With December comes celebration and merry-making. The celebration of the birth of Christ, one which was non-existent in the early church. In earlier studies, we have taken a look at the origins of Christmas:
The Chronography of 354 – What was celebrated on December 25th before it became Christmas?
Pagan influence on Christmas – Where did Christmas come from?
We have also seen the present “Christmas story” is critically flawed, as the “Magi” appeared close to two years after Christ’s birth according to the Gospel accounts:
The flawed Christmas story – What’s out of place in this picture?
Today, let’s attempt to narrow down the month of Christ’s Birth using only the Old Testament Scriptures and the New Testament Writings. Was He born in December? Let’s look at the Biblical evidence.
People of Interest and the YEAR of His Birth:
There are a few key figures that are linked to history, mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Chris’t Birth. Using the following historical dates and the Gospel accounts we have studied, we can narrow down Christ’s Birth to 7BC to 5BC.
Caesar Augustus (Luk 2:1) – Augustus was a Roman statesman and military leader who was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire, controlling Imperial Rome from 16 January 27 BC until his death in 19 August AD 14.
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (Luk 2:2) – In 6 CE Quirinius, the newly-appointed Imperial Legate (governor) of the province of Roman Syria, was tasked to carry out a tax census of the new province of Judea, one of the three territories into which the kingdom of Herod the Great had been divided on his death in 4 BC.
Herod the Great (Mat 2:1) – Herod was a Roman client king of Judea, who reigned from 37BC to 4BC.
Herod Archelaus (Mat 2:22) – Archelaus his son was ethnarch (Govenor) of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea (Edom), including the cities Caesarea and Jaffa, from 4 BC to 6 AD.
We know that Herod died in 4BC, at which time Joseph returned from Egypt according to Mat 2:20-23. We also know that Yeshua was close to two years old, when the Magi visited(Mat 2:16). If Herod died the same year he ordered the killing of the children, that would place Yeshua‘s birth 2-3 years before Herod’s death. Which gives us an approximate 7BC – 5BC as His birth.
The Priestly courses and the MONTH of His Birth:
To calculate the month of Christ’s birth, we must look into the Birth of John much closely, as Luke provides some key details in his Gospel.
Zecheriah, father of John, was a Priest in the course of Abijah(Luk 1:5). Which was the eighth course out of 24(1Chr 24:7). Each of these priestly courses worked at the Temple for a period of one week(Josephus, Antiq 7, Chapter 14, Verse 7). And all 24 priestly courses were present at the 3 main feasts of Passover/Unleavened Bread, Pentecost & Tabernacles(2Chr 5:11, 2Chr 8:12). The Luni-Solar year according to the Scriptures consist of 51 weeks (A Lunar Cycle is 29.53 days X 12 Months). When you add the 3 weeks that all the priests work at the feasts to the 2 revolutions of 24 Priestly courses, you end up at 51 courses [(24×2)=48 +3 = 51].
Luk 1:5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
1Ch 24:7 Now the first lot came forth to Jehoiarib, the second to Jedaiah, The third to Harim, the fourth to Seorim, The fifth to Malchijah, the sixth to Mijamin, The seventh to Hakkoz, the eighth to Abijah, The ninth to Jeshua, the tenth to Shecaniah, The eleventh to Eliashib, the twelfth to Jakim, The thirteenth to Huppah, the fourteenth to Jeshebeab, The fifteenth to Bilgah, the sixteenth to Immer, The seventeenth to Hezir, the eighteenth to Aphses, The nineteenth to Pethahiah, the twentieth to Jehezekel, The one and twentieth to Jachin, the two and twentieth to Gamul, The three and twentieth to Delaiah, the four and twentieth to Maaziah. These were the orderings of them in their service to come into the house of the LORD, according to their manner, under Aaron their father, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded him.
Josephus, Antiq 7, Chapter 14, Verse 7 He divided them also into courses: and when he had separated the Priests from them, he found of these Priests twenty four courses: sixteen of the house of Eleazar, and eight of that of Ithamar: and he ordained that one course should minister to God eight days, from sabbath to sabbath. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the presence of David, and Zadok, and Abiathar the High Priests, and of all the rulers. And that course which came up first was written down as the first: and accordingly the second; and so on to the twenty four.
Mishneh Torah, Chap 3, Verse 9 – Samuel the prophet and David the king divided the Levites into twenty-four divisions; each division served for one week. The chief of a division divided the men of his division into subdivisions [family groups].— — The chiefs of the subdivisions distributed assignments among those serving on their particular day, each man performing his own task.
Mishneh Torah, Chap 4, Verse 3 – Our teacher Moses divided the priests into eight divisions, four from the family of Elazar and four from the family of Ithamar. They functioned that way until the time of Samuel the prophet, when he and King David divided them into twenty-four divisions. A chief was named over each division. One division a week would go up to Jerusalem for service. The divisions would change every Sabbath day, one leaving and the next one entering, until the cycle was completed. Then they would begin the cycle over again.
