Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When Was Jesus Born?

June is identified as the month when sheep would be taken into agricultural fields to graze on stubble following the wheat harvest. Such fields were usually enclosed with a low stone wall that served as an extra-large sheepfold for warm summer nights. Shepherds would be on guard that none escaped and that no predators or thieves got in.

In cold months like late December the sheep were often kept in the fold at home in a cave beneath or adjacent to the owner’s house; there they fed on hay or grain stored by the owner for those lean months, and the sheep stayed warmer in the shelter of the home sheepfold. In the spring and fall they grazed in the wilderness, wherever the shepherd could find something growing wild. Assuming the accuracy of the biblical account, that the Bethlehem shepherds had taken their flocks into the agricultural fields to eat stubble (Luke 2:8), Jesus was more likely born after the wheat harvest on a balmy summer night in June than in cold, barren December.

Origin of Alexandria
There is in the written record before 200 AD no suggestion of possible dates for Jesus’ birth. Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd century mocked Roman’s celebrations of birthdays as a thoroughly pagan practice suggesting that Christians for 200 years may have shied away from speculation about a birth anniversary for Jesus seeing it as a violation of their religious sensibilities.

Clement of Alexandria
Around 200 AD, however, in the earliest known writings that mention Jesus’ possible birthday, Clement of Alexandria mentions five dates. Adjusting to our modern calendar, Clement says that different Christian groups selected different dates, those being March 21, April 15, April 20, April 21, and May 20. He made no mention of December 25. (Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145.) Note that only May 20 is close to June, the time when shepherds would have been allowed to graze their sheep in the stubble of agricultural fields.

By the 4th century two dates emerged and they are still celebrated worldwide today. Most Christian churches commemorate the birth of Jesus on December 25. Some groups, typically in the “east,” celebrate on January 6. (A few celebrate on January 7 or 19, depending on the calendars they use and how they calculate the date moving from one calendar to another.)

The most popular theory for December 25, touted by lay persons and scholars alike, is that Christians borrowed the timeframe, if not the date, of the popular pagan Saturnalia festival in late December. Paired with this “borrowing” is the Roman festival of the birth of Sol Invictus, The Unconquered Sun, on December 25. The problem with this theory, though it sounds oh-so convincing, is that no Christian writings from the time support it. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that this theory caught on. But if this theory is wrong, why did the early church choose December 25?

Contrary to popular opinion, December 25 was not chosen because it was already a pagan holiday. It was chosen with a theological purpose in mind. Because Jesus’ date of crucifixion was established on March 25, the early church hypothesized that that same date marked the day of his conception by the Holy Spirit. Conceived on March 25 and crucified on March 25, conceived on the date on which he was destined to die, they added exactly 9 months to mark December 25 as his birthday. Most people don’t know that. This is more than a theory. It is attested to by Tertullian, Augustine, and several others.

Augustine of Hippo
 “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” (Augustine, Sermon 202. Around 400 AD)

The “eastern” tradition of Jesus’ birth on January 6 was calculated the same way as December 25, but they began with April 6 as the date of both Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. They used the local Greek calendar month of Artemisios instead of the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan, thus the discrepancy between December 25 and January 6 that exists to this day.

I draw two conclusions from all of this:

1. No one knows Jesus’ birthday; and for the first 200 years of the existence of the church no one cared. June, not December, would have been the month that sheep were allowed into the fields, but even this detail from Luke was given not to pinpoint Jesus’ birthday, but to convey the story as it had been “. . . handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses . . .” (Luke 1:2). For most of the Christian world, that December 25 is not likely the actual birthday of Jesus is unimportant. Any day will do since we can’t know the real date.

2. There is profound meaning in the theological connection of Jesus’ conception and his crucifixion on the same date, March 25, exactly nine months before December 25. The day he was conceived in the womb was joined to the day he was laid in a tomb. The date on which Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” is paired with the date on which the Spirit of the “most high” overshadowed Mary and conceived Jesus within her. By pairing these two events on the same date, March 25, the early church saw the promise of his salvific death on the cross as present in his conception in the womb. They perceived the destiny of the man even as he was conceived. He was conceived to die for the sins of the world.

For a discussion of the year Jesus was born, see my blog 8 B.C. For a look at the biblical circumstances of his birth—in contrast to Christmas pageants, cantatas, plays, and nativity scenes—see my blog Are Kids' Christmas Plays Biblical? Also see  A Brief Dictionary of Jesus' Birth and Jesus' Birth and Childhood in Chronology.

For more detailed reading, see Andrew McGowan’s article How December 25 Became Christmas. You might also read the article on shepherding from the book “Jesus and His World” by Rousseau and Arav.