Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In this season of Advent, most Christian churches are in a “countdown” to the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. It’s common during this time of year to hear discussions concerning whether December 25 is the right day to celebrate Jesus’ birth, or even if it is appropriate to do so at all.
Trying to figure out the exact year, month and day of Jesus’ birth is not new. Theologians have been at it for almost two thousand years. Here are brief samplings of some of their ideas:
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220 A.D.) mentioned several possible dates including November 18, January 6 and the day of Passover, which, depending on the year, would have been March 21, April 24 or 25 or May 20.
- Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–240) mentioned March 25.
- Hippolytus of Rome (170–235), a disciple of Irenaeus, mentioned two possible dates in his Commentary on Daniel: “For the first appearance of our Lord in the flesh took place in Bethlehem eight days before the Kalends of January [December 25], on the fourth day [Wednesday], under Emperor Augustus, in the year 5500.” In another document and in an inscription on a statue of Hippolytus, the date given is April 2.
- Based upon statements from the Jewish historian Josephus, some place Jesus’ birth in the period of March 12-April 11, 4 B.C., since Christ was born before the death of Herod the Great.
- John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) mentioned December 25.
- In Computation of the Passion, an early anonymous work, probably of North African origin, the date mentioned is March 28.
- Augustine (354-430), in De Trinitate, writes that, “He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered…and He was born according to tradition on December 25.”
- Messianic Jews mention a couple of options—the predominant one based on the schedule of the priests’ service in the temple, specifically the “course of Abijah” (Luke 1:5). This approach leads them to place Jesus’ birth on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles and his circumcision on the eighth day of that festival.
It’s interesting to speculate that Jesus could have been born (or conceived) during Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. I like the concept of Jesus reversing the work of the death angel if it happened during Passover. And there would be a satisfying symmetry in his coming to “tabernacle” with us if he was conceived or born during Tabernacles. However, there is not enough evidence to be sure, though perhaps we can make intelligent guesses based on the small amount of evidence available to us.
In Luke 2:1-5, we read that Caesar Augustus decreed that the Roman Empire should be taxed and that everyone had to return to their own city to pay the tax. So Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem and there Jesus was born. It is reasonable to assume that such a census would not have been ordered at a time that would interfere with the harvests. It is also reasonable to assume that the census would not have been ordered in the winter when the weather is usually cold and travel is difficult. Since Spring was the time for preparing to plant, perhaps autumn, after the harvest, is the most likely time of the year for the census, and thus for Jesus’ birth. However, it is not clear from Scripture how long Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. Perhaps Jesus’ birth occurred several weeks after the census was taken.
The fact is, we can’t know the date of Jesus’ birth for sure. Scoffers seize on this vagueness, claiming that the whole idea is a myth, and Jesus never existed. However, even though the date of Jesus’ birth is uncertain, the fact of his birth is founded on verifiable historical evidence. Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce has a nice comment about those who doubt it: “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories” (The New Testament Documents, p. 123).
The people of Jesus’ time knew from the prophecies about when to expect the Messiah. But those prophecies, or the Gospels, don’t pinpoint the date with the degree of precision that modern historians might desire. But that is not the purpose of the Bible, which is to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
The main focus of the New Testament writers was not on the date of Jesus’ birth, but that God the Father had sent his Son at just the right time in all of history to accomplish his saving purposes and thus fulfill his promise. The apostle Paul proclaimed, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4-5). And we read in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” (1:14-15).
To know the date of Jesus’ birth might be interesting from a historical perspective, but it is theologically irrelevant. We need to know that it happened, and what is more important, why it happened. On that, the Bible is abundantly clear. As we lead our congregations in this season of Advent, let’s keep that big picture in mind and not get bogged down in the details.
Your brother in Christ,