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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (5): When Was Jesus Born?

The date of the birth of Jesus is unknown – both as to the date within the year and the year itself.

What Year Was Jesus Born?

The pious monk, Dionysius Exiguus, developed a calendar in AD 525 based on the birth of Jesus as its beginning point as A.D. 1. The Latin phrase, anno domine, or A.D. applies to those years after the birth of Jesus.

We know there is an error in his dating of Jesus’ birth. King Herod, the villain in the death of the Innocents (see Matthew 2:16), died in 4 B.C., so Jesus’ birth had to be sometime prior to that. Herod ordered the murder of all baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and under. He did this in keeping with the time the Wise Men told him about their sighting of the star.

Did the appearance of the star signify when the King of the Jews entered this world? If so (which is possible, but not certain), His birth would have been prior to 6 B.C.

Jesus was about 30 years old when He came to John for baptism (Luke 3:21). John began his preaching ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), that is between the 14th & 15th anniversaries of the beginning of his reign.

If we knew exactly how Luke counted the fifteenth year and if we knew how long after John began preaching the baptism of Jesus occurred, we could know the approximate year of His birth. However, we do not know either of these for certain.

There are several dates from which Luke could have counted the years of Tiberius’ reign. In A.D. 12 Augustus Caesar gave Tiberius supreme authority, but Augustus did not die until A.D. 14. Tiberius became “Pontifex Maximus” in A.D. 15.  Either of those dates could be Luke’s starting point. It is also conceivable that Luke marked the beginning of Tiberius’ reign as the time when Augustus adopted him and made him his “heir-apparent”. This occurred in A.D. 4. This would mean that John’s ministry began sometime between A.D. 19 – 28, probably about A.D. 25.

If Jesus’ baptism was in the first year of John’s ministry, His birth would have been about 5 B.C., the year before Herod’s death. This year is not at all certain though.

What Was the Date of His Birth?

We do not know the actual date of His birth either. There are ancient “authorities” that give every month in the year as a possible time of the birth of Jesus.

By about A.D. 400, the Church widely accepted December 25, partially because of the growing influence of the Roman church that had accepted this date about 350 A.D. The process by which they settled on December 25 is very fanciful. There are several theories about how that happened.

  • Roman festival of Saturnalia: Some believe it was an appropriation by early Christians of a day on which the birth of several pagan gods, Osiris, Jupiter, and Plutus, or the ancient deified leader Nimrod, was celebrated. It is an appropriation of the Roman festival of the birth of Unconquered Sun, celebrated on the day after the winter solstice, or the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Pagan Rome placed the festival on the date of the solstice because this was on this day that the Sun reversed its southward retreat and proved itself “unconquered.” Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus.

“O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born”, Cyprian wrote.

John Chrysostom also commented on the connection: “They call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .?

Both of these authors were active in the late 300’s and early 400’s.

  • Jewish Festival of Lights: Some believe the date of Christmas derives from the tradition He was born during the Jewish Festival of Lights that falls on 25th December.
  • Date of Good Friday: Some think the date of Christmas is based on the date of Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Since the exact date of Jesus’ death is not in the Gospels, early Christians sought to calculate it, and arrived at either March 25 or April 6. Then, wishing to calculate Jesus’ birthday, they followed the ancient supposition that Old Testament prophets died on an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. In Jesus’ case, they reasoned he died on an anniversary of His conception, so the date of his birth would have been nine months after the date of Good Friday – either December 25 or January 6. The date of 25th December became popular, possibly because of one or both of the other theories naming that date.
  • Date of His Conception: The date of His conception was imagined to be on the same day as the creation of the sun (since Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness). They thought the original creation was at the time of the Spring Equinox and that, since the sun was created on the 4th day, this would have been about March 25.

In none of this is there any solid historic evidence that would establish the date of the birth of Jesus.

Does it matter when He was born?

When I was in New Zealand, the nation celebrated the Queen’s birthday on the 1st Monday of June – although Queen Elizabeth II was actually born in April. Why does a celebration have to be on the actual anniversary of the event?

If the date were important, God would have revealed it. If He commanded us to observe it, He would have told us how. Observance of the Birth of Jesus was not general until 400 years after the event. Men who lived hundreds of years after Jesus’ birth set the date for celebration of that birth on very fanciful grounds.

That says nothing about whether it is a good idea to remember His birth or not. We certainly need to be aware He was born of the Virgin Mary, whenever that occurred. We need to know what it means for Him to be Immanuel or “God with us.” That He was born is definitely a cause for us to rejoice. God does not tell us how we should express that joy.

Let us praise God for the gift of His Son by whatever means seems appropriate to us, as long as we do not violate any command of God. In the spirit of Romans 14:5, and in keeping with the Restoration slogans, let us grant freedom to each other in this area!

NEXT (6) – Christmas Fact & Fiction?

PREVIOUS (4) – How Did Christmas Begin?


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