It is the week between Christmas and New Years. We have begun to wrap up the traditions and practices associated with the biggest holiday of the calendar year and will shortly turn our thoughts to the next set of traditions and practices. These are, of course, associated with New Years Eve and Day.
Folks will be planning their parties and wracking their brains for resolutions as to what they will be doing different to be better people next year. As a tradition, setting personal goals for the next year makes sense and I like it.
Most of us resolve to lose the weight we gained between Halloween and Christmas, save more money, read more books, or some other thing to make ourselves better. “New Year, New You” will be the motto that dominates our thoughts and advertising in the coming days.
As much as I like the practice, there is a part of me that sort of sees it as ironic. It’s a little like Thanksgiving and Black Friday. One day we gather to thank God for everything He has provided. The next, we go out before the sun is up to buy stuff we think we need. The contrast between thanking God for His provision and watching internet videos of shoppers fighting over the last item in a “doorbuster” sale is stark and sad.
Though not as extreme, this is part of what I think of when my mind turns to New Years during the week between the two holidays.
You see, on Christmas, we celebrate God sending his Son to be born a man. Jesus’ specific reason for coming to live among us was because we are fallen people. We cannot, by our own strength and will, be perfect. We always stumble and revert to sin. Jesus lived a perfect life for us and took the punishment for our sins.
The Bible teaches that those who believe in and follow Him are forgiven and made new. Our souls are cleansed from sin, and God begins the process of making us more and more like Jesus in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We learn to obey God, love our neighbors, be charitable, and everything else that comes along with being Christlike.
That is why Jesus came. That is why Christmas is such a big deal. God makes us new. We accomplish that by faith and a relationship with Him.
New Years, on the other hand, is all about resolving to try harder to be better. That’s not bad. I think that God desires that we work hard to grow and mature.
The real trick is that we become like Jesus by following Jesus. Often, folks make the mistake that they become like Jesus by trying really hard to obey the rules as best we can.
In one case, it is effort and hard work. The other involves hard work, but the change comes about not because we try hard, but rather because God changes us completely from the inside out.
To summarize my traditional New Years themed columns: Aiming to be a better person is good and New Years is a fine time to start.
The best way to accomplish it is through Jesus, who is able to change us. To celebrate God’s gift of Christ and then try by our own efforts to be like Him is similar to celebrate owning a car to get around and then proceed to push it to work instead of driving it.
Jesus is the engine that makes becoming what God made us to be possible.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer and is shared here with their permission.
One of the most popular arguments you’ll encounter if you google “Why is Christmas December 25th” is that early Christians simply co-opted the Roman pagan holidays that also lands on December 25th. This post is going to dig into this idea, weigh the evidence, and offer some potential theories to explain the coinciding dates.
Didn’t Christianity steal the 25th/winter solstice from a handful of pagan holidays?
In fact, there are a few ancient pagan feasts that land around the 25th. Sometimes these days, like Saturnalia, are included with accusations that Christianity took pagan festival dates. The biggest problem with including something like Saturnalia is that it took place between December 17th and the 23rd. Though, at the time the first liturgical calendar was written placing Christmas on the 25th, the 23rd was the date of the winter solstice. There are theories that associate the observance of Saturnalia with the Solstice itself. Though, there is no ancient documentation that asserts this directly. Either way, I will not be digging into the event because Saturnalia ended several days before Christmas.
What Pagan Holiday was on December 25th?
The most substantial argument for the theory points to the co-opting of Natalis Sol Invictus specifically because of the 25th date and the “birth” aspect. Natalis Sol Invictus (birth of the invincible sun) was established as a state holiday in 274 AD honoring a pagan sun god by Emperor Aurelian.
In older scholarly works I encountered the idea that Aurelian’s mother was a priestess in the Col Invictus cult, though all of the references to this idea are immediately dismissed as likely fiction based on the utter lack of supporting evidence.
