Who Jesus Ain’t: Jesus Ain’t Born on Dec. 25th

*Why do we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th? Does Hollywood portray the wise men correctly?*

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It’s easy to remember (approximately) how long ago Jesus of Nazareth was born (and when we’re talking about ancient history, mostly everything is “approximate”) because our western dating system is centered around his birth.  Thus, just over 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels to give us the birth narratives of Jesus, don’t tell us the date Jesus was born, but they do tell us Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great were in power.  Ancient historians often “date” the events they’re writing about by telling who was in power.  Most scholars put Jesus’ birth somewhere between 7 BC and 4 BC.  A sixth-century monk named Dionysius Exiguus developed our modern calendar, but it appears he miscalculated the birth of Jesus by at least 4 years.  Further, as far as the actual day and month of Jesus’ birth, no one knows.  As stated above, the Bible doesn’t say.

The earliest known day Christians celebrated Christmas was January 6th, and some churches in the east still do so on this date.  Celebrating on December 25th appears, as some have theorized, to have started during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine over 300 years after Jesus’ birth.  The day was likely the pagan “holiday” of Saturnalia and instead of simply banning these ceremonies, Constantine, the first emperor to become Christian, may have changed it to a Christian celebration to help ease his empire from paganism to Christianity.

A similar theory points out that the winter solstice is very close to December 25th.  Another similar theory says December 25th is when Emperor Aurelian dedicated his temple to the god Sol Invictus; Constantine, before becoming Christian, had worshipped Sol Invictus and, thus, picked this date to instead celebrate Christmas.

On the other hand, Dr. Gregg Allison of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary doesn’t think these theories are plausible.  He says the early church in the 3rd and 4th Centuries were certainly not open to pagan practices.  In fact, at that time the church “denounced any association with paganism and pagan festivals.”  Allison goes on to explain that the early church believed Jesus was conceived on the same day he was crucified (Why?  No one knows for certain anymore), which would’ve been the 14th or 15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar.  That would be March 25th on the Roman calendar for Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit, and then nine months later is December 25th.

(Watch a short video of this explanation by Allison here.)

(Sources: Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels by Mark L. Strauss; The Case For the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel; Southern Seminary Magazine, Spring 2012, Volume 80, Number 2)

 

And what about the 3 wise men?

How many wise men visited the newborn Jesus on the first Christmas?  Was it three?  Or was it not three wise men but three kings?

The Gospel of Matthew only says that the magi — non-Jewish wise men “from the east” — arrived “after Jesus was born.”  Most likely, the magi were pagan priests who studied astrology.  No mention of any kings visiting the young Jesus is recorded in the New Testament.

King Herod, learning from the magi of the birth of this new king of the Jews, asked the magi to inform him when they found the new king so he could also honor him, though Herod secretly planned to kill him.  The Jewish chief priests and scribes told the magi that, according to scripture, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so it logically follows that the magi would go there next.  Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi returned to their home country “by another way.”

After learning what the magi had done, Herod orders all boys ages two and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed.  Earlier, Herod had questioned the magi about the “exact time” when the star that had brought them searching for the new king of the Jews had appeared.  So, when the magi arrived, it’s possible Jesus was around two-years-old.  When the magi find him, Jesus is described as a “child,” which could be a baby or an older child.  Keep in mind, the magi didn’t have modern transportation and we don’t know from how far away they traveled.

maps-palestine-33AD

Click for a bigger view…

After Jesus’ birth, did Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem for an extended time (possibly with family)?  Or did Herod simply order all boys ages two and younger to be killed because he was a paranoid, bloodthirsty maniac?  (Which history definitely supports; Herod was so protective of his power that he killed his own wife, some of his sons, and many rabbis.  He was not even technically a Jew, and he was placed in power by the Romans.)  How much time lapsed between when the magi first saw the star and they arrived in Bethlehem?

Also, Matthew doesn’t report how many magi came.  The tradition of three magi comes from the three types of gifts brought by them: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Further, nothing in the Gospels explicitly states Jesus was born during the day or night.

I’ll have to say, the most plain, straightforward reading of the account in Matthew supports the traditional interpretation that the magi arrived in Bethlehem, if not at the exact time of Jesus’ birth, sometime near the time of his birth.  The fact that they followed a star  implies they did arrive at night.  Further, we’re also told an angel appeared to the shepherds as they were watching their flocks by night, which further implies Jesus was born at night.

But it’s a good exercise to read the scripture closely and consider these possibilities.  We grow so used to hearing or seeing many of the narratives in the Bible portrayed certain ways — especially the most popular stories of the Bible, and definitely something as widely known and adapted as the Christmas story — it’s good for us take a close look at scripture, see what it truly says, and imagine the story for ourselves.  Doing so will bring to life passages that we may have taken for granted for a long time, and it may lead us to discovering something new.

(Read more articles about who Jesus ain’t here, here, and here.)

NEXT: What did Joseph & Mary do with all that gold from the magi?  Did Jesus’ family believe in him?

Available in paperback for $9.00 (or less) and Kindle version for $3.50 (or less) on Amazon.

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19 thoughts on “Who Jesus Ain’t: Jesus Ain’t Born on Dec. 25th

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  7. 1. Do you have any resources and 2. What is the deal with Jesus being born in a manger or a cave? I heard before he was probably born in a cave.

