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Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People

When Was Jesus Born? Part 1

Was Jesus born on December 25? Can we even know when He was born? And most importantly, does it even really matter when Jesus was born?

When was Jesus Christ of Nazareth born? We hear Christmas carols about the baby Jesus in the manger and the winter wonderland associated with His birth. If we look at our calendars, chances are they label December 25 "Christmas Day." The birth of Jesus Christ is said to be the reason behind the season. But was He actually born on that day? It's not as clear and simple as our calendars would suggest.

Dec 25 wasn't always considered Jesus' birthdate. In a U.S. News and World Report article titles "In Search of Christmas," Joseph Sheler wrote: "Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus' birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement . . . picked November 18. Hippolytus . . . figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday . . . An anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around around A.D. 243, placed Jesus's birth on March 28" (Dec 23, 1996, p. 58).

Although it's difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated December 25 as Christmas Day, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century. This is an amazingly late date! Thing about it–this means that Christmas, which most consider Jesus' birthday, wasn't observed by the Roman church until about 300 years after Christ's lifetime on earth!

Christmas can't be traced back to either the teachings or the practices of the earliest Christians. That sounds almost impossible, doesn't it? But it's true.

So why did the Roman church adopt December 25 as the time to celebrate Jesus' birth? The reason His birthday is celebrated at that time of year is that religious leaders in that era wanted to give a pagan festival held on December 25 a name change to make it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity!

The Encyclopedia Americana makes this clear: "In the fifth century, the Western Church ordered it [Christ's birth] to be observed forever on the day of the old Roman feast of the birth of Sol [the sun god], as no certain knowledge of the day of Christ's birth existed" (1944 edition, 'Christmas').

The reason for this confusion is not surprising. The Bible doesn't actually spell out the exact date of Jesus' birth. What's more, we find zero mentions of any celebrations being held honoring Christ's birthday by the early Church.

Jesus wasn't born in December

So what about December 25? A careful Bible study shows that the middle of winter was clearly not the time Jesus was born. There are two big reasons why this can't be the time of Christ's birth.

First, we know that shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus' birth: "And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. . . Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:7-8).

Shepherds would not have been "living out in the fields" during December, the weather being cold and miserable. According to Celebrations: The complete Book of American Holidays, Luke's account "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" (p 309).

Similarly, The Interpreter's One-Volume commentary says this passage argues "against the birth [of Christ] occurring on December 25 since the weather would not have permitted" shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night. Though some dispute this, other reputable sources, such as The companion Bible and Clarke's commentary, make the same points about the shepherds not being outside in the open at night in late December.

So the first reason we know He wasn't born in December was that there were shepherds in the fields tending their flocks, something that wouldn't have been happening in the cold Judean winter.

Another reason we can conclude that Jesus wasn't born in December is that His parents traveled to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). No Roman ruler would have had a census taken in winter when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition.

Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating, since it would have been too difficult for Judean residents to travel to be counted. Travel back then wasn't as easy as it is today. We live in an age of heated vehicles and snowplowed roads, but back then the vast majority of people walked wherever they needed to go.

Based on these two facts alone we see that it's highly unlikely that the biblical account of Jesus' birth happened in the winter, let alone on the specific date of December 25. More than being a simple incorrect guess, the December 25 date was an attempt to synthesize pagan practices into Christian worship.

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