was the god Apis, the sacred Egyptian bull deity worshiped at Memphis on the Nile. Aaron declared that the pagan, Egyptian rites by which the Israelites worshiped the calf were “a feast to the Lord” (verse 5).
Did God feel honored? Did he approve of their using pagan customs to worship him?
Absolutely not! It was a great sin (verse 21), and 3,000 paid with their lives (verse 28)! They had deceived themselves that what they were doing was right.
We are commanded not to seek to worship God with customs borrowed from other religions (Deut. 12:29-32). “Learn not the way of the heathen,” God declares (Jer. 10:2).
True Christians never meet paganism half way. Pagan worship–whether “in Jesus’ name” or not–remains pagan worship! Christianity mixed with paganism is not Christianity at all. Righteousness has no fellowship with unrighteousness (II Cor. 6:14). God simply will not accept that type of false “worship.”
If God had wanted us to observe Christ’s birthday, he would have given us the exact date and specific instructions on how to observe it. But he has not! Christmas is an invention of man, issuing from pagan worship.
- The following information is from The History of The Reformation of Religion in Scotland by John Knox.
“The establishment by St Columba of a seminary in Iona was highly favourable to the cause of literature both in Scotland and England. How far it tended to promote evangelical religion, does not clearly appear. The form of sound words, and the image of Christian worship, are often long retained after the living spirit of the gospel is gone; and nothing proves more clearly the fact of its departure than an overweening attachment to superstitious practices, and an observance of rites and seasons which God has not ordained. When the apostle Paul found the churches in Galatia observing days, and months, and times, and years, he expressed his fear that he had laboured among them in vain. These things were an evidence of their declining in their spiritual state, and departing from the faith. Long before this period of our history, we find our Christian ancestors stickling about the proper time of keeping Easter, when they ought to have rejected it altogether as an observance which God had not required. In the time of St Columba, the controversy was revived, and after a keen contest the eloquence of those who favoured the church of Rome prevailed. St Columba yielded, whether from conviction, or from some other cause, we are not told; “and the Pope found in the Abbot of Iona himself, a sedulous and devoted convert to the new lunar cycle.” Russel’s Prelim. Diss. to Keith’s Scottish Bishops, p. lxxv.“About the same time the feast of Christmas was introduced to our ancestors. “The vulgar persuasion is,” says Buchanan, “that these festivities celebrated the birth of Christ, when, in truth, they refer, as is sufficiently evident, to the lascivious rites of the Bacchanalia, and not to the memory of our Saviour’s nativity.” It is probable that this was originally the Gothic pagan feast of Yule, or Zul, so called in Scotland to this day; see Dr Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary on the word, Yule. We know the Popes instructed their missionaries not to abolish, but rather adopt the heathen rites of the people among whom they introduced Christianity, and adapt them to Christian worship. This was the source of innumerable corruptions; and with regard to this festival, it not only opened a door for all manner of licentiousness, but also bound the churches to the acknowledgment of a thing as true which never has been proved,—that Christ was born on the 25th of December, which rests on no credible authority. Our neighbours in the south condemn our reformers for rejecting this holiday. With much more reason we wonder at their retaining it.” (The History of The Reformation of Religion in Scotland, John Knox, 1841, Introduction pp. 13, 14) (see also Acts of The General Assembly of The Church of Scotland, 1638-1842, p. 19)