When was Jesus’ Birthday? December 25th, 6th January, or on the Feast of Tabernacles?
December 25th would be most people’s answer to this question. However there is nothing at all in the New Testament to fix the date of Jesus’ birth at this time. There was no celebration of the birth of Jesus during the first two centuries of the early church. Speculation on the subject began in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the idea of fixing His birthday started. By this time Christianity had become corrupted with pagan elements coming in, as it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
During this time eight specific dates were proposed for the birth from March through to January. In Rome December 25th was made popular by Pope Liberius in 354. It became the rule in the Roman Church in the West in 435 when the first ‘Christ mass’ was officiated by Pope Sixtus III. This date was probably chosen to counter the influence of the pagan feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquerable Sun) and the worship of Mithras, the Persian sun god, supposedly born on that day. In the East, January 6th was chosen, a date the Greeks had celebrated as the birth of the god Dionysus and the Egyptians as the birth of the god Osiris. This date is still used by Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. In both cases there is a link to paganism in the choice of date for the birth of Jesus Christ.
So the origins of Christmas are in a mixture of paganism (error) and remembrance of the birth of Jesus (truth). When you mix error and truth, error tends to become dominant. Today we have mostly the pagan elements of the midwinter festival without the truth of the birth of Jesus. We have excessive eating, drinking and the mythical figure of Santa Claus / Father Christmas, all of which connect to pagan celebrations, not the birth of Jesus.
In modern mythology Santa Claus is seen as fantastic being whom you can ask things from and they will appear (miraculously) after he comes in the night. Even if children believe in Father Christmas when they are very young, they soon realise it is a made up story, which no one really believes. If they then associate this with the story of Jesus being born, they may think that this too is a made up story, which no one really believes. However while Father Christmas is a fictional character, there is a vital truth in the account of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, which we do need to believe in to have salvation and eternal life.
The New Testament does not give us any definite date for the birth of the Lord Jesus. However there are three clues as to the possible time (and they all point away from December 25th). These are the three clues:
- The shepherds in the fields.
- The timing of the census.
- The conception of John the Baptist.
When were shepherds in the fields?
The temperature in the area of Bethlehem in December averages around 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) but can drop to well below freezing, especially at night. Snow is common for two or three days in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem in December and January. These are the winter months of increased rain, which in the time of Jesus would have made travel along the dirt roads difficult and people mostly stayed at home.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, we are told in the Gospel: ‘Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night’ (Luke 2:8). A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from around April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them.
The Companion Bible, Appendix 179 says: ‘Shepherds and their flocks would not be found ‘abiding’ (Gr. agrauleo) in the open fields at night in December (Tebeth), for the paramount reason that there would be no pasturage at that time. It was the custom then (as now) to withdraw the flocks during the month Marchesven (October to November) from the open districts and house them for the winter.’
The census described by Luke
Other evidence arguing against a December birth of Jesus is the Roman census recorded by Luke. The Roman rulers knew that taking a census in winter would have been impractical. Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel. According to the normal dates for the census, this would probably be the season of Christ’s birth.
One author states: ‘This census could hardly have been at that season (December 25), however, for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authorities for a public enrolment, which necessitated the population’s travelling from all parts to their natal districts, storms and rain making journeys both unsafe and unpleasant in winter, except in specially favourable years’ (‘Christmas at Bethlehem,’ Holy-Days and Holidays, Cunningham Geikie).
Luke’s account of the census argues strongly against a December date for Christ’s birth. For such an agrarian society, an autumn post-harvest census was much more likely.
The conception of John the Baptist
One pointer to the time when Jesus was born comes from the Gospel of Luke concerning the conception of John the Baptist. Luke 1:5-17 tells of Zechariah’s encounter with the Angel while ministering in the sanctuary and the announcement that he is to have a son. Luke also tells us that Zechariah was a priest of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5, 8). 1 Chronicles 27 tells us that the priesthood was separated into 24 turns or divisions for the purpose of serving in the Temple. These turns began in Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar (Exodus 12.2), March or April of our modern calendar. According to Talmudic and Qumran sources, the turns rotated every week until they reached the end of the sixth month, when the cycle was repeated again until the end of the year. This would mean that Zechariah’s division served at the temple twice a year.
We find in 1 Chronicles 24:10 that Abijah was the eighth division of the priesthood. Thus, Zechariah’s service would be in the tenth week of the Jewish year. Why the tenth week? Because all divisions served during primary feast weeks of the Jewish year. So all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (the third week of the year). Likewise, all of the divisions of the priesthood would serve during the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (the ninth week). Thus, the eighth course of the priesthood would end up serving on the tenth week of the year.
If we assume that Luke is recording Zechariah’s first shift of service for the year, then Zechariah’s service would be the Jewish date of Sivan 12-18 / May – June. (NB The Jewish calendar works on a lunar cycle of 12 months. The solar year is about 11 days longer than 12 lunar months, so an extra month is added 7 times every 19 years. By this means the timing of the Jewish month is always at roughly the same time as the timing of the solar month, but not at exactly the same time.).
