One tradition places Jesus' birth on 6 January, another on the twenty-fifth of a month. Their basis is His true birth date, which was 6 January (25 Kislev on the Jewish calendar) in 5 BC. It was the first day of the feast known as Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights. The coincidence was intended by God to underscore who Jesus was. He was the light coming into the world (John 1:1-5; 9:4-5).
The date we are presenting for Christ's birth is consistent with all relevant historical and circumstantial evidence. The same evidence is mishandled by all attempts to set His birth earlier than 5 BC or later than 4 BC.
Year when Jesus Was Born
- Lunar eclipse before Herod's death
- Herodian chronology
- Testimony of patristic writers
- Decree of Augustus
- Census of Quirinius
- Star of Bethlehem
- Testimony of the wise men
Month and Day when Jesus Was Born
- Tradition that Jesus was born on 6 January
- Tradition that Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth
- Convergence of the two traditions
- Proximity of Jesus' baptism to His birthday
- Climate of Bethlehem
Year when Jesus Was Born
Since the Gospels clearly affirm that Jesus was born when Herod the Great was still alive (Matthew 2), the dominant view in days past was that Jesus was born no later than 4 BC, generally viewed as the year terminating Herod's reign. But in recent years, several scholars—including W. E. Filmer, Ernest L. Martin, Ormond Edwards, and (in the latest but not the previous edition of his Handbook of Biblical Chronology) Jack Finegan—have argued that the date usually assigned to Herod's death is much too early. Based on a new look at several lines of evidence, they maintain that he died in early 1 BC. They therefore decide that an ancient tradition setting Jesus' birth in 3/2 BC must be correct.1
The matter is exceedingly complex, but capable of a convincing solution if we weigh all the evidence carefully, without prejudice. Then 5 BC emerges as by far the most credible date of Jesus' birth.
Lunar eclipse before Herod's death
Josephus places Herod's death between a lunar eclipse and the Feast of Passover.2 Many have assumed that Josephus is referring to the partial eclipse on 13 March 4 BC,3 about a month before the beginning of Passover on 11 April.4 Filmer and his followers believe, however, that they can better accommodate the available evidence by supposing that Josephus intends the spectacular total eclipse on 10 January 1 BC,5 about three months before the beginning of Passover on 8 April.6
They rest their case primarily on two arguments.
- Josephus suggests that the eclipse was generally remembered as an ominous sign, yet it is doubtful that a mere partial eclipse would have left such an impression on the public mind.
- When treating the interval between the eclipse and the Passover that bracketed Herod's death, Josephus recounts a complex chain of events that seemingly could not have happened within the scope of a single month.
Although these events make a tight fit in 4 BC, they do not quite burst the seams. Douglas Johnson has demonstrated that Martin, for one, has greatly exaggerated the compression.7 Martin imagines that Herod's funeral procession took 25 days to carry his body from Jericho to Herodeion, a distance of 23 miles.8 Yet, as Johnson shows, the body must have been transported to its burial place within a single day.9 Martin admits that apart from Herod's funeral, the remaining events could have occurred within 33 days.10 If 33, why not 30? It is impossible from our perspective to set dogmatic lower limits. We conclude that Josephus's account of these events does not forbid placement of Herod's death after the lunar eclipse in 4 BC.
Yet to keep Herod’s death no later than 4 BC, we need not squeeze Josephus's narrative into a narrow time frame. Timothy Barnes suggested that the lunar eclipse intended by Josephus is not the partial eclipse on 13 March 4 BC but the spectacular total eclipse on 15 September 5 BC.11 The time between the earlier eclipse and the following Passover is more than ample to accommodate all the events that Josephus assigns to it. Moreover, it was an eclipse that observers were more likely to consider noteworthy.
Against Barnes’s placement of Josephus’s eclipse in 5 BC, Martin has raised three objections, all depending on subtle conjectural distortion of the account we find in Josephus—distortion similar to what Johnson also found in Martin’s picture of events when we set the eclipse in 4 BC. These objections are discussed in a companion article.
The quest for the true date of Herod's death has been sidetracked into much confusion by failure to follow the best strategy. The right way to proceed is to start with the most reliable information that Josephus provides concerning the timing of events during Herod’s career. If this information can be harmonized on the basis of reasonable assumptions, we then have solid anchors for a whole chronology deserving our confidence. We discount other information at odds with our chronology or seek good reasons for the variance.
