Should we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th? In my last post, we looked at the evidence for the census described in Luke 2:1. As we continue looking at the birth narrative in Luke this Christmas season, the next section deals directly with Jesus’ birth:
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
This one simple line announces the birth of the most influential person that has ever lived. Authors have written more books about this simple Jewish carpenter from Nazareth than any other person in history. Christians celebrate His birth as the savior of the world.
Everyone wants to know more about this fascinating figure from history. In this respect, the Gospels can be frustratingly lacking in detail. Our modern society wants information and wants it instantly. My daughter watches movies in a completely different way than I do. She will have her phone out, and will be looking up information on the director, actors and plot while the movie is playing. She is having an immersive experience. This type of interaction is difficult with the Gospel accounts.
One of the key pieces of information everyone wants to know about Jesus is when He was born. We celebrate this date on December 25th. But was that really the date he was born on? The fact of the matter is that we simply don’t know. What is the probability that any one date is the correct one? My calculation is 365/1.
It is interesting to see where all of the theories stem from. Below are the arguments for some of the dates that have been suggested over the years.
Jewish Rabbinical Tradition
One of the more interesting arguments for the December 25th date comes from a Jewish Rabbinical tradition. It is commonly believed among Jewish Rabbi’s that the Old Testament prophets died on the same day they were conceived. Fixing the date of Jesus’ crucifixion at late March or Early April would then line up with a late December birth. Whether or not this is accurate, there seems to be a thread that runs through early Christian writing showing that Christian leaders took the argument seriously.
A Shepherds in the Fields
Luke states later in his Gospel that 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Many Scholars believe this to be a clue as to the time of year that Jesus was born. Shepherds typically would not have their flocks out in the fields during the winter months. They would instead be in the fields in the spring or fall.
Paul L. Maier points out in his book The Fullness of Time an interesting counterpoint to this argument. Maier points to a passage in the Jewish Mishnah showing that some sheep pastured near Bethlehem were used in Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. This would necessitate them being in the fields year-round. Current shepherds in the region still keep their sheep in the fields most of the winter season.
Early Christians Borrowed the Roman Celebration of Saturnalia
Romans celebrated their Saturnalia festival in late December each year. Scholars widely accept the theory that early Christians replaced this festival with Jesus’ birth. A second Roman festival honored the “Unconquerable Sun” on December 25th. These would have been a natural substitution for Christians trying to move a culture away from a pagan practice into a Christian one.
Lenny Esposito does a thorough investigation of this Roman Holiday in two blog posts. He concludes that the dates for the festivals do not line up with the December 25th date. In fact, it appears that it is in fact the pagans that stole the date from the Christians. Lenny has done some incredible research in these articles. I highly recommend reading them.
So should we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th? good arguments can be made for the December 25th dating of Jesus’ birth. there is no conclusive evidence for the fact however. Does this dampen my celebration of Christmas on the date we observe? Absolutely not! Why am i not bothered that even if it turns out that the date were appropriated from a pagan holiday? Because this is not what I celebrate at Christmas. I am not celebrating the Unconquered Sun. I am celebrating the Unconquered SON. And may you and your family enjoy the Christmas season as well!
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