New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
Note: Added comments since publication in blue. Footnotes in red.
Can the traditional date for the nativity on December 25 withstand the criticism that has accumulated over the years? After a review of the evidence in support of this date, the arguments against such a winter occurrence will be considered. Then, how did the early Christian fathers date Jesus' birth? Finally there will be an examination of the early records to find when the Church established December 25 as the official day for the nativity of Jesus.
I. The Annunciation
All the evidence presented for the birth of Jesus on December 25 is based on His conception on about March 25, and then projected forward nine months. There were three proofs presented to support the Annunciation in March. The first established that the division of Abijah overlapped the Feast of Tabernacles, October 3 to 10, 6 BCE. With the conception of John the Baptist on October 10, the Annunciation fell about five and a half months later, or on March 25, 5 BCE. March 25 has been the Church's official day for the Annunciation since the sixth century. [However, in the sixth century March 25 may have been derived by counting backwards nine months from December 25.]
Second, Luke records the Annunciation in the sixth month, which is interpreted to mean the sixth calendar month. According to Luke's Syro-Macedonian reckoning this lunar month fell from March 10 to April 7 in 5 BCE. The middle of that month was again March 25.
Last, according to Chinese astrological records there was a nova that appeared on about March 25, 5 BCE, which continued to be visible for seventy days. This would have been the first appearance of the Star of the Magi, which coincided with Jesus' conception, not His birth.
Thus, there is evidence for the Annunciation on March 25*, the day of the Vernal Equinox. Jesus' nativity followed on December 25, 5 BCE, the day of the Winter Solstice.
Added comment: The source for the dates of the Vernal Equinox during this period may have been in error, actually occurring on March 22/23. See http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/SpringPhenom.html. Jerusalem time is 2 hours and 13 minutes earlier.
II. The Winter Nativity
An ongoing objection to a December 25 nativity has been that this date fell in the winter. The objection is twofold, and related to "shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night." (Luke 2:8) First, it has been argued, the sheep were brought in from the wilderness and kept in corrals, or sheepfolds, during the winter, and not out grazing. Second, the only time that shepherds watched their flocks at night was during and after lambing, in the spring and early summer. Thus, Jesus could not have been born in the winter.1 Such arguments are far from conclusive against a winter nativity.
First, sheep would have been found in the fields. It could have been a mild winter. The average December temperatures at Jerusalem are 45-59o F., comparable to Houston or San Francisco, but with less rain. The night temperatures are lower. Rainfall averages 3-4 inches, comparable to Athens or Rome, with occasional light snow. By the end of December the first grass can be sprouting from early rains. Poor shepherds would have had their flocks out to glean the first fodder from the rains. Also, semi-nomads will often leave a belt of grass un-grazed around permanent winter settlements during summer to provide winter fodder.2 Jewish shepherds may have practiced such in earlier days. The sheep would not necessarily have been kept under cover. Un-corralled sheep would have to be watched at night, whether at lambing, or any other time of the year. Sheep were brought in from the wilderness during the winter, and these flocks could be found in the area of Bethlehem/Jerusalem. The presence of flocks around Bethlehem may indeed indicate that it was winter. The Mishna records that cattle, including sheep, were around Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, year-round [Added Commentary: This passage does not specify any time of year but only the disposition of stray cattle/sheep found near Jerusalem.] .3 Many of these animals were required for the daily sacrifices at the Temple, and they were always available. There also would be a large daily requirement for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.4 The presence of sheep in the fields around Bethlehem in the early evening of December 25, 5 BCE would be expected.
Added Comment: During Solomon's time his court daily consumed 100 sheep (1 Kings 4:23). The daily demand would have been greater from Herod's court and military, Temple sacrifices, and increased population. Jerusalem would have been a sheep magnet 12 months of the year, with increased demand during festivals.
