Discover why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2).

IDEA: Dating Jesus’ birth depends on external historical information.

PURPOSE: To help listeners see the importance of external historical details in the Bible.

In response to our invitation to our listeners to send in questions they wanted us to talk about, on behalf of the youth group he leads at their church, Stephen in Toronto asked the following series of questions about dating Jesus’ birth:

The naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21) falls on the first day of January (Jesus’ eighth day). Given the distinction between the suffixes “BC” and “AD,” which significant date was determined first? Was the date of the naming of Jesus chosen first to coincide with the start of the new calendar year (and a new calendar) and then, second, the date for Christmas was figured out? Or was the date for Christmas determined first with the date for the naming of Jesus just happening to fall on New Year’s Day?

To answer the questions your young people are asking, Stephen, we need to think about two separate questions: the year of Jesus’ birth and then the month and day of Jesus’ birth.

I. The gospel writer Luke gives us reliable historical information to help us pinpoint when John the Baptist began his preaching ministry.

“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-3).

To settle the year in which both John the Baptist and Jesus were born, we can work backward from what we know from secular history about these rulers:

Tiberius Caesar succeeded Augustus Caesar on August 19, 14 A.D.

Pontius Pilate was appointed governor of Judea from 26 to 36 A.D.

Herod Antipas was tetrarch of the Galilee from 4/1 B.C. to 39 A.D.

Philip Herod was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis from c 4-1 B.C. to 34 A.D.

Annas was high priest from 6 to 15 A.D., and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, was high priest from 18 A.D. to 36 A.D., but Annas still wielded the power (John 18:12-13).

From Luke 3:3 we know from the historical records when John the Baptist began his preaching ministry; we also know that a Jewish priest usually began his ministry at age thirty.

Luke 3:23 tells us that “Jesus began his ministry at about thirty years of age.” We also know that John and Jesus were just six months apart in their birthdays (Luke 1:36-37).

II. We also have helpful information from astronomers in pinpointing the year Jesus was born.

From Matthew 2:7-9 we learn: “Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young child, and when you have found him, bring back word to me that I may come and worship him also. When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was.”

Modern astronomers, using sophisticated instruments, have determined that in the year 2 B.C. Jupiter and Venus conjoined, causing a spectacular stellar display. With Venus rising in the east and visually overlapping Jupiter, it looked like a single brilliant light.

John in Revelation 22:16 spoke of Jesus as “the bright morning star” (a reference to the planet Venus, the morning star). The ancients always connected the planet Jupiter to the birth of a king. The convergence of the two was likely what the Magi saw and followed.

From the Jewish historian Josephus, the date of Herod the Great’s death is connected to a full lunar eclipse. One such eclipse occurred in 4 B.C. and another occurred in 1 B.C. If the 1 B.C. lunar eclipse is what Josephus associated with Herod’s death, then placing Jesus’ birth year in 3 or 2 B.C. agrees with all of the facts in the biblical account.

So, the issue of B.C. or A.D. doesn’t enter into the answer for two reasons: first, because the BC/AD distinction was first made in 525 A.D. and wasn’t widely used until after 800. It was predicated on different calendars (Julian and Gregorian). A.D., as you know, is the abbreviation of the Latin Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord,” but the dating of Jesus’ birth as A.D. 1 back in 525 A.D. was inaccurate. Second, we can say that our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, took on human flesh most likely in either 3 or 2 B.C. We need another program in which to explore questions about the actual month and day.

III. The date December 25 in not mentioned in Scripture and was not fixed until 336 A.D.

The earliest Christians were Jews (Acts 2) and for many Jews, the celebration of one’s birth was a pagan custom. Religious Jews in Jesus’ day disdained the pagan Roman birthday parties.

Early Christians, however, had an oral tradition about Jesus’ birth, which Clement of Alexandria recorded in the second century. But December 25 was not formally adopted as Jesus’ birth-date until the fourth century.

IV. We do have some Bible passages that can perhaps serve theologically as keys to dating Jesus’ birth.

Luke 1:9-11 reports the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the priest Zechariah as he burned incense in the Temple in Jerusalem. The angel’s message was that Elizabeth (his wife) would give birth to a son (John the Baptist) in her old age.

Many scholars associate Zechariah’s temple service with the Old Covenant feast day of national repentance, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Zechariah’s name was never included in the lists of High Priests (who would burn the incense once on that day). However, it is likely he was chosen by lot to burn the sacred incense on the Incense Altar in front of the Holy of Holies during the twice-daily service of the sacrifice of the Tamid lambs on the day of Yom Kippur.

If that is the case, it is significant that Yom Kippur was chosen by God for this announcement to Zechariah. The day was a time of national repentance, and John the Baptist’s mission was to call the people to a baptism of repentance for sin.

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) comes five days after Yom Kippur during the full moon associated with or just after the autumnal equinox (September 23). Assuming Elizabeth’s conception at this time, John the Baptist would have been born around June 25.

How does that help us determine the birthday of Jesus?

Luke 1:36 states that Elizabeth was six months pregnant when Mary conceived Jesus. Adding six months to June 25 (assumed to be John the Baptist’s birth day) brings us to December 25.

The early Church Fathers had one other tradition that may have helped them arrive at the December 25 birthday for Jesus. The tradition is this: Jesus died on the cross on the same day of the year that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He died on the Feast of Passover, which falls during the first full moon after the spring equinox (end of March or early April). In liturgical churches the Feast of the Annunciation has always been celebrated on March 25. Adding nine months to March 25 brings us to December 25.

Some Christians connected December 25 as Jesus’ birthday with the Roman winter solstice, based on Malachi 4:2, speaking of “the Sun of Righteousness [who] will arise with healing in his wings.”

III. Not all Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25.

The original date for Jesus’ birthday in Eastern Christianity was January 6 (Epiphany).

While we follow the later Gregorian calendar, many Christians in other parts of the world still use the earlier Julian calendar. So churches in Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova celebrate Christmas on January 7.

CONCLUSION

What matters is not the actual date but the reality behind our celebration, that God took human flesh and came into the world in order to redeem us and give us eternal life.