Three time markers in Josephus stand out as most specific and credible. The first two are the dates of Herod's accession.
1. Josephus reports that Herod conquered Jerusalem in the consular year of Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus,12 which indisputably was 37 BC.13
2. The same writer tells us that Herod was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate in the Roman year (running from January to January) when Caius Domitius Calvinus (for the second time) and Caius Asinius Pollio held the office of consul,14 the same as 40 BC.15
One reason these two time markers may be viewed as trustworthy is that the most likely source of precise Roman dates for events connected with Herod's reign, about a century before Josephus's time, would be a source close to Herod himself; that is, an official source. In fact, we have evidence that the dates sprinkled throughout Josephus’s account of the Herodian melodrama come from record-keepers attached to Herod’s court. At one point in his narrative, Josephus states that he is taking information from Nicolaus, Herod’s official "historiographer."16 Nicolaus was a courtly sycophant who painted the king as heroic. Therefore, Josephus is at pains to tell us that while he took information from Nicolaus, he dismissed his flattering slant on Herod’s character and achievements.17 He may be referring to the same source when he says earlier that he has drawn information from Herod’s memoirs.18 The rendering "memoirs," offered by Ralph Marcus and Allen Wikgren,19 is better than William Whiston’s, "commentaries."20
3. Josephus's states that Herod reigned 34 years after his conquest of Jerusalem and 37 years after he was appointed king of Judea by the Senate.21
These data commend our respect because the total years of Herod's reign by official reckoning must have been common knowledge readily available to Josephus. Notice that these twin totals, 34/37 years, strongly bolster the dates for Herod's accession. The numbers 34 and 37 differ by three, as do the two Roman consular dates. Therefore, the consular dates and the twin totals are mutually corroborating. Agreement would almost certainly fail if any one of the four time markers was erroneous when Josephus set it down, or if any was corrupted in later manuscripts.
For these and other reasons discussed in a companion article, Filmer's attempt to revise Herodian chronology has left many scholars unconvinced. Rather than accept the implausibilities in setting Herod's death in 1 BC, they have held to the traditional date, 4 BC or possibly 5 BC. Those who have in recent years published an endorsement of the traditional date include Timothy D. Barnes, Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar, Harold W. Hoehner, P. M. Bernegger, Paul L. Maier, Douglas Johnson, and Daniel R. Schwartz.22
Testimony of patristic writers
Filmer and his followers argue that placement of Herod's death in 1 BC allows us to accept the ancient tradition that Jesus was born in 3 or 2 BC. The four earliest Christian writers who report the date of Jesus' birth are Irenaeus (late second century), Clement of Alexandria (about AD 200), Tertullian (early third century), and Africanus (early third century).23 Africanus specifies the date in terms that can be understood as 3/2 BC.24 Both Irenaeus and Tertullian assign Jesus' birth to the forty-first year of Augustus. If this date presumes that the reign of Augustus began when he was elevated to consulship in August 43 BC, the year intended is 2 BC. Tertullian conveniently confirms this conclusion by adding that Christ's birth was 28 years after the death of Cleopatra and fifteen years before the death of Augustus. Cleopatra died in August 30 BC, and Augustus died in August AD 14.25 Konradin Ferrari d'Occhieppo has demonstrated that the date which Clement of Alexandria furnishes for the birth of Jesus is equivalent to 6 January 2 BC.26
It must be recognized, however, that ancient tradition has doubtful authority to tell us the year when Jesus was born. The consensus among writers of the late second and early third centuries that He was born in 2 BC probably rested not on historical fact but on their understanding of the Gospels. The easy but simplistic interpretation of Luke 3:1 and Luke 3:23 is that Jesus turned age thirty in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 29). Hence, many early Christians deduced by calculation that He was born in 2 BC.
It is significant that few of the patristic writers who furnish the year of Christ's birth also give us the calendar date, yet the universal experience of mankind is that the calendar date is better remembered by oral tradition. During a person's lifetime, it provides an occasion every year for celebration and age adjustment. As a result, it is more likely than the birth year to persist in the memory of family and friends even after he is gone.
Decree of Augustus
Much labor has been expended in the effort to find a historical basis for the "taxing" (King James Version) which Luke says was imposed on the whole empire at the time of Christ’s birth (Luke 2:1–5). The words translated "taxed" or "taxing" are based on the Greek word apographo, which properly means "to enroll" or "to register."27 What the emperor required of his people everywhere was to add their names to an official list of citizens. For this reason, the enrollment that sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem has traditionally been understood as a census.
