It’s amazing how often people get caught up in the debate over when Jesus was actually born. Although we should never be dogmatic on this point, the biblical text does provide us with a number of clues. Continue reading . . .
It’s amazing how often people get caught up in the debate over when Jesus was actually born. Although we should never be dogmatic on this point, the biblical text does provide us with a number of clues. The Christmas story begins with a brief historical note in Luke 2:1-2. There we are told that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The emperor Caesar Augustus who issued this decree was in fact the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar, which is to say that his mother (Atia) was the daughter of Julia, Julius Caesar’s sister.
In order to answer our question we need to understand the nature of our calendar. In a.d. 525 Pope John I asked Dionysius, a Scythian monk, to prepare a standard calendar for the western church. Dionysius did so by starting with what he thought was the year of Christ’s birth. His study led him to conclude that Jesus was born @ 754 years after the founding of Rome. Thus the 754th year after the founding of the great city became year 1 in the Christian era and Jesus was assumed to have been born in the immediately preceding year on December 25th. Thus the time before this first January 1st is denoted BC or “Before Christ” and the time after is designated AD or “Anno Domini”, meaning “in the year of the Lord.”
However, we know from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was born just before King Herod the Great died. All agree that Herod died sometime between March 29 and April 11 in the year 4 b.c. Therefore, Jesus could not have been born later than March/April of 4 b.c. Other evidence suggests that Jesus was born sometime between October of 5 b.c. and March of 4 b.c.
But what about December 25? As you probably know, in the ancient world December 25 was celebrated by pagans as the feast of Saturn, the Sun god. Christians adopted this date as the birthday of Jesus as early as the late second century. The major objection to the December date is the fact that in Luke 2:8 the shepherds are said to be tending their flock during the night, in the open fields. It is argued that from November to March the flocks were kept indoors. But this is not as conclusive as you might think.
First, it could have been a mild winter. Judean winters were not typically severe. Second, the evidence is not conclusive that the sheep were in fact brought under cover during the winter months. It’s also been pointed out that the mere fact that sheep were present in Bethlehem proves it was winter time, for otherwise the sheep would have been in pasture in the wilderness. Finally, Jewish sources (the Mishnah, Shekalim vii.4) suggest that the sheep around Bethlehem were often kept outside year round, and that those sheep deemed worthy to be used during the Passover as sacrificial offerings were in the fields at least 30 days before the feast in February. Thus, winter weather by itself is not a decisive factor.
My point, then, is that a winter date for the birth of Jesus is entirely within the realm of possibility. It conceivably could have been any day during December of 5 b.c. or January of 4 b.c. We simply don’t know, and honestly, it doesn’t matter.
Another question that people ask is how the visit of the wise men in Matthew 2 fits in with story of Luke 2? You will recall that the wise men came to Jerusalem asking about the impending birth of the “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). Herod got wind of this and enlisted the wise men to go to Bethlehem, find this child, and then report back to him. The wise men went to Bethlehem and found the baby Jesus with his mother Mary in what Matthew calls a “house” (2:11). They then left town without reporting back to Herod.
Some have insisted that Matthew is describing events that occurred two years after the birth of Jesus, two years later than what we read about in Luke 2. They argue, for example, that Luke uses a word to describe Jesus (brephos; 2:12) that refers to a new-born baby whereas Matthew uses a word (pais; 2:11) that describes a child of at least a year old or more. But the fact is that we cannot make such a rigid distinction between these terms, as they are often used interchangeably (see Luke 1:59, 66, 76; 2:17, 27; John 16:21; Heb. 11:23 where pais is used of an infant; and 2 Tim. 3:15 where brephos is used of a young child).
They also point out that in Matthew’s story the wise men come to a “house”, not a stable or cave. But if you were Mary and Joseph wouldn’t you have immediately moved from a stable to a house as soon as one became available? And then it is argued that Herod had all the male children from two years old and down killed. Yes, but that was simply to make sure that he actually got Jesus. Remember that Herod had asked the wise men when they first saw the star in the east (2:7). The fact that he then had all killed who were two years or younger indicates that the star appeared to the Magi some two years before they arrived in Jerusalem. I could also reverse the argument. People say, “If Herod knew that Jesus was a newborn infant, why did he kill the two-year-olds?” I respond by asking, “If Herod knew that Jesus was a two-year-old, why did he kill the newborn infants?”
The bottom line is that the events of Matthew 2 and those of Luke 2 all could easily have occurred in the same time frame, within months of each other. However, it is true that our nativity scenes are probably inaccurate. Whereas the shepherds visited Jesus while he was still in the stable, the wise men visited him after he had been moved into a house.
The question, then, of when Jesus was born cannot be answered definitively. The mere fact that he was born is all that matters. Praise God, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).