In terms of the December 25th date, the emperor made Sol Invictus the official religion of the emperors, built a temple in his honor, and ordered 30 public games be held every year. The winter solstice was chosen for Natalis Sol Invictus based on the belief that the days got longer after the solstice because Sol Invictus began to claim victory over the darkness. I’ve read that Romans burned candles at night in an effort to aid Sol Invictus in his fight. Though, I get the sense that later scholars argue this based on the Saturnalia practice of candle lighting during their festival rather than based on early sources.
What is Sol Invictus?
Sol Invictus was a relatively new religion in Rome at the time of it’s adoption by Aurelian. It was only introduced around 25 years earlier. This is important for later discussion of the theory. Though, the religion itself originated in Syria and is one of several examples of sun god worship from the area. It is possible that the Roman version is an amalgamation of the Syrian religions.
There is a school of thought that says that Sol Invictus and the Mithras mystery religion blended together early on. It is hard to find dates or solid sources for this assertion, as Mithraism did not produce any written works at all. Most of what we know about the religion is based on excavating temples devoted to the faith. Frankly, the lack of specifics has led to a lot of (sometimes wild) conjecture about Mithraism. I tend to look at its mention with a lot of skepticism as a result.
But don’t Christmas and Natalis Sol Invictus land on the Winter Solstice?
The answer isn’t as obvious as you might expect. They fall on the winter solstice on the calendar system we currently use. When Aurelian set the date for the celebration on the 25th, it was after the solstice.
At this point it is necessary to take a moment to address the weird issue with that pops up in relation to the Julian Calendar and how its inaccuracy skews the discussion somewhat.
The Julian Calendar, so named because it was proposed by Julius Caesar as a reform of the old Roman Calendar, took effect in 45 BC and remained the standard until it was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. The issue with the Julian Calendar is that the days are .0075 too long. This results in the calendar gaining a day every 128 years.
Today the Julian calendar is about 13 days ahead of the more commonly used Gregorian.
For our discussion the discrepancy is relevant because it resulted in the Winter Solstice changing dates on the calendar. By the time the Depositio Martirum was created to document the Christian liturgical calendar, the solstice was on the 23rd. When Natlis Sol Invictus was established as an official holiday, the solstice landed on the 24th.
Why did Aurelian establish the holiday and make Sol Invictus the emperor’s deity?
Much of the reasoning behind Aurelian’s move was to strengthen his position as emperor and encourage unity. Aurelian’s reign took place during a chaotic time in Roman history. Quite a few scholars agree that he was attempting to unify the empire through religious revival. His efforts were aimed at breathing new life into pagan religions, which were in sorry shape among the average citizen.
Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ, describes the integration of paganism into every facet of society as well as the plethora of temples, holidays, and associated community norms. He then goes on to say “Despite these appearances the ancient faith was diseased any the bottom and at the top. The deification of emperors revealed not how much the upper classes thought of their rulers, but how little they thought of their gods. Among educated men philosophy was whittling away belief even while patronizing it.” He goes on to describe how Greek and Roman poets mocked the gods in their work and the common men simply didn’t fear the them. This doesn’t mean that the population abandoned the temples or fortune tellers. Rather, much of the ritual observances were observed primarily out of superstition. Everyone consulted the signs and made sacrifices, but there was little in the way of devotion.
Elsewhere Durant connects the phenomena to the popularity of Judaism in the Roman world. Despite it being illegal to evangelize, the Jewish faith attracted large numbers of adherents and converts, which are typically known as “God fearers” in jewish writings and the Bible. Arguably, the same reasoning applies to Christianity which was growing rapidly despite it being illegal and actively persecuted.
By adding a new religion to the Roman Empire and filling it with enormous pomp and spectacle, Aurelian hoped to unify the nation under their pagan heritage. He was personally devoted to the Sol Invictus cult, which would explain his choice.
‘Did Christians adopt the day of Sol Invictus and why?
