The biblical accounts of Jesus Christ's birth present some surprising differences from popular ideas and traditions. Do you know the facts from the fiction?
Most of us have been brought up with the traditional Christmas story—you know, the one about Jesus being born on Christmas day in a stable in Bethlehem with the shepherds and three wise men looking on as depicted in countless manger scenes.
But is that the way it really happened? Most people think so, but a careful look at what the Bible really says reveals some surprising differences. Let's examine what the Bible actually does say about the circumstances surrounding Christ's birth.
While the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke describe the true story of Jesus' birth, we'll see that they assuredly do not describe the Christmas story so popular at this time of year.
Luke's important background
Consider first Luke, the Gospel writer who had the detailed mind of a physician and a historian. He wanted to make sure he presented all the pertinent facts.
Notice his preface: " Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke:1:1-4, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
Luke, in other words, interviewed those who had witnessed or were knowledgeable of the events of Christ's life, and that information was the basis for his Gospel. After this important introduction, Luke begins the true story leading to Jesus' birth with an account of God's dealings with Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist:
"There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division [or "course"] of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth " (verse 5). Later in the account it tells us she was a cousin of Mary (verse 36, King James Version).
"And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years" (verses 6-7).
Zacharias' priestly assignment or "division" helps us to know and understand the general time frame of Christ's birth. His was "the course of Abijah." But what does this mean?
About a thousand years earlier, King David had organized the Levitical priesthood into 24 "courses" or "divisions." As explained in 1 Chronicles 24 and more specifically in verses 3, 10 and 19, there was an abundance of priests to serve in the various temple functions.
Not wanting any to be left out of serving, David's solution was to divide the priests into 24 courses. Each priest would then serve for a specified week-long term twice during the year, plus the three festival seasons (Deuteronomy:16:16) when all the priests would serve.
The question is: Do we know at what times of the year the course of Abijah served at the temple? Yes, we do. The determination can be made by combining the information in 1 Chronicles 24 with a study into the traditions of Judaism regarding when the temple courses were carried out during the year.
The evidence points to Zacharias' week of service described by Luke being around Pentecost, which generally falls in late May to mid-June on our calendar. Although they fall at specific times on God's sacred calendar, the dates of His annual Holy Days and festivals vary up to several weeks on the Roman calendar we use today.
So it seems we can ascertain when Zacharias was serving in the temple. One resource, The Companion Bible, calculates it to the week of June 13-19 in the determined year (1974, Appendix 179, p. 200).
An unexpected angelic appearance
Luke's account continues: "So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord" (Luke:1:8-9).
What happened next would have been rather frightening to anyone. "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him . . . And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John'" (verses 11-13).
Then the angel explained the mission of Zacharias' son-to-be, John the Baptist: "He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb . . . He will also go before Him [Jesus Christ, the coming Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (verses 15-17).
Although a righteous man, in this instance Zacharias was all too human and displayed a lack of faith in the angel Gabriel's message. Because of his unbelief, he would not be able to speak again until his son John was born (verses 18-20).
Timing of Elizabeth's and Mary's conceptions
"So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months" (Luke:1:23-24). Since Zacharias' temple course was in mid-June, assuming she became pregnant within a couple of weeks, five months would put this into mid- to late November.
The scene then shifts to the Messiah's birth: "Now in the sixth month 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 . . . The angel said to her, 'Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women" (verses 26-28).
This account clearly shows that Mary was a remarkable young woman of faith. Gabriel said to her, "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest . . . And He will reign over the house of Jacob [Israel] forever" (verses 31-33).
Mary, since she was a virgin, then asked the obvious question. The answer came back: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you" (verse 35).
Gabriel emphasized God's miracle-working power: "Now indeed, Elizabeth, your relative [ cousin, KJV] has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible" (verses 36-37).
Mary and Elizabeth
So a little more time has elapsed. It is now Elizabeth's sixth month, perhaps late December or a little beyond. "Now Mary arose in those days [the same basic time frame] and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb" (verses 39-41).
