Tradition tells us Jesus was born on Dec. 25, commonly called Christmas Day. But we also know tradition can be wrong. For centuries, tradition taught the earth was flat and that all the stars and planets revolved around it. It took many years of careful scientific examination to change traditional thinking on the solar system to a view based on verifiable truth.
Similarly, the tradition that Jesus Christ was born in the dead of winter has also been found to be without solid evidence—in consideration of what the Bible and other historical sources reveal. Yet we know tradition is hard to undo—witness how the names of the 12 months of the Roman year are hopelessly confused, but are still kept in this way. September is the ninth month in our calendar, but it actually means “seventh month” in Latin. October is the 10th month, but it means “eighth month,” November is our 11th month, yet it means “ninth month,” and December means 10th month, but it is the 12th month on our calendar.
The observance of Christmas Day has also become a tradition of men—and it turns out that this tradition is based on a false foundation. Let’s examine the evidence.
Evidence Jesus’ birth wasn’t in winter—the Roman census
The first evidence in the Bible that Jesus was not born anywhere near Dec. 25 was given by Luke when he wrote: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
“Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, 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. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger” (Luke 2:1-7, emphasis added throughout).
There are Roman records of censuses dating from A.D. 20 until about 270. “In the New Testament the Roman enrollment [census] is mentioned in connection with the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:2) and again in a passing reference to the revolt of Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37). It appears that the Romans took a census every fourteen years for the purpose of levying taxes” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1982, Vol. 2, p. 105).
The point to consider is that the Roman authorities did not take the census during wintertime, when it was cold, rainy and muddy, and slick roads made travel dangerous. The normal time would have been after the harvests were reaped in late summer to early autumn and before the late autumn rains and coming of winter, when people could return to their birthplace and not disrupt the agricultural cycle of planting, tending and harvesting crops.
In his book Holy-Days and Holidays, author Cunningham Geikie affirms this census “could hardly have been at that season [of winter] . . . 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 especially 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” (“Christmas at Bethlehem,” 1968, p. 405).
Luke’s account of the Roman census argues strongly against a December date for Christ’s birth. For an agrarian society, a late summer to early autumn census was much more likely. A census in the dead of winter makes no sense because it would’ve been largely self-defeating!
Shepherds were out in the field at night
Luke goes on to say about Christ’s birth: “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 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’” (Luke 2:8-11).
So the shepherds around Bethlehem were pasturing their flocks outdoors at night. This is another indication that it was not mid-December, when the weather was normally at its coldest and the shepherds would’ve more likely kept their flocks penned up in shelters at night. The common practice in Judea was for shepherds to keep their flocks in the open fields from April to October, but in the cold and wet winter months they brought their flocks back home and protected them from the inclement weather.
Some Bible commentators have argued for shepherds in the fields at night in December, but others have ruled it out, which appears far more reasonable. The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible notes: “These humble pastoral folk are out in the field at night with their flock—a feature of the story which would argue against the birth’s occurring on December 25 since the weather would not have permitted it” (1971, p. 676).
Adam Clarke’s Commentary adds: “And 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 [birth of Jesus] 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” (note on Luke 2:8).
We will return to this matter of the shepherds in the fields in a moment.
Why it’s difficult to find admissions for the pagan origin of Christmas
Before going further, we should recognize that despite convincing biblical and historical evidence for Jesus’ birth not being anywhere near Dec. 25, there is strong desire, even among a number of Christian scholars, to reinterpret the evidence in favor of the winter Christmas.
The late Adventist historian Samuele Bacchiocchi warned in this respect in a Dec. 22, 2002, article titled “A Look at the Date and Meaning of Christmas,” stating: “The adoption of the 25th of December for the celebration of Christmas is perhaps the most explicit example of Sun-worship’s inﬂuence on the Christian liturgical calendar. It is a known fact that the pagan feast of the dies natalis Solis Invicti—the birthday of the Invincible Sun, was held on that date.
“Do Christian sources openly admit the borrowing of the date of such a pagan festivity? Generally not. To admit borrowing a pagan festival, even after due reinterpretation of its meaning, would be tantamount to an open betrayal of the faith. This the [church] Fathers were anxious to avoid . . .
“The commemoration of the birth of the Sun-god was not easily forgotten by Christians. Augustine and Leo the Great strongly reprimanded those Christians who at Christmas worshiped the Sun rather than the birth of Christ. Therefore, it is well to keep in mind that in the investigation of the inﬂuence of the Sun-cults on the Christian liturgy, the most we can hope to ﬁnd are not direct but indirect indications. This warning applies not only for the date of Christmas but for that of Sunday as well.”
The “temple sheep” theory
Returning to the matter of shepherds in the fields with their flocks by night, one argument that tries to place this in winter is sometimes referred to as “the temple-sheep theory.”
This view was popularized by Alfred Edersheim, a 19th-century Jewish convert to Christianity and a well-respected scholar in matters of first-century Jewish life. In his famous book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim wrote this concerning the account of the shepherds in the fields at night:
“This Migdal Eder [“the tower of the flock”] was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.