I’m going to go ahead and say that they did not adopt the pagan holiday. My reasoning will be laid out in the rest of this post. As to why they would do it, the theory that the church coopted the pagan festival did so because of it’s popularity among pagans. The theory itself doesn’t appear until the 1800s.
Most supporters of this position support some variant of the belief that Christianity and the story of the life of Jesus adopted other religious traditions and beliefs in order to create Christianity. The underlying assumption is that the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are fictional, late creations. Full disclosure: I don’t agree with this perspective. Archeology and ancient documentary evidence stand in strong contradiction to the idea that the church was invented from whole cloth after the 2nd century. It’s a nonsense position.
Another version of the theory is that Christians simply adopted Roman Pagan days in order to make it more palatable to pagans who Constantine forced to convert. It is also sometimes that the adoption of the holidays made it easier for pagans to convert.
Finally, there are scholars that suggest that Christians took the dates of pagan holidays for their feast days because it made it possible for them to observe their celebrations without raising the ire of their neighbors or the government.
Is there any evidence supporting the arguments that Christians adopted pagan days?
There are no actual documents, neither primary or secondary sources, asserting that any of the stuff preceding section took place. As best I can tell the idea that Christianity simply took on a pagan holiday began with the fact that the earliest mention of December 25th was in the codex that contained various calendars from the ancient Roman Empire. The codex, which is called the Chronograph, dates to around 354 AD and contains the Depositio Martirum. Because they have no earlier mentions of the date, the assumption is that the church started celebrating around that time.
In terms of arguments, this one is not particularly compelling for several reasons. The first is that the Chronograph, is also the first time we find Natalis Sol Invictus documented as being observed own December 25th. This means that the same argument could be applied in the reverse with exactly the same amount of evidence to support the conclusion.
The second reason the argument lacks strength is that it ignores the the extensive documentary evidence that the early church was very careful to avoid any associations with paganism or idolatry. Early Christians did not attend public games or any festivals.
The 1st century church struggled with whether or not believers could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, lest it be perceived as paganism. Many of the documented battles with heresies, beginning with the late 1 century on, deal with attempts to integrate the mystery religions into the church beliefs and practices.
The culture of the early church simply did not have the sort of attitude
that would allow them to change to make it easier for pagans to convert. To summarize: not only is there no evidence that they integrated paganism for popularity sake, the truth is quite the opposite. There is tons of evidence that they did not.
Any arguments about Constantine making Christianity the official religion or altering the holidays to attract pagans are utterly lacking in any basis in reality. Constantine converted and made the church legal. He did not force the faith on empire. Further, the early church fathers did not suddenly become different people with the Edict of Milan. There is also no evidence that he tampered with the liturgical calendar.
My thoughts on the coinciding dates:
Though this is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the matter, I will offer final points regarding the coinciding dates. I encountered some interesting arguments suggesting that it was possible that Aurelian actually adopted the December 25th date based on the growing popularity of Christianity.
The reasoning goes that Aurelian chose the date to blunt the impact of a significant Christian feast day. Durant described the decline of paganism in the ancient world as well as the growth of Judaism (which did not evangelize) and Christianity (which was illegal outright).
Christianity did not need to adopt paganism to attract followers, as it was attracting them despite everything that was done to stop it. Ancient paganism, on the other hand, was not growing. Aurelian sought to create a pagan revival to staunch the bleeding and prop up the old faiths specifically to create stability.
Further, adopting pagan practices was out of character for the early church, but it was quite common for ancient pagan religions to adopt pieces of other faiths. Though, as compelling as this argument is, it is inferred based on events rather than received from primary or secondary sources.
Further, we know that around 325 AD the Council of Nicaea adjusted the official calendar to recognize that the winter solstice was on the 23rd, not the 25th. This suggests that the solstice was already connected to the birth of Christ, but that they followed the calendar date rather than the solstice itself. However, at the time Jesus was born (in 1 BC probably) the winter solstice would have landed on the 25th. This would explain why the two were connected.