The most plausible reconstruction of events producing this census was first proposed almost two centuries ago by Nathaniel Lardner.28 He connected it with an oath of allegiance to Caesar that, according to Josephus, all Jews were required to take late in Herod’s reign.29 Shortly after the oath was administered, Herod heard that certain Pharisees were predicting his overthrow by a king with miraculous powers. In a rage, Herod ordered these Pharisees to be executed along with their supporters, which included some of his own family. From Josephus’s narrative we infer that the bloody purge occurred sometime after Herod put his sons Alexander and Aristobolus to death and before his son Antipater departed for Rome.30 If Herod died in late 5 BC or early 4 BC, the year of the oath's administration or, more likely, the year when its administration began (since Mary and Joseph did not travel to Bethlehem until early 5 BC) can therefore be fixed as 6 BC.31
It is stated by Josephus that over 6000 Pharisees refused to participate.32 Such a tally implies that the names of those who were willing to declare loyalty to Augustus, as well as those who refused, were put on record. Administration of the oath could therefore have been described as a registration.
To support a later date for the registration in Judea and for Christ's birth, Martin assembles evidence that many other peoples in the empire swore allegiance to Augustus in about 3 BC.33 Moses of Chorene, an Armenian writer of the fifth century, mentions that when the decree recorded in Luke went out that all the world should be enrolled, "Roman agents were also sent to Armenia, bringing the image of Augustus Caesar, which they set up in every temple."34 He dates the enrollment in terms best understood as 3 BC. An inscription from Paphlagonia in Asia Minor shows that in 3 BC an oath of loyalty to Caesar "was taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them."35
Martin suggests that the oaths administered throughout the empire in about 3 BC were in preparation for Augustus’ Silver Jubilee in 2 BC, when his countrymen granted him the title of Pater Patriae (Father of the Country).36 The title was conferred on 5 February 2 BC.37 After receiving this high honor, Augustus recorded in his memoirs, "The senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title of Father of my country."38
A serious difficulty in Martin’s suggestion is that it leaves us unable to explain why a similar enrollment in Spain was carried out in 6/5 BC, about three years before the honor was granted.39 It seems unlikely that any preliminary exercise would have been started so far ahead. Another difficulty is that contemporary writers do not describe the honor as a major event resting on an elaborate groundwork of plans and preparations. Suetonius says that it arose from "a sudden unanimous impulse" of the people.40 Dio Cassius confines his notice of the honor to a single sentence.41
The impetus behind the worldwide enrollment was probably not any plan to confer an honorific title upon Augustus, but rather Augustus’ concern during these years to provide for a smooth transition of power after his death. Dio says that in 6 BC Augustus began to push his youthful heirs forward into the limelight, and that by 1 BC he was giving Gaius major responsibility.42 In 2 BC, according to Suetonius, Augustus asked for his thirteenth consulship, "wishing to hold the highest magistracy at the time when he introduced each of his sons Gaius and Lucius to public life upon their coming of age."43 The oaths required at this time of all citizens seem designed to assure popular backing for Augustus’ successor at the moment he would assume control of the government. The Paphlagonian oath calls for loyalty not only to Augustus, but also to "his children and descendants."44 The Spanish oath is more explicit. It demands that each subject render allegiance to "Emperor Caesar Augustus son of the Deified [Julius Caesar], . . . Gaius Caesar son of Augustus, . . . Lucius Caesar son of Augustus, and . . . Marcus Agrippa grandson of Augustus."45
The evidence is therefore consistent with dating the registration in Judea as early as 6 BC.
Census of Quirinius
Any date assigned to the enrollment of Luke 2:1–5 must be consistent with the historical background that Luke himself furnishes. He says that this enrollment was accomplished when Augustus ruled over the empire and Quirinius served as governor of Syria. It is well known that Quirinius was in fact appointed governor of Syria in AD 6 and given the task of supervising registration of property throughout Judea as the first step toward general taxation. Among the Jewish people, his descent to extract money provoked initial opposition, followed by resigned cooperation.46 Some scholars conclude from Luke's comment that he is placing Christ’s birth in the same year, in AD 6.47 Yet it is clear that this is not Luke’s intent, for a year so late is drastically incompatible with the chronological markers he supplies elsewhere. He places Christ’s conception a few months after the conception of John in the days of Herod (Luke 1:5), and he says that Jesus was about thirty years old (Luke 3:23) in or shortly after the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), which by our reckoning was AD 29.48 It has often been shown that Luke is scrupulously accurate in his handling of detail.49 He is not the sort of historian who would locate an event in history by means of synchronisms with a variance of about ten years.
