When is Christmas, Really?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, stirred up a storm when he spoke of the Nativity as a "myth."  The article quotes the Archbishop as saying:

Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival.

Many people doubt that Jesus was born on Dec. 25. History records that the Romans had a week-long pagan holiday called "Saturnalia" which was celebrated December 17-25.

Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.  At the festival's conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

... widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits (still produced in some English and most German bakeries during the Christmas season).

The argument is that Christians set Christ's birth at Dec. 25 as a marketing ploy; pagans could convert to "Christianity" without giving up Saturnalia. People who accept this story assert confidently that Jesus could not have been born in December because sheep would be penned up instead of being out on the hills at that time of year.

The question isn't that simple, however, and a bit of background may be helpful in discussing the question. In an article "The Battle of the Books," the Economist compares the Bible and the Koran in terms of demographics and market competition. They ask, "And who is winning the battle of the books? Is either of the world's two great religions gaining an edge when it comes to getting their Holy Books into people's hands and hearts?"

The article points out that it's one thing to give away Bibles and Korans; it's quite another to get people to read, understand, believe, and act on what's in those books.

Historical Records

The Bible speaks of many historical events and gives names and places which are found outside the Bible; it contains a great many more checkable statements than the Koran does. Interpreting the Bible is a matter of personal conviction -- showing that the Bible agrees with modern archeology doesn't make skeptics admit that the Bible is true; showing that the Bible doesn't agree with other records doesn't make believers admit that the Bible is false.

True believers state that the archeology must be wrong and wait for confirmation. For example, in the 1800's, skeptics derided the Bible because it mentions Hittites and there were no other records of Hittites. Today, however, the existence of the Hittites is so thoroughly accepted as to be the subject of a sample cheater's term paper which is available for purchase by desperate students.

Other skeptics criticize Jewish history for claiming that King Solomon married a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh (7:8), saying that Egypt's rulers didn't give their daughters to lesser kings. The Jewish account states

But Pharaoh's daughter came up out of the city of David unto her house which [Solomon] had built for her; then did he build Millo. (9:24)

Some years ago, National Geographic published a story about an ancient dwelling unearthed just outside Jerusalem which, to everyone's surprise, contained Egyptian household furnishings.

Other skeptics claim that Jewish history can't be reconciled with Egyptian chronology as chiseled in stone all over the Nile Valley. In the preface to Egyptologist David M. Rohl's book Pharaohs and Kings, however, Prof. Robert Bianchi notes:

Clearly a wide philosophical schism has opened between those who would accept the Biblical narratives at face value and those who dismiss the historical accuracy of those accounts.

Prof Bianchi goes on to explain that Prof. Rohl has rearranged Egyptian chronology so that it a) better fits his interpretation of Egyptian archeology and b) happens to fit Jewish history rather well.

Jewish history is open to interpretation -- believers can regard it as accurate without being ridiculous, but there are enough ambiguities and disagreements with other sources that skeptics don't have to believe it.

The Koran doesn't face that issue -- it has relatively little historical detail which can be compared with other sources. This is something of a disadvantage in marketing terms -- when Jewish history appears to conflict with other data, scholars are often inspired to study the details. Many former skeptics have become convinced of the truth of ancient Jewish writings after such examinations while some believers abandon them after study.

What of Jesus' birth?

The Bible doesn't give the day of the year when Jesus was born, so the question of Dec. 25 doesn't raise any issues of Biblical accuracy. However, there is evidence that Jesus could have been born around that time. Setting Christmas on Dec. 25 wasn't a marketing ploy if it was based on fact.

The issue of shepherds being in the field in December was addressed by Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish scholar who published The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah in 1883.

Equally so was the belief that He (the birth of Messiah) was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, the 'tower of the flock.' This Migdal Eder was not the watch-tower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for the temple sacrifices .... The same Mishnic passage also leads us to infer that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover--that is in the month of February when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly greatest.

The common-sense belief that sheep wouldn't be outdoors at that time of year would be true except that there were special, consecrated sheep in the right place at the right time to agree with Luke's account of Jesus' birth.

When was Jesus born?

Luke says that an angel appeared to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, who served the Jewish temple in the "course of Abijah." A "course" was a group of priests who served the temple for a fixed part of every year -- in effect, a seasonal shift crew. Jewish history gives the order in which courses served the temple. The course of Jehoiarib was serving when the temple was destroyed in 79AD. Counting backward puts the course of Abijah in the first week of October.

The angel told Zachariah that his wife Elizabeth would give him a son. The record says that Zachariah finished his course, went home, and that his wife conceived (Luke 1:23). The most likely date for John the Baptist's conception is late in October.

Gabriel is reported as appearing to Mary at the beginning of the 6th month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. The start of the 6th month of her pregnancy would probably have been around the end of March. Pregnancy normally takes 270 days; 270 days from March 31 is December 25.

Thus, although the Bible doesn't mention an exact date, Christ could have been born on December 25.  This is not the same thing as saying that Christ was born then; but it is clearly proof that it's at least possible.

When the Archbishop pointed out the uncertainty in the date of Christ's birth and listed a number of popular traditions such as Mary riding on a donkey which have no support in the Bible, people doubted his belief in the religion of which he's the ranking head. Can anyone even imagine the Pope not being Catholic?  The very question is the subject of jokes. Perhaps the Pope has a stronger brand identity than does the Church of England?

Merry Christmas!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

This is quite a good explanation.  There isn't really a clear conclusion, but that's kind of the point.  The history here is decent.  I am a practicing Jew, but not orthodox, and I often wondered why Christian religions and derivatives have far greater fluctuation in discipleship.  This is especially true as compared with Islam.  If there are far fewer complexities, there is far less to argue with.

December 25, 2007 12:28 PM
I am not one for biblical stuff really but just by reading this I have found:

(Gabriel is reported as appearing to Mary at the beginning of the 6th month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. The start of the 6th month of her pregnancy would probably have been around the end of March. Pregnancy normally takes 270 days; 270 days from March 31 is December 25.)
taken from abouve artical

If Gabriel visited Marry in HER 6th month of pregnancy and that month was March she would have had 3 month tell the birth that is June not December! If he was born in december and the 6month mark is correct (march) then she was pregnant for what 14 month? I dont this that is right. So my conculision would be he was born in June. *shrug* makes since to me.
January 10, 2008 8:47 AM
It doesn't say that Gabriel visited Mary in her 6th month of pregnancy. It says that Gabriel visited Mary in ELIZABETH's 6th month of pregnancy. Mary became pregnant FOLLOWING the trip to Elizabeth, if I recall.
January 10, 2008 9:30 AM

The most obvious question, which the article does not address, is why Christmas is celebrated according to the Roman calendar and not the Jewish (as Easter is). Answer: It was not an original holiday of the Church. The passion, not the birth, is what the original church cared to preserve.

Also, in the Julian calendar (which was used when Jesus was born) December 25th, not the 21st, was the Winter Solstice day. A rather suspicious coincidence.

The long established history that the 25th was chosen for convenience of _later Christians_ makes perfect sense when these factors are considered. And, as the article points out, it raises no inerrancy questions, so no one needs to defend the date as historical, especially as so much points away from it. No one knows what the birth date was when the holiday was added and it is overall _less_ likely that it is the December 25th than warmer days. But certainly, it is not particularly likely.

December 27, 2016 7:50 PM
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