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  11. Yeah, the magi being Jews from the Diaspora seemed like a stretch to me as well, though it would explain their search in some ways, such as the prophecy in Numbers 24 about “a star coming from Jacob.”

    The Star-Ledger about 12 or 13 years ago in its mandatory Christmas article quoted a scholar who suggested that “magi” may have been a corruption of “magoi,” and that the wise men actually may have been wealthy traveling merchants, hence the gold, myrrh and frankincense.

    Of course the MSS we have say “magi” and not “magoi,” but these things can always be fun to think about.

  12. Forgot to add: I’m curious to hear what you think of the Massacre of the Innocents. While historians have little reason to doubt Herod was capable of such barbarity, there is not one account other than the gospel of Matthew of the massacre. Even Josephus, who was no fan of Herod’s, makes no mention of it in his account of Herod and his atrocities.

    The story seems an intractable part of the Christmas narrative, that the coming of the Christ child was so momentous that it drove the keepers of the established order into a murderous frenzy to keep things as they were. What value does the story have for us today if it is a fiction? How does it affect our view of the rest of Matthew’s account, or for that matter of the gospels as a whole?

    • Considering the nature of ancient history, I don’t find it troubling at all, and considering Herod’s great works and great atrocities, the death of what may have been just a handful of children in a small, relatively unknown area, I don’t think it’s surprising that the few ancient historians we know of didn’t write about it or didn’t know about it. There has also been many other examples of things reported in the Bible that had no evidence outside of the Bible, only to have archeological evidence of those things found later. The existence of Pontius Pilate, for example.

      • Sure, you (rhetorical) can argue that the story is historical, but the argument is fairly weak. Herod’s barbarity was well known, and Josephus generally passed up no chance to let everyone know what a grade-A thug Herod was — and yet he omits any reference to the Massacre of Innocents.

        It may be that Bethlehem was such a no-account place that no one but the gospel writers through to record it, just as Pilate was such a low-level administrator that no records of his service to the Empire survive aside from what was it, the aqueduct?

        But historians generally regard the story as a fiction included in Matthew’s gospel to draw parallels between Jesus and Moses; and Luke, who of the three synoptic writers has the greatest respect among secular historians, doesn’t mention the massacre at all.

        That’s not to say that the incident is fictitious. But what does it mean for us and for the Christmas story if it is?

      • Hey Dave,

        I believe there is good reason to accept the New Testament as a reliable historical record, so where a skeptic may look at Herod’s killing of the children and think, “Why should I believe this?”, I look at it and think, “Why shouldn’t I believe this?”

        It’s hard to prove anything from an absence of information, so the event not being recorded elsewhere in the few ancient records we have doesn’t trouble me. Of course, it would be nice to have a complementary record so we wouldn’t have to address these issues to skeptics (though I don’t think it would satisfy most skeptics anyway), but it IS recorded somewhere: The New Testament.

        As we both pointed out, it’s plausible that the event may have garnered so little attention, no one else knew of it to record it or no one else cared enough to record it.

        To address your final question: if Herod’s killing of the children was left out of Matthew, I don’t believe it would have any significant impact on the Christmas story or Jesus’ life and work, so perhaps this is why the other Gospel writers didn’t see the need to report it. Each Gospel writer selected events from Jesus’ life to illustrate the themes and theology they’re focusing on. The Gospels are not exhaustive biographies, but focus on the mission and identity of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, they all report Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the key event in his life. Matthew is definitely the most “Jewish” Gospel, and you’re probably right that Matthew included the episode to draw a connection between Jesus and Moses since Matthew draws similar Jewish/Old Testament connections elsewhere in his Gospel.

        On the other hand, if the episode were simply invented by Matthew, this would be troubling. If he simply made up things to add into Jesus’ story, how can we trust anything he writes? Coming from a skeptical background myself, I haven’t come across any strong reasons to relinquish my trust in the biblical record.

        Side note (sort of): Pilate is also mentioned (concerning the killing of Jesus) by Josephus and the ancient Roman historian Tacitus.

  13. Interesting point to consider: Dec. 25 may not be so unlikely after all. As you say, the Dec. 25/Jan. 6 connection goes back nearly two millennia, well before Constantine. It’s possible that the day comes to Christianity from Mithraism or some other pagan religion via syncretism — but it’s also possible that Mithraism and some of the other pagan religions acquired their holy dates from Christianity.

    One of the common points against the traditional date is that the season would have been wrong for shepherds to tend their flocks at night, but as Luke places the shepherd scene outside Bethlehem, it is quite possible the sheep he was talking about were connected to the Temple worship and sacrifice system, and thus this pasturing arrangement would have been quite appropriate.

    As to the magi, I recall reading a bit of speculation once that the magi may actually have been Jews from the Babylonian diaspora. The Bible never says if they were Gentiles or not.

    • Hey Dave, yeah, I’ve read a few things where they look at the shepherds/sheep as a way to figure out the season, but as you stated, it’s not conclusive. From what I’ve read, the word magi, usually translated wise men, refers to non-Jewish pagan priests of some sort. So, I haven’t come across anything saying they may be Jews of the diaspora.

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