A much better treatment of the time marker in Luke 2:2 supposes that Quirinius was also in Syria some years earlier than AD 6 to oversee another "taxing," or registration; specifically, the oath of allegiance to the emperor. Quirinius was a prominent figure in his day and a man of many assignments, although history gives us no information about his whereabouts between 6 BC (roughly) and AD 2.50 We may therefore place him in Syria shortly before the time of Jesus' birth in 5 BC.
The difficulty in this hypothesis is that surviving coins point to Varus as Syrian governor in years 25, 26, and 27 of the Actian era; that is, from 7/6 BC to 5/4 BC.51 The key to resolving this difficulty is recognition that the province of Syria was overseen not only by a governor (more properly called an imperial legate), but also by a procurator, who also, like the governor, was resident at Antioch.52 A procurator was a subordinate official, yet because he was the emperor's direct appointee, he wielded considerable power in his own right. Often he was given charge of some specific task, generally in the financial realm.53
A correct picture of the Syrian administration explains those passages in Antiquities and Wars where Josephus speaks of more than one man holding provincial authority.54 For example, he says that "there was a hearing before Saturninus and Volumnius, who were then the presidents of Syria."55 He does not mean that the men were of equal rank. "President" renders ἐπιστατούντων, which refers to someone performing the role of επιστατης.56 This is not an official title, but a general term which can be translated "ruler" or even (as in Luke 5:5 recalling how Peter addressed Jesus) "master."57 The actual imperial legate at the time of the hearing was most certainly Saturninus.58 Volumnius must therefore have been a procurator. Likewise in every other instance where Josephus speaks of multiple rulers over Syria, any other official he places alongside the chief governor is a procurator.
We can take the same approach to Luke's identification of Quirinius as governor of Syria. "Governor" renders ηγεμονευοντος, another general term, this one used for various positions of leadership in civil government.59 We conclude that Quirinius was a procurator under Varus.
Luke informs us further that Quirinius was governor when "this registration first took place."60 We deduce that although the registration began under Quirinius, someone else finished the job.
Star of Bethlehem
The many popular attempts to link the star of Bethlehem to a recorded observation of an unusual object or to alignments we can determine by backward computation simply ignore all the clues in Matthew's Gospel. Notice this statement:
When they [the wise men] had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
Three clues are hard to miss.
- The interjection "lo" marks the moment when, to their great surprise and wonderment, the star reappeared to guide the wise men on their way. The placement of "lo" in the narrative shows that they sighted the star immediately after they departed from Jerusalem.
- In Greek, the verb tense in the statement, "The star . . . went before them," is imperfect. A more precise translation would be, "The star . . . was going before them," indicating that the star was in motion ahead of them as they traveled south from Jerusalem.61
- The place pointed out by the star is not said to be the village of Bethlehem, but the very place where the child dwelt. The magi needed no help to find the village of His birth, since the learned men of Jerusalem had already named that village, and no doubt Herod had told the magi how to get there, or perhaps had furnished guides. The magi needed help only to determine which child in Bethlehem was the one they were seeking.
It is obvious that no celestial body could perform the feats attributed to Christ's natal star. No celestial body moves through the heavens at the pace of travelers on the ground, and no celestial body ever moves south along the celestial meridian. Moreover, if the star moving ahead of the magi had been a celestial body, it would have kept to the south and led them beyond Bethlehem.62 Finally, the position of a celestial body cannot be used to locate an object the size of a human dwelling.
For these reasons a legion of commentators ancient and modern have believed that the star was a supernatural sign or visitation.63 It is therefore evident that the star provides no help in discovering the date of Christ's birth.
For a full discussion of the naturalistic explanations offered for the star of Bethlehem, see a companion article.