2Ch 5:11 And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place: (for all the priests that were present were sanctified, and did not then wait by course:
2Ch 8:12 Then Solomon offered burnt offerings unto the LORD on the altar of the LORD, which he had built before the porch, Even after a certain rate every day, offering according to the commandment of Moses, on the sabbaths, and on the new moons, and on the solemn feasts, three times in the year, even in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles. And he appointed, according to the order of David his father, the courses of the priests to their service, and the Levites to their charges, to praise and minister before the priests, as the duty of every day required: the porters also by their courses at every gate: for so had David the man of God commanded.
Looking at the above information, we can attempt to create a depiction of the events that took place in their approximate time periods, as given below:
If Zecheriah was engaged in his duties in the 9th Week of the year, he would have had to also work on the 10th week and would have gone home to Elizabeth in the 11th Week. If we estimate that Elizabeth conceived in the 12th Week, she would have given birth to John approximately at the en of the year. As Mary conceived 6 months after Elizabeth’s conception, we can then narrow down Mary’s conception to around the 39th Week of the year. If so, our Saviour Yeshua would have been born fairly close, if not right on the Day of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
There are a few reasons to believe that the Birth of Christ happened on Tabernacles
Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 as he explains “Emmanuel” which means “God with Us” in Hebrew was a prophecy that came true, this day. The Feast/Appointment of Tabernacles was the one feast which commemorated “God Dwelling/Tabernacling among His people”. Furthermore, John 1:14 speaks of Messiah the same way using the word “Dwelt”(Skaynoo- G4637) which meant Tent or Encampment in Greek.
2. Perfect time for a Census
Luke speaks of a Census for the purpose of Taxation which was carried our by Rome. At the time of the 3 main Feast Days, all Jews come to Jerusalem to participate. So it would make perfect sense to keep a Census at this time
3. Locality of Bethlehem
Bethlehem was situated less than 10Km away from Jerusalem and a 2 hour walk away. This would have been an ideal situation for Joseph and Mary, as they could register with Roman authorities as well as attend the Feast which is close to where they would have stayed.
4. No room at the Inn
Lodging would be hard to get by in the time of a Feast, as many Jews travel back to Jerusalem at this time. This makes perfect sense with Luke’s account as many pilgrims would have already occupied all the establishments which were available.
5. Born on the 1st Day, Circumcised on the 8th
The Feast of Tabernacles is an 8-day feast(Lev 23:39). The 1st day and the 8th day are special/high Sabbath Days. Could it be that Yeshua was born on the 1st Day of Tabernacles and circumcised according to the Law(Lev 12:3, Luk 2:21) on the 8th Day of Tabernacles?
6. Shepherds grazing sheep in the cold?
As Luke mentions in Luk 2:8, there were shepherds grazing their flock in the night as Christ was born. It is highly unlikely that this would have been possible in the cold of December. It may have been possible around the 7th Feast as the fall rains would have made the pastures lush for the sheep to graze on. But would not have been too cold for them as close to the 9th Month (November/December) when the atmosphere is most cold.
The above clues may point to Yeshua’s Birth happening right on the Day of Tabernacles(Sep/Oct in our Gregorian Calendar). One other reason is that Yeshua’s Death happened on Passover (a feast day), He resurrected on Firstfruits (a feast day), He sent His Holy Spirit on Pentecost (a feast day). So it is very likely that God intended His Birth also on a Feast Day.
But we should also inspect a few other possibilities as well according to the above graph. Every Priestly course worked 5 times a year ; twice according to their course and thrice at the main feasts along with all other priestly courses. So there maybe 4 other possibilities as well. Let us see whether eith of them can lead to a December 25th Birth.
i) If Luke’s account of Zecheriah working in the temple was in Pesach/Passover, Christ’s birth would have taken place around the 22nd Week which is the end of the 5th Month (July/August in the Gregorian Calendar).
ii) If Luke’s account of Zecheriah working in the temple was in Shavuot/Pentecost, Christ’s birth would have taken place still on Sukkot/Tabernacles as it would have not changed the time he returned to Elizabeth.
iii) If Luke’s account of Zecheriah working in the temple was in Sukkot/Tabernacles, Christ’s birth would have taken place around the 45th Week which is the 11th Month (January/February in the Gregorian Calendar).
iv) If Luke’s account of Zecheriah working in the temple was in the 35th Week, which is his 2nd course for the year, Christ’s birth would have taken place around the 3rd Week which is in the 1st Month around Pesach/Passover (March/April in the Gregorian Calendar).
According to Luke’s account, we can make an approximation of Christ’s Birth to Sukkot, which makes sense in several different ways when looking at prophecies such as Isaiah 7:14 or the other particulars in the story. I would not disregard any of the other possibilities as well, but it would be more probable that He was born on Sukkot. But it is certain that he could not have been born in December.