However, I have yet to see a good explanation as to why Sol Invictus lands on the 25th based on the winter solstice, which was a central point to the religion itself. Further, when it was declared a holiday the solstice was on the 24th, which suggests that there may have been another reason for selecting the date.
Finally, the earliest supportable mention of a specific date regarding the conception of Jesus being on March 25th (9 months from the December 25th birth date) is found in the work of Sextus Julian Africanus from around the late 2nd or early 3rd century. This places the potential origin of a December 25th birth date around 50 years before Sol Invictus arrived in Rome.
TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)
Assertions that Christians coopted December 25th because of the the Natalis Sol Invictus religious holiday are totally lacking and documentary evidence for support. There are no ancient sources that make any claim that even implies that this took place.
The argument used to support the claim is based on the fact that we first see December 25th as the date for Christmas in a codex from 354 AD. Due to the preceding silence on the date, the argument is made that this is when Christians adopted December 25th and that they did so because pagans already observed the date. This is a poor piece of reasoning.
The further flaw with the previous point is that codex from 354 is also the first time we encounter documentary evidence placing Natalis Sol Invictus on December 25th, meaning the weak argument could be applied in reverse.
There is documentary evidence supporting the idea that the church already recognized December 25th much earlier than the establishment of the holiday by Aurelian, or even the introduction of Sol Invictus to Rome.
Roman Paganism was rotting from top to bottom and had been for hundreds of years. Natalis Sol Invictus was established in an effort the revitalize paganism and reunite Rome. Christianity on the other hand was a growing faith, attracting pagans to its membership despite being an illegal faith. There was no reason for Christians to take on pagan trappings to attract converts. They were doing so already.
All of the documentary evidence from the early church points to a steadfast resistance to any integrating of the pagan and Christian faiths. To adopt a pagan holiday was utterly out of character for the church, but for ancient pagans to integrate beliefs or practices they encountered was very much the norm.
If you don’t like my points here, read the article and engage my arguments.
One minor issue that could potentially cause confusion in the discussion of the date that the church “officially” celebrates Christmas relates to the various branches of the church choosing different days for observing the birth of Jesus.
You might be thinking “What other days is Christmas celebrated?” The majority of the church in the west observes Christmas on December 25th.
A few years ago while visiting Bethlehem in January, I got to witness a huge celebration in the square outside the church of the Nativity. That is when I learned that the eastern part of the church celebrates on January 7th.
So, why don’t all Christians observe December 25th as Christmas?
The answer is tricky. Nearly the entire Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25th. The fact is that even those who celebrate on January 7th are also observing the December 25th date.
Some branches, mainly the Orthodox and Coptic churches, observe Christmas on January 7th because they choose to follow the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar.
The Julian Calendar was instituted in 45 BC under Julius Caesar and was the dating system for most of the western world until Pope Gregory XIII came along in 1582 and altered the old calendar by .0075 days.
The change made but Pope Gregory correct the inaccuracy of the old system’s calculation of a solar year. The tiny variation (10.8 minutes) results in the Julian calendar gaining a day every 128 years. Today, that drift has accumulated into a 13 day difference… Just enough to separate December 25th and January 7th.
I believe the reason for the continued use of different calendars is related to the eastern church not recognizing the authority of the pope. This means their church government deals with these decisions and simply never opted to take on the adjusted calendar.
Nearly the entire church continues to place Christmas on December 25th, but using different calendars, one of which is around 11 minutes longer than the other. All of the churches essentially agree on that day, but not the calendar.
Why do the Julian and Gregorian Calendars matter as it related to Christmas?
The obvious reason to deal with it is because it emphasizes that the difference in dates has to do with calendar issues, not disagreement on the liturgical calendar.
Apart from that, I am addressing this detail for a few other reasons:
It is kinda interesting.
