Christmas, Part 1: When was Jesus' birthday?

Introduction: First let's talk about what year.

The entire world reckons its calendar from the birth of the One who changed the world more than any other before or since. Even the societies with non-western calendars, like the Jews and the Muslims and the eastern religions, still keep time also on the Western calendar which is based, albeit clumsily, on the birth of Jesus.

It is also interesting, in fact disturbing, that most of what we have learned about the Christmas season is based more on tradition than on facts. And it is not just Santa Claus that is the result of myths and legends of the season.

When Was Jesus Born?

Most serious Bible students realize that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th, despite our traditional observance of that holiday. Luke 2:8 tells us that the shepherds had their flocks in an open field. In Judea the shepherds don't have their flocks in the field after October. It is too cold. Furthermore, no Roman administrator in his right mind would have his entire population traveling when most of Judea is generally impassable. That is what was going on in Matthew 24:20. The registration of all the people and their property is what brought Mary and Joseph to their tribal hometown of Bethlehem.

If Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 0001, just when was he born?

Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly identify the birthday of Jesus, many scholars have developed diverse opinions as to the likely birthday of Jesus. (There is an old rabbinical observation: with two Jews gather, you have three opinions!)

The one I will offer today is one of several but I think a sound one. First I want to focus on the year. Theoretically, we know that there is no such thing as year a year zero. Right? So the first year has to be 0001, not zero.

Well, not really.  There were a number of errors factored into the calendar.

At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Romans were using the Julian Calendar Named for Julius Caesar. Originally the Romans numbered the years from the founding of the City of Rome. This was called the Roman Republic Calendar. The years were denoted as a.u.c. [ab urbe condita], which means from the founding of the city. And the only city that mattered to them was Rome. So it meant from the founding of Rome. The year 2001 would be 2754 a.u.c. Rome was founded 753 years before 1AD

In 46 BC Julius Caesar, after conquering Egypt decided the the a.u.c. calendar needed revision. It was clear that there were errors as some of the seasonal festivals were happening in the wrong seasons. The equinoxes were not in the right place on the calendar.

Their year was already 365 days with an extra day every four years. So it was almost like ours today.

In 46 B.C. they added 63 days and reset the calendar, so that year had 445 days. But it was still counted from the establishment of Rome. This Roman Republic calendar then became known as the Julian calendar.

Caesar wanted to start the New Year on the spring equinox or the winter solstice. But the senate, which took office on January 1 insisted that the New Year start on January 1. And Caesar let them have their way.

After that, the Roman calendar keepers misunderstood Caesar’s instructions and started adding a leap day every 3 years instead of every 4 years. So additional errors started right away.

In 527 A.D. a Roman abbot By the name of Dionysius Exiguus reckoned that Jesus was born in 754 a.u.c. So he designated that year #1 A.D., [Anno Domini], the "Year of our Lord". But the Julian calendar was not changed.

When Pope Gregory XIII was elected, he wanted to change and correct the calendar. He identified work done by a Jesuit by the name of Christopher Clavius, who had calculated to correct several previous errors including the leap day every 3 years. They needed to drop ten days from the calendar and slightly change the leap year rule to allow leap years only on even 100 years which are divisible by 400. He also used the Exiguus system of 1 A.D. on 754 a.u.c. They also changed the determination of when Easter was and moved the leap day to the end of February.

Pope Gregory mandated the change to the Clavius system in 1582, and it is called the Gregorian calendar, the one we still use today. So you can see that the reference for the official year of the birth of Jesus did not happen until 1582 A.D. And all the dates before that are now calculated backward and re-dated to conform to this system. With all the errors of the various calendars, it is very difficult to know what historical date equates to what date on the Gregorian calendar. But a lot of work has been done on it, and many scholars agree that modern dates are at least close.

So when was Jesus born?

So what year was Jesus born, if not Year 0001?

There are many scholastic debates offering contrasting views of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The following exploration reviews but a few.

Many say 4 B.C., based on an association with an eclipse, recorded by Josephus as occurring on March 13, 4 B.C.

There are a number of problems with this, in addition to the fact that the eclipse he was referencing was more likely the eclipse that occurred on December 29, 1 B.C.

Considerable time elapsed between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death, since the family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict and they didn’t return until after Herod’s death, (Matthew 2:15, 19-22). Furthermore, Herod died on January 14, 1 B.C., (Magillath Ta’anith, an ancient Jewish scroll Contemporary with Jesus).

