"When Was Jesus Born?"
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
I love the season of Advent and the Christmas celebration which follows. I enjoy the festive atmosphere, the joy of being with family and friends, the thrill and excitement of giving gifts to others, the parties, the gatherings, the special worship services, and most especially the annual practice of celebrating the incarnation and birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a very special time, every year, during which most Christians pause to consider our expectation for the second coming (or “advent”) of Jesus, followed by an annual remembrance of his incarnation and birth. I enjoy this celebration, and especially the symbols and traditions which have either evolved or been adopted to enhance the party. I also appreciate the discipline of combining a forward-looking expectation of Christ’s return with a backward-looking remembrance of his first advent.
This being said, it is nevertheless a Biblical and historical certainty that Jesus was not born on December 25th. While early Christians certainly believed in the birth narratives as found in the Gospels, their faith-focus was upon the death and resurrection of our Lord, not his incarnation and birth. It wasn’t until a couple of centuries had passed, and the Church stood on the brink of becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, that the need for developing a nativity celebration was realized. The pagan Feast of Saturnalia, and other winter solstice festivals, presented the Church with a serious challenge: this popular religious bacchanalia, which focused upon the birth of the son god, was celebrated by pagans and Christians alike even despite official denouncements of the practice by leading Bishops and other Church Fathers. When such measures failed to stop the party, the church changed its tactics and attempted to co-opt the party, adopt and reinterpret some of the pagan symbols, and place a Christian “spin” on the entire festival. It worked. The 4th century Church shifted the focus of the winter solstice celebrations from the birth of the sun god to the birth of the Son of God. So popular was this adoption that, within just a century, it was hard to find anywhere in the Empire where the Christianization of the date hadn’t taken hold. Soon, nearly every connection with the pagan religious roots of the date were lost to antiquity as the importance of celebrating the incarnation and birth of Jesus took center stage.
“So when was Jesus actually born?” Many will say that the question isn’t important, so long as we celebrate it at some time during the year. Others will say that we’ll never really know; the issue wasn’t of any importance to the early Church, so no record was kept. Still others, like my good friend Dr. Gene Scott, will say that the matter is so critical that we should cease celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th and switch to the actual date. I disagree with the conclusions of all these points of view, while also agreeing with them at least in part. I agree that it is important that we celebrate the incarnation and birth of Jesus; I also agree that the early church appeared to not think it important to celebrate his birth; and, I also agree that we should recognize the historic truth of when Jesus was actually born as can best be determined by scripture and historical reference. I do not agree, however, that recognizing the actual birth date necessitates shifting the celebration away from a traditional date which has been accepted, and practiced, for nearly 1700 years. In short, I believe we can keep the traditions, recognize the historical facts, and be true to the theological message of the incarnation and birth of the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, all at the same time.
“But when was Jesus born?” There is a great deal of debate as to the year. Usually, scholars will attempt to identify Jesus’ birth year by placing it a year or two prior to the death of Herod the Great. Josephus wrote (in his Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; 213 [ix, 3]) that Herod died prior to Passover and “shortly” after a major lunar eclipse; most historians identify this eclipse as being the one that occurred on March 11, 4 B.C., but since this was only a partial eclipse and was poorly visible from Judea, I tend to agree with several recent scholars who prefer the total lunar eclipse of December 29, 1 B.C.. This would place Herod’s death either at the very end of 1 B.C. or, more likely, in January of 1 A.D. (there was no year 0). Since Jesus was born no more than two full years before the death of Herod, our candidate years are 1, 2, or the very end of 3 B.C.. Of these years, 2 B.C. is the strongest. Firstly, it agrees with what Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Eusebius all tell us about Jesus’ birth-year (i.e., that it was 15 years prior to the death of Augustus Caesar in 14 A.D., and that it was also 28 years after the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C.). Secondly, in 2 B.C. there was an important census/enrollment taken marking the 25th Anniversary of Gaius Octavius being given the name “Augustus” and being named Emperor by the Senate (even though he had ruled since 43 B.C., he wasn’t granted the title of Emperor until 27 B.C.). And, thirdly, there was an important conjunction of Jupiter with the star Regulus in 2 B.C. which many (myself included) believe may have been the “Star of Bethlehem” that the Magi interpreted as foretelling the birth of the Messiah. All of this points to the year 2 B.C. for Jesus’ birth.
