In late December of each year, thousands of tourists flock into the small town of Bethlehem in the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem to participate in annual Christmas celebrations there. Some make the 6-mile journey from Jerusalem on foot. Upon arrival, they crowd with silent awe into the paved expanse of Manger Square in front of the revered Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.
Inevitably, some of these tourists arrive in Israel unprepared. They have not thoroughly studied their guidebooks. As they step off their plane, they receive a real shock! November through early March is “winter” in Israel! The weather gets cold, especially at night. Often it rains — or even snows! Yet many arrive in Israel carrying luggage bulging with summer attire, reasoning that it is always hot and arid in the Middle East. So they hurriedly purchase coats and sweaters in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for their pilgrimage down to Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, most of those who stand in Manger Square on December 25 each year — prepared and unprepared alike — fail to perceive the message being proclaimed by the very weather around them! Notice this plain testimony of your Bible: On the day of Jesus’ birth “there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).
The shepherds were living out in the open fields, tending their flock through the night. The point? Ask any biblical scholar, or any modern Israeli: This never could have occurred in Judea in the month of December — nor even in November, or late October for that matter!
In ancient times as today, shepherds brought their flocks in from the fields and penned them in shelters not later than the middle of October! This was necessary to protect them from the cold, rainy season that usually followed that date. (The Bible itself makes it clear that winter in Palestine is a rainy season; see Ezra 10:9, 13; Song of Solomon 2:11.)
Yet Luke 2:8 tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the shepherds were yet abiding in the fields — by night, at that! They had not yet brought their flocks home to the sheepfolds. Clearly the cold, rainy season had not yet commenced.
Thus, on the basis of Luke’s testimony alone, we see that Jesus could have been born no later than mid-October — when the weather is still pleasant at Bethlehem. A December 25 nativity is too late!
Additional biblical evidence lends further support to the foregoing conclusion. Luke 1:24-38 informs us that the virgin Mary miraculously became pregnant with Jesus when her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant with a child who would later be known as John the Baptist. Jesus, then, would have been born six months after John.
If we could know the time of John’s birth, we could then simply add six months and know the time of Jesus’ birth. Does the Bible reveal the general time of John’s birth?
Notice: Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias was a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. Luke 1:5 records that Zacharias was “of the course of Abia [in Hebrew, Abijah].”
In the days of King David of ancient Israel (10th century B.C.), the number of priests had so increased that they had to be divided into 24 courses or shifts, which would take turns in performing the priestly duties (I Chron. 24). Each course served one week at a time, beginning and ending on a weekly Sabbath day (II Chron. 23:8). The course of Abijah was the eighth course or shift in the rotation (I Chron. 24:10).
The Talmud (collection of Jewish civil and religious laws and commentaries) records that the first course performed its duties in the first week of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. This month (called Abib or Nisan) begins about the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
The second course worked the second week. The third week being the annual festival season of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread — found all 24 courses serving together, sharing the heavy duties of that special time. The third shift then took its turn during the fourth week of the year.
Projecting forward, the eighth course — the course of Abijah, in which Zacharias served — worked the ninth week of the year. But Zacharias’ course then stayed on at the Temple to serve the 10th week also — the week of the annual Pentecost festival — along with all the other courses.
It was during that two-week period of work — near the end of spring — that the announcement by the archangel Gabriel came to Zacharias regarding his wife’s imminent conception (Luke 1:8-20). When his two weeks’ service was completed, Zacharias and Elizabeth went back to their home and Elizabeth conceived (verses 23-24) sometime late in June or early July.
The rest is a matter of biology and arithmetic. Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy would have been in December. She would have given birth three months later — in late March or early April of the following year. Six months after that, Jesus would have been born, in late September or early October — before the sheep were brought in from the fields, as we have seen! Clearly, Jesus was not born in December.
Late September or early October was also the time of year that taxes were customarily paid — in the fall, at the end of the harvest. Joseph and Mary, it will be remembered, had journeyed to Bethlehem to be taxed (Luke 2:3-5).
The fact that there was “no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) also suggests the time of the autumn harvest, because the annual fall festivals occurring at that time attracted multitudes of Jews to Jerusalem and nearby towns, filling all available accommodations.
Jesus Born “Before Christ”?