“The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism [Jewish rabbinic ruling], on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible. The same Mishnaic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before Passover—that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine [the land of Israel] the average rainfall is nearly greatest” (Book 2, chap. 6, 2000, p. 131).
From this passage some scholars come to the conclusion that specially selected shepherds would be out in the open in December taking care of sheep chosen for the Passover sacrifice.
While the explanation might sound plausible, a more careful look at the sources in the Mishnah—Jewish oral tradition later set down in writing in the centuries after Jesus—does not support this conclusion. Notice that even Edersheim couched his words with phrases such as “A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion . . .” and “The same Mishnaic passage also leads us to infer . . .” He clearly was not certain of what he was stating.
A look at the verses in the Mishnah shows the sheep being discussed are unattended or lost sheep found in the area, not those pastured by shepherds.
The Mishnah passage referred to, Shekalim 7:4, states: “An animal that was found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, or a similar distance in any direction, the males are (considered) burnt offerings. The females are (considered) peace offerings. Rabbi Yehuda says, those which are fitting as a Pesach offering are (considered) Pesach offerings if it is thirty days before the festival.”
Rabbi Joshua Kulp, writing in an online study of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, explains this passage: “Thirty days is the period of time before Pesah [Passover] in which the sages began to teach the laws of Pesah and hence at this time people began to set aside animals for use as a Pesah offering. One who finds such an animal may use it as his own personal Pesah sacrifice. If the owners come and claim the animal, then he must pay them its value but he may keep the animal.”
So it appears that Edersheim was mistaken in his speculation that this Mishnaic passage referred to sheep being specially pastured for the temple in this area year round, as it actually had to do with lost sheep being found in this area.
There is no mention here of special shepherds out at night tending their temple sheep in the winter. This is simply a speculative attempt to justify the date of Jesus’ birth being reckoned in late December.
The conception/death theory
Another scholarly theory poses that Jesus was conceived and later died on the same day of the year! This theory shows how far people are willing to go to justify the Christmas date. The theory was mentioned in the December 2002 issue of the magazine Bible Review in the article “How Dec. 25 became Christmas” by Andrew McGowan.
He begins by admitting: “The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E. [Common Era or A.D.], further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James. These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.
“Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes:
“‘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 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] . . . And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].’
“Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor) . . . The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs” (pp. 1-2).
McGowan cites Clement of Alexandria as giving three different dates for the birth of Christ, none of which come even close to December 25. He then speculates on three different dates for the death of Christ.
The same author then recognizes the pagan influence of December 25 after Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Catholic Christianity, noting: “From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs” (p. 4).
But the incorporation of a Dec. 25 pagan festival as Christmas is then denied: “At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals. The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least” (ibid.).
McGowan is quite tentative when he asserts that Christmas Day was established in the third century, and speculates a Christian group called Donatists could have observed it, but there is no direct historical evidence about this.
He then presents the “conception/death theory” as justification for the date of December 25 being chosen for Christ’s birth. He claims: “There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
“Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage (same time as Clement and Origen) reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.
“March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25” (pp. 5-6).
One problem with this theory is that Tertullian nowhere mentions the conception of Christ and only gave the equivalent date in the Roman calendar of Christ’s death. As we have already seen, Clement of Alexandria had three different dates for Jesus’ death.
Tertullian wrote: “And the suffering of this ‘extermination’ was perfected . . . under Tiberius Caesar . . . in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends [1st day] of April [i.e., March 24 or 25]” (An Answer to the Jews, chap. 8).
And even if Tertullian thought Christ’s death had been on March 25 of the Roman calendar, he clearly did not tie it to Jesus’ conception or birth. That task would later fall to fourth-century writers and those of later centuries who would try to justify the Dec. 25 date for Christ’s birth—a time admitted by Church historians when paganism had already crept into the formation of the Catholic Church’s feast days.
The Bible certainly does not mention such an outlandish idea. But, as we have been warned, clever theories are advanced to justify the date of Dec. 25 for Jesus’ birth. By taking a closer look, we can see the “conception/death theory” as just another far-fetched speculation borne out of desperation to justify a Dec. 25 observance of Christ’s birth.
Don’t be “turned aside to fables”
The apostle Paul warned Timothy that false teachers would appear presenting fables and traditions of men but that he should stick to biblical truth. Paul admonished him: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
Don’t be deceived by clever theories based on the wayward traditions of men. A quick Internet search will show that Dec. 25 was chosen as the date of Christ’s birth not because of any biblical or historical evidence, but because this was the entrenched observance of the birthday of the sun-god!
And this is far from the only problem with this holiday. What does a jolly fat man in a red fur-trimmed suit riding in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (loaded with toys made by elves living at the North Pole!) have to do with the birth of the Son of God? The answer should be obvious—nothing! But this and related imagery clearly reveal the unbiblical, ungodly, pre-Christian roots of this celebration.
Instead of following man-made traditions and holidays condemned in the Bible, why not keep the biblical feast days that God commanded and that were observed by Jesus Christ, the apostles and the early Church? You’ll be surprised at how they can transform your understanding of the Bible!