When was Jesus really born? The date cannot truly be known for a certainty. Before we explore the possible dates of Jesus’ birth, we need to investigate a few pertinent factors before we can delve into the birth date.
The Course of Abijah
We can use the passage in Luke Chapter One, as a guide in our quest to know the birth date of Jesus. In that passage, Zacharias, a priest, is serving in the temple during one of his twice yearly courses of duties. Those divisions or courses lasted one week from one Sabbath to the next Sabbath, beginning and ending at noon (Josephus, Ant. VII 14:7, Against Apion 2.8.89). During that period the Angel Gabriel came to him to tell him his barren elderly wife, Elizabeth would conceive a child named John who, when grown became John the Baptist. The conception of John took place when Zacharias arrived home after his service. He lived a day or two away on foot and Elizabeth probably conceived within a short time after Zacharias’ arrival home.
When King David was “old and full of days,” he made Solomon King over Israel. Then David gathered together all the Levites over age thirty (1 Chron 23:3). There were 24,000 of them available to accomplish the daily ministrations at the Temple (1 Chron 23:4). King David divided them into twenty-four divisions or courses (1 Chron 24:4), with each division to serve twice per year (1 Chron 24:7-18). At the same time David divided the military into twelve divisions, each to serve monthly (see First Chronicles chapter twenty-four, verse 20, through the end of First Chronicles chapter twenty-seven). The priests and military were to start these divisions beginning with the first month of the year (1 Chron 27:2), which was Abib (or Aviv), and is now known as Nisan.
The 24 divisions of priests made 48 courses per year, which comes out to 336 days. All the priestly courses were to serve simultaneously during the three yearly festivals when all the men of Israel were required to come to the Temple (Ex 23:17). Those festivals are Passover, Pentecost or Weeks, and Tabernacles (Mishna, Sukkah 55b). If an intercalary month was added, then the priests on duty would stay on for the extra days. Zechariah was a part of the eight division, which was the course or division of Abijah (1 Chron 24:10; Luk 1:5).
Beginning with the first of Nisan, assuming that Nisan 1 was a Sabbath, and working our way forward counting every seven days as one division, leaving out the three Great Festivals, then Zechariah would serve on Sivan 7-14, and Kislev 7-14 annually. Sivan occurs in our May-June time frame, while Kislev occurs in our November-December period. Thus Zechariah served in our June and December. Of course we do not know if the first day of Nisan was a Sabbath. Since divisions began on a weekly Sabbath (our Saturday), we can only say for certain that this began sometime during the first week of Nisan. So we have a six day window to work with.
Census of Luke 2:2
Please note that we are not using the secular dating method here that the world uses. We will use “BC” for “BCE” and “AD” for “CE” instead. BC =Before Christ; AD=Anno Domini (In the Year of Our Lord); BCE=Before Common Era; CE=Common Era. BCE and CE are used specifically to remove Christ from the equation, even though Christ is the reason for the division, in other words those designations are pagan.
The word “census” was not used by Luke. He used a word that means registration for some purpose, including taxation. He tells us that during the first taxing (or registration, for the Greek word here means registration for various purposes), all men would have to travel to their hometown to register. The fact that this was the first taxing in which Quirinius was involved indicates that there was a later taxing also involving Quirinius. Secular historians argue that Luke is wrong because the only Census in Roman history that took place when Quirinius was governor was in 6 AD, way too late for Jesus’ birth day.
The reality is that when Christ was born, the first registration supervised by Quirinius took place when he was temporarily governing in Syria, not at the later date that many Bible detractors claim. Many claim that this was a later census that was instituted by Augustus in the year 6 AD. Since Herod had died long before this date, the detractors claim that the Bible is incorrect, or worse that Luke deliberately made up this “census.”
However, according to Tacitus, Quirinus was not the official governor of Syria at the time of the first census recorded by Luke but Quirinius was later appointed as the official governor. That is when the census that took place in 6 AD that occurred. The “census” Luke recorded took place when Quirinius was originally governing Syria as a General while leading military campaigns there, against a rebellious tribe known as the Homonadenses. He was not the official governor, yet he was governing the area as an army General. At that time he temporarily governed Syria from 12 BC until 2 BC; that is certainly within Luke’s time frame.