Elizabeth at this time was in her sixth month of pregnancy with John the Baptist. It would not be a stretch to understand from the previous passage that Mary was now also pregnant with Jesus. Elizabeth even speaks of Mary as though she knows Mary is an expectant mother: "But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy" (verses 43-44).
Verse 56 says, "And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house." Timewise it was now late March. Mary stayed with Elizabeth right to the birth of John the Baptist. "Now Elizabeth 's full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son" (verse 57).
We see, then, that Mary was probably three months pregnant when John was born. John was probably born in late March or early April. So when was Jesus Christ born? Six months later would be late September or early October—in the autumn of the year, not in the dead of winter, as so many today mistakenly assume.
The evidence of the Roman census
Can we find other biblical evidence that Jesus was born in the autumn rather than in winter? Indeed we can.
Continuing in Luke's account: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered" (Luke:2:1). "All the world" in this context would mean all the areas under Roman rule. "This census took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (verses 2-3).
What kind of people were the Romans when it came to order and efficiency? They built bridges, roads and buildings that in some cases are still in use to this day, 2,000 years later. Their roads were marvels of engineering. They constructed great waterworks and sewage systems. Even today, our city planning owes a great deal to the Romans. Even much of modern government and military organization is copied from the Romans. They were masters of organization and structure.
Would the Romans, then, have ordered a census in the dead of winter? Of course not. This would have defeated the whole purpose! In winter, temperatures drop below freezing around Jerusalem, and the roads would have been muddy and wet with cold rains and occasional snow. It would've been a terrible time to travel, especially for a wife nearing her delivery.
One author states that this census "could hardly have been at that season [winter], however, for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authorities for a public enrollment, which necessitated the population's traveling from all parts to their natal districts, storms and rain making journeys both unsafe and unpleasant in winter, except in specially favorable years. Snow is not at all uncommon at Jerusalem in the winter months, and I have known it so deep that people lost their way outside the gates" (Cunningham Geikie, "Christmas at Bethlehem," Edward Deems, editor, Holy-Days and Holidays, 1968, p. 405).
No rational Roman official would have scheduled a census in winter. For an agrarian society such as that of first-century Judea, a census in the autumn, when the crops would've been safely gathered in, would have made much more sense.
Why was there no room in Bethlehem?
Picking up our story in Luke again, we find other biblical evidence for the true timing of Jesus Christ's birth.
"Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth . . . because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered" (verses 4-6).
We don't know how far ahead of time they traveled, nor how long they were there for the census. The essential point is that the most important human birth in all history took place under these circumstances.
"And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloth, and laid Him in a manger [margin, feed trough ], because there was no room for them in the inn" (verse 7).
But why was there no room for Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem? We learn a great deal from understanding the culture of the time.
If we have judged the time frame correctly based on John being conceived shortly after the time of the first term of Abijah around Pentecost, and his birth following nine months later, followed by Jesus' birth six months after that in late September or possibly early October, was something else happening at that particular time of the year that would've created crowded conditions in Bethlehem?
Indeed there was. Late September and early October is the autumn festival season on God's calendar, one of the three times in the year when families would travel to Jerusalem to observe God's Holy Days (see Deuteronomy:16:16). With the Jews of Israel still obeying this command, even today it is difficult to find a hotel room in Jerusalem at this time of year!
The population of Jerusalem swelled several times over to overflowing at this time. This affected nearby towns such as Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem. Because of this huge influx of people, every house was filled. Joseph and Mary did find a place in what was normally used to shelter animals. It certainly wouldn't have been first class, but likely they were thankful to have even that.
The shepherds and their flocks
Continuing in Luke's account, we find further proof that Jesus wasn't born in winter. Verse 8 tells us, " Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night."
This likewise shows that these events did not take place in winter. The common practice of shepherds was to keep their flocks in the open fields from April to October, but in the cold and wet winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them.
The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary (1971) says this passage argues "against the birth [of Christ] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted" shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night.
Adam Clarke's Commentary explains that, "as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light upon this disputed point."
Again, the evidence in Luke points to a late September birth.
