When Was Christ Born?
In the recent holiday season many Christians have been merrily, joyously, and some perhaps even seriously, solemnly, and reverently, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. However, one wonders how many gave any significant thought to the issue of when was Christ born. If they had they would quickly have discovered that despite all the mythology and legend that surrounds this holiday season, we really do not know when Christ was born. We know neither the year, nor the month, nor the day. For that matter we don’t know the time of day either. God in his wisdom has chosen not to reveal to us anything concerning the exact date of this momentous event so long foretold by the prophets and awaited by the faithful. That should teach us something about the wisdom of even having such a holiday season when God in his wisdom has denied us the information that is absolutely necessary as a foundation for it. The purpose of this article is not to develop that thought, but to establish what the Scriptures do teach about the timing of Christ’s birth, about the date of the incarnation.
Let us begin by examining the sacred record of Christ’s birth as recorded in the Scriptures. While the Scriptures give us no definitive dates, there are a number of clues that point as to the time of year that Christ must have been born. Luke’s account of the nativity of our Lord is the most detailed and almost all these clues are found in his gospel. We will develop a number of these clues and see where they lead us…
1. The Birth of John the Baptist: We are told by Luke (1:36) that John the Baptist was born six months earlier than Christ. If we can determine the date of John’s birth it will give us an approximate date for our Savior’s birth. John’s birth was also miraculous and Luke again is the one who gives us a detailed account of it. John’s father was Zacharias and the key points that Luke makes are that he was officiating in the Temple when the prophecy came to him of the birth of his son, the future John the Baptist, and that he was of the course of Abijah. This gives us the time of year that he was officiating in the temple. From the time that his course was completed and he returned home until his wife conceived would in fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy and according to “the manner of women” would have been within one month. Approximately nine months later John would have been born. And approximately six months later Christ would have been born. Computing all this out gives us a rough window in time within which the Lord Jesus Christ would have been born. And this likely period of time turns out to be from some time in mid to late September to mid to late October. Exact computation is not possible because the Hebrew calendar depended on the phases of the moon. The course of Abijah was the eighth course so Zacharias would have officiated the eighth week after the beginning of the New Year. The new year was in the Spring as the Passover was on the fifteenth of the first month. This places the conception of John approximately in June and the birth of Christ about 15 months later in September. (Note: Since there were only 24 courses they each served for a week twice a year so it is of course possible that that all this was exactly six months later in the year. However, as we shall see all the other clues point to the fall of the year and almost every commentator that has studied this and has rejected the traditional December 25th date has arrived at a date in the fall.)
2. The Shepherds of Bethlehem: Luke is also the one to inform us that the shepherds were still overnighting in the fields around Bethlehem. It was not the custom for shepherds to keep the flocks out in the fields in the dead of winter. It would be very cold in the Judean hills in December and the shepherds did not abide in the fields by night that late in the season. In fact late fall was the rainy season in Palestine and the shepherds brought the flocks in from the fields before the beginning of the heavy fall rains. The rainy season generally started sometime from mid to late October.
3: No Room at the Inn: Isaiah prophesied that the Servant of Jahweh would be despised and rejected of men. In that light much has been made of the fact that his birth was under extremely humble conditions and that there was no room for him in the inn. But why was there no room for him in the inn? There is no suggestion by Luke or any other of the inspired authors of the events of Christ birth that the circumstances of his birth was due to any specific rejection of the Christ child and his parents by the people of innkeepers of Bethlehem. We are simply told that the inn(s) were full. Bethlehem was filled with visitors and the local inns etc. were apparently overwhelmed beyond their capacity. There is no indication that Joseph was too poor to provide lodging for his family, simply that it wasn’t available. The question we need to ask is why was this so.
One answer that has come to mind to commentators is that it may have coincided with the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem and either overflow crowds of pilgrims from Jerusalem for the Feast or pilgrims traveling to and from Jerusalem in connection with the Feast may have filled the inns of Bethlehem. The Feast of Tabernacles is in the fall of the year after the harvest and before the rainy season. It starts on the fifteenth of Tishri which is five days after the Day of Atonement. The Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar was related to the phases of the moon and so its dates are somewhat flexible. Generally speaking though this feast would be held according to our calendar sometime in late September or October. This is only a speculation, but if it is so it confirms the other Biblical data about the general time of year of our Lord’s nativity. (Note: I’m not sure how modern Jewry computes these dates but last year the Day of Atonement fell on September 26th, and this year it falls on September 15th.)
4: Born in a Stable: We are of course not absolutely certain that Christ was indeed born in a stable, but it appears that that may have been the case. All we are told is that they could not find lodgings at the inn and that when the Christ child was born he was laid in a manger. A manger is a kind of feed trough or feed box for livestock in which feed, typically hay, is placed for the animal’s consumption. It is hard to imagine, especially with mid-Eastern ideas about the sacredness of hospitality, that a man with a pregnant wife about to give birth would have been relegated to a freezing stable in the dead of winter at night. It is also difficult to imagine Mary putting the baby Jesus in a manger if the temperatures reflected the cold of a winter night in the Judean hills. She would surely have kept him in her bosom and warmed him with her body warmth. However, in late September or early October it could have been quite comfortable and been a reasonable expedient in light of the circumstances.