It emphasizes the unity of thought on the matter of celebrating the nativity on December 25th throughout the majority of the church beginning very early on.
It is a peek at how weird and difficult calendar issues can be. It’s also a bit of foreshadowing of the complications that come into play when we start digging into ancient calendars. They’re messy and hard to synthesize.
In my next post we will be looking at the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year. After the solstice the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer. The solstice was important for several pagan religions in the ancient world. One ancient faith in particular, the worship of Sol Invictus, fits into the debate around discussion about why December 25th was chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth. That will be addressed in the next post. The 10.8 minute drift will also factor into that conversation.
Note: The Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 6th. January 6th is observed as the feast of the Epiphany for much of the church. Epiphany refers to different things in different church traditions. In the east it is associated with the baptism of Jesus. In the west it refers to the revelation that Jesus is God. Either way, in the 6th century a church council declared that the 12 days between December 25th and January 6th are the “12 Days of Christmas” with December 25th counting as the first day of Christmas. January 6th, in turn is the 12th day of Christmas. Within the Armenian Orthodox Church the celebration of Christmas and the baptism on Jesus are done at the same time.
If you google “Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th” you’ll get a slew of answers associated with a handful of popular theories. It is easy to just pick one and go with it, but this approach felt kind of uncomfortable to me.
Many hours later I have a rough answer, which is way too long. I also have way too much background knowledge on all of the popular theories. If I address them all here, the article will be excessively long and most people will give up long before they find the answer.
So, in future posts I will dig into the background information and various theories. This post is just going to look at the central answer. I’ll be approaching it in a question/answer format to make it the line of thinking clearer.
Short Answer: The earliest surviving ecclesiastical calendar was created in 336 AD. There are suggestions from the early church fathers as to why that date was selected. The earliest surviving text that points to the December 25th date is from early in the third century. There is a case to be made that the events of Jesus’ birth happened on or around that date. It’s pretty hard if not impossible to pin it down for sure… If you disagree, please read on and see how I justify what I’m saying.
When did the December 25th start being observed as the birthdate of Jesus?
The earliest record of Christians observing the birth of Jesus on December 25th is an ancient document called the Depositio Martirum. It is the oldest surviving liturgical calendar an assembled in in 336 AD, around 10 years after Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal through the Edict of Milan.
Up until that point there were some localized instances of amnesty being given to Christians by various officials in an effort to encourage them to join the army. Those found guilty of being Christians were punished and had all their property confiscated.
An end to the outlaw status of Christianity made it possible for Christian leaders to gather, collaborate, and discuss beliefs/practices with bishops from other parts of the empire. This was known as the council of Nicaea. They did not discuss the date at that time.
However, there is some supporting/compelling evidence that the date was not established at this time or in 336 when the calendar was assembled, but rather predates Nicaea and the DepositioMartirum, reaching back at least into the late second century. We’ll look at some of it here, but not most.
Isn’t December 25th just 9 months from March 25th, the day of the annunciation?
This theory is interesting, turns up prominently in history, and has quite a bit of support. The argument goes like this: The church observes the date of the angel announcing the immaculate conception to Mary on March 25th. 9 months after conception, he was born… on December 25th. This makes sense and fits the liturgical calendar.
In the late 4th century Augustine mentions that the church observed March 25th as the annunciation. This is a widely accepted explanation for the birth date and is plausible. Augustine is not a minor voice amongst the ancients. The 9-months-from-the-annunciation approach is going to come up a few times in this discussion because it’s prominent in ancient history.
However, there are issues with the approach. For starters, the natural follow up question is how the date of the annunciation was determined. Augustine asserts that March 25th is the date of the annunciation based on an ancient theory that prominent people died on the date of their conception. He cites March 25th as the date of the crucifixion, due to the conception/death thing. When he mentions December 25th, he describes it as based on “tradition” and doesn’t mention the 9 month gap.
Most modern folks will balk at the death/conception thing. However, there is another problem.
