The year 2000 is approaching, and excitement is in the air. Magazines and newspapers report on the celebrations scheduled for January 1, 2000, the purported beginning of the 21st century and the third millennium. Even though the new century and new millennium really begin January 1, 2001, it is a rare generation that can witness such an event.
The numbering system in our calendar was originally intended to reflect the years since the birth of Christ. Yet, before too much is said about this celebration, perhaps we should ask how accurate is the numbering system. Has it really been 1,996 years since the birth of Jesus?
The history of the Gregorian calendar is indeed fascinating and enlightening. The calendar not only impacts the bimillennial celebrations being planned, but the true 2,000th year since Christ's birth.
The year of Christ's birth
Neither the Bible nor the early Church fathers mentioned the date of Jesus' birth, although they did provide details of the circumstances surrounding His birth.
Why this omission? In the case of the Church fathers, the reason is that, during the three centuries after Christ's life on earth, the event considered most worthy of commemoration was the date of His death. In comparison, the date of His birth was considered insignificant. As the Encyclopedia Americana explains, "Christmas . . . was, according to many authorities, not celebrated in the first centuries of the Christian church, as the Christian usage in general was to celebrate the death of remarkable persons rather than their birth . . ." (1944 edition, "Christmas").
We find no command in Scripture by Christ or His apostles to celebrate His birth.
So how was the year determined for His birth? In 525 Pope John I commissioned the scholar Dionysius Exiguus the task of establishing a feast calendar for the Church. Dionysius also estimated the year of Christ's birth, but through several errors in his calculations arrived at a date at least a few years later than the actual event.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Dionysius set the year of Christ's birth as the 753rd year since the founding of Rome. However, this was an impossibility, since the Gospels record Jesus' birth as occurring during the reign of Herod the Great, and thus He could not have been born later than the 750th year from the founding of Rome (15th edition, Vol. 4, p. 580, "Chronology").
Herod's death was recorded by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and would have fallen in 4 B.C. Therefore, according to the adjusted calculations, Christ's birth took place some four years before the traditional date. Counting forward from 4 B.C. for 2,000 years (one year has to be added because there was no year 0) yields 1996 as the true 2,000th calendar year after Christ's birth. This might prove disappointing to the celebrants of the January 1, 2000, date, but they shouldn't worry too much, since the tide of tradition has usually overwhelmed the facts of history.
Confusion over dates
Surprisingly, not only is the traditional year for Christ's birth off by a few years, but His supposed December 25 birthday, widely celebrated as Christmas, is also off. Both history and the Bible give many strong indications against December 25 as the day of Christ's birth.
Certainly, if the ancients had known when Christ was born, we would expect to find ample evidence of the celebration in early writings. Yet, in the first 200 years of Christian history, no mention is made of the calendar date of His birth. Not until the year 336 do we find the first mention of a celebration of Christ's birth.
Speculation on the proper date began in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the idea of fixing Christ's birthday started. Quite a controversy arose among Church leaders. Some were opposed to such a celebration. Origen (185-254) strongly recommended against such an innovation. "In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world" (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 edition, Vol. 3, p. 724, "Natal Day").
During this time eight specific dates during six different months were proposed by various groups. December 25, although one of the last dates to be proposed, was the one finally accepted by the leadership of the Western church.
A summary of the debate on the dates of Christ's birth appears in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:
"Though speculation as to the time of year of Christ's birth dates from the early 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria suggesting the 20th of May, the celebration of the anniversary does not appear to have been general till the later 4th century. The earliest mention of the observance on Dec. 25th is in the Philocalian Calendar, representing Roman practice of the year 336. This date was probably chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti [nativity of the unconquerable sun] by the celebration of the birth of the 'Sun of Righteousness' and its observance in the West, seems to have spread from Rome" (1983 edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1983, p. 280, "Christmas").
Around 200, when Clement of Alexandria mentioned the speculations about Christ's birthday, he said nothing about a celebration on that day. He casually reported the various ideas extant at that time: "And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day . . ., the 25th day of Pachon . . . Furthermore, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi" ("The Stromata, or Miscellanies," The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986, p. 333).
Later, in 243, the official feast calendar of the time, De Pascha Computus, places the date of Christ's birth as March 28. Other dates suggested were April 2 and November 18. Meanwhile, in the East, January 6 was chosen, a date the Greeks had celebrated as the birth of the god Dionysus and the Egyptians as the birth of the god Osiris. Although pagans commonly celebrated the birthdays of their gods, in the Bible a birthday is never celebrated to the true God (who, of course, had no birth or day of origin).
December 25 popularized
In Rome December 25 was made popular by Pope Liberius in 354 and became the rule in the West in 435 when the first "Christ mass" was officiated by Pope Sixtus III. This coincided with the date of a celebration by the Romans to their primary god, the Sun, and to Mithras, a popular Persian sun god supposedly born on the same day. The Roman Catholic writer Mario Righetti candidly admits that, "to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, the Church of Rome found it convenient to institute the 25th of December as the feast of the birth of Christ to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honor of the 'Invincible Sun' Mithras, the conqueror of darkness" (Manual of Liturgical History, 1955, Vol. 2, p. 67).
