Urban Legends examines widely held myths from a Biblical perspective.
No other birthday in history has generated as much chatter as the birthday of Jesus. It’s a global calendar event. We celebrate his birth on December 25 but some contend that wasn’t his real birthday and not without reason. Before the world settled on December 25 Clement of Alexander, an early church father had actually fixed November 18, 3BC. Many say there was no corroborative evidence for the choice of date but some suggest he might have been using Egyptian calendar. Egyptian calendar made no provision for leap years.
The exact date of the birth of Jesus is not specified in the Bible. It’s ironic because the Bible contains so many startling details about the circumstances of his birth. The Bible even specifies his blanket and cot! (Luke 2:12) Even the prophecies concerning his birth were eerily detailed. Those prophecies told us Bethlehem would be his birthplace (Micah 5:2); that he would belong to the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10), descend from the Davidic line (Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5) and be born of a virgin. (Isaiah 7:14)
The word “Christmas” is not found in the Bible either. Christmas is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass.” The “mas” in Christmas evolved from an Old English word “maesse” meaning festival or feast day. There is some record of Christmas being celebrated in Antioch (Turkey) in the middle of the second century; but the earliest Roman record of Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s nativity festival led by the Church of Rome in 336AD.
How December 25 became the day for celebrating the birthday of Jesus is mired in conjectures. Some believe it originated as substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. On December 22, the sun reaches its lowest point in the northern hemisphere and slowly begins its ascent towards the Spring solstice of March. The people in the ancient world believed the sun was leaving them and so they did rituals to appease the sun to return. There was the Roman pagan holiday commemorating the “birthday of the unconquered sun” – natalis solis invicti. And then the festival of Saturn the god of agriculture. It began December 17 and ended December 25, the beginning of the new solar cycle. Then there was the worship of the Persian god of light, Mithra. This was popular in the Roman army. Some of its rituals held on winter solstice. Mithra was said to have been born from a rock on December 25.
Emperor Constantine came to power in 306AD and converted to Christianity in 312AD. He thereupon established Christianity as state religion. In 350AD Pope Julius 1 replaced the pagan holiday for Mithra with Christmas. Back in 274AD Emperor Aurelian had established December 25 for the celebration of Mithra. The date was said to signify the retreat of darkness as the Star of Bethlehem shone upon the earth with a special brilliance. It wasn’t until 529AD that Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday. But within a century, the December 25 date had spread to other churches, except the Armenian Church. And so we can see the grouse of those who contend Jesus must not be celebrated on December 25. But when was Jesus born? Can we nail it down?
There are two ways to calculate the birthdate of Jesus. We can either walk forward from the account in Luke about his birth; or walk backwards calculating from the age he began to preach.
Luke chapter 3 gives us critical historical brackets: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Phillip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah…” It was at this time Jesus began his ministry. He “was about thirty years of age.” Now, Tiberius Caesar reigned 14AD to 3AD. About 29AD, Jesus was in his early thirties. Matthew 2:1 says Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the time of King Herod. Herod ruled Palestine 37BC to 4AD when he died. The only period of birth that fits these facts would be between 6BC and 4BC, perhaps 5BC. Further down we’ll explain why Jesus ended up being born in a BC era. Sounds impossible but there’s an explanation.
For our forward methodology our first clue comes from Luke 1:5: “During the reign of Herod king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah.” As noted, Herod ruled Palestine from 37BC till his death in 4AD. Zechariah was the father of John the Baptizer. Jesus was conceived shortly after John. They are second cousins. Their mums were cousins. Zechariah was serving in the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem when he was chosen to enter the Holy Place to burn incense outside the Holy of Holies. (The first temple – Solomon’s temple had been destroyed by the Neo Babylon Empire in 586BC. That was when Jerusalem was conquered and Daniel and co. sent into exile. Roman legions under Titus would later destroy the Second Temple in 70BC).
The job rotation in the temple was among 24 priestly divisions. Zechariah’s division, the Abijah division was 8th on the list. (1 Chronicles 24:10) According to Talmud sources as well as the Qumran, the service of the Abijah division fell on the last two weeks of the fourth month in the Jewish calendar – 15-29 Tamuz. That’s 21st June – 6th July of our modern calendar. (The Talmud is rabbinic commentaries. The Qumran refers to ancient manuscripts from an archeological site in Israel).
While serving in the temple, Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and informed him he was going to give birth to John. Zechariah notoriously expressed doubt about the feasibility of such a prophecy. He and his wife were well advanced in years. (Luke 1:18) Well, Gabriel didn’t particularly like his unbelief and he struck him mute. (Luke 1:20) Zechariah returned to his house after his tour of duty and as predicted Elizabeth became pregnant. She was so embarrassed by the pregnancy she avoided social contact for almost five months. Given the Bible record and historical details, the date of conception of John is most likely mid July to end of July.
Six months into Lizzy’s pregnancy, same Angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary. That would take us to sometime mid January. Again he prophesied the impossible, this time conception without insemination. He announced the virgin birth of Jesus. And he told Mary Elizabeth was six months pregnant. Mary left to visit Elizabeth almost immediately after. (Luke 1:39) But by the time she left she was already pregnant. We know this because when she got to Elizabeth (a week’s journey by foot), Elizabeth said to her, “Blessed is the child in your womb.” (Luke 1:42) So she was already pregnant. And so the conception gap between John and Jesus was basically six months. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, until John was born. (Luke 1:56- 57) So in April, Mary was three months pregnant. From this we can already forward calculate the birth date of Jesus to be in October, most likely mid October.
But how could Jesus have been born in BC rather than 1AD? (AD is abbreviation for Anno Domini – “after the year of our Lord.”) The problem came from the calculation of a monk, Dionysius Exigus. His name translates as Dennis the Little, “Little” referring to humble not size. So we can say Dennis the Humble. When Dionysus calculated the birth of Jesus in 525AD, he missed it by three years. That was because he miscalculated the year of Herod’s death. Now, we know Herod died 4BC. Based on the foregoing, Jesus was most likely born in October in 5BC. And so you can choose to celebrate the birth of Christ in October, though in truth he should be celebrated every day.
But does it really matter when Jesus was born or when we celebrate his birthday? Well, one could argue that if the exact birthdate were that important God would have spelt it out; that the most important date in Christian calendar is Easter. That was when Jesus resurrected. It’s the resurrection that gives us life. But it’s a case of the chicken and the egg.
In Romans 14:5 Paul wrote, “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced (satisfied) in his own mind. He who observes the day observes it in honour of the Lord.” It all boils down to individual preference and conviction at the end of the day. If you want to celebrate Jesus in December, all well and good. And if you want to celebrate him in October, it’s okay too. As long as you honour him.
© #Illuminare Leke Alder | firstname.lastname@example.org