An even more frequent question received from readers concerns the year of Jesus’ birth. Few subjects are fraught with so much confusion and misunderstanding. Opinions vary widely.
This immediately brings up a preliminary question: How could Jesus have been born in a year “B.C.” — Before Christ — as most authorities suggest? It would seem to be a contradiction in terms!
First, understand that the manner of reckoning time according to B.C. and A.D. was devised hundreds of years after Jesus’ birth. It was invented in the sixth century A.D. by a monk in Italy named Dionysius Exiguus. This Dionysius misunderstood the time of the reign of Herod the Great, king of Judea. So he reckoned the birth of Jesus to have occurred in December of the year 753 AUC (ab urbe condita — “from the foundation of the city [of Rome]”). In past ages, time was often reckoned using the founding of Rome as the starting point for counting.
Thus, in Dionysius’ new system, January 1, 754 AUC, became January 1, A.D. 1 (anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”). That is, he assumed Jesus was born on December 25, just a week before January 1, A.D. 1.
Later, it was discovered that Dionysius had been incorrect in his reckoning of the reign of Herod and hence of the commencement of the Christian era. Jesus had been born some years earlier than Dionysius had thought. But by then, the new chronology was in general use and it was too late to change! It has continued in use throughout most of the world to the present day.
With that understanding, we can now proceed to determine the year of Jesus’ birth. There are several ways of doing so.
Notice, first, this ancient prophecy from the book of Daniel:
“Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks…” (Dan. 9:25).
The commandment or decree to restore and build Jerusalem was made in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes I, king of ancient Persia (see Ezra 7:8) — according to the autumn-to-autumn reckoning of the Jews, in 457 B.C. The archangel Gabriel told Daniel that there would be a total of 69 prophetic weeks from that time until the public appearance of the Messiah:
- Sixty-nine weeks is equivalent to 483 days (69 x 7).
- A day of prophetic fulfillment is a year in actual time (Num. 14:34; Ezek. 4:6).
- So 483 prophetic days (69 prophetic weeks) is 483 years.
Simple arithmetic now takes over. Four-hundred-eighty-three years from 457 B.C. (the year of the decree) brings us to A.D. 27 — the year when Jesus, the Messiah, began his public ministry. (In calculating this, be aware that you must add 1 to compensate for the fact that there is no year zero.)
Now consider further: It is generally understood that Jesus entered upon his ministry in the autumn of the year, immediately after his baptism. (His ministry lasted 3½ years, ending in the spring, at Passover time.) In Luke 3:23 we learn that Jesus was “about thirty years of age” when he began his ministry. If he was about 30 years old in the autumn of A.D. 27, then he must have been born in the end of summer or early autumn, and in 4 B.C.! (Remember, there is no year zero.)
It thus stands clearly revealed from Daniel’s prophecy that Jesus was born in 4 B.C.. But there is yet further proof!
Students of the Bible recognize that Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:15, 19). When did Herod die?
The first century A.D. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews (book XVII, chapter vi), tells of an eclipse of the moon late in Herod’s reign. Tables in the authoritative Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East by Kudlek and Mickler reveal that the lunar eclipse in question occurred on March 13, 4 B.C.
Continuing with Josephus’ account, we discover that sometime after the eclipse, Herod — afflicted with a painful and loathsome disease — went beyond the river Jordan to bathe himself in hot springs there. The cures he undertook were unsuccessful. His condition worsened and he returned to Jericho. There, in a wild rage, he plotted the deaths of many prominent Jews. He also ordered his own son, Antipater, slain. All these events required some months.
Josephus further reveals (chapter ix) that Herod’s death occurred sometime before a spring Passover. This Passover would have been 13 months after the eclipse, or the Passover of April, 3 B.C. This confirms our previously calculated 4 B.C. birthdate for Jesus.
Further corroborating this, Josephus also records (XVII, viii, 1) that at his death, Herod had reigned 37 years since he had been declared king by the Romans. That had occurred in 40 B.C., a fact that Dionysius overlooked. Herod’s death therefore took place late in 4 B.C. — shortly after Jesus’ birth in the early autumn of 4 B.C.
This is the only date that is consistent with all the provable facts!