Protestant historian Henry Chadwick sums up the controversy:
"Moreover, early in the fourth century there begins in the West (where first and by whom is not known) the celebration of December 25th, the birthday of the Sun-god at the winter solstice, as the date for the nativity of Christ. How easy it was for Christianity and solar religion to become entangled at the popular level is strikingly illustrated by a mid-fifth century sermon of Pope Leo the Great, rebuking his over-cautious flock for paying reverence to the Sun on the steps of St. Peter's before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward-facing basilica" (The Early Church, Penguin Books, London, 1967, p. 126).
If the date of Christ's birth had been celebrated in early Christianity, there would not have been the immense confusion of the dates and the ensuing controversy. Church historians of that time could have simply quoted the Bible for support or shown the examples of celebrations in the early centuries. But none did.
Simply speaking, the date chosen had nothing to do with biblical precedent and everything to do with ecclesiastical authority.
The Encyclopedia Americana makes this clear:
"In the fifth century, the Western Church ordered it [Christ's birth] to be observed forever on the day of the old Roman feast of the birth of Sol [the sun god], as no certain knowledge of the day of Christ's birth existed" (1944 edition, "Christmas").
What about the internal biblical evidence for the timing of Christ's birth? We can at least determine the probable season of His birth, and all scriptural indications argue against a December or other winter date.
When were shepherds in the fields?
Israeli meteorologists tracked December weather patterns for many years and concluded that the climate in Israel has been essentially constant for at least the last 2,000 years. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible states that, "broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climatic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today" (R.B.Y. Scott, Vol. 3, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1962, p. 625).
The temperature in the area of Bethlehem in December averages around 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) but can drop to well below freezing, especially at night. Describing the weather there, Sara Ruhin, chief of the Israeli weather service, noted in a 1990 press release that the area has three months of frost: December with 29 F. [minus 1.6 C.]; January with 30 F. [minus 1.1 C.] and February with 32 F. [0 C.].
Snow is common for two or three days in Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem in December and January. These were the winter months of increased precipitation in Christ's time, when the roads became practically unusable and people stayed mostly indoors.
This is important evidence to disprove a December date for Christ's birth. Note that, at the time of Christ's birth, the shepherds tended their flocks in the fields at night. "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields," wrote one Gospel writer, "keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them.
One commentary admits 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" (Adam Clarke's Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, note on Luke 2:8).
Another study source agrees: "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 [of Christ] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted it" (The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1971, note on Luke 2:4-7).
The census described by Luke
Other evidence arguing against a December birth of Jesus is the Roman census recorded by Luke. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered . . . 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 . . ., 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 . . ." (Luke 2:1-7).
The Roman rulers knew that taking a census in winter would have been impractical and unpopular. Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel. According to the normal dates for the census, this would probably be the season of Christ's birth.
One author states that this census "could hardly have been at that season [December 25], 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" ("Christmas at Bethlehem," Holy-Days and Holidays, Cunningham Geikie).
Luke's account of the census argues strongly against a December date for Christ's birth. For such an agrarian society, an autumn post-harvest census was much more likely.
The birth of John the Baptist
We can find still more biblical evidence against a December birth of Christ. John the Baptist was born six months before the birth of his cousin Jesus. Just before Mary miraculously conceived Jesus, the angel said to her: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren" (Luke 1:35-36).
If we can determine when John was born, then six months later we will come to the approximate date of Christ's birth. Can we find evidence indicating the time of John's birth?
The Bible mentions that Elizabeth conceived shortly after her husband, the priest Zacharias, had finished serving his course at the temple, called "the division of Abijah" (Luke 1:5, Luke 1:8). This was six months before Mary became pregnant with Jesus. Back in King David's day, the priestly course had been separated into 24 turns, or divisions (1 Chronicles 24:7-19). These began in the first month (1 Chronicles 27:2), March or April of our modern calendar, and, according to Talmudic and Qumran sources, rotated every week until they reached the end of the sixth month, when the cycle was repeated (beginning in September-October) until the end of the year.
During the festival season, all the priests would come to the temple to serve. Luke shows us that Zacharias's service was not during a feast season, since it was the division of Abijah that was in charge of the temple, and Zacharias was chosen to present the incense offering.
The division of Abijah was the eighth division, or shift, which normally would take place close to three months after the start of the cycle in March-April. This would place Elizabeth's conception around June or, if it was Zacharias's second yearly turn, around December.
The Bible does not specify which of the two shifts it was. Regardless, nine months after one of the two dates John the Baptist was born. This would place his birth in March or September. Six months later, Jesus' birth would have been around September or the following March. Whichever way it occurred, according to the time of the division of Abijah, a December birth for Christ is out of the question.
What was celebrated by the early Church?
We find no command in Scripture by Christ or His apostles to celebrate His birth. In the 60 years of Church history after Christ's death recorded in the New Testament, we find that, rather than celebrating His birth, the Church commemorated His death through the biblically mandated observance of the Passover.
Around 55 the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Christ's Church through the ages has faithfully remembered His sacrifice by observing the New Testament Passover. Neither Christ nor the apostles indicated, by word or example, that we should celebrate His birth. On the contrary, the Bible carefully conceals His exact birthday. The early Church never bothered to invent and celebrate such a feast but focused on the biblical celebration that foreshadowed and commemorated His sacrificial death for us.
Let us not fix on an artificially contrived date for Christ's birth at Christmas. If we follow Christ's instructions, we will annually commemorate His sacrifice: "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God . . . This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:15-16, Luke 22:19).