The shepherds come to see Jesus
Continuing the story in Luke:2:10-17: " Then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day
in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.'
". . . And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child."
We might notice that only the shepherds arrive in time to see Jesus in the manger. The wise men, as we will see, didn't arrive on the scene until later.
" And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, 'Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord'), and to offer a sacrifice . . . a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons" (Luke:2:21-24; compare Exodus:13:2).
This was called "redeeming the firstborn." Leviticus:12:2-3, 6 tells us that this ceremony occurred 40 days after the birth of a son. So if Christ was born in late September, we are now into mid-November.
The wise men and Herod
We'll now continue the story flow in Matthew:2:1-3: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him."
Why did this news disturb Herod? Other historical accounts attest to Herod's paranoia about being overthrown. The news that a new king of the Jews had been born threatened his position.
Herod obviously knew of the traditions and the prophecies relating to the Messiah. "And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea'" (verses 4-5).
King Herod carefully concealed his murderous intentions. "Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also'" (verses 7-8).
Notice that now Herod referred to Jesus not as a baby, but as "the young Child." He realized how long their travels would have taken the wise men—possibly from as far away as Parthia or the region around Babylon, where the Israelites and Jews had been exiled centuries before. Herod knew from when the star had appeared that he was not seeking a newborn baby, but a boy by now considerably older.
And to remove any threat to his position, Herod "put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (verse 16). Herod, covering all of his bases in protecting his throne, ordered the murderous slaughter of those 2 years old and under.
It wasn't the common nativity scene
The wise men were miraculously guided to the Christ child (verses 9-10). "And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother" (verse 11). The typical nativity scene completely falls apart at this point. There is no mention of a manger here. Rather Jesus was, as stated, in a house. And Jesus was no longer an infant, He was a young child. The wise men obviously visited Jesus long after the shepherds had come and gone—perhaps a year or more later.
The typical manger scene includes three wise men. The Bible, however, nowhere says how many wise men there were. It does note, however, that they presented three kinds of gifts to Him—gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Why these three particular gifts? Their symbolism is striking when we understand it.
Gold was a gift for royalty—in this case the chosen King of the Jews and ultimately the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" who will rule over the entire earth (Revelation:19:16).
Frankincense was an incense intimately connected with the priesthood and temple sacrifices, foreshadowing the fact that Jesus Christ would serve as our High Priest and give Himself as the perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty for the sins of all mankind (Hebrews:4:14-15; 9:11-14; 1 Peter:1:18-19).
Myrrh had a much more sobering symbolism. When a person died, this perfuming agent was wrapped with the body to help cover up the stench of death. Jesus' own body would be wrapped in linen with myrrh and aloes (John:19:39-40).
Why we should celebrate God's Holy Days instead
Matthew and Luke reveal the true story of the birth of Jesus Christ and the general timing of when it really occurred. John the Baptist was born in the spring. His cousin Jesus was born six months later—probably in late September, possibly early October. The shepherds visited immediately; the wise men—their number unknown—arrived much later.
It's tragic that the true story should have become so badly garbled by human traditions. It's also tragic that people ignore the Bible's clear instructions and invent their own. Jesus Himself roundly condemned religious leaders of His day who were "making the word of God of no effect through your tradition" (Mark:7:13).
A strong and weighty biblical principle is found in Deuteronomy 12. It tells us why we should observe the annual Holy Days and festivals God has revealed in His Word—not traditional holidays borrowed from paganism:
"You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates have they done to their gods . . . whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it, nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy:12:31-32).
Have you ever thought it curious that although two of the Gospel writers describe the circumstances surrounding Christ's birth (the other two don't even cover the event), neither of them gives the date? Has it puzzled you that the Bible never once mentions "Christmas"? And that none of the biblical writers says anything about commemorating that birth?
We do find, however, explicit commands to commemorate Jesus Christ's sacrifice and death on our behalf (1 Corinthians:11:23-26). We also find commands to observe other biblical festivals, the same festivals Jesus and the New Testament Church celebrated. Isn't it about time you looked into the Bible to see what God's Word says about them? GN