The “Star” of Bethlehem
A word is necessary at this point about the celebrated “Star of Bethlehem” (Matt. 2) that guided the wise men (Greek, Magi) across the deserts of the East to Bethlehem. Scholars have tried to pinpoint the date of Jesus’ birth by means of astronomical calculations related to the appearance of this mysterious “star.” For centuries, theologians and astronomers have puzzled over and debated this perplexing question.
Dozens of theories exist purporting to explain what this “star” actually was and when it appeared. Some hold it was a comet. Others postulate a nova (exploding star). Still others say it was a meteor, or a planet, or a conjunction of two or more planets. (A conjunction takes place when planets appear, from our earthly viewpoint, to briefly become a single bright object as their paths cross the sky.) Dates for proposed celestial phenomena usually range from 7 B.C. to 2 B.C.
But the heart and core of the star controversy goes beyond matters of astronomy. To one who believes that the Bible is the Word of God and is to be taken at face value, the account of the star in Matthew’s gospel can have only one explanation. It was clearly and incontrovertibly a miracle, of supernatural, not natural origin!
What natural phenomenon in the heavens — whether comet, meteor, exploding star or planet — could “go before” the Magi and “stand over” a specific house to precisely pinpoint it (Matt. 2:9-11)? And if it was attributable to a non-miraculous agency, how can we account that it appeared and reappeared to the Magi and apparently went generally unnoticed by others?
Natural explanations are sheer astronomical foolishness! If the biblical account cannot be accepted in all its details, why should anyone believe it has any merit at all?
The star was clearly a special miracle of God, of divine origin, defying all the proposed natural explanations of liberal scholarship. It is quite possible that the Star of Bethlehem was simply an angel sent to lead the Magi to Jesus, since the Bible often symbolically uses stars to signify angels (Job 38:7; Jude 13; Rev. 1:20; 9:1; 12:4; et al.).
In Jesus’ Name?
We have seen the proof that Jesus was born in the early autumn, not in the winter. But, some will ask, what difference does it make? Is it not the thought that counts? What is wrong with celebrating a day — any day — in honor of Jesus’ birth?
Each December, articles inevitably appear in newspapers and magazines pointing out the ancient origins of today’s Christmas customs. All authorities agree that the customs surrounding Christmas — the Christmas tree, mistletoe, holly wreaths, yule logs, stockings on the hearth, exchanging gifts and so on — were practiced in connection with pagan religious celebrations centuries before the birth of Jesus. None are of Christian origin!
Anciently, December 25 was the date of the pagan Roman Brumalia, the final day of the popular weeklong Saturnalia celebration, celebrated in honor of the god Saturn. It was the day of the “invincible sun” — a winter solstice festival.
“Christmas” was not among the earliest festivals of the New Testament Church. It was not until A.D. 351 that Pope Julius I decreed December 25 to be Christmas (“Christ-Mass”) Day. He sought to overshadow the popular Roman Brumalia by imparting “Christian” connotations to the day.
But again, some will ask: What is so wrong with borrowing some of those early customs and using them to honor Jesus? May we not continue to celebrate December 25, as long as we do it in Jesus’ name?
Can pagan practices be “Christianized” in this way?
More than 34 centuries ago, the rebellious children of Israel fashioned a pagan idol — a golden calf in the wilderness (Ex. 32). It was the god Apis, the sacred Egyptian bull deity worshiped at Memphis on the Nile. Aaron declared that the pagan, Egyptian rites by which the Israelites worshiped the calf were “a feast to the Lord” (verse 5).
Did God feel honored? Did he approve of their using pagan customs to worship him?
Absolutely not! It was a great sin (verse 21), and 3,000 paid with their lives (verse 28)! They had deceived themselves that what they were doing was right.
We are commanded not to seek to worship God with customs borrowed from other religions (Deut. 12:29-32). “Learn not the way of the heathen,” God declares (Jer. 10:2).
True Christians never meet paganism half way. Pagan worship — whether “in Jesus’ name” or not — remains pagan worship! Christianity mixed with paganism is not Christianity at all. Righteousness has no fellowship with unrighteousness (II Cor. 6:14). God simply will not accept that type of false “worship.”
If God had wanted us to observe Christ’s birthday, he would have given us the exact date and specific instructions on how to observe it. But he has not! Christmas is an invention of man, issuing from pagan worship.
The Plain Truth, 1985