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When was Jesus Born?

For several weeks, we have been studying the birth of Jesus, but one of the things we did not cover was the answer to the question, “When was Jesus born?”  (We did, however, ascertain that he was indeed born!)

When was Jesus born?  Well, wasn’t he born on December 25th in the year zero?  That’s one time that we know for a fact that he was not born.  For one thing, there is no such thing as a year zero.  There is a 1 BC and a 1 AD, but not a year zero.  In our study surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, we saw that he was crucified in AD 29 by our current reckoning.  If he was crucified in AD 29 and he was about 33 years old, then that would put his birth some time before the “year zero”.

Well, when was it?  Does God ever do anything halfway?  We’re going to look at a beautiful work of poetry in action and see when Jesus was born.

In the first 200 years of Christian history, no mention is made of the actual date of the birth of Jesus.  The first mention we have of a celebration of his birth appeared in 336 AD.  Why this omission?  In the case of the early Church fathers, the reason is that the commemoration that was considered most worthy was the date of his death.  In comparison, the date of his birth was considered insignificant.  The historical tradition was to celebrate the death of remarkable people and not their births; most people did not even know when their children were born; it was often considered insignificant.  (It was enough to know that a person had been born and not the actual date, although we will see in a few minutes that God considered the date to be very important.)

Speculation on the proper date began in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when the idea of celebrating his birth first started.  There was quite a controversy among the early Church leaders.  Many were opposed to the celebration.  Origen, who lived from 185-254, strongly recommended against such a celebration.  He said, “In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday.  It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world.”

During this time of controversy, various people proposed eight specific dates during six different months.  Although December 25th was one of the last dates to be proposed, it was the one that was finally accepted by the leadership of the church in the West.  The earliest mention of the observance of December 25th is in the year 336.  This date was probably chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti, or the nativity of the unconquerable sun.  (Whether it was set on this date to avoid persecution by pagans or if this was an early attempt at ecuminicism is open to debate.  Most people think that the Pope was just trying to make peace with the pagans.)

December 25th was made popular by Pope Liberius in 354, and that date became the rule in the 435 when the first “Christ Mass” was officiated by Pope Sixtus III.

As I mentioned a moment ago, this date coincided with the date of a celebration by the Romans to their primary god, the sun, and to Mithras, a popular Persian sun god who was supposedly born on the same day.  The Roman Catholic writer Mario Righetti admits that, “to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, the Church of Rome found it convenient to institute the 25th of December as the feast of the birth of Christ to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honor of the ‘Invincible Sun’ Mithras, the conqueror of darkness.”

Protestant historian Henry Chadwick said, “Moreover, early in the fourth century, there begins in the West the celebration of December 25th, the birthday of the Sun-god at the winter solstice, as the date for the nativity of Christ.  How easy it was for Christianity and solar religion to become entangled at the popular level is strikingly illustrated by a mid-fifth century sermon of Pope Leo the Great, rebuking his over-cautious flock for paying reverence to the Sun on the steps of St. Peter’s before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward facing basilica.”

Do we see this today?  Do you see people worshipping pagan gods during the time that is supposedly set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus?  How about Mammon, the money god?  (Any thoughts at this point?)

Well, we just skimmed the surface of why December 25th was set, and we can see that December 25th was set for the wrong reasons, but is it the wrong date?

Well, to start off, we know that the year is wrong.  A simple clerical error threw the year off by quite a bit.  In 525 AD, Pope John I commissioned the scholar Dionysius Exiguus to establish a feast calendar for the Church.  Dionysius also estimated the year of Christ's birth based upon the founding of the city of Rome.  Because of insufficient historical data he arrived at a date at least a few years later than the actual event.  We will look at the correct year in a few moments.

But, what about the date of December 25th?  Well, the Bible tells us Luke 2:8 that there were shepherds watching their flocks by night.  When were the shepherds in the fields?

Israeli meteorologists tracked December weather patterns for many years and they have concluded that the climate in Israel has been essentially constant for at least the last 2000 years.  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states that, “Broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climactic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today.”

The temperature in the area of Bethlehem in December averages around 44 F (7 C), but can drop to well below freezing, especially at night.  In describing the weather in the area of Bethlehem, Sara Ruhin, chief of the Israeli Weather Service, noted that the area has three months of frost:  December with 29 F (-1.6 C), January with 30 F (-1.1 C), and February with 32 F (0 C).

Snow is common for two or three days in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in December and January.  These were the winter months of increased precipitation in the time of Jesus, and the roads became practically unusable and people stayed indoors for the most part.