There is often the belief that the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds at night. However, it is more likely that Luke mentioned this to explain why the shepherds were camped out, not when the angel announced, "Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11) It appears that Jesus was born during the day, and the shepherds announced His birth that same day. If the angel's announcement was at night this would confirm sunrise to sunrise reckoning for a day in Scripture; if it were evening and the angel used sunset reckoning for the day he would have used a word such as "yesterday." It is likely that Jesus' birth and the visit of the shepherds occurred during the same daylight period.
Added Comment: The inhabitants of Jerusalem required a large number sheep year round, both for Temple sacrifice and consumption. In Herod's Jerusalem the population was about 40,000 (Broshi, Magen, “Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Society, 4:02, June 1978). The quantity of animals eaten would increase for a feast, both for the locals and the influx of pilgrims. You do the math. In the absence of a blizzard, shepherds and their flocks would have been converging every day on the markets in Jerusalem. The shepherds who saw the star at Bethlehem, a clear night, would have been on their way to Jerusalem, a distance of only five miles. Perhaps they could get a better price from the pilgrims who were there for the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah).
Also the following passage Luke 2:12 "And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." It has been said that when the priests’ white linen garments wore out, they were recycled in several uses, such as making wicks to light the menorah in the temple and swaddling clothes for a newborn baby. (Source not confirmed). Might the sign include a tie between Jesus and the central flame of the menorah at Hanukkah?
III. Early Christian Dates for the Birth of Jesus
The earliest record supporting the December twenty-fifth birth of Jesus was written by Hippolytus (ca. 165-235 CE) in the early third century:
The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam.
Commentary on Daniel 4:23
The eighth day before the Kalends of January is December 25. However, in 5 BCE December 25 fell on Sunday, not Wednesday. In 4 BCE it fell on Monday, in 3 BCE on Tuesday, in 2 BCE on Wednesday and in 1 BCE on Sunday. The dating of Augustus would be from August of 44 BCE and his forty-second year would fall in 3 or 2 BCE, depending on how Hippolytus reckoned. It would appear that Hippolytus' date for the nativity was Wednesday, December 25, 2 BCE.
The difficulty with Hippolytus' dating is that it is unknown if part or all of his date is from an earlier tradition or from his own calculation. A common conclusion is that December 25 is not based on a historical tradition but on wrong calculations and a pagan festival on that day.5 However, such a conclusion is no more valid than the assumption that December 25 does have a historical basis independent of any existing festivals. Here the Wednesday in 2 BCE is the miscalculation.
A review of the dating of the year of the nativity by thirteen early Christian sources reveals little consensus.6 All these writers placed Jesus' birth between 4 BCE and 1 CE, with most selecting 3/2 BCE. None of these dates can be reconciled to Jesus having been born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. If a tradition for the date of Jesus' birth existed it must not have been widely known or dated as to the year. The dating in 3/2 BCE is arrived at by calculating backwards thirty years from the fifteenth year of Tiberius, or August 19, 28 to August 18, 29 CE by dynastic reckoning. This leads to 3/2 BCE, a calculated date without independent historical or traditional support. As such, the year dating of these early Christian writers is difficult to accept.
The dating of Clement (ca. 150-215 CE) has, however, gained some acceptance among present writers.7 An examination of Clement's dating will provide an example of the problems involved in using the data of the early Christian theologians. Clement wrote about 200 years after the birth of Jesus. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt, where he founded a school of theology. He wrote, "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 Pachom." (Stromata I 21) The reasoning goes, since Augustus reigned from 44 BCE to 14 CE, the twenty-eighth year would fall in 17 BCE, much too early. But Clement had his chronology wrong, as he also gave Augustus a total reign of only forty-six years, four months and one day. If this reign is backed up forty-six years from Augustus' death, then according to Clement, Augustus began to reign in 33 BCE. The twenty-eighth inclusive year from this hypothetical date would be 6 BCE, and Pachons 25 on the Egyptian calendar fell on May 14. A May date would accord with the time of lambing when the shepherds were in the fields at night, whether around Jerusalem or in the wilderness. This date is then claimed as the day of the birth of Jesus.