Testimony of the Wise Men
Among those who accept 5 or 4 BC as the date of Herod’s death, many place Jesus’ birth at least two years before, at a time no later than early 6 BC.64 The primary grounds for their choice is that when Herod sent out his men to slay the male children in Bethlehem and its environs, he specified all boys "from two years old and under" (Matthew 2:16). The age limit derived from his previous interview with the magi who came to Judea looking for a newborn king. They said that the coming of this king was announced by a star. Alarmed, Herod asked when the star appeared. Scripture does not preserve the magi's exact response, but assures us that it was the basis of Herod's decision to rid Bethlehem of all baby boys less than three years old.
However, to infer from Herod's decree of slaughter that Jesus was already two years old when the magi visited Him requires three assumptions.
1. The magi told the truth about when the star appeared.
2. The star’s appearance marked Jesus’ birth.
3. Herod set the age limit equal to the time elapsed since its appearance.
The first assumption is not discordant with the facts as related by Matthew, especially with the need for an angelic messenger to warn the wise men about Herod. But the second is dubious and the third unreasonable.
The miracle of the ages calling for celebration in the sky was not the actual birth of Jesus, but His incarnation, when God became flesh. The star probably marked Jesus' conception.
Herod’s response to the news of the Messiah’s birth was to order a massacre broad in scope. He was taking no chances. How many died was of no concern to him. He only wanted to be sure that he extinguished the threat. So, he killed the babies not just in Bethlehem, but also in the surrounding countryside. Also, he extended the death sentence to all baby boys, not restricting it to any who seemed like a potential king. Furthermore, he set the age limit at two to make sure the little prince would not escape if the soldiers supposed him older than he was. The soldiers did not have written records to consult, and Herod had no reason to trust their ability to judge a baby boy’s age by his appearance. So, his choice of two years as the age limit is evidence that the actual time given by the wise men was shorter than two years, perhaps only a year or less.65
Setting early 6 BC as the latest possible date for the birth of Christ entails another serious difficulty. According to Luke, "And Jesus himself [when He was baptized] began to be about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23). The term "about" means that at the time of His baptism, Jesus was approximately thirty years old.66 The evidence currently available strongly points to AD 33 as the year of the Crucifixion.67 The generally accepted chronology of Jesus’ ministry sets His baptism a little more than three years earlier.68 Thus, if the Crucifixion was in AD 33, the Baptism was in early AD 30 (or possibly, in late 29). If Jesus was born no later than early 6 BC, He came to His baptism when He was at least close to thirty-five, an age seemingly well outside the bounds of "approximately thirty."69 If He was born one or two years later, He was somewhat closer to thirty than to forty, so Luke’s wording is fully appropriate.
The implausibilities in dates earlier or later have convinced many scholars, including Paul L. Maier and Harold W. Hoehner, that Jesus was born in 5 or 4 BC.70 To arrive at a more precise date, we must consider the evidence concerning the exact month and day when Jesus was born.
Month and Day when Jesus Was Born
The tradition that Jesus was born on 6 January
Can we pinpoint the date of Jesus' birth? Various ancient sources lead us to the answer. Clement of Alexandria (again, about AD 200) says, "From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus [the Roman emperor who died on 31 December AD 19271] are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days."72 If we suppose that he is using the Roman calendar, we deduce that Clement set Christ's birth on 18 November 3 BC.73 But it is highly doubtful that this date, affirmed by no other ancient source, is the one he so confidently espouses. We arrive at a different date if we suppose that Clement, a resident of Egypt, is using the Egyptian calendar without intercalation. Measuring backward from Commodus' death an interval of 194 years (each exactly 365 days), one month (thirty days), and thirteen days brings us to 6 January 2 BC.74
In his tract against heresies called Panarion, Epiphanius (AD c. 315–403), a Christian bishop on the island of Cyprus, affirms that Christ was born on 6 January.75 He also locates the same event on several other calendars, all furnishing dates that agree with the stated Roman date. We may therefore be sure that extant manuscripts have preserved the original reading.
The evidence provided by these two church fathers suggests that before the church as a whole fixed the date of the Nativity as 25 December, the date generally accepted in Cyprus and Alexandria and likely throughout the Eastern church was 6 January.76 Its widespread celebration encourages us to view it as a traditional date rooted centuries earlier, perhaps in the early church itself, perhaps even in historical fact. We will at length offer several considerations strengthening the probability that 6 January was the actual birthday of Christ.