This is important evidence (it’s not proof) against a December date for Christ’s birth.  But, in Luke 2:8, we’re told that the shepherds tended their flocks in the fields at night.  It says, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”  A common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April until October, but in the cold and rainy winter months, they took them back home and sheltered them.  [Think about the analogies involved here with being sheep of the Good Shepherd!]

Since these shepherds had not yet brought their flock home, it can be presumed that October had not yet arrived.  Since they would not be in the fields in December, it seems that Jesus could not have been born then.  In all probability, he would have been born no later than September or October.  On this one piece of evidence, you can almost completely give up on a December nativity.  The feeding of the flocks in the fields at night is an important piece of chronological evidence.  Then, as now, they would withdraw the flocks and house them for the winter.  Shepherds and their flocks would not be found abiding in the open fields at night in December (Tebeth) for the primary reason that there would be no pasturage. 

How about the census that was described by Luke in Luke 2:1-7?  The Roman and Judean rulers didn’t get where they were by being stupid.  These rulers knew that taking a census in the winter would have been very impractical and very unpopular.  In general, a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy.  During that time, the weather would also be good and the roads would be dry enough to easily travel.  According to the normal dates for a census, this season would also be the season for the birth of Jesus.

The time of December 25th would not have been the time that a census was taken.  A census necessitated the entire population making travels from all parts to the cities of their birth.  Storms, rain, and possibly snow would make the journeys not only unpleasant, but also dangerous.  Luke’s account of the census argues strongly against a December date for Christ’s birth.  For an agrarian society, a post-harvest census would have been much more likely.  According to the normal dates for a census, this post-harvest season would also be the season for the birth of Jesus.

Thinking that Mary, under such pregnant circumstances, could have undertaken a journey of about 70 miles (as the crow flies), through the hill district averaging some 3,000 feet above sea level, in the depth of winter presents us with events that border on the extremely improbable.

There are other reasons that we could look at that make it very unlikely that his birth could have been in December.  (Thoughts or comments?)

Now, instead of looking at when it was not, let’s ask and study the question, “When was he born?”  We know that he wasn’t born on December 25th.  Does the Bible tell us when he was born?

Well, it’s easy to determine the probable season for his birth.  [Luke 1]  The most convincing proof of when Jesus was born comes in understanding what we are told concerning the birth of John the Baptizer.  [Luke 1:5-17]

The first clue given to us here is that Zechariah was of the course of Abia.  The “course” is that which is required for the daily service.  There were 24 courses of the temple.  King David, on God's instructions (1 Chronicles 28:11-13) had divided the sons of Aaron into 24 groups (1 Chronicles 24:1-4), to set up a schedule by which the Temple of the Lord could be staffed with priests all year round in an orderly manner.  After the 24 groups of priests were established, lots were drawn to determine the sequence in which each group would serve in the Temple. (1 Chronicles 24:7-19).

That sequence is as follows:  [Overhead 1]

Each one of these courses of priests of priests would begin and end their service in the Temple on the Sabbath, a tour of duty being for one week, and therefore there would be two courses in the Temple on the Sabbath.  (2 Chronicles 23:8 and 1 Chronicles 9:25)  On three occasions during the year, all the men of Israel were required to travel to Jerusalem for festivals of the Lord, so on those occasions, all the priests would be needed in the Temple in order to accommodate the crowds.  Those three festivals were the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles.  (Deuteronomy 16:16)

The Jewish calendar begins in the spring, during the month of Nisan, so the first course of priests, would be that of the family of Jehoiarib, who would serve for seven days.  The second week would then be the responsibility of the family of Jedaiah.  The third week would be the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and all priests would be present for service.  Then the schedule would resume with the third course of priests, the family of Harim.  By this plan, when the 24th course was completed, the general cycle of courses would repeat.  This schedule would cover 51 weeks or 357 days, enough for the lunar Jewish calendar, which is about 354 days.  So, in a period of a year, each group of priests would serve in the Temple twice on their scheduled course, in addition to the 3 major festivals, for a total of about five weeks of duty.

[Luke 1:23-24; Overhead 2]  Beginning with the first month, Nisan, in the spring (March-April), the schedule of the priest's courses would result with Zechariah serving during the 10th week of the year.  This is because he was a member of the course of Abia, which was the 8th course, and both the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15-21 Nisan) and Pentecost (6 Sivan) would have occurred before his scheduled duty.  This places Zechariah's administration in the Temple as beginning on the second Sabbath of the third month, Sivan (May-June).