However, Clement himself did not claim Pachons 25 as the date of the nativity. He said, "there are those" and "they say" as the source for the date, not that he had proof or claimed Pachons 25 as a date he supported. Further, in Egypt the reign of Augustus was not measured from 44 BCE, but from his becoming ruler of Egypt after the death of Anthony and Cleopatra in August of 30 BCE. Regnal year 1 was short, from early August until August 28, 30 BCE. Regnal year 2 began on the Egyptian new year, Thoth 1, or August 29, 30 BCE. Augustus reigned forty-five years according to Egyptian reckoning, the last year also short, from Thoth 1, or August 11, to his death on August 19, 14 CE. Clement got it wrong with Augustus' total reign, but the hearsay twenty-eighth year would not necessarily be tied to his calculation. Augustus' twenty-eighth year according to normal Egyptian inclusive reckoning was from August 15, 4 BCE to August 14, 3 BCE. Jesus' birth by this reckoning would be May 13, 3 BCE, not in 6 BCE.
To verify dating in either year it is noted that Clement also wrote in the same passage that "From the birth of Christ . . . to the death of Commodus are, in all, 194 years, 1 month, 13 days." (Stromata I 21) The emperor Commodus was murdered December 31, 192 CE, and Clement would have known that contemporary date. By backing up the 194 years, 1 month and 13 days from December 31, 192 CE, this would place the birth of Jesus on about November 18, 3 BCE. If Clement used normal inclusive reckoning on the Egyptian calendar the date would be July 11, 2 BCE. One of these dates was more likely Clement's date, not the hearsay May 14, 6 BCE, or May 13, 3 BCE. The 3 BCE dates would accord with the twenty-eight year of Augustus according to the Egyptian calendar if accession reckoning was used, instead of the more usual inclusive reckoning. It confirms that Clement did not support the birth of Jesus as early as 6 BCE. It also shows the uncertainty of using the dating of the early Christian fathers to confirm the date of the birth of Jesus.
In about the year 200 CE, Clement of Alexandria also mentioned that a purely religious commemoration of the birth of Christ was included in the Feast of the Epiphany. This observance on January 6 commemorates the visit of the Magi to Jesus. Epiphany is also celebrated as the date of the baptism of Jesus, the birth of Jesus (in Eastern Orthodox from the fourth century), and the miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana. Some of these observances must be in error. It is unlikely that the Magi visited Jesus on the day He was born, unless a year or two later. It is impossible that the baptism of Jesus and the changing of water to wine occurred on the same day, as there were the intervening forty days in the wilderness, but no intervening year. However, recognition of the mid-winter birth of Jesus is recorded by the end of the second century CE, long before it became attached to any pagan festival.
IV. The Roman Date
The earliest known Roman reference to the December 25 nativity is on a Rome city calendar of 354 CE. This contained a "Depositio Martyrum" from about 336 CE that said Jesus was born on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, or December 25. This appears derived from an earlier tradition that the Annunciation, or conception of Jesus occurred on March 25. [Sextus Julius Africanus used this date in 221 CE, although in 1 BCE.] This was later supported in 532 CE by the Abbot of Rome, Dionysius Exiguus, who acknowledged the tradition of March being the month of the Annunciation to Mary. He officially named March 25 as the date of the conception of Jesus. Nine months later was December 25. Back to Christmas, Pope Liberius had moved the birth of Jesus from January 6 in 353 CE to December 25 in 354 CE. Liberius must have had strong evidence not available to us today to have made such a move, something beyond the supposed intent to coincide with a pagan festival or the calculations of a few theologians. Of particular note, Liberius moved the birth of Jesus from an early January date, not from a spring month. Besides, by 354 CE the winter solstice had retreated from December 25 to December 21. Even the pagan festivals did not fall in the same relationship to the solstice. From Rome the traditional use of the December 25 date for Christmas spread and grew.