The Month and Day:
While the New Testament fails to give us a direct statement regarding when Jesus was born, we do have enough information to establish, within a close proximity, the birthday of John the Baptist. In his Gospel, Luke writes:
The priestly order of Abijah was, according 1 Chronicles 24:7-19, the eighth of twenty-four orders which served in the temple throughout the year. The Hebrew calendar is not like the Western calendar: it begins in March/April with the month of Nisan and is calculated upon the lunar-duration method. The third week of that first month is Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when all the priests regardless of their order would serve; this was also true for Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. Apart from these three high holy weeks, the 24 courses would serve in the temple in order from first to the last, each order serving a week at a time. Zechariah was of the eighth order, and this means that, with Passover and Pentecost factored in, Abijah’s first course of service in the Temple would have fallen the week immediately after Pentecost. And, it was most likely during this first tour of duty in 3 B.C. that Zechariah had the following encounter:
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. (Luke 1:5)
Based upon what we are told above, this amazing event occurred while Zechariah was serving in the temple during the regular duties of the eighth course of Abijah. While it is just barely possible that this might have occurred during Zechariah’s second annual tour of temple-duty in the eighth course of Abijah, other circumstances make this quite unlikely. In other words, this occurred during Zechariah’s first Abijah tour of duty, which in 3 BC would have occurred the first week of June. After his service, Zechariah would have gone straight home:
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section [“order”] was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:8-20)
The wording is quite abrupt but not at all surprising: given the punishment he had suffered for not believing Gabriel’s announcement, Zechariah clearly didn’t waste any time but went immediately home. Given both his age and the fact that his home was in a “Judean town in the hill country,” we can surmise that it must have taken Zechariah at least a day or two to make the journey, but that within the week he would have been home. How much longer after that should we estimate that it took for Elizabeth to conceive? The passage doesn’t say, other than to apply an aramaic idiom which indicates both a short but not abrupt temporal frame; in other words, it was “after those days” in the sense that the conception wasn’t immediate, but neither did months pass. We can assume that a week or two transpired before the conception of John the Baptist and still be well within the intent and wording of the passage. Hence, we’re looking at the last week of June or the first week of July before Elizabeth would have conceived. Assuming a July 1st conception for John the Baptist, we can project the date of Jesus’ conception and birth from what Luke tells us next:
When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. (Luke 1:23-24)
The phrase “In the sixth month” means during the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Unfortunately, Luke is not more specific as to when in that month Gabriel appeared to Mary, only that it happened during that month. If Elizabeth’s first month had begun by July 1st, then Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel at some point during the month of December ... probably somewhere between the middle of the month and its end. This would allow time for Mary to proceed directly to Elizabeth’s immediately following her conception, spend “about three months” there, and then depart before John the Baptist was born.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27)
To complete our speculation, if we assume that John the Baptist wasn’t premature, he would have been born at the beginning of April, 2 B.C. -- right around Passover. This is an amazing, but not altogether surprising conjunction, since the Jewish expectation had long been that Elijah would return at Passover! In a typological sense, he did: John the Baptist -- the new Elijah -- would prepare the way for the messiah. Since John the Baptist was conceived 6 months prior to Jesus’ conception, it obviously follows that 6 months after the birth of John the Baptist Jesus was born. It is a simple exercise to count the months:
If we project Jesus’ conception on or about December 24, and if we assume a normal pregnancy of 280 days, Jesus would have been born on or about September 29, 2 B.C.. Of course, this is only an approximate estimation. It is conceivable that John the Baptist could have been conceived and born a week or so earlier than our conjecture, or a week later. Likewise, it is entirely possible that Mary could have received Gabriels annunciation and conceived the Christ child as early as the very first week of Elizabeth’s 6th month, and not half to two-thirds of the way through the month. In this case, Jesus would have been born as early as the first week of September, rather than at the end of the month. Any combination of these factors might be possible, which could push Jesus’ birth as much as a month earlier, or a half-month later, depending upon the variables, but this doesn’t seem likely to me. I believe that the evidence points to a mid-to-late December conception and a late September birth for the Son of God.
What does it matter if Jesus was born on or about September 29th? In terms of our salvation and matters of eternal life: nothing. Salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not through the keeping of high holy days. However, it is important that we speak the truth, and this includes being truthful regarding what we are doing on December 25th.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus at a time other than its actual anniversary because doing so is convenient to the needs, history, and traditions of the Church. In the 4th century it was convenient because several pagan winter-solstice celebrations greatly appealed to many Christians, and since the Church couldn't stop the party they simply adopted and Christianized it. In our current day it's the religious, cultural, and historic inertia of 1700 years which makes it convenient and appealing to continue celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th. Granted, some don't consider historical inertia sufficient cause to continue the tradition, but in terms of practical reality that is precisely the reason the celebration continues even despite the political and cultural challenges which have risen to combat it in recent years. To put this another way, we continue with the tradition because we enjoy doing it.
Many who affirm the birth of Jesus on September 29th, however, are quick to jettison centuries of tradition and cease celebrating Jesus in December: they seem to believe that historical honesty, theological and Biblical purity require an almost iconoclastic disregard for the times and seasons of the church year which have evolved to both teach the theological claims of the faith and aid in the worship life of the Church. In my opinion, those who take this position should reconsider their time-lines. After all, if Jesus was born on September 29th then his conception must have happened on or about December 24th! Theologically speaking, our Lord's incarnation stands out as a crucial, critical, cosmically-transforming event in history. It was in December that the Virgin Mary was "overshadowed by the power of the Most High" enabling her to conceive in her womb the Son of God. It was in December that the "Word became flesh and dwelt among us." It was in December that a miraculous spark of eternal life entered into genetic codes and human cells and the Baby Jesus began to gestate. Indeed, to quote one of the iconoclasts, Dr. Gene Scott, it was in December that "God struck a tent in human flesh" and "moved onto the stage of human history" as an unborn baby boy. It was in the conception -- not the birth -- that humanity and Divinity became one in Jesus of Nazareth. This message is at least as important as the simple birth of the Christ Child, and yet these messages cannot be separated from one another. Hence, I believe that we can honestly, and with historical, theological, and Biblical integrity, celebrate both glorious events at once.
© 2004, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.