(This article is adapted from a previous article I wrote that was published on September 30th, 2009 in a university newspaper.)
We might romantically picture Christmas as the gathering of families, singing carols around the fireplace, with snow on the windowsills as the birth of Christ is joyfully celebrated. However, Jesus of Nazareth, the uniquely begotten Son of God, the promised Jewish Messiah, was not born December 25th, AD 1. In fact, most scholars agree that Jesus was most likely born in the year 3 BC, since King Herod --who had commanded the slaughter of all infants under the age of two years (Matthew 2:16)-- died in the year 1 BC. Herod had ordered the slaughter after hearing that the king of Israel had been born, fearing he would be dethroned by the newborn king.
Some 750 years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had said that the Messiah would be given to the world as a child, born of a young maiden (Isaiah 7:14), and would be called "God among us", "Mighty God, Everlasting Father" (Isaiah 9:6). He also wrote that the Messiah would bear the punishment of the sins of many (Isaiah 53:5), just as Christians believe Jesus did when He died on the cross (1 Peter 3:18, Mark 10:45, 1 Corinthians 15:3).
In Luke's Gospel account, we are told that Jesus is baptized and begins His public ministry at the age of 30 (Luke 3:23), and thus we can calculate the approximate year in which this occurs as AD 27. This is worthy of note because the prophet Daniel had prophesied that within that very window of time, 483 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, the Messiah would appear (Daniel 9:24-26). It is for this reason that many Jews at the time were anxiously expecting the coming Messiah, and history shows that several people surfaced in those days claiming to be the Messiah, and who were promptly put to death by the Romans for insurrection.
The reason many celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December is due to a process called syncretism, whereby old pagan celebrations were given a new face after the official conversion of the Roman Pagan Empire to Christianity. The conversion of the Roman Empire occurred some years after Christian worship was legalized via Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan in the year 313. This melding of the Roman Pagan Church with Christian beliefs is what produced what we call today the Roman Catholic Church, even inheriting the title of "Pontifex Maximus" for the pope, a title which was held by the emperor and head of the Roman Pagan Church. One such tradition that was carried through was the celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictus, the "unconquered sun god", on the winter solstice, which was first established by Emperor Aurelian on the 25th of December AD 274 (you will find this celebration mentioned in other sources under the name "Saturnalia"). This newly created church adopted this tradition, but reappointed it as the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
So, if not the 25th of December, then when was it that Jesus was born? We can begin our attempt to more precisely place the date of Jesus' birth by looking at several key events in the biblical account.
Luke tells us that John the Baptist was conceived some time after his father Zechariah had completed serving his priestly course at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 1:5-10, 23-24). It was during this week-long service that the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his barren wife would give birth to a son who would come "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17), a reference to the prophecy delivered by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5).
Zechariah was of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5), and from 1 Chronicles 24:10 we see that this means he was assigned to the 8th course, which occurred twice in the year: once on the 10th week of the year in the Hebrew calendar (the second week of Sivan, the 3rd month in the Hebrew calendar), and again on the 35th week of the year (the first week of Kislev, which is the 9th month).
Note that all the mentioned weeks and months are in reference to the Hebrew calendar, not our Gregorian calendar. The first month on the Hebrew calendar is Nisan and it lands in March/April in the Gregorian calendar.
So we have two options from which to start calculating our dates: the 11th week and the 36th week.
Let's begin by exploring the first option, with John the Baptist being conceived some time after the eleventh week of the year.
Given that Jesus was conceived 6 months after his cousin John the Baptist (Luke 1:36), this would place Jesus' conception at some point around the 38th week. This is "coincidentally" right around the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which begins on the 25th day of Kislev, and lasts 8 days and nights. Of note, Hanukkah most often occurs in December on our Gregorian calendar, and was just one of the many Jewish festivals that Jesus, "the Light of the World" (John 8:12), and His family would have celebrated as faithful Jews.