V. The Jewish Date
In 5 BCE the day of December 25 happened to fall on the Jewish date of Kislev 25. This is the date of Hanukkah ("dedication"), also known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication. The lighting of the candles by Judas Maccabee was the cult act that expressed the hope of a miraculous return of the Shekinah glory of God.8 The Shekinah light of God was seen by the Shepherds who attended the birth of Jesus. The Messiah was born.
Added Comment: Kislev 25, 3757 is reported in error as the Julian date of November 25, 5 BCE, not December 25, 5 BCE. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Jews of the Diaspora used a rule-based calendar of the Pharisees to calculate dates, this being formalized into the present fixed calendar by Maimonides in 1178 CE. Extending this calendar back to 5 BCE does not adjust for the precession of the equinoxes, and this gives dates too early according to the Vernal Equinox and beginning of spring.
Extending the present fixed calendar back to Nisan 1, 3756, which precedes the birth of Jesus and yields the bogus November 25, 5 BCE date, is March 9, 5 BCE. This is too early before the equinox and is actually Adar II. Nisan 1 shifted a month and actually began on April 6, 5 BCE.
By contrast, in today’s 19-year metonic cycle Jewish calendar, the earliest that Nisan 1 appears is on March 12 in 2016 CE. This date is by the Gregorian calendar, which has adjusted for the precession of the equinoxes. If the new moon was observed as early as March 9 it would have been Adar II, additionally declared that month because of the premature state of the corn crop and fruit trees (Sanhedrin 2:2)
Perhaps God returned to His people at that time, and the Jews have been unknowingly celebrating the birth of their Messiah. However, the possibility exists that the traditional date of December 25 may have been selected by early Christian Jews to coincide with Hanukkah. This is an area for further research.
Added Comment: Antiochus IV desecrated the Temple, an event known as the Abomination of Desolation. Judas Maccbee led the recapture of Jerusalem in 164 BCE. The Feast of Dedication, also know as the Festival of Lights or Hanukkah (Chanukah), celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple on Kislev 25. There was only enough holy olive oil to last one day, but it miraculously burned eight days until more oil was prepared and consecrated.
The Feast of Dedication of the Temple was an apropos day for Jesus' birth, the return of God's Glory to Earth. When asked to show a sign Jesus spoke of the temple of His body (John 2:19-21). Jesus confirmed His Deity at the Feast of Dedication on Kislev 25, saying, "I and my Father are one." (John 10:22-30) The birth of the Messiah appropriately fell on Hanukkah and Christmas, the same day.
VI. Christmas as a Pagan Holiday
The word "Christmas" first appeared in about the eleventh century, and is from the Old English "Cristes maesse," or "Christ's Mass." The nativity has been widely celebrated on December 25 from at least the fourth century, except in the Eastern churches, on January 6. However, many Christians have rejected December 25 as the possibly true nativity because of that date's associations with pagan festivals.9 In reaction to this the seventeenth-century Puritans banned church services in recognition of Christmas, a feeling brought to America.10 The waves of Irish and German immigrants in the nineteenth century swept aside the objections, and the old traditions were revived among Protestants, as well as Catholics. However, there are still a few religious groups that protest the supposed pagan roots of the holiday. Is such an objection valid?
