As soon as Thanksgiving’s over, many Americans begin stringing up their holiday lights, busting decorations out of storage, and looking for the perfect Christmas tree. As crowds of shoppers begin their hunt for the perfect gifts, Christmas carols are blasting out of shopping-mall speakers everywhere.
We all know Christmas is the annual festival celebrating Christ’s birth—and December 25 is the date that’s commonly observed as Christ’s birthday. But is that really the date that Christ was born? If not, can we pinpoint with any accuracy when Jesus was born? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter what day he was born?
What the Bible says about the birth of Jesus
Obviously, the New Testament is the best starting place for piecing together the most important facts about Jesus’ birth. Between the accounts in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, we can put together the following details:
Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married (Matthew 1:18, New International Version). The angel Gabriel visited Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1:26–38). He informed her that:
- She had found favor with God (v.30).
- She would conceive and give birth to a son (v. 31).
- Her son would be a significant part of God’s plan. He would occupy the throne of David and rule over Jacob’s (Israel’s) descendants (v. 32–33).
- Her pregnancy would be caused by the Holy Spirit, and the child would be called the Son of God (v. 35).
The angel visits Joseph
When Mary’s soon-to-be husband found out about the pregnancy, he planned to break it off with Mary quietly. He was a good man who didn’t want to shame her. But during the night he was visited in a dream by an angel who told him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20–21).
When Joseph woke up, he followed the angel’s advice and married Mary.
A census requires Joseph and Mary to move
Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree requiring a census be taken of the entire Roman world, and everyone needed to go to their own town to register. So Joseph took Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be registered. While in Bethlehem, Jesus was born to Mary and he was placed in a manger because no legitimate room could be found.
At the same time, an angel appeared to local shepherds who were watching over their flocks that night. The shepherds were terrified of this visitor and the overwhelming glory of the Lord which accompanied him. The angel told them about the Savior’s birth and where they’d find him. And then, out of nowhere, a host of angels appeared praising God. The shepherds went and found the Messiah and worshiped Him. Then they began spreading the good news (Luke 2:1–21).
Does the Bible give any indications of Jesus’ birth date?
As you can probably see, there aren’t any overt indications that Jesus was born on December 25. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t clues that can give us some ideas about when Jesus was (or wasn’t) born.
When would a census be taken?
A census of the entire Roman world would be a serious undertaking. In the first century, Rome included everything from Europe to parts of Africa, and from Syria to Spain. A census like this would have been difficult, especially when you consider that everyone needed to return to their own town to register. That would require a lot of traveling, and even though Rome was making some serious headway in regards to roads and travel conditions, treks could still be arduous undertakings.
The Jewish month of Kislev (sometimes written Chislev) was the ninth month of the year and fell between November and December. The name is Semitic and means “congealed or thickened” because of the cold rain which was so prevalent at that time of year. We see this a couple times in the Old Testament:
“Within the three days, all the men of Judah and Benjamin had gathered in Jerusalem. And on the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain” (Ezra 10:9).
“It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him” (Jeremiah 36:22).
If Rome was seriously interested in a census that incorporated the entire empire, they’d want it to be as accurate as possible. Otherwise, what was the use? In order to ensure its accuracy, they’d need it to occur when travel conditions were at their best. They wouldn’t want it running into late autumn and winter when people wouldn’t be able to travel to where they needed to register.
As shepherds watched their flocks by night
Luke gives us another indication of the season when he tells us:
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8).
By December 25, Israel would have been into the tenth month in the Jewish calendar, Tevet (or Tebeth). In his book Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, Robert Myers tell us that Luke “suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night.”
It isn’t just cold and rainy during Tevet—it’s even known to snow in fair quantities. This isn’t the time of year that shepherds would be living in the fields with their sheep.
Why do we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25
While those two indicators aren’t necessarily proof that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, there aren’t any real strong arguments giving credence to that date either. So how is it that December 25 came to be celebrated as Christmas?
Here are a few theories:
1. The Christianization of pagan holidays
Sun worship was popular in many areas that Rome occupied. During the winter’s shortest days, feasts and festivals were held in order to coax the sun into returning. The festivities often included humongous bonfires intended to empower the sun god’s return.