After his service in the temple, Zechariah went home to his wife. Due to the laws of separation (Leviticus 12:5; 15:19, 25), two additional weeks have to be counted. Luke tells us that ‘as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived.’ Luke 1.23-4. This implies that John was conceived at the earliest possible date after Zechariah had completed his service. In this case Elizabeth conceived two weeks after Zechariah’s return sometime towards the end of the Jewish month of Sivan, or the end of June.
Allowing for a normal pregnancy the birth of John the Baptist would have taken place nine months later at the time of the Passover (Nisan 15). The Jewish people looked for Elijah to come at the time of Passover. The Old Testament prophets had said that God would send Elijah before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). According to these calculations John the Baptist was born at Passover. The angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist was to come ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elijah came at Passover!
Luke 1.26 and 36 tell us that Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel visited Mary. The beginning of Elizabeth’s sixth month would have been at the time of the celebration of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. This occurs in the Jewish month Kislev, December in the solar calendar. The 25th of Kislev is celebrated as the date of the dedication of Temple after its desecration by Antiochus. Hanukkah is known as the ‘Feast of the Dedication’ (John 10:22) because it is connected with the dedication of the second Jewish temple and the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean revolt. Mary was being dedicated for a purpose of enormous magnitude: God’s presence on earth in an earthly temple, a human body (John 1.14-18). The birth may not have been on December 25th but the incarnation may have been! As far as the Messiah’s birth is concerned, it was the conception that was miraculous, not the birth: ’Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.’ Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.’ Luke 1.30-37. If Mary did conceive at Hanukkah, assuming a normal pregnancy of 285 days, Jesus would have been born on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Tishri (end of September – early October). This is significant because it is the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). It is a high day, a special Sabbath, a time of great rejoicing.
The Feast of Tabernacles and Jesus
There are some very interesting connections in Scripture with the birth of Jesus and aspects of the Feast of Tabernacles. John 1:14 says: ‘And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’ (literal translation of the Greek)
Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi wrote: ‘In seeking to describe the Messiah’s first coming to His people, John chose the imagery of the Feast of Booths since the feast celebrates the dwelling of God among His people. This raises an interesting question on whether or not John intended to link the birth of Jesus with the Feast of Tabernacles. To introduce the nature and mission of Christ, John in his Gospel employs the metaphor of the ‘booth’ of the Feast of Tabernacles. He explains that Christ, the Word who was with God in the beginning (John 1:1), manifested Himself in this world in a most tangible way, by pitching His tent in our midst: ‘And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son from the Father’ (John 1:14). (God’s Festivals in Scripture and History Part II: The Fall Festivals page 241.)
The Greek verb ‘skenoo’ used in John 1.14 for dwell means ‘to pitch tent, encamp, tabernacle, dwell in a tent.’ The allusion is clearly to the Feast of Tabernacles when the people dwelt in temporary booths or tents to commemorate Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. For John this dwelling in tents is a symbol of the Incarnation. John 1.14 could be translated: ‘Thus the Word became a mortal man: he pitched his tent in the midst of us.’ (John 1:14). Some scholars believe there is a linguistic connection between the Greek word ‘skenoo’ used here and the Hebrew verb ‘shachen’ which means to dwell or tabernacle. The Hebrew verb ‘shachen’ in its noun form is ‘Shekinah’ which refers to the glory of God dwelling with man.
The Feast of Tabernacles is also known as ‘the season of our joy’ and ‘the feast of the nations.’ With this in mind, it is interesting that we read in Luke 2:10: ‘And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy (NB the ‘season of our joy’), which shall be to all people (NB ‘the feast of the nations’).’ So, we can see from this that the terminology the angel used to announce the birth of Yeshua (Jesus) were themes and messages associated with the Feast of Sukkoth (Tabernacles).
Light was also a prominent feature of the Feast of Tabernacles. At the end of the first day of the Feast, the Temple was gloriously illuminated. According to the Mishnah (Succah 5:2), gigantic candelabras stood within the Court of the Women in the temple. … There was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by this light (Succah 5:3).’ We are told in the Midrash, that the light issuing from the Sanctuary was to ‘lighten that which was without’. This reminds us of the language of devout old Simeon in regard to the Messiah, as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel.’
John 1:6-9 says: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’
We may question church tradition concerning the birth of Jesus, but we do not question the account given in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus was born miraculously by virgin birth to Mary (Miriam) to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 ‘Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel’ (God with us).
He was born in the city of David (Bethlehem) to fulfil Micah 5.2. ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.’ Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth where He was conceived. In order to get Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, God sovereignly moved Caesar Augustus to order a census.
Though this was the place of His birth, His origin was from the days of eternity. Micah’s prophecy actually points to His divine nature – only God comes from the days of eternity and is eternal and uncreated. John 1.1-3 points to the divine nature of the Messiah: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.’
The divine nature of the one to be born is also brought out in Isaiah 9.6 where we read: ‘For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Isaiah 9.6.
To those who believe in Him He offers new birth into the kingdom of God, which will have no end. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ John 3.16.