On 5 February 2 BC, Augustus was given the title Pater Patriae, or “Father of the Country” by the Senate of Rome. Augustus then conducted a “Registration” of all Jews requiring them to sign a statement of allegiance to him.
There are two records of this registration. There is the statement of the 5th century historian Orosius. He wrote, “[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled. So at that time, Christ was born and was entered on the Roman census list as soon as he was born” (Orosius, Adv. Pag. VI.22.7, VII.2.16, see also Tacitus’ Annals 3.48, and Valentinus’ Chronographus Anni CCCLIIII).
In Josephus’ Ant. 17.2.4, we read, “These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king imposed a fine upon them, Pheroras’s wife paid their fine for them1.
This is historical proof that Augustus had the populace register and legally acknowledge their allegiance to Augustus Caesar and that this was a separate issue from the 6 AD census.
We can see that the registration was a device for people to sign a pledge of allegiance to the Emperor. The statement by Josephus shows that this registration occurred sometime before 2 BC and before Herod’s illness and death. Quirinius returned to Syria in 6 AD to act as Imperial Legate and oversaw the tax census then instituted by Augustus. That census only applied to Roman citizens. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register their allegiance to Augustus, and not for the Census of 6 AD.
Joseph and Mary Travel to Bethlehem
There are some well taken arguments that mediate against Joseph and Mary travelling to the vicinity of Jerusalem in winter. (Bethlehem is about five miles south-southeast of Jerusalem; it is a borough of modern Jerusalem).
The rainy season in Israel is from November to April, with peak rainfall December through February. It is extremely dry from May through October. If the registration was during the rainy season, travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been difficult and many would probably have not made the trip. With a wife in the late stages of pregnancy, Joseph may have opted not to travel to Bethlehem. Thus it is more likely that the officials would have known this and opted to perform the “census” in the dryer period of May through October.
Israel has mild winters, but it can and does get below freezing many nights in the winter in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Because of the possibility of these freezes, Joseph may have elected not to make the trip. Also those cold nights bring frost, limiting the amount of grass for grazing, so it is possible that shepherds would not have been in the fields in the winter.
With cold and wet conditions prevailing in Israel in December, the officials would know how miserable such a trip was. Such a trip would cause plenty of grumbling from the citizens and might even cause a revolt. Rome was a civilized society, for the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) took effect under Augustus. It is doubtful officials would take the risk of a disturbance against that peace 2.
Some people date the year of Christ’s birth based on Josephus statement that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly before the death of Herod the Great. Most scholars use the eclipse of March 23, 4 BC. Unfortunately, using Nasa’s calculations there were four total eclipses between 1 BC and 7 BC. They were July 5, 1 BC; Jan 10, 1BC; Sept 15, 4 BC; and Mar 23, 4 BC. There were others, but these were visible in Jerusalem. However, in this essay we will not attempt to determine the year; a treatise dedicated to that argument would be required. The eclipse information was retrieved from the NASA Lunar Eclipse table 3.
Dating Jesus’ Birth
The problem with dating His birth is that we still must make an educated guess, for we cannot be absolutely certain. If Zacharias was in his first course when the angel Gabriel appeared to him, sometime in June, then as soon as he finished this duties and began the return trip home the next day, it would have been about three days later before he got home because he lived in a city in the hill country of Judea. This was most likely Hebron, which was a city of priests (Josh 21:13). Hebron, which is 15 miles from Jerusalem as the crow files, and about 25 miles by road, thus was about two days walk from Jerusalem.
Because the angel proclaimed it was God’s will that Elizabeth conceive a son, the conception likely happened shortly after Zacharias arrived home, which would have been sometime in our June. That would place the birth of John the Baptist sometime in March. Thus there is a good chance that he was born at the time of Passover.
The Scripture tells us that Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and announced to her that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. He also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, Zacharias’ wife, was six months pregnant at the time (Luk 1:26). If Elizabeth conceived in June, then it was December when Mary conceived. If that is the case, then Jesus was born toward the end of September the following year, which coincides with the fall Festival of Sukkot, or Tabernacles. In John 1:14, we learn that the Word (Jesus) became flesh and “tabernacled” among us (Young’s Literal Translation, Orthodox Jewish Bible, Modern King James Version, Messianic Renewed Covenant Bible, and several other translations).