Having completed his Temple service on the third Sabbath of Sivan, Zechariah returned home and soon conceived his son John.  So John the Baptizer was probably conceived shortly after the third Sabbath of the month of Sivan.  [Luke 1:24-27]  I want you to see that verse 26 refers to the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy, not Elul, the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar, and this is made plain by the context of verse 24 and again in [verse 36].  Mary stayed with Elizabeth for the last 3 months of her pregnancy, until the time that John was born.  [Luke 1:56-57]

Now working from the information about John's conception late in the third month, Sivan, and advancing six months, we arrive late in the 9th month of Kislev (November-December) for the time frame for the conception of Jesus.  It is notable here that the first day of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, and Jesus is called the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5, 12:46).  This is not a mere coincidence.  In John 10:22, Hanukkah is called the “Feast of Dedication”.  Hanukkah is an eight day festival, celebrating the relighting of the menorah in the rededicated Temple, which according to the story, stayed lit miraculously for eight days on only one day's supply of oil.

Based on a conception shortly after the third Sabbath of the month of Sivan, projecting forward an average term of about 10 lunar months (which is about 40 weeks), we arrive in the month of Nisan.  It would appear that John the Baptizer might have been born in the middle of the month, which would coincide with Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  It is interesting to note, that even today, it is customary for the Jews to set out a special goblet of wine during the Passover Seder meal, in anticipation of the arrival of Elijah that week, which is based on the prophecy in Malachi 4:5, which says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:

[Matthew 17; hold your finger in Luke 1]  Jesus identified John as the "Elijah" that the Jews had expected.  [Matthew 17:10-13]  The angel that appeared to Zacharias in the temple also indicated that John would be the expected "Elias".  [Luke 1:17]  So, the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on the 15th day of the 1st month, Nisan, and this is a likely date for the birth of John the Baptizer, who was the expected "Elijah".

Since Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptizer, and we have established a likely date for John's birth, we need only move six months farther down the Jewish calendar to arrive at a likely date for the birth of Jesus.  From the 15th day of the 1st month, Nisan, we go to the 15th day of the 7th month, Tishri.  What do we find on that date?  It is the festival of Tabernacles!  The 15th day of Tishri begins the third and last festival of the year to which all the men of Israel were to gather in Jerusalem for Temple services. (Leviticus 23:34)

Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  Immanuel means "God with us".  The Son of God had come to dwell with, or tabernacle on earth with His people.  [John 1:14; tabernacles among us]  The word in the Hebrew for dwelt is “succah” and the name of the Feast of Tabernacles in Hebrew is “Sukkot”; it is a festival of rejoicing and celebration.

[Luke 2:7-11]  Why was there no room at the inn?  Bethlehem is only about four or five miles from Jerusalem, and all the men of Israel had come to attend the festival of Tabernacles as required by the Law of Moses.  Bethlehem is only about four or five miles from Jerusalem.  Every room for miles around Jerusalem would have been already taken by pilgrims, so all that Mary and Joseph could find for shelter was a stable.  (If you happened to have come from that region, it was also a convenient time to register for the tax census; two birds with one stone.)

Also of note is the fact that the Feast of Tabernacles is an eight day feast (Leviticus 23:36, 39).  Why eight days?  It may be because an infant was dedicated to God by performing circumcision on the eighth day after birth.  [Luke 2:21]  So the infant Jesus would have been circumcised on the eighth and last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was a Sabbath day.  The Jews today consider this a separate festival from Tabernacles, and they call it Shemini Atzeret.

If you have followed the reasoning that we’ve been laying out, based on the Scriptural evidence, a case can apparently be made that Jesus Christ was born on the 15th day of the month of Tishri, on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which corresponds to the September-October time frame of our present calendar.

Now, let’s look at other Scriptural evidence to try to pinpoint the date even further.  [Matthew 2:1-6]  The scriptures tell us that there were wise men (scholars; rabbis) that came from the east looking for the birth of the Messiah, saying "we have seen his star in the east".  Who were these scholars from the east?  Why were they looking for a Jewish Messiah?

Babylon was known as "the land to the east."  At the time of the birth of Jesus, the largest Jewish population was actually in Babylon, not in Palestine.  Nearly five hundred years earlier, the entire nation of Judah had been carried away captive into Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.  Only a small colony of Jews returned to Palestine after sixty-three years of captivity.  The greater number of them remained where they had established homes in the land of Babylon.