Nine months after Hanukkah is "Sukkot", the Feast of the Tabernacles ("tabernacle" is just another word for "tent"), which also lasts a week, and is celebrated every year beginning on the 15th day of Tishri, the seventh month. In fact, if Jesus was born during Sukkot, that would explain why Joseph and Mary could not find proper lodging (Luke 2:7), as a great number of Jews would have headed to Jerusalem during this time, as required by religious law, and Bethlehem, just a handful of miles away from Jerusalem, would have been a logical resting place for travelers on their way to Jerusalem.
Interestingly, using the 11th week as the parting point for our calculation would also place John the Baptist's birth at the time of the Passover, where, even to this day, a typical Jewish celebration of the Passover "seder" celebrates the expected arrival of Elijah during precisely this time of the year. Yes, that same John the Baptist, who the angel Gabriel said would come in the power and spirit of Elijah, born at the same time of year that Jews traditionally expect the return of Elijah.
If we instead start our calculations with John the Baptist being conceived after the 35th week, that would yield a Passover birthday for Jesus, which usually lands in April on our calendar. Still quite a far cry from December 25th, in any case.
If these Jewish festivals were meant to point to the Messiah, it makes sense that important events related to the life of Christ should neatly line up with them. So I personally find the span of the festival of Sukkot to be the most compelling and likely window of time for Jesus' birth.
For a while now there has been a significant movement of people adamantly asserting that it is wrong, or "pagan", to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th, with some groups going so far as to call it a sin. However, Paul grants us relief in Colossians 2:16 where he writes: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths". For further clarity, a good question to ask is "are there any days of the year where it is wrong to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born?" and the obvious answer is that "no, all days are acceptable to celebrate Christ, even His birth". Through longstanding tradition, we have a whole month where we as a society openly celebrate the Savior of humanity by celebrating His birth, and this enables those of us who have placed our trust for Salvation in Him to have those vital conversations to present the Gospel to those who have never heard it. How could we possibly squander such a providential opportunity?
As the Apostle Paul exhorts us, we should be
"making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil."-Ephesians 5:16 (NIV)
And of course, if mere human kings and queens can have two birthday celebrations every year, why not also the King of Kings?
So, if you are looking to celebrate Jesus' birth during Sukkot, you might be interested to know that the next occurrence of the 15th of Tishri on our calendar is:
Perhaps now we can start a new tradition of celebrating the birth of the Messiah at a more precise date than we have been for hundreds of years. And in fact, there is no reason to forsake the December Christmas celebration either, especially if we consider that if Jesus was conceived during Hanukkah, we have a great and valid reason to also celebrate during the traditional December Christmas season!
And if, as mentioned above, all Jewish feasts were indeed meant to point to Christ it also allows us to beautifully describe it as:
The Light of the World was conceived during the Festival of Lights, and made His tabernacle among us, being born on the Feast of Tabernacles.
An important observation that needs to be made in all this, is that we cannot know with precision what the exact date of Jesus' birth was. We can only narrow it down to a single week, and not without a degree of speculation. This is interesting because despite such a detailed set of accounts of Jesus' birth, none of these details are explicit in stating the exact placement of His birth.
God doesn't make mistakes, so we can safely conclude that this was intentional. Where on the one hand we have a precise timeline of the events surrounding Christ's death, including the exact day of the week of His resurrection, this is missing for His birth.
The reason for this is because the most important event in the life of Christ was not His birth, but rather His death.
He is the perfect, sinless Son of God who was born... to die. He took on human flesh in order to give His life sacrificially as a ransom payment for those who belong to Him, to redeem them of their rebellion and sin, to grant them life via a new, spiritual birth. Something His birth alone could not accomplish.
It is certainly a demonstration of love toward our Savior for us to celebrate His birth, but we need to understand that it is His death and resurrection that are the most important events to be observed. Regardless of what date or season you personally choose to celebrate Christmas, make sure you have trusted fully in Christ, and in Christ alone, for the forgiveness of your sins. If you haven't already, make sure to give the following a good read: What is the Gospel?
Merry Christmas, everyone!