The tradition that Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth
Clement gives us interesting additional information. He comments, "And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon."77 Since Pachon is an Egyptian month and since Clement was Egyptian, Edwards assumes that Clement is referring to the Egyptian calendar.78 If we reckon Augustus' reign from the Battle of Actium, on 2 September 31 BC, when he put down his last rival, Antony, and if we count the accession year (as was customary in Egyptian reckoning of Roman regnal years 79), Augustus' twenty-eighth year on the Egyptian calendar lasted from 29 August 3 BC to 28 August 2 BC.80 The twenty-fifth day of Pachon in that year was 20 May 2 BC.81 Yet Clement also says that some remember Christ's birth on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi;82 that is, a month earlier than the twenty-fifth of Pachon.
The uncertainty as to the correct month leads us to doubt that any of these dates have a factual basis. We find no evidence elsewhere, either in the Gospels or in the writings of the early church, that Jesus was born in the period from late April to late May. Since Epiphanius reports that some churches connect this time of year with Jesus' conception,83 Jack Finegan argues plausibly that it was also the conception, not the birth, of Christ that the Egyptians set in midyear.84
But notice that the Egyptians who differed on the month of Christ's birth or conception were nevertheless agreed that the day was the twenty-fifth. This number was so firmly lodged in Christian thinking as a significant date that, according to Clement, many in Egypt placed the Crucifixion on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth, others on the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi.85 Yet the actual date of the Crucifixion did not correspond to the twenty-fifth of the month on any well-known calendar. It is likely that the twenty-fifth was originally associated not with Christ's death, but with His birth.
The Western church was first to anchor this date in the month of December. Occasionally one finds such claims as the following:
Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome (129-138), ordained that "in the holy night of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, they do celebrate public church services, and in them solemnly sing the Angels' Hymn, because also the same night he was declared unto the shepherds by an angel, as the truth itself doth witness." Theophilus, who was Bishop of Caesarea during this same period, urged that "the observance or celebration of the birthday of our Lord [be held] on what day soever the 25 of December shall happen."86
The pronouncements cited in the above quotation may not, however, be accepted as authentic. They derive from late sources of dubious reliability.87
Several manuscripts of Hippolytus' Commentary on Daniel, a work of the early third century, state,
For the first appearance of our Lord in the flesh took place in Bethlehem eight days before the Kalends of January [25 December], on the fourth day [Wednesday], under Emperor Augustus, in the year 5500.88
But many scholars believe that the reference to 25 December is a late correction of the date actually stated by the author.89 The author's date may be preserved in a single manuscript which curiously contradicts itself by giving two dates: both 25 December and 2 April.90 For two reasons, it is likely that 2 April is the original reading.
- A third-century work called De Pascha Computus, which, it is agreed, is based on a lost work of Hippolytus, states that Christ was born on Passover.91 It is therefore probable that Hippolytus himself was of the same opinion. Although the date of Passover Eve varies from year to year, it is never far from 2 April.
- In the Lateran Museum at Rome is an ancient statue of Hippolytus which was probably executed shortly after his death.92 This statue bears the dates of Passover for the years 222-333, and next to one date, 2 April of a certain year, is inscribed "genesis ['birth'] of Jesus Christ."93 No doubt the statue was intended to honor Hippolytus as the one who calculated the dates of future Passovers. We therefore surmise that in the third century, it was believed that Hippolytus set Christ's birth on 2 April, one of the recurring dates in the Passover cycle.
Yet we must reckon with the possibility that "first appearance" and "genesis," refer to the Incarnation itself, which occurred at Jesus' conception. The substitution of 25 December for the Passover date, or the addition of 25 December, in manuscripts of Hippolytus's commentary may have been an attempt to leave no doubt as to the date the writer himself would have endorsed for Jesus' actual birth.
In surviving records, the earliest explicit identification of 25 December as the date of the Nativity appears in the Roman city calendar for 354.94 Yet its context is a list of Roman bishops that seems to have been compiled in 336, suggesting that the date assigned to the Nativity could not have originated later than the same year.95
As we move on through history in search of claims that Christmas fell on 25 December, the next we find is central to a sermon preached by Chrysostom on this date in 386.96
Although it is not yet the tenth year since this day became clear and familiar to us, through your zeal, it has now flourished as though it was given from the beginning many years ago. . . . This day was known from the beginning to those in the West: now it has been brought to us and before the passing of many years, has swiftly shot up, bearing such fruit as you now see – the precincts full and the church packed with the crowd who have gathered together. . . . What do you wish to hear today? You want, of course, to hear about this day. I well know that many are still debating with each other about it, some arguing against, some for. Everywhere there is a lot of conversation about this day, some saying accusingly that the day is a new innovation which has only recently been introduced, while others contend that it is ancient and venerable, that the prophets spoke in advance about his birth and that from the beginning it was plain and clear to those living from Thrace to Cadiz.97
We come to the conclusion that the present date of Christmas was widely accepted in the Western Empire, or at least in Rome, by the early fourth century, perhaps having been acknowledged much earlier. Why was it widely accepted?