The choice of December 25 was supposedly to coincide with the day the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god. This was at the winter solstice, which fell on December 25 when the Julian calendar was inaugurated during the first century BCE. The winter solstice, or shortest day of the year, now falls on December 21. The four-day difference is because the present Gregorian calendar is out of sync with the seasons of the first centuries BCE. This was also the time of the Saturnalia, a Roman festival for Saturn from December 17 to 24. It was characterized by much feasting and merrymaking, and it was condemned by the Jews as a festival for idolaters (Mishna, Abodah Zarah 1:3, BT 8a). [The Jews and Christians had a faith of common ethical standards. The suggestion that Jesus’ birth was picked to coincide with the Roman Mithraic feast or Saturnalia is primarily an anti-Catholic guess by the Reformers.] The Saturnalia was followed by the festival of Kalenda that ended with the New Year celebration on January 1. However, the early Church supposedly took the opportunity to turn the people from their pagan observance of the winter solstice to reverence for Christ. Such a similar practice is seen with the missionary spread of the Catholic church, where pagan shrines were demolished and new churches built on the sites. Such conversion techniques have often been effective. It also should be noted that the Roman worship of Saturn and the sun are brought down to us as the names of the days Saturday and Sunday, but all Christians observe one day or the other as holy. The pagan roots have now been lost, and there is no reason not to observe Christmas on December 25 or to rest on Saturday (Sabbath) or Sunday (Lord's Day).
The word "yule" is from the Anglo-Saxon "geol," a feast, and particularly the feast of the winter solstice. In northern Europe the Teutonic tribes also celebrated the winter solstice. With their conversion to Christianity during the Middle Ages, they brought many new customs to the Christmas season. The observance of Christmas in December may have attracted many pagans to the Christian fold. But, is that why Christmas is observed on December 25?
It is the classic question of, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Was December 25 the actual date of the birth of Jesus, and it happened to coincide with pagan festivals? Might God have pre-selected such a date for the birth of His Messiah to encourage future pagan conversions? And today, if one reveres in one's heart the nativity of Jesus Christ, and that reverence is pure in the sight of God, the historical origins of Christmas are irrelevant. Most Christians are unaware of pagan rites associated with the winter solstice; it is only the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere). Ask any Christian, "who was Mithra?," or, "what was the Saturnalia?" Some might guess that it was a new rock group, but few would know the answer. Presents and parties aside, Christmas today can be a Christian festival that reverences the birth of the Messiah on December 25.
Added comment: Let's go with the assumption the the Church had no clue at to the date of the birth of Jesus, but wanted to commemorate the event. They chose a date coinciding with a pagan festival to also give Christians a reason to celebrate, and to attract converts. Why not Jewish converts? Why not line up with Hanukkah?
That the traditional date of December 25 for Christmas may indeed reflect the truth has been shown by the proofs that March 25 was the date of the Annunciation. A mid-winter tradition for the nativity preceded the later alignment in Rome with pagan festivals by over a century, and this would have influenced Pope Liberius' change to December 25. There is no evidence that this date was selected because of its relation to the winter solstice and the related festivals. The coinciding of Jesus' birth with Hanukkah adds further weight to the traditional date. There is no other date for the nativity supported by the church or the accumulation of evidence besides December 25. Merry Christmas!
1. H. W. Armstrong, The Plain Truth About Christmas (Pasadena: Worldwide Church of God, 1986).
2. W. A. Hance, The Geography of Modern Africa 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975), 156.
3. Shekalim 7:4 notes that the finder of stray animals within a prescribed distance of Jerusalem must offer those suitable for sacrifice at the Temple. This implies that the animals strayed from flocks in the open.
4. In an earlier and smaller Jerusalem Solomon's provisions for one day included one hundred sheep [and goats] (1 Kings 4:23).
5. R. T. Beckwith, "St. Luke, The Date of Christmas and the Priestly Courses at Qumran," RQ 9 (1977), 76.
6. J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 215-230.
7. E. W. Faulstich, "The Birth of Jesus," IAT (July, 1986), 5.
8. J. A. Goldstein, I Maccabees (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), The Anchor Bible, Vol. 41, 281.
9. In the fourth century Chrysostom noted Christmas on December 25 "was lately fixed at Rome in order that while the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies the Christians might perform their sacred rites undisturbed." However, Armstrong, Christmas, 7, traces the pagan roots back to Egypt of 3000 BCE.
10. P. R. Rulon, Keeping Christmas (Hamden: Archon Books, 1991), 4-5.