Since there wasn’t a specific date attached to Christ’s birth, church officials decided to schedule the holiday to coincide with pagan celebrations in order to redeem and Christianize them. Proponents of this theory point to pagan elements that have become part of Christmas celebrations.
According to Australian biblical scholar Andrew McGowan, there’s a problem with this theory. He identifies the problem in his article "How December 25 Became Christmas."
“There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
“Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.”
About the same time that December 25 is beginning to take hold as the date for the celebration of Christ’s birth, the church is struggling to maintain an identity that separates itself from pagans rather than aligning with their worship.
2. The dating of Passover
McGowan points to another important theory related to December 25, corresponding to Jesus’ death.
In his Gospel, John tells us:
“Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down” (John 19:31).
The day of Preparation would have been the 14th of Nisan. In about 200 C.E., Tertullian of Carthage figured that day out to be March 25 on the Roman calendar. The church began celebrating this day as the Feast of the Annunciation—when Gabriel announced that Mary would be with child and she conceived. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and to have died on the same day.
December 25 is nine months after March 25.
In On the Trinity, Augustine writes, “For he is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
Now why Christ’s conception needed to correspond with his death, I’m not sure. But this might have something to do with the choice of December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth.
Not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25
Did you know that there’s a large part of the church who celebrate Christmas on January 7?
It’s true. Most Orthodox churches used the Julian calendar, which was created under the reign of Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. They never adopted the Gregorian calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582.
In 1923, a revised version of the Julian calendar was introduced that harmonized Christmas with the Gregorian calendar, but it wasn’t universally accepted by all Orthodox churches—typically those in central and eastern Europe.
When was Jesus actually born?
While we can’t know for sure when Jesus was born, there are many scholars who believe that, by looking at the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth, we can date Christ’s birth to mid-September.
Luke tells us, “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). In 1 Chronicles 24:6–19, we see the sequence that priestly orders were to minister in the temple. The order of Abijah fell eighth which served in the temple during the tenth week of the priestly cycle.
Luke tells us that when Zechariah’s order was on duty, he was chosen by lot to go into the temple and burn incense before the Lord. While he was in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, telling him that Elizabeth would conceive a child and they were to name him John.
The start of the tenth week would have fallen in the month of Sivan (mid-May to mid-June on the solar calendar). Elizabeth’s conception would have been within this time period.
The Elizabeth and Mary correlation
Here’s what Luke tells us about Elizabeth’s pregnancy,
“After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.’
“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:24–27).
According to some biblical scholars, this allows us to pinpoint pretty accurately when Jesus would have been born. We start at the conception of John which would coincide with the service of the Abijah priests in June. Six months later, in December, Gabriel would make his appearance to Mary. Nine months out would put Christ’s birth in the Jewish month of Tishri—which would be September.
The only problem with this theory is that it’s entirely dependent upon accurately knowing the month of Abijah’s service. Unfortunately, the Babylonian exile would have likely had an enormous impact on the service of Jewish priestly divisions—quite possibly causing a complete reset of those dates. We can’t entirely be sure when they would have served.
Does it matter when Jesus was born?
It’s obvious that the gospel writers didn’t think it was too important to communicate the day that Jesus was born. In fact, we don’t see a lot of attention paid to Christ’s birth in the first couple centuries. Paul doesn’t talk about it, and we don’t see a lot of interest from early church fathers through the second century.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are another matter entirely—the gospels offer important details around Christ’s death. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all place the crucifixion adjacent to Passover. And it was important for them to communicate to us that he was raised in three days.
Communicating the timing of Jesus’ birth just wasn’t the priority for biblical writers like the death and resurrection were, and that should help us to emphasize it accurately.
The church has been memorializing the incarnation for nearly 2,000 years, and for the most part it’s been with complete knowledge that we can’t know for sure the date that Jesus was born—and that’s OK. Christmas celebrates the fact that Jesus took on flesh and entered our existence as an infant. We don’t need to know the exact date this happened to observe this remarkable event.
You can share the good news of His birth with others this Christmas, with “The Birth of Jesus” scene from the “JESUS” film.