We have been told by historians that the December 25 Christmas was the Church’s way of covering over and stamping out the celebrations of Saturnalia. However I can find no early sources that say that is what the church was doing. Nor do I find this widely attested pattern on part of the early church. I do see a pattern in modern scholarship. This pattern insists, “The early Christians were just stealing ideas and holidays from pagan culture and incorporating them into the Jesus myth”. They tell us that Easter was a fertility festival, that Christmas was an orgy and the son of god story was a rehashing of the birth of the god Mithra. But these same scholars fail to do two things:
- They fail to explain why they focus on the details they choose- almost every culture has a holiday on or near December 25th. Many have holidays that involve gifts and trees. So why the Roman one? They may as well use the holidays that were Celtic, Scandinavian, or Indian. If many cultures around the world have festivals on December 25, is it possible there is some related event in the culture native to the Gospel events, themselves. That leads us to the second point.
- They don’t look deeply into the narrative of the Bible and the existing Jewish context to see and understand the continuity between what was done in Israel and what was occurring in Christ. If nothing else, it might occur to these scholars to look into the sources that the Gospel writers themselves took to be foundational to the events surround Jesus Christ.
Using the New Testament Text to Establish a Date for Messiah’s Birth
Since we are not told by the text when Jesus was born, we can only ask what dates in the story can be used to help us recreate a timeline. The dates that we know would be the service of Zacharias in the week of October 2nd 5bc and the death of Herod on March 13, 4bc.
Dating From the Service of Zacharias:
Luke 1:5 Zacharias of the division of Abijah- October 2-9, 5bc
Luke 1:26 Gabriel comes to Mary “in the sixth month” (march)
Luke 1:36- Elizabeth is in the sixth month of her pregnancy
9 months to December
Dating from the death of Herod
Herod dies between a strange stellar event and Passover.
There must be time for certain events to occur:
The birth of Jesus – late December
Six weeks til Mary’s purification (six weeks)
Trip to the Temple – Mid February
Arrival of the Magi- Late February
Flight Into Egypt
Slaying of the Innocents- Late February
Death of Herod ( March 13)
Passover (April 12)
Return to Galillee
A late December birth of Jesus allows time for the purification allotment and other events to fit in before the death of Herod.
John Chysostom (ad 347-407) argues from Zachariah’s priestly duty that Jesus was born on December 25. Bishop Cyril (313-386) and Justin Martyr (100-167ad), claimed that census documents brought by Titus to Rome after the destruction of the Temple determined the date of Jesus’ birth to be on December 25. Hyppolytus (ad 165-325) also gives the date of December 25 as the date of the birth of Christ. So the early Church tradition of a December 25th date for the birth of Jesus in no way connects it to pagan holidays.
Common Modern Arguments Against the Winter Nativity
A. The winter cold– Though Lightfoot was commonly quoted as writing that flocks were not kept out in the winter months, the passages from the Talmud he sighted referred to those in the wilderness. Even the Talmud makes a distinction, those herds pastured in the wilderness where brought in during the early rains (November). Elsewhere the Talmud says that these animals are in pasture in the rainy seasons and the hottest days, that is all year round.
B. The winter rains– the average of 22 seasons of winter rains in the mid 1800’s was 4.7 inches. the mean for December was .490 for January it was 1.5 inches. The rainiest season would be in February- March.
C. The Shepherds and the Sheep- Doubt has been cast on the story of Jesus’ birth with the claim that there would be no shepherds or sheep in a residential neighborhood. The Mishnah does say that flocks are never to be brought in residential areas, like Bethlehem, with only one exception. Those flocks that were being kept for sacrifice in the Temple, were traditionally kept in the area around Bethlehem.
These flocks were overseen from Midgal Eder, spoken of in Micah 4:8 as the birthplace of the Messiah and called Bethlehem’s Royal Palace in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ber 2:3)
These special sheep required a special class of shepherds. The shepherds of the wilderness because of their isolation were considered unclean because their manner of life did not allow for them to keep ritually clean. The shepherds for the Temple, because of their proximity and connection to the holy place were required to keep the laws of cleanliness. What’s more they were intimately involved in the sacrificial system and provided a course of training for the Temple Priests. They were the ones who trained the Priests to recognize what lambs were fit for sacrifice.
We have considered the common arguments against the December 25 dating- the winters, the rains and the sheep. We have looked at the plausibility of the December 25 dating from the dates of Zecharias’ service and Herod’s death. Now we must investigate the overlooked question of whether there is a reason within the context of Jesus birth that might make December 25 a significant date.
Jewish traditions involving December 25th
In Meghillah Taanith, the 9th of Tevet is marked as a fast day with the odd notation, “the reason for this is not stated”. However, this date frequently falls on Dec, 25. If this was the fast day for the birth of the Messiah, it would certainly not be explained in those days of Roman rule. However, Zechariah 8:19 speaks of a day when these fasts would become “joy, gladness, and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah”. In that time, the prophecy continues, “…many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord” (Zechariah 8:22) So there is something about the fulfillment of the fasts that will result in the Nations of the world seeking the God of Israel.
The Result is a Fuller Picture of the Events Surrounding the Birth of Jesus
If our dating is correct, and the background of these events properly interpreted, then the terse picture in the Biblical account is not only substantiated but also illuminated. These devout, Torah observant shepherds were keeping their flock. They were fasting on the day secretly held to be the day the Messiah would be born. They were watching over the flocks that would be offered at Passover, as the caretakers of the Passover offerings. Their watch point was the Tower of Eder, they place where Micah said Messiah’s arrival would be announced, a place where there was additional tradition connecting this place with Messiah and Israel’s past and future Davidic king. It is to these that the angel announces the good news that the Savior Who Is Lord Messiah has been born. They rush to see and as those specially trained to recognize the perfect offering, they fall in worship.
I am not really concerned what date you choose to celebrate Messiah’s birth. I hope that you will celebrate Him daily. The wonder of the incarnation is not so much “when”, but “Who”. That the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that we might behold His Glory is something too remarkable to take in. It is God becoming one of us to save us. It is the Author entering the story. It is an unlikely, crazy, scandalous story that has all the hallmarks of being “too strange for fiction.” My hope, is that you who trust Jesus for your salvation, would be able to worship on December 25 with clear conscience and joyful hearts- joining an ever-growing chorus, singing,
“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hill, and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain. Jesus Christ is born.”