Based on the data we encounter in the gospels, Jesus was crucified and buried on the Friday of Passover on the 14th of Nissan (jewish calendar). There were only two instances of Passover Friday landing on the 14th of Nissan during Pilate’s time in office.
One was in 30 AD, which is too early to be correct. The other was April 3, 33 AD. This means that Augustine got the date for the crucifixion incorrect, which may be because he determined it using either the birth or conception date as a reference.
I would argue that it’s likely that Augustine’s March 25th date came either directly or indirectly from an earlier source. In the surviving works from the early church there is an instance of identifying March 25th as the conception date.
In the late 2nd/early 3rd century Sextus Julius Africanus set the day of of the incarnation on March 25th. From this, the December birth date is simply a 9 month difference.
This would mean that Augustine’s incorrect date for the crucifixion was a result of his using the death/conception theory to set the date of the crucifixion based on the date of conception.
Who was Sextus Julius Africanus and where did he get March 25th from?
Sextus Julius Africanus was born in160 AD in Jerusalem. He was well educated and traveled extensively in his youth. Later he served as ambassador to the city of Rome, where his extensive learning so impressed Emperor Alexander Severus that he appointed Africanus to build the library at Pantheon.
During his life Africanus wrote extensively, including a 5 volume history of the world, which is now lost. Fragments of that work have survived and his reputation as a brilliant scholar was voiced repeatedly by other authors whose works survive today.
Africanus’ 5 volume work, The Chronography, attempts to establish a timeline for world history from what he thought was the date of creation. He places the birth of Jesus on March 25th, though working this out from his writings is difficult because there are three calendar systems involved.
Based on the few surviving lines on the topic, it seems as though he places the annunciation on the first day of the 5501st year after the first day of creation. As I understand it, if we line that day up with the Jewish calendar and translate it to the Julian Calendar, we get March 25th.
It seems like this may be the earliest surviving reference to the annunciation landing on that day. Again, from that day we get December 25th as the birth date 9 months later.
Unfortunately, we lack the majority of Africanus’ work, so it’s hard to know the details of his argument. I think it is possible that he used a date he received through tradition and factored it into his calculation of the date of creation. This would mean he used a date (December or March 25th)
Either way, it seems as though this is the earliest mention of the March 25th date, which then places December 25th as the birthdate.
Could the March and December dates be older than Africanus’ work?
It is possible that Africanus got his dates from tradition handed down to him. Augustine, refers to the December 25th as a tradition along with a couple of other early church fathers. There are some records of the early church fathers debating the birth date, though none of them seem to put a great deal of importance on the matter.
There is also an interesting tidbit from the Council of Nicaea. As I said earlier this was the first time since the first century the leaders of the early church could gather.
They used the opportunity to take care of a large number of issues. Among others was adjusting the calendar. Because days in the Julian calendar were about 11 minutes off, it gained days periodically. By the time the council gathered in the early fourth century, the winter solstice had drifted off of December 25th. At that time it was on December 23rd. The council agreed to change it.
Why does this matter? If the council was already looking at December 25th as the birthdate of Jesus, then it would be associated with the winter solstice. Their concern over where the solar calendar landed in relation to the Julian Calendar makes sense if they associated the solstice with the birth of Jesus.
That would mean that the birth date and the solstice were potentially connected much earlier, perhaps as early as when the two actually landed on the same day a couple of centuries beforehand. Again, this is conjecture.
Wasn’t Jesus probably born in the spring?
Before digging into the Biblical accounts, it is necessary to look at this topic.
In commentaries and theological literature it is popular to assert that Jesus was born in the spring because shepherds would not have kept their flocks in the fields during the winter due to the cold weather. In fact, I found references (that I haven’t double checked yet) pointing out that ancient rabbis instructed shepherds to come in from the fields with their flocks at a certain point in the calendar year due to weather.
