Can We Pinpoint the Date of the Nativity?
When was Jesus born? While most Bible scholars generally recognize the year of the Lord’s birth sometime between 6 BC – 4 BC, the season or time of year is a hot button issue for many Christians.
Since the Bible does not provide the exact date, speculation abounds. There are, however, several considerations that are worth exploring.
A persistent argument some espouse is that the traditional date for Christmas on December 25th was derived from the pagan holiday, Sol Invicta (Invincible Sun), widely celebrated in the Roman Empire. This is a common belief that has gone mostly unchallenged, but seems to lack a solid historical foundation.
Some historians use Emperor Aurelian’s institution of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” which is another name for Sol Invicta as proof. Using the date of December 25, AD 274, Aurelian officially created, “a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.” (1) In plain words, Christians were already celebrating the Lord’s birth when Aurelian issued the decree for the holiday.
Further, when Hippolytus, a presbyter or leader of the church in Rome, wrote his commentary on the book of Daniel in approximately AD 202 – AD 211, he cited December 25 as the date associated with Jesus’ birth. Written beside the date was the notation referencing March/April (Nisan), which is a remarkable clue. (2)
It is not possible to definitely ascertain the credibility of the December 25th date for Jesus birth. Examining other possibilities for the timing of the Nativity that range from early spring to late winter are equally provocative.
Discussion usually centers on 1 Nisan, the beginning of the religious Jewish New Year to Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the fall and all the way to Chanukah in the winter. Almost all of the proposed scenarios use the starting point of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zacharias.
You will remember that the Scriptures record Zacharias’ temple service occurred during the course of Abijah, which was the eighth of 24 courses of priestly service in the temple (Lk. 1:5 cf. 1 Chron. 28:13). Each course or group served during two separate weeks of the year.
Zacharias would have served during the eighth week of the year, which falls at the end of the Jewish month Iyyar (April/May) and again 24 weeks later during the month of Tishrei (September/October). While I hesitate to include John Chrysostom because of his anti-Semitic reputation, he and other scholars suggest that Zacharias may have served in the temple during Yom Kippur in 4 BC.
The Gospel of Luke records,
“Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk. 1:26-27).
If John was conceived during the month of Tishrei, Gabriel’s appearance to Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have occurred in the month of Nisan. Assuming the annunciation immediately preceded the time of Mary’s conception and calculating 38 weeks for the normal period of gestation, the birth of our Lord could have coincided with the month of Tevet (December/January).
The common argument against this time frame is that flocks would not be in the fields during winter. That line of reasoning, however, is not necessarily accurate.
While most flocks during that period of history would spend summer months in the wilderness, shepherds would likely bring their sheep closer to population areas to graze in the winter months. The sheep would then still be in the field or rural areas in winter, but not in the wilderness.
If the flocks to which the apostle Luke refers were temple flocks, it is likely those sheep would have grazed in the fields near Bethlehem year round. Temple shepherds would have been on site during the night to watch and protect their flocks, regardless of the time of year.
Interestingly, a Nativity scenario gaining popularity in recent years places the birth of Jesus on the 1st of Nisan. The reasoning is that 1 Nisan, as the beginning of the religious year is considered a time of new beginnings. Without question, the Incarnation represented a new beginning, not just for the Jewish people, but the whole world.
The date also coincides with the completion of the tabernacle in the wilderness that vividly pictured God tabernacling with His Chosen People (Ex. 40:17). The apostle John describes the Incarnation saying,
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).
The Incarnation did not occur at Jesus birth. This is an important consideration. Rather, nine months earlier at the moment of conception, He, “became flesh” (Jn. 1:14). If Mary conceived on 1 Nisan, it is entirely possible that she gave birth to her firstborn son in close proximity to December 25th.
That Christians around the world have celebrated the Nativity on the traditional date of December 25 for much of the past two millennia is significant. Rather than dampening the spirit of the Christmas celebration by quibbling over dates, Christians should wholeheartedly celebrate the Good News embodied in the Nativity.
At the set time in His prophetic plan, God sent His only begotten Son to redeem fallen humanity. Now, that’s something to celebrate!
1) Tighe, William, “Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25,” Touchstone,archives.
2) Schmidt, Tom, “Hippolytus and December 25th as the date of Jesus’ Birth,” chronicon.net.
1) Bethlehem and surroundings in snow (1921). (Photo credit: Matson Collection/[Public domain]/Library of Congress/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
2) Bethlehem viewed through an open window (1941). (Photo credit: Matson Collection/[Public domain]/Library of Congress/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
3) Snowy Bethlehem with Church of the Nativity in view. (1941). (Photo credit: Matson Collection/[Public domain]/Library of Congress/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
4) Bethlehem snow (February 17, 1946). (Photo credit: Matson Collection/[Public domain]/Library of Congress/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
5) Almond tree in the snow north of Bethleham. (Image credit: By Todd Bolen/BiblePlaces.com/Author’s collection/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2019 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.