Tertullian (born about 160 A.D.) stated that Augustus began to rule 41 years before the birth of Jesus and died 15 years after that event. Augustus died on August 19, 14 A.D., placing Jesus’ birth at 2 B.C.

Tertullian also notes that Jesus was born 28 years after the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C., which is consistent with a date of 2 B.C.

Irenaeus, born about a century after Jesus, also notes that Jesus was born in the 41st year of the reign of Augustus. Since Augustus began his reign in the autumn of 43 B.C., this also appears to substantiate the birth in 2 B.C.

Eusebius (264-340 A.D.), known as the “Father of Church History,” ascribes it to the 42nd year of the reign of Augustus and the 28th from the subjection of Egypt on the death of Anthony and Cleopatra. The 42nd year of Augustus ran from the autumn of 2 B.C. to the autumn of 1 B.C. The subjugation of Egypt into the Roman Empire occurred in the autumn of 30 B.C. The 28th year extended from the autumn of 3 B.C. to the autumn of 2 B.C. The only date that would meet both of these constraints would be the autumn of 2 B.C.

So there is a lot of evidence that Jesus was born in the autumn of 02 B.C.

But what date?

All we are pretty certain of is that it was not in the winter. And the research just finished suggests the autumn.

We can get at this another way. We have a lot of information about John the Baptist. In the early chapters of Luke, (Luke 1 & 2), we can learn a lot. Elisabeth, John’s mother, was a cousin of Mary and the wife of a priest named Zacharias who was of the “course” of Abijah, (Luke 1:5, 8-13, 23-24).

David divided the priests into 24 groups called "courses". There was a very rigorous procedure for the priests concerning these courses. Each course officiated in the Temple for one week, from Sabbath to Sabbath, (I Chronicles 24:7-19).

When the Temple was destroyed by Titus on August 5, 70 A.D., the first course of priests had just taken office. (Both the Talmud and Josephus confirm this). Since the course of Abijah was the eighth course, we can track backwards and determine that Zacharias would have ended his duties on July 13, 3 B.C. If the birth of John took place 280 days later, it would have been on April 19-20, 2 B.C.

April 19-20, 2 BC was the day of Passover that year. Quite a coincidence, right? Remember how John referred to Jesus as the lamb of God -- the Passover Lamb? Now you may know another reason why. Luke 3:1 tells us that John began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. Numbers 4:3 tells us that the minimum age for the ministry was 30. Augustus (the predecessor of Tiberias) died on August 19, 14 A.D., so that was the accession year for Tiberius.

If John was born on April 19-20, 2 B.C., John’s 30th birthday would have been April 19-20, 29 A.D., or the 15th year of Tiberius. This seems to confirm the 2 B.C. date and, since John born five months before Jesus, this also would confirm the autumn birth date for Jesus. Re-read the first 2 chapters of Luke to remind yourself of this sequence as it led up to the birth of Jesus.

But that does not give us the date of Jesus’ birth.

Elisabeth hid herself for five months, and then the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary both Elisabeth’s condition and the fact that Mary also would bear a son who would be called Jesus.

Mary went “with haste” to visit Elisabeth, who was then in the first week of her sixth month, That would have been the fourth week of December, 3 B.C.

If Jesus was born 280 days later it would place the date of his birth on September 29, 2 B.C. So if you want to have a birthday party for Jesus On Sept 29, you have a rationale for it. Of course there is not way to know if this analysis is exact, but it is reasonable.

If Jesus was born on September 29, 2 B.C., it is interesting to note that it was also the First of Tishri, the day of the Feast of Trumpets. From a couple of our earlier studies you may remember that he Feast of Trumpets celebrates the Jewish New Year. They celebrate by blowing horns. How ironic that perhaps the birth of Jesus was on the first day of their New Year, the first day of the rest of God’s plan for mankind. Now that is something to blow horns about!

Something else that is interesting: Until 1910 when Pope Pius X named the first day of the religious year to be January 1, Christians also had a different religious year than the civil year, just like the Jews did. The first day of the Christian religious year was January 25, the celebrated birthday of Jesus.

I think it would be just like God to have Jesus born on the first day of the Jewish year, the first of Tishri, and then, even though they were in error, have the Christians start their new religious year on the assumed but erroneous December 25th birthday.

Then why are we in a culture that seems committed to celebrating December 25th as his birthday?

