Wednesday, 20 December 2017

When was Jesus born?

The ninth episode of the third season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow aired on 5 December 2017.  The Legends go back in time to investigate an ‘Anachronism’ in a Viking settlement in the New World. The Norsemen are worshipping ‘Beebo the God of War’ on 25 December. The Legends believe they have fixed the Anachronism and returned history to its true path only to find that the Vikings now honour Odin on the day…

Something was persistent about the date! 

Well, we all know 25 December wasn’t Beebo’s birthday nor Odin’s. 

We also know it wasn’t Jesus’ birthday either.  Believing so is just another Anachronism…

So, when was Jesus born? Is it possible after all this time to work it out?

Before that, let’s recap why 25 December could not possibly be his birthday… 

There are two main reasons:

The shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7-8).

Shepherds were not in the fields during December. The weather would not have been too cold to permit shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night. It was the custom then to withdraw the flocks from the open districts during October - November and house them for the winter.

Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4).

Such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition. The Roman authorities in imposing such a census for the gathering an unpopular ‘foreign’ tax would not have enforced the imperial decree (Luke 2:1) at the most inconvenient and inclement season of the year, by compelling the people to enrol themselves at their respective cities in December.

In such a case they would naturally choose a time of year that would cause the least friction with the lives of the Jewish people. This would most likely be in the autumn when the agricultural round of the year was complete, and the people generally free to take advantage of the opportunity of going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, the crowning Feast of the Jewish year.

Given these facts, how did 25 December become thought of as the day of Jesus’ birth?

The usual answer is that it came from the Roman church’s desire to bring pagans into Christianity.  Existing festivals and customs were ‘re-branded’ as Christian as a way of encouraging people to feel comfortable that the Church was not asking them to give up popular festivities. There is some dispute about the historical accuracy of this idea, though it is true that the Roman god Mithras had an important festival on 25 December and there is logic to the idea that the shortest day of the year would be a good time to acknowledge the re-birth of the unconquered sun - Sol Invictus. This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many popular customs associated with Christmas have origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity. These elements, including the Yule log and gift giving from Saturnalia, became syncretized into Christmas over the centuries.

So, there is a connection, though it may not be direct.

The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also often changed since the holiday's inception. At one extreme was a raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages. The tamer family-oriented and children-centred theme was introduced in a 19th-century transformation championed by Charles Dickens - The Man Who Invented Christmas and made a good fortune from it!

The celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion by Puritan inspired 'theocracies' such as Oliver Cromwell’s Government due to concerns that it was pagan inspired, immoral and unbiblical. Several Christian groups continue to reject or minimise the celebration of Christmas today.

If Jesus Christ was not born on December 25, does the Bible indicate when He was born?

Jesus birthday was not celebrated as a festival by the earliest Christians and later Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. For example, Clement picked 18 November and an anonymous document, believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, suggested 28 March.

The biblical accounts point to the autumn of the year as the most likely time of Jesus’ birth, based on what we can work out about the conception and birth of Jesus famous cousin, John the Baptist.

Since Elizabeth (John’s mother) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36), we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem Temple during the annual course of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Calculations indicate that his course of service corresponded to 13-19 June in the year 4 BC, considered to be the most likely year of Jesus birth.

Follow this story a bit further…

It was during this time of Temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and travelled home and Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23-24). Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John’s birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus) brings us to the end of September as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.

It sounds plausible.

The origin of this calculation is a slightly eccentric though very thorough Anglican theologian E.W. Bullinger and his detailed reasoning is set out in his Companion Bible, Appendix 179.

Ethelbert William Bullinger (1837– 913)
was an Anglican clergyman.
Picture via Wikipedia.

Bullinger, however, goes further. He gives us the date of 29 September 4 BC. He points out that it corresponds to the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles which he finds is of significance. 

And what is his view of 25 December?

Well, if you count back 280 days (the period of human gestation), it was the date of Jesus conception. So, there is a connection…

Bullinger saw this as fitting neatly with history and theology. For him, 25 December, was the day on which Jesus was ‘begotten of the Holy Ghost’. His birth took place on 29 September 29, in the year following. For him this made ‘beautifully clear’ the meaning of John 1:14, "The Word became flesh" (Matt. 1:18, 20) [i.e. was conceived] on 25 December 5 B.C. and after 280 days ‘dwelt [“tabernacled”] with us’ on 29 September 4 B.C.

25 December, says Bullinger, is ‘associated with our Lord and was set apart by the Apostolic Church to commemorate the… "Word becoming flesh" - and not, as we have for so long been led to suppose, the commemoration of a pagan festival.‘

He sees a strong argument in favour of the correctness of this view in the fact that the date of the Festival of Michael and All Angels has been from very early times 29 September. His reasoning is that it was the archangel Michael who announced the conception and later the birth of Jesus.

Do you think Bullinger is correct?

See also: Jesus: the most significant person in history?

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