- One popular theory is that it was originally adopted not because of any historical basis, but because it served as a convenient weapon against surviving paganism. Also on 25 December was the important Mithraic feast Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun).98 It has been argued that replacing the pagan feast with Christmas was a ploy to make Christianity, the newly official religion of the empire, more palatable to Roman legionnaires, many of whom had been devotees of Mithraism.99 One difficulty in this theory is its assumption that Roman believers in earlier centuries had never viewed the Nativity as worthy of annual remembrance, or, if they had, that they had preferred a date both invisible to history and easily displaced by order of the church. Another difficulty is that Chrysostom, a man of high integrity, asserted with great force that 25 December had long been recognized in western realms of the empire as the true date of the Nativity. He must have felt that the evidence supporting his conclusions was altogether sufficient.
- According to Chrysostom later in the same sermon, anyone could confirm 25 December as the birth date of Christ by looking at Roman records of the census that sent Joseph to Bethlehem.100 Yet it is highly improbable that the original choice of the present date of Christmas rests on documentary proof. Even if such records existed in the fourth century, we cannot count Chrysostom as a reliable witness. He was, to say the least, too far removed from their place of storage. Furthermore, why would the name of an infant be included if the census was a registration of people willing to swear loyalty to the emperor?
- Most likely, 25 December gained wide acceptance by virtue of its fidelity to an ancient tradition that Christ's birth fell on the twenty-fifth of a month. No doubt it was attractive also because it honored another tradition pointing to midwinter as the time of year.
Since most people distant from Palestine would have been unfamiliar with the months on a Jewish calendar, their natural tendency would have been to transfer his birth date to a month on their local calendar. The midwinter Jewish month roughly corresponding to December is Kislev. As various authors have pointed out, 25 December may therefore be the Roman substitute for 25 Kislev.101
It so happens that 25 Kislev is the beginning of Hanukkah, the eight-day celebration also known as the Feast of Dedication, or the Feast of Lights. This was the feast which, late in Jesus' career, provided the setting for His startling announcement that He is One with the Father (John 10:30). Ralph Gower has suggested that the date of Christmas was set in the fourth century by church leaders who believed that Christ, the Light of the world, must have been born during the Feast of Lights.102 Yet nowhere in the writings of the fourth century do we find a theological justification for the present date of Christmas.103
Our position is that Jesus was truly born on 25 Kislev. Luke's account of the Nativity offers support for this date. His report that the shepherds spread "abroad" the news of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:17) and then "returned" rejoicing (Luke 2:20) resolves into fuller detail if we suppose that these events took place during a feast. "Abroad" means specifically that they carried the news to the many devout Jews assembled in Jerusalem. "Returned" means that after visiting Jerusalem during the closing days of the feast, they came home to Bethlehem. We understand also why Bethlehem was so crowded at this time. Among those seeking lodging were not only some like Joseph who had come to Bethlehem for the enrollment, but also some others who were traveling in connection with the feast.
Convergence of the two traditions
Evidence favoring 25 Kislev as the date of Christ's birth does not undermine the tradition that He was born on 6 January. On the contrary, it so happens that in 5 BC, 6 January and 25 Kislev fell on the same day.104 Thus, since a birth year of 5 BC is consistent with available evidence, the two ancient traditions concerning the exact date—one affirming the twenty-fifth of a month, the other pointing to 6 January—serve to authenticate each other.
The proximity of Jesus' baptism to His birthday
Clement tells us that some (presumably, some among the followers of the Gnostic teacher Basilides) remember Christ's baptism on 11 Tybi (6 January), others on 15 Tybi (10 January).105 Plentiful evidence from a later period shows that many Eastern churches celebrated the Baptism as well as the Nativity on 6 January.106 To prove that Jesus was baptized on His birthday, some patristic writers point to Luke 3:23, quoted earlier.107 But although the Gospels (especially in John 1:29-2:13) certainly imply that Jesus was baptized a few months before Passover, the case for putting His baptism on His birthday, 6 January, is weak for two reasons.