The KJV states, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…” The word rendered “dwelt” is εσκηνωσεν, eskēnosen, and comes from the word, σκενοω, skenoō (sken´ ah-oh) meaning to dwell. The word, σκενοω, skenoō – to dwell, comes from σκηνος, skēnos, which is tabernacle, booth, hut, dwelling place, etc. The Greek word answers to the Hebrew, סכות, sukkot (soo-kōt), which is the plural of סכּה, sukkah (soo´-kah), tabernacle, booth, hut, dwelling place, etc., as in the autumn Feast of Tabernacles. The feast of Tabernacles is חג הסכות, Hag haSukkot.
If, on the other hand, Zacharias served in December, then Elizabeth became pregnant in December and Mary conceived in June and Jesus was born in March, likely at the time of Passover. We know that Jesus died on Passover, and that is when we celebrate Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, not his birth. But because we do not know which course Zacharias served in, either date is possible. Since the Greek tells us He tabernacled among us, that gives us more weight that Jesus was born at Sukkot. But neither date indicates His birth in December.
If Elizabeth conceived in June, then Mary conceived in December. It is then possible that December 25th is that date of Jesus conception. In some cultures a person’s age is based on the date of conception instead of the date of birth. It is possible, then, that Jesus was conceived on 25 December and that may be the reason Christ’s birth was celebrated on December 25th.
The earliest recorded mention of December 25 and the date of Christ’s birth is supposedly 334 AD. Many cite an old Roman Bishop’s list, but no provenance exists for the list, so we must accept 334 AD with some skepticism, since we cannot actually document that date without a reference.
Studies of the date of Herod’s death and the various possibilities of different lunar eclipses near his death have yielded several different dates for Jesus birth. Using a popular date for a lunar eclipse, Jan 10, 1 BC, some have speculated Jesus conception at Passover yielding a birth date of December 25, but this is just speculation. Some say the division Zacharias served in was in October, but that leaves out the three Pilgrimage Festivals. If he served in October, the Jesus was conceived in March, making His birth date in December, perhaps even December 25th.
The truth is, the Bible is silent on the actual date of Jesus birth. Using the dates of Zacharias’ duties in the Temple is by far the most accurate method we can use, but even then, the actual date of Jesus birth is ambiguous. Many times God uses ambiguity to prevent us from worshipping objects, relics, places, and dates instead of worshipping Him. That would a very good reason for us not to know the actual date.
The birth date of Jesus I prefer is the beginning of Sukkot on Tishri 15th, which is late in our September or early October. My reasoning is the John tells us Jesus tabernacled among us. Another reason is the Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth, like all Jewish males of the period. Sukkot is an eight day celebration and if Jesus was born on the first day of Sukkot, then he was circumcised on the last day of Sukkot. That makes good sense. Additionally, the weather is much more conducive in September than in December for the long trip Mary and Joseph made. Also, let us not forget the shepherds herding sheep in the fields. It is not likely that the fields were available for grazing in December, due to frosts. For me, this evidence is quite good. Still, we really do not know the actual date of His birth.
His birth is worthy of celebration. In the Scripture the angels, the shepherds, and the Magi all celebrated the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, in modern times we have perverted the celebration of Jesus into a merchandise feeding frenzy, worshiping the shopping, merchandise, and the money earned during that season instead of worshipping Christ, in other words, paganism. So perhaps the detractors are correct; December 25th is a pagan holiday.
In that case, Happy Birthday, Jesus; it does not matter when You were born, just that you were born! Maranatha!
Mark Oaks 1/16/2020
Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? He is going to return to the world soon. Are you ready? When He does if you do not know Him as your Savior, you will join all those who do not know Him in “Outer Darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mat 22:13-14).
- Pheroras was the yonger brother of Herod the Great; they were sons of Antipater the Idumean. His wife was who paid the fine. See the article at the Jewish Encyclopedia.
- Jerusalem Insider’s Guide, https://www.jerusalem-insiders-guide.com/weather-in-jerusalem.html
- NASA, “Five Millennium Catalog of Lunar Eclipses https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEcat5/LE-0099-0000.html