This means that a December date could not have been witnessed by the shepherds in Luke’s gospel. This is sort of correct, but also sort of incorrect.
In fact, most shepherds went in for the winter. The Talmud specifically says that sheep for temple services were to remain in the field year round.
The fields where the temple sheep were kept would have been in the area of Bethlehem. So, the shepherds who raised the lambs that were sacrificed in the temple would have been in the field in December and would have been perfect witnesses for the birth of the man who would be called the “Lamb of God.”
The point of this excerpt is to say that eliminating the December date based on the winter weather driving shepherds in for the season is not a legitimate argument. And to suggest that the December date would allow for a cool connection, of the sort we often see in the life of Jesus.
Is there anything in the Bible to support December 25th as the Birth Date?
This is an interesting question with a vague answer: Sort of.
If we look at the events of the gospels and line them up with events we can solidly date, we can approximate the birth date of Jesus. Part of what makes this tricky is that Matthew and Luke, who both relate the story of Jesus’ birth with more detail, emphasize different aspects of the events. This is further complicated by the fact that they don’t offer much in the way of time indicators.
The result is a couple of potential timelines based on the material we have available. This is very much in keeping with the ancient Jewish style of recording history and events. For those of us who are concerned more with timelines and pinning down dates, it can be a bit frustrating.
When talking about the birth of Jesus, one of the principle figures is King Herod the Great. The gospels record his death after the killing of the newborns in Bethlehem. We can identify the date of his passing based on the work of Josephus, an ancient jewish historian.
Josephus records an event that happened near the time of his passing in which an eclipse took place during the execution of several Jewish men who had reacted to rumors of the tyrant’s death by removing a Roman eagle that Herod had placed over the temple gates.
A total eclipse took place on January 10th, 1 BC; which most scholars agree was the date of the executions. Based on that solid date, it is possible to line up the events of Herod’s final months as recorded in the gospels and Josephus’ work and estimate the date of Herod’s death.
Applying the events in the gospel narrative to that time table offers a range of potential birthdates for Jesus. The final outcome allows for December 25th as a very plausible date for the nativity.
Another detail included in Luke’s gospel relates to Mary visiting Elizabeth during the fifth month of her pregnancy. The visit seems to be in response to the angel’s visiting Mary and likely took place not long after the annunciation.
The gospel of Luke also includes the account of Zachariah encountering an angel who announces Elizabeth’s pregnancy. At the time he was serving in the temple. Luke includes the specific priestly division that Zechariah belonged to: Abijah.
The talmud tells us that the Abijah division was serving in the temple when it was destroyed in 70 AD. Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the dates and ordering of the various divisions’ service based on details in the Talmud regarding the temple’s destruction, services, and information gleaned from Josephus’ works.
Service duty ran in 24 year cycles allowing each division of priests one opportunity to serve every 24 years. This means we can count backward in 24 year increments to determine when the Abijah division served and potentially date the announcement to Zechariah.
Based on this approach, Zechariah would have been serving in 3 BC. That gives us a couple potential dates for the conception of John the Baptist. One of those dates results in John being born on the Autumnal Equinox. Incidentally, ancient tradition holds that the Autumnal Equinox was the date of John’s birth.
Around 6 months later, Jesus would have been born on the winter solstice, or December 25th.
It’s important to note that these dates are estimates based on existing data. For brevity I have excluded a lot of detail… and it was still way too long. I will do my best to cover all the details in follow up posts on my blog in the coming days.
To Long Didn’t Read (TLDR)
If you don’t like my answers, go back and read it…
December 25th as the birth of Jesus first appears on a liturgical calendar in 336, but there’s evidence it was celebrated earlier than that.
The earliest written work we have that supports December 25th is a fragment from Sextus Julius Africanus’ work from early in the 3rd century. He attempted to calculate the date. Though it could have been an older traditional date he used for reference.
Using the Bible, the Talmud, and the work of Josephus we can make a case for December 25th.