The early Christian church did not celebrate Jesus’ birth, and therefore the exact date had not been preserved in festivals. The first recorded mention of December 25 is in the Calendar of Philocalus (354 A.D.) which assumed Jesus’ birth to be Friday, December 25, 1 A.D. There are a lot of problems with that assumption, one of which is that that day was not a Friday. But so what?

When the Emperor Constantine eventually declared Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire and removed the persecution of the Christians in the Edict of Toleration in 312 A.D., the persecuted Christians came out of hiding in their caves. It then became politically correct to celebrate Christmas. But the people were used to celebrating festivals from their pagan traditions around them. It was predictably expedient to adopt many of the former pagan rituals as their new “Christian” traditions.

The date of December 25th, which was officially proclaimed by the church fathers in 440 A.D., was actually a vestige of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, observed near the winter solstice, which itself was among the many pagan traditions inherited from the earlier Babylonian priesthood.

So Christmas is celebrated at the time of a Babylonian pagan holiday, and it started in the 3rd century A.D. It is interesting that almost all of our traditions come from Babylonian pagan traditions.

Let’s take a short tour around one of those Babylonian myths. @ All forms of occultic practices have their origins in the original city of Babylon. Isaiah Chapter 47 clearly brings this out. Most of what we associate with pagan Rome had its origins in ancient Babylon. It has been the adherence to these idolatrous influences that has evoked the intense criticism of Roman Catholicism by Protestant commentators over the many centuries. Because so much of what is woven into their traditions and rituals can actually be traced back to pagan Babylon.

There is an excellent book by Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons. It is worth reading to follow the Babylonian practices into the Roman Catholic Church. Babylon is mentioned in over 300 references in the Bible. It is even alluded to three times in Christ’s own genealogy.

Babylon is presently being rebuilt in Iraq today, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Baghdad. If you study Isaiah 13 & 14 and Jeremiah 50 & 51 carefully, you will find that that is very significant.

Let’s review the origin of Babylon.

The first world dictator was Nimrod, the “Rebel.” Nimrod built the famous Tower of Babel as the centerpiece of his rebellion against God. (“Bav” = gate; “El” = God. Thus, Babel = “gateway to the gods”). This was the beginning of the city of Babylon. God disrupted the rebellious coalition through the “confusion of tongues” in Genesis 11. This rebellion against God is still with us. The residuals from Babylon, including most of the traditions of idol worship, astrology, and the occult, continue to the present day.

A lot of the bad religious things we see today go back to Babylon. But some useful things do, too. The fact that we have 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour goes back to Babylon. The fact that we have 360 degrees in a circle goes back to Babylon.

The twelve constellations of the Zodiac are corruptions from Babylon. The uncorrupted forms are the Hebrew formations called the Mazzoroth which spell our God’s plan for man, starting with the virgin birth (Virgo) to the Tribe of Judea, the Lion (Leo).

The Legend of Tammuz and the Mother/Child concept:

One of the legends from Babylon is the legend of Tammuz. Tammuz, the infant son of Nimrod and his queen, Semiramis, was identified with the Babylonian sun god and was worshipped following the winter solstice, on about December 22-23. As the days became shorter and shorter through the winter, they become the shortest at the winter solstice, about December 22-23.

Tammuz as an incarnation of the sun god was thought to be dying as the days got shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approached, and was memorialized by burning a log in the fireplace.  [People mourned his death, and in Ezekiel 8:14-15, God calls it a detestable practice, followed even by some of His own people].

(The Chaldean word for infant is yule. This is the origin of the “yule log.”)

His “rebirth” was celebrated by replacing the log with a trimmed tree the next morning. Sound familiar? The Christmas tree tradition goes all the way back to Babylon.

Jeremiah 10:2-5 - This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good."

Candidly, Jeremiah is talking about idol worship. There are numerous other examples:

When Babylon was conquered by subsequent empires, this entire religious system was transplanted, first to Pergamos under the Persians, and then to Rome.

In Rome, they kept the idea of a Queen of Heaven.

As the pagan Roman (Babylonian) religious system was integrated with Christian ceremonial observances around 400 A.D., many of our current traditions surrounding Christian holidays and especially Christmas, emerged.

Next week:

We will not have class.

In two weeks, on December 30, we will look at some other religious and non-religious traditions, and see where they came from. I want to look at the Messianic promise and see why the Bible needs two different genealogies for Jesus, and why there had to be a virgin birth; why God created an inheritance loophole for Jesus.

There are several other Christmas related matters we will look at, depending on how long I want Christmas to last.

:-)