Archive for November 17th, 2008

Terraces near BethlehemIn Part I of this series, we examined the need to view the entire Christmas story arc – which begins in Exodus (after the prologue in Genesis) and ends with John the Baptizer’s declaration of “Behold the Lamb of God”.

Today, I would like to take a quick journey in trying to determine when, during the year, Jesus’ birthday was likely to have fallen. [Hint: For those of you paying attention, it wasn't likely to be December 25.]

Remember, Remember, the 25th of December

There are a number of reasons Christmas is celebrated on December 25, many of which are syncretised from pagan Winter solstice celebrations, most likely those during the time of Constatine, which celebrated the birth of the “gods” Mithra, Ishtar and Julius Caesar. By celebrating the birth of Jesus on this date, many Christians sought to ‘de-paganize’ the celebrations and feasting of this day (or in some traditions, a week or more), and Roman authorities sought to blur the lines between Christianity and Mithraism, the two primary competing religions of the empire. Additionally, the Jewish people recognized this date as an anniversary of Judas Maccabeus’ (who was seen as a model for a Jewish messiah…) cleansing of the Temple in 164 BC, which may have played a part in this day’s choosing.

There is very little doubt, though, that December 25 is not the actual date of Jesus’ birth, but a date chosen for numerous other reasons, lost to antiquity.

Of Shepherds and Fields

One of the first indications of the time of year of Jesus’ birth comes to us from the Gospel of Luke:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

What, you might ask, from this would give us any clue, whatsoever?

In the land of Israel, there are two types of land – wilderness and farmland – which have a fairly distinct border between them. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is described as a “land flowing with milk and honey”.

Milk is the product of sheep and goats, tended by shepherds. Sheep are tended and maintained in the wilderness areas of Israel.

Honey, on the other hand, is a word which describes not only bees’ honey, but also the product of mashing fruits, such as figs and dates, which are stored in sealed jars. [A recent excavation near Masada found jars of this 'honey' prepared during the time of Herod the Great, still in edible condition.] Honey is one of the key products, along with grain, of farmers.

The word used by Luke to describe where the shepherds were, agrauleo – in the fields – specifically refers to the fields of the farmers, and not the wilderness area (which he describes via a different word elsewhere). Only two times during the year would sheep be allowed to be in these fields – after the spring harvest, once the poor had gleaned the corners (around the time of the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost)) and after the fall harvest, once the poor had gleaned the corners (around the time of the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles)). During any other time of the year, shepherds would have been attacked (and likely killed) for allowing their sheep into the unharvested fields.

Doing the Math

The second method we can use to try to approximate a birth date for Jesus is via gestational math from scriptural clues.

From Luke 1:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah;


When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant

From historical Jewish records, we can place the time of service for the division of Abijah in the late spring of the year, ending in early June. So, if we assume that soon after this (as the Greek text seems to indicate) Elizabeth became pregnant, she would have known this in early July.

Luke continues:

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”


At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

So, we have Mary visiting Elizabeth in what is likely to be early January (Elizabeth’s sixth month), and John leaping in the womb in response to the fetal Jesus, inside of Mary.

With this in mind, Jesus’ birth should be approximately nine months later, in early-to-mid September, which is the same time as the Feast of Sukkot – one of the two times of the year in which sheep can be tended by shepherds in the fields.

Linguistic Clues

Next, in beginning of the gospel of John, the most deliberately symbolic of the gospel writers, we are given some linguistic clues as to the time of Christ’s coming.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

John makes clear that Jesus is the Word, and that he “made his dwelling” among us. However, John’s wording here is peculiar in it choice of words. This can also be translated: “The Word became flesh and tented (or tabernacled) among us”. This word for tent is the same word as is used in the name of the Feast of Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles.

Narrative/Poetic Clues

Finally, if we examine the Jewish feasts, and their symbolic significance, we can see a pattern emerge (for those associated with Easter, you can read more in my Holy Week Series from earlier this year):

Holiday Hebrew Meaning Jesus’ Event
Sukkot Celebrating God dwelling among men (originated in the Exodus, where God dwelt among the suka – tents – of his people) Jesus is Born
Passover Celebrating God’s grace; His judgement ‘passing over’ His people, so that they could be redeemed from slavery; The blood of a lamb is shed as a sacrifice for each family to protect the firstborn of each household. Jesus is Crucified
Unleavened Bread All of God’s people praying for Him to give them life (bread) out of the earth. Jesus is in the Tomb
Firstfruits Praising God for granting the first fruits of the barley harvest. These first fruits are the promise that God will grant the remainder of the harvest. Jesus is Resurrected (see I Cor 15)
Shavuot (Pentecost) Celebration of the completion of the spring harvest; God’s giving of the Law to guide His people (also noting that, on this day 3,000 were killed for worshiping the golden calf) The Holy Spirit is given as a guide to God’s people (3,000 were saved that day)

(Note: I’m not including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which may be associated with eschatalogical events or (in the case of Rosh Hashanah), with past events linked to partial-preterist eschatology.)

So What?

I have nothing against celebrating God’s gift to man, in Jesus, via the giving of gifts to each other on December 25. I sometimes wonder, though, why Christians fight so hard to prevent the secular world from replacing a religious celebration of a day with a secular celebration of a day on which Christians replaced the original pagan celebration of a day with a religious one (didja follow that?).

It is nice that we give each other gifts on December 25 and celebrate God living amongst us as a Father who gives good gifts. It is kind of weird though to celebrate this as Jesus’ birthday, in which we say ‘Happy Birthday’ and then go into the other room and give each other gifts, instead of him…

Perhaps it’s just time that we celebrate Sukkot as a time when the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us…

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