5: The Baptism of Christ: Christ public ministry started with his baptism by John. This seems to have been his consecration into his ministry. This is logical because according to the laws of Moses the Levites (and probably the priests also) began their ministry at age thirty, and Luke tells us that Jesus was about thirty years old when this occurred. Christ seems to have alluded to this when the scribes and Pharisees asked by what authority he did these things (i.e. his teaching and his cleansing of the temple, etc.). He responded with a question, “The baptism of John, was from heaven or from men?” The scribes and Pharisees refused to answer that question and Christ refused to answer their question. Jesus was not simply avoiding their question by asking one in return that they could not answer. The two questions were related. Christ’s authority, humanly speaking, came from his consecration into the ministry of the Jewish Church by John’s baptism. If John was a true prophet of God, the true herald of the Messiah sent by God, then his consecration of Christ and his testimony that Jesus was the Messiah validated Christ’s ministry as much as the signs and the wonders that he performed. Christ’s baptism was certainly not a baptism of repentance as he was the spotless, sinless Lamb of God. When John protested baptizing him, Jesus responded “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Righteousness has to do with keeping the law of God and Christ’s baptism was therefore the lawful means by which he was inducted into his earthly ministry. Now all this reinforces the fact that all this must have occurred either on or very shortly after Christ’s 30th birthday.
Now if all this happened when Christ became thirty then he was baptized about the same time of year that he was born. Now for me at least it is hard to imagine the great crowds that the Scriptures record as incessantly flocking to John all coming in the dead of winter in the height of the rainy season. One does not need to be an immersionist to see the extreme unlikelihood of that (How Baptists can believe in a December date for our Lord’s birth is hard for me to imagine with the cold, the rain, and the Jordan raging in flood.).
6: The Death of our Lord: We all know that Christ as our Passover, as the Lamb of God, sacrificed himself on the cross at the very time of the Jewish Passover. We do not know the exact time of year that that occurred because it is again dependent on the phases of the moon. To determine that exactly we need to know the year of the crucifixion and that is as elusive as the year of his birth. In fact if we know the one we can compute the other because we know that he was thirty-three years old when he died. However, we do know that this is in the spring of the year, late March or April. If we can compute the length of Christ’s ministry and work backward to its start then we can calculate the approximate time of his birth.
A ministry of three and a half years is commonly attributed to Christ by a number of commentators. If this is correct than that would compute to birth in September or October.
7. A Time of Taxation: We pay taxes year round. We pay sales taxes whenever we purchase things, income taxes are taken from our pay checks on a weekly basis, and property taxes are generally paid quarterly. Things are different in an agricultural society. There is basically one pay day, harvest time. And that is also generally when taxes are paid. The Romans were wise administrators of their empire. They did their best to maintain peace in the Empire and not needlessly provoke the subject peoples and precipitate costly uprisings. Taxes were therefore generally collected at harvest time. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but people tend to protest the least when they are best able to pay them. In Palestine that would be at the time of the harvest in the early fall. To try to collect them months after the big annual harvest pay day and to compel people to travel far in the cold of winter and in the height of the rainy season to pay them would have maximized the discontent of any subject people. The Jews were always a difficult race to rule and The Romans were not so stupid as to needlessly provoke them with respect to these hated taxes. This tax-census was most likely in the fall of the year right after the harvest and before the onset of the rainy season.
Conclusion: Ultimately we will never really know exactly when our Lord was born. And that does not matter because we really do not need to know. If we needed to know God in his goodness and wisdom would have caused the inspired authors of the gospels to record that information. And if God had intended that his church celebrate the birth of his Son he most certainly would have both provided the necessary information and instructed us to do so. Jesus was the King of the Jews. The Jews did not celebrate their birthdays, not even the birthdays of their kings. The only birthdays recorded in the Bible are the birthdays of Pharaoh and of Herod, the Edomite. Both these recorded birthdays were celebrated with bloody cruelty, with Pharaoh’s baker being hung and John the Baptist being decapitated. The Bible does not give us much incentive to celebrate birthdays and no instructions or examples to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, The King of the Jews.
What the Bible does clearly teach is that Christ was born in the fall and not on December 25th. The latter date was the great pagan holy day of the ancient world. It was the birthday of the sun god, when at the winter solstice, the sun that had been in decline grew stronger again and regained new life. It was Baal’s birthday. It was Tammuz’ birthday. To the Romans it was the birthday of the invincible sun. God has given us just enough information for his purposes. He has not given us enough information to determine the exact date of Christ’s birth and thus be able to institute on mere human authority a celebration of his birth. He has also given us enough information to clearly demonstrate that Christ was not born at the time of the winter solstice and thus show us that participating in pagan traditions and resurrecting pagan festivals on the basis of a pretended birth of Christ at that time of year is totally without foundation or merit. God in his wisdom has given us the information that we need. May we have the wisdom to walk according to that knowledge and depart from evil.