When was Jesus Christ of Nazareth born? We hear Christmas carols about the baby Jesus in the manger and the winter wonderland associated with His birth. If we look at our calendars, chances are they label Dec. 25 "Christmas Day." The birth of Jesus Christ is said to be the reason behind the season. But was He actually born on that day? It's not as clear and simple as our calendars would suggest.
Dec. 25 wasn't always considered Jesus' birth date. In a U.S. News and World Report article titled "In Search of Christmas," Joseph Sheler wrote: "Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus' birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement . . . picked November 18. Hippolytus . . . figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday . . . An anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus's birth on March 28" (Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58).
Although it's difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated Dec. 25 as Christmas Day, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century. This is an amazingly late date! Think about it—this means that Christmas, which most consider Jesus' birthday, wasn't observed by the Roman church until about 300 years after Christ's lifetime on earth!
Christmas can't be traced back to either the teachings or the practices of the earliest Christians. That sounds almost impossible, doesn't it? But it's true.
So why did the Roman church adopt Dec. 25 as the time to celebrate Jesus' birth? The reason His birthday is celebrated at that time of year is that religious leaders in that era wanted to give a pagan festival held on Dec. 25 a name change to make it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity!
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").
The reason for this confusion is not surprising. The Bible doesn't actually spell out the exact date of Jesus' birth. What's more, we find zero mentions of any celebrations being held honoring Christ's birthday by the early Church.
Jesus wasn't born in December
So what about Dec. 25? A careful Bible study shows that the middle of winter was clearly not the time Jesus was born. There are two big reasons why this can't be the time of Christ's birth.
First, we know that shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus' birth: "And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger . . . Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:7-8).
Shepherds would not have been "living out in the fields" during December, the weather being cold and miserable. According to Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, Luke's account "suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night" (p. 309).
Similarly, The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary 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. Though some dispute this, other reputable sources, such as The Companion Bible and Clarke's Commentary, make the same points about the shepherds not being outside in the open at night in late December.
So the first reason we know He wasn't born in December was that there were shepherds in the fields tending their flocks, something that wouldn't have been happening in the cold Judean winter.
Another reason we can conclude that Jesus wasn't born in December is that His parents traveled to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). No Roman ruler would've had a census taken in winter when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition.
Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating, since it would have been too difficult for Judean residents to travel to be counted. Travel back then wasn't as easy as it is today. We live in an age of heated vehicles and snowplowed roads, but back then the vast majority of people walked wherever they needed to go.
Based on these two facts alone we see that it's highly unlikely that the biblical account of Jesus' birth happened in the winter, let alone on the specific date of Dec. 25. More than being a simple incorrect guess, the Dec. 25 date was an attempt to synthesize pagan practices into Christian worship.
Jesus was born in the autumn of the year
This all begs the question: Just when was Jesus born?
We find important clues about the real time of His birth in what the Bible tells us about His cousin, John the Baptist.
Maybe you've read the Gospel of Luke and thought it was strange that the book begins not with the story of the conception of Jesus, but with the story of the conception of John the Baptist. There's a very good reason Luke was sure to tell us in very specific detail when John was conceived and born.
Luke tells us that John's mother Elizabeth was six months pregnant when Jesus was conceived: "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to . . . a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary . . ." (Luke 1:24-36).
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were cousins. From this passage we know that John was six months older than Jesus. So we can discover the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born.
Let's look at what the Bible says about the time of John's birth.
John's father Zacharias was a priest serving in the temple at Jerusalem in "the division of Abijah" (Luke 1:5). At this time, the temple priests in Jerusalem were divided into different "divisions" or "courses"—groups of priests that would take turns performing temple service during the year. This formed a yearly schedule for those serving at the temple.
Historians calculate that the course of Abijah, during which Zacharias served, was on duty around early to mid-June (see The Companion Bible, 1974, Appendix 179, p. 200).
During Zechariah's temple service, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived the cousin of Jesus—the child who would later become known as John the Baptist (Luke 1:23-24).
Considering that John's conception likely took place later in June, when Zechariah returned home after completing his service in the division of Abijah, adding nine months brings us to around late March as the most likely time for John's birth.
Adding another six months—the difference in ages between John and Jesus (Luke 1:35-36)—brings us to about late September as the likely time of Jesus' birth.
Does Christmas really honor Christ?
So if it can be shown from the Bible and some historical research that Jesus was born in the autumn of the year instead of December, does that mean we should keep Christmas in September instead of December?
No, it doesn't! Nowhere in the Bible do we find any instruction or command to celebrate Christ's birth. The fact that so many specific dates are given in the Bible about other important and less important events, while this exact date remains vague, is significant!
God didn't call for an annual celebration of Jesus' birth. God does give us other specific days to observe that honor Jesus Christ and the Father. For those who love God and His Son it's only natural to desire to worship Them. But it's far better to do this on the days and times God has set rather than to invent our own days and times!
As for the celebration of Christmas in December, remember what we read earlier about the Roman church adopting pagan practices into the Christian faith to create Christmas. Jesus wouldn't want us to celebrate pagan days to honor His birth.
How do we know what Jesus would or would not want us to do in this regard? God makes it very clear that He doesn't like pagan worship practices being used to honor Him. He told the ancient Israelites:
"When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:29-32, emphasis added).
Jesus' coming brought us many things
We should of course be grateful that Jesus Christ was born—it's a joyous event that brought us many things.
He showed us how to have a relationship with God the Father. We see His example of a perfect life, perfect sacrifice, and His resurrection back to spirit life. He showed us the way for man to have the opportunity to share His glory and live forever in the family of God. He came to form a new relationship with man that, through His blood, extends to all nations. He came to become our High Priest and intercede before God's throne for us.
Through Him we can have an authentic and fulfilling relationship with God based on truth and love. And if we truly love Him, we will show Him love the way He wants to be loved. To love God we should do what He asks: "But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him" (1 John 2:5; compare John 14:15, John 14:21; John 15:10).
By not obeying God we are missing out on a closer relationship with Him. Christmas traditions, nearly all of which can be traced back to pre-Christian false religions (as nearly any good encyclopedia or a quick Internet search will verify) obscure these wonderful truths and keep us from a stronger relationship with God.
Christ was not born on Dec. 25, in the dead of winter. Celebrating this date as His birthday doesn't change the fact. And God never gave us instruction to observe Christ's birth annually in any fashion.
Instead of holding to a wrong day and a wrong idea, isn't it time you focus on why He was born? And shouldn't you be observing and discovering the meaning of the days He Himself instituted and observed? Build a better relationship with God starting today!