The people's voice of reason

But no one believes Jesus was born December 25 - Do they?

They’re celebrating YOUR birthday! But you’re not invited, and they’d prefer your name NOT be mentioned.

That’s the way many want to celebrate Christmas today. The

secularizers note that America is more diverse than it used to

be, that we shouldn’t offend others, that saying “Merry

Christmas” might be bad for business, and that public

Christmas observances might even violate the First


Then they deliver their crowning blow: “Besides, everybody

knows Jesus wasn’t born in December.” But saying “everybody knows” begs the

question, as saying “all scholars agree” defines anyone who doesn’t agree as a nonscholar.

Some build their reputations by debunking traditional wisdom, but I

sometimes enjoy debunking debunkers. At the risk of flying in the face of this

collective modern wisdom, I suggest that there is substantial, though not conclusive,

evidence that Jesus was born in December, and probably December 25.

The Biblical Evidence

What does the Bible say about the date of Jesus’

birth? Luke 2:6 tells us that “the days were accomplished

that she should be delivered,” so we assume

Jesus was a full-term baby, born nine months after

His conception. Luke 1:26 says the angel Gabriel

announced the conception of Jesus to Mary in the

sixth month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. So

Jesus was conceived about six months after John the Baptist was conceived.

So when was John the Baptist conceived? That’s more difficult, but the

Scriptures suggest some answers.

John’s father was Zacharias, a Levite priest “of the course of Abia [Abijah]”

(Luke 1:5). According to I Chronicles 24:7-19, King David had divided the

priests into 24 orders, and these orders took turns serving in the Temple for a

period of eight days twice a year, separated from their wives and children.

Zacharias and the other priests of the course of Abia served during the 10th

and 24th weeks of the Jewish year.

The angel of the Lord spoke to Zacharias “while he executed the priest’s

office before God in the order of his course” (Luke 1:8), that is, while he was

performing his service in the Temple. After his course was finished, he left

the Temple, returned to his wife, Elizabeth, and John was conceived (Luke

1:23-24). If this was after the second course, that is, the 24th week of the year,

John would have been conceived around September or October and born

around June or July.

Jesus’ conception six months later would have occurred around March or April

and His birth around December or January. I’m not saying this is

certain, recognizing that the Jewish 360-day calendar may have varied over

the centuries. But based on the scriptural account of Zacharias’s service in the

Temple, it is well within the realm of possibility that Jesus was born in


The Extrabiblical Evidence

St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), whose status in eastern Orthodoxy is

comparable to that of St. Augustine of Hippo in the West, argued strongly for

a Dec. 25 birthdate because of the course of Zacharias’s priestly service. But

Chrysostom he also noted that Pope Julius (served AD 337- 352) ascertained

the date of Christ’s birth “from the census documents brought by Titus to

Rome” after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Julius determined the date

of Christ’s birth to be Dec. 25.

Pope Julius was not the first to set the December 25 date. Theophilus of

Caesarea (AD 115 - 181) wrote that “we ought to celebrate the birth of our

Lord on December 25.” Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160 - 240) concluded

that Jesus was conceived on March 25 and therefore born December 25.

Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170 - 240) gave the date of Jesus’s birth as “eight

days before the calends [first days] of January.” Irenaeus (AD 130 - 202) came

to the same conclusion.

Julius and Chrysostom were not alone in their reliance upon the census

documents. Justin Martyr (AD 100 - 165), in a detailed statement of the

Christian faith addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, stated that Jesus was

born in Bethlehem quote 'as you can ascertain also from the registers of the

taxing.” (Apology, I, 34). Likewise, Tertullian (AD 160-250) wrote of “the

census of Augustus – that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept

in the archives of Rome” Contra Marcion, Book 4, 7).

These census records are missing today. If they still exist, they are lost in the

archives of theVatican. (This is not surprising; I find stuff in my own files

that’s been missing for decades!) But the men of the ancient world were

careful scholars, and perhaps the better part of wisdom bids us to assume that

these Church Fathers had access to information that we no longer

possess, and that they knew what they were talking about.

Why Not December 25?

Some have said that Jesus couldn’t have been born in December because

shepherds did not keep their sheep in the fields past late autumn. But Alfred

Edersheim, in his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah

(1883), cited ancient Jewish sources to the effect that flocks of sheep

“remain in the open alike in the hottest days and in the rainy season – i.e.

all the year round” (Book 2, p. 186). There was also a special class of

Levitical shepherds who kept sacrificial lambs in the field all year round

because they were used for sacrifice every month of the year.

Winters can be cold in Palestine; but they vary greatly, and some Decembers

are rather mild. A recent study of stalagmites and stalactites in caves near

Jerusalem strongly suggests that the average annual rainfall dropped nearly

50 percent from about 3 feet in AD 100 to about 1.6 feet in AD 700. Average

winter temperatures may have varied as well. If Mary could have given birth

to a baby in a Bethlehem cave or stable, then hardy shepherds could have

watched their flocks in the fields at the same time.

Edersheim concluded, “There is no adequate reason for questioning the

historical accuracy of this date (Dec. 25). The objections generally made

rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable.”

Stolen From Pagans?

Then we’re told December 25 was a pagan holiday, and the Church

appropriated the day to celebrate the birth of Christ. That raises a

preliminary question: If a Christian holiday and a pagan holiday coincide, why

do we assume that Christians stole the day from pagans? Why not the other

way around? And what holiday was stolen?

The Roman festival Saturnalia is one possibility. But they celebrated

Saturnalia December 15-22 (or 23), not December 25. The Winter Solstice is

another. But that was December 21(or sometimes 22), not December 25.

Claims that the Roman god Mithras or the Indian/Persian god Mithra were

born December 25 are pure fantasy. See Tim O’Neill, The Great Myths 2:

Christmas, Mithras, and Paganism, (2016); for an

entertaining presentation see “Horus Ruins Christmas,”; see also, Ronald A.

Stephens, “Why December 25?” The Lutheran Witness, December 21, 2022

When you live in a New Age or neo-pagan fantasy world, you can create your

own mythology and call it history. Does this mean Christians must celebrate

Christmas? Some believe we should not celebrate Christmas

because the Bible never commands us to celebrate Jesus’birth. I respect that

belief, but I agree with Luther that we may and should celebrate and

proclaim Jesus Christ in any way that Scripture does not forbid. As Paul says,

“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day

alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”

(Romans 14:5) I believe we have liberty on this point. In the end, no one’s

Christian faith should depend upon whether Dec. 25 is the date of Jesus’s

birth, nor do such questions give us any reason to take Christ out of

Christmas. I’d welcome responses from anyone who can prove or disprove

this thesis. But sometimes it is reassuring, and even fun, to learn that ancient

scholars and ancient traditions may have been right all along.

Merry Christmas, regardless!


Reader Comments(0)