- The tradition assigning both the Nativity and the Baptism to 6 January is undermined by other traditions which set these events at different times. Among certain groups, the Baptism was placed a few days after the Nativity. As noted earlier, some Gnostics, for example, thought that 10 January was the day of the Baptism. In Jerusalem, the Baptism was celebrated twelve days after 6 January.108
- The puzzling wording of Luke 3:23, more accurately rendered, "And Jesus himself was beginning to be about thirty years of age,"109 cannot be forced to mean that He turned "about thirty" on the very day of His baptism. The thought being expressed is that He had recently begun to be "about thirty"; in other words, that He had turned "about thirty" not long before His baptism.
The only conclusion sustained by historical and exegetical evidence is, therefore, that Jesus was baptized within a short time after His birthday. The widespread tendency in the Eastern church to join the celebrations of the Nativity and the Baptism might be viewed as additional evidence that the actual events fell so close together on the calendar that the distinction between their dates was easily lost.
A correct view of the relation between Christ's birthday and His baptism helps us to fix the time of year when He was born, for, as we have said, the Gospels place His baptism in the months just preceding Passover. The traditional date of the Nativity, 6 January, gains credibility by its implication that the Baptism fell in middle or late January, a placement that fits well into Gospel chronology.
Climate of Bethlehem
Many have objected to dating Jesus' birth in January (or December, for that matter) on the grounds that it would have been too cold for sheep to remain in the field overnight (Luke 2:8). But Bethlehem is just a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, where the average low temperature in January is 39 F, or 4 C.110 Although the climate might have been slightly cooler in Jesus' day, many nights in mid-winter were still balmy enough for flocks to remain outside. Sheep in the fields near Bethlehem have been a common sight on January nights even in modern times.111
The Mishnah forbids the pasturage of sheep anywhere in the populated regions of Israel.112 The only exception is the area between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, as well as other areas at the same distance from the city.113 Yet it declares that these are a proper feeding ground only for sheep who will be brought to the Temple as sacrifices. Migdal Eder, or "tower of Edar,"114 is where Jacob set his tent after he buried Rachel at Bethlehem (Gen. 35:20–21). The prophet Micah used "tower of the flock"—literally, "tower of Edar"115—as an alternative name for Bethlehem Ephratah (cf. Micah 4:8 with Micah 5:2).
We conclude that the sheep tended by the shepherds who visited the manger were being raised for slaughter at the Temple. On the particular night of Jesus' birth, the shepherds probably stayed in the field because they intended the next day to drive their sheep into Jerusalem for sale at the Feast of Lights, and they wanted to get an early start.
Feast of Lights
The first day of Hanukkah is a plausible date for Jesus' birth when we consider that every other major event in the unfolding of His redeeming work also fell on a feast day. He died on Passover,116 He rose again on the Feast of Firstfruits,117 and He created the church on Pentecost (Acts 2). How fitting that the One known as the Light of the World (John 8:12) should be born on the Feast of Lights! Jesus is called the Light because He is the Light in two respects.
- Light is life, as John teaches us (John 1:4). Light is pure energy, and without energy there is death.
- Again as John teaches us, Jesus is the Light that "the darkness" cannot "grasp" (John 1:5). "The darkness" is willful ignorance arising from sin. But just as light enables us to see, Jesus awakens the mind to truth and knowledge.
Setting aside of the Passover lamb
We have seen that every Jewish festival in the winter or spring pointed to a momentous event during the era of Christ's first advent, yet with one exception. When the Lord first instituted the Feast of Passover, He instructed Moses that the people should visit their flocks and select a Passover lamb on the tenth of the first month (Exodus 12:1-14). This setting aside of the innocent one who would be slaughtered as a sacrifice for sin might have been intended as a beautifully apt picture of the Incarnation, and its timing might have defined the future day when the sinless Son of God would be conceived in the womb of Mary.
In 6 BC, the tenth of Nisan was 29 April, exactly 252 days before 6 January 5 BC.118 The time from conception to birth is generally reckoned as 266 days, although the actual time varies greatly and depends on such factors as ethnicity. A delivery two weeks earlier than normal full term is by no means unusual. The facts do not warrant a dogmatic conclusion, yet it is distinctly possible that the Incarnation fell on a day foreseen by an Old Testament type.