The birth of Jesus Christ is traditionally celebrated on December 25, although “around 37% of Orthodox Christians, mainly in Egypt and Russia, celebrate Christmas on January 7,” owing to a difference in the way their calendars were devised. (Egypt Today.)
Neither date is likely correct in light of several clues uncovered by historians and information in the Bible itself. The year Jesus was born is not given in the biblical account (Luke 2). How was the date of Christmas decided, and when was Jesus really born?
What Year Was Jesus Born?
Confusion in Historical Calendars
Several factors are involved in establishing the year of Christ’s birth. There were two dating systems at the time of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. One was his new Julian calendar and the other calendar began with the year Rome was established: 753 BC. To complicate matters, Julius Caesar also determined that a year would be calculated beginning with “the accession of absolute power by the then emperor,” according to BibleStudyTools.com.
About 500 years later, “a mathematically-minded monk…Dionysius Exiguus invented the concept of AD,” BibleStudyTools.com stated. His purpose was to establish when Easter should be celebrated by working backward using a complicated system of his own. He decided that Christ was born in AD 1, and his system was adopted in Europe around 200 years later.
Evidence in the Bible
Bible scholars work from what Scripture tells us regarding the history of Jesus. The events took place within the living memory of the writers or their families, such as the reign of Herod during which time Matthew tells us Christ was born.
We know there was a celestial event that alerted the Magi, and this can also be dated. John the Baptist’s preaching took place during “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius” (Luke 3:1). Jesus’ approximate age at the start of His ministry (30) is also supplied in the book of Luke, so we can determine that Christ was likely born around 2 or 3 BC.
When Is Jesus’ Birthday?
December 25 - Pagan or Christian Roots?
The day and month of Christ’s birth are even more difficult to establish. Theologians typically agree that December 25 is far from likely. Some say devising “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Son’” was “an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians,” according to this Christianity.com article.
Another argument takes the reverse view. When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it was easier for the newly formed church to repurpose the pagan observance of the winter solstice between December 17-25, since citizens were already prepared to celebrate the day. “This festival was a time of merrymaking, and families and friends would exchange gifts,” History.com stated. In Christmas, these traditions would continue.
Another theory is that December 25 was established as Christmas Day by Sextus Julius Africanus in AD 221. He based this date on extensive calculations, starting with the “world’s creation which he placed in 5499 BC,” according to BibleStudyTools.com.
Evidence in the Bible
Realistically, however, shepherds would not have been tending their flocks in December when the weather was cold; they would have continued shepherding no later than October.
Bible scholars also try to time Christ’s birth by timing the birth of his cousin John according to the sparse information about Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary outlined in Luke. Elizabeth was six months pregnant when Mary arrived, and Mary left three months later. According to BibleInfo.com:
“We can approximate the month of Jesus’ birth to be around the time of Tishri (mid to late September). To arrive at this date, start at the conception of John the Baptist, Sivan (June), count forward six months to arrive at Gabriel’s announcement of the conception of Jesus, Kislev (December), then count forward nine more months, the time it takes for human gestation, to reach Tishri (September), when Jesus was born.”
This is assuming each mother’s pregnancy went full-term. Other accounts take details about Zechariah’s temple duties to arrive at a spring birth for Christ. There is no definitive answer. One must seek the opinions of the most trusted scholars in this matter.
Does the Date of Jesus' Birth Matter?
Even if the global Christian community could decide with certainty that Christ was born on a different day, changing the date of Christmas worldwide would pose many problems. Selecting a new date for celebrating Christ’s birth would require massive adjustments at both commercial and institutional levels.
- School calendars and public holidays have been established to coincide with this time.
- The economies of developed nations rely on the financial boost provided during the Christmas season.
- Churches organize special events around this time.
- Families use this date as a reason to get together.
There is a benefit to fixing a date for Christmas day, even if it seems arbitrary. In an age where “our fast-moving lives have wreaked havoc on our relationships,” as Rick Warren said, and we feel disconnected from one another, celebrating Jesus’ birth unifies the church body both locally and at large.
Moreover, Christmas celebrations provide an opportunity to engage community members who might not otherwise attend church events. The day is set apart even in the hearts and minds of non-believers. Associating Christmas with light-hearted festivities might seem disrespectful in light of its true meaning, but the joy of singing familiar carols and lighting candles; the sense of belonging and love connected to the holiday encourages many unbelievers to attend Christmas services where they might hear the gospel.
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Candice Lucey lives with her husband and daughters in (mostly) tranquil Salmon Arm, BC, Canada. Here, she enjoys digging into God’s word when not working or taking part in ministry activities.
Photo Credit: Getty/Lukbar