It is very likely that the wise men from the East were Jewish rabbis who had been anticipating the coming of the Messiah because of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy found in Daniel 9:24.  They had spotted a new star in the sky and took it to be a sign of the coming of the Messiah.

If these wise men were able to find references to the birth of the Messiah in the Holy Scriptures, then we should be able to find clues to his birth as well.  Since the coming of the Messiah is such an important part of Jewish tradition, we should be able to find this event foretold in the annual observances and rituals of the nation of Israel.

There is one time of the year when Jews would typically look at the stars.  That time was during the Festival of Tabernacles.  They would build a tabernacle or booth known as a "sukkah" out of green tree branches.  They would eat their meals and sleep in this sukkah for eight days.  It was customary to leave a hole in the roof of the sukkah so that one could look at the stars.

As we looked at a few minutes ago, the birth of our Lord can be reasonably shown to have occurred in the autumn of the year on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles.

[John 1:14; dwelt - tabernacled]  To introduce the nature and mission of Jesus, John employs the metaphor of the booth of the Feast of Tabernacles.  He explains that Christ, the Word who was with God in the beginning (John 1:1), manifested Himself in this world in a most tangible way, by pitching His tent in our midst: "And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, as of the only Son from the Father".

The Greek verb “skEnoO” used by John means "to pitch tent, encamp, tabernacle, dwell in a tent."  The allusion is clearly to the Feast of Tabernacles when the people dwelt in temporary booths.  David Stanely notes that this passage sets the stage for the later self-revelation of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 and 8.  Stanley writes: "The most basic clue to the mystery pervading this entire narrative [John 7 and 8] is provided by the symbolic action that gives this feast its name: the ceremonial erection of little bowers, made with branches of trees, in which every Jew was expected to live during the festival.  These shelters were commemorative of the forty years’ wandering in the desert when Israel had lived as a nomad in such intimate union with her God.  For John this dwelling in tents is a primordial symbol of the Incarnation: ‘Thus the Word became a mortal man: he pitched his tent in the midst of us’ (John 1:14).  It is this insight, which presides over the composition of John’s narrative, which we are considering [John 7-8].  All that happened, all that Jesus said on this occasion has some reference to the Incarnation."

In seeking to describe the Messiah’s first coming to His people, John chose the imagery of the Feast of Booths since the feast celebrates the dwelling of God among His people.  This raises a question on whether or not John intended to link the birth of Jesus with the Feast of Tabernacles.

[Luke 2]  The Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) is called "the season of our joy" and "the feast of the nations."  With this in mind, in [Luke 2:10] it is written, "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings [basar in Hebrew; otherwise known as the gospel] of great joy [Sukkot is called the 'season of our joy'], which shall be to all people [Sukkot is called 'the feast of the nations']."  So, we can see from this that the terminology the angel used to announce the birth of Jesus were themes and messages associated with the Feast of Tabernacles.

[John 1]  The Feast of Tabernacles is called variously: "Season of Our Joy", "Feast of the Nations", and it’s also called "Feast of Lights".  [John 1:6-9]  In these verses John refers to Jesus as "the light"; and as we have also seen, verse 14 says that he "became flesh and tabernacled among us".  These are two apparent references to the Feast of Tabernacles that are associated with the coming of the Messiah.

Since the Bible tells us that Jesus was born before the death of Herod, and we know that Herod died in 4 BC by our current reckoning, then Jesus had to have been born before that.  We know from other Scriptural evidence that it was as much as two years before the arrival of the Magi.  Based on the information we have on hand, then Jesus was born somewhere between 4-6 BC.  Most evidence points to 6 BC, and 25th of September would be the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles in that year, from the best information I can find.  (However, if we truly wanted to celebrate, we would have to celebrate it on the 15th of Tishri, which this year would be on October 18th.)

We have only scratched the surface of Scriptural and chronological evidence.  We have looked at the profound significance of one of God’s festivals and how it points to the coming of the Savior of the world.  The birth of the Messiah is only one aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles.

There’s also the potential for a future fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles.  It is interesting to note the Feast of Tabernacles was a feast of ingathering of the Harvest (Exodus 23:16 and 34:22).  If Jesus' first coming was indeed on 15 Tishri, the first day of Tabernacles, then it is quite reasonable to presume that the harvest of this earth, the ingathering of the second coming of Jesus Christ, will also occur on the same date.  The unknown factor would be the year that this would happen.

Don’t be taken by surprise; be prepared!  Be watching for that fast approaching day of the Lord![1]



[1] I am by no means certain of the correct Gregorian date that relates to this Jewish date.  I am relying upon software that is provided by a third party.