Sunday, December 18, 2011

What day was Jesus really born?

Since at least the 5th century, the birth of our Lord Jesus has been celebrated liturgically on the 25th of December. This date makes sense in the cycle of feasts, since it falls nine months after the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th). It is uncertain which feast came first; the Feast of the Annunciation originated sometime between 376 and 431 (Council of Ephesus), but it is not mentioned in the west until the time of Pope Gelasius (496). The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) was celebrated from at least the third century and seems to have been fixed on December 25th sometime between 350 and 430.

The historical reasons for the dating of Christ's birth on December 25th are shrouded in mystery; many theories have been put forward. Some, denigrating the Catholic tradition, focus on the fact that the pagan feast of the birth of the sun god Sol Invictus also fell on December 25th. Other theories, relating to the winter solstice or to a Scandinavian pagan holy day, also have their supporters. In many cases, the implication of these theories is that Jesus was not really born on December 25th.

How can we tell when Jesus was born? Is there a way to tell when Jesus' real birthday is? Calculating the birthday of Jesus is not easy, and there really is no level of certainty that we can hope for here. Do we know when Jesus was really born? No. Can we use some data from the New Testament to narrow down the possibilities? I believe we can and, surprisingly enough, I think what we find vindicates a December birth for our Lord.

What we really need in examining this question is some fixed date, some event, to which we can "anchor" the events recalled in the Gospel of Luke. We already have a relative chronology: we know that Mary conceived our Lord six months after the conception of Elizabeth, for example. How can we anchor events such as the Annunciation and the Visitation to some concrete date or time?

The closest thing we have is the passage at the beginning of Luke's Gospel regarding the Temple service offered by Zachariah. Zachariah was a priest "of the division of Abijah" (Luke 1:5); this fact will be quite important. While in Jerusalem, "performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him." (Luke 1:8-11) The angel Gabriel told Zachariah that his barren wife, Elizabeth, was to bear him a son, and his name was to be John. "And it came about, that when the days of his priestly service were ended, that he went back home. And after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant." (Luke 1:23-24)

If we go back to 1 Chronicles 24, we read that the houses of Aaron were divided up into twenty-four "divisions", each serving God in the Temple on a kind of rotation throughout the year (see here). Abijah, the house to which Zachariah belonged, was one of these divisions. If we could find out when the division of Abijah was chosen to serve each year, we would know roughly the date of the conception of John the Baptist, and by adding fifteen months (Six of Elizabeth's pregnancy plus the nine months Mary was pregnant) we could get an idea of when our Lord was born.

The problem is that the Scriptures give us no data on when any certain division was on duty. For this, we have to turn to Jewish history and rabbinical tradition.

Josephus tells us that each division served from Sabbath to Sabbath, eight days, passing their duties on to the next division midday on the Sabbath (Against Apion, 2:8). Each division ended up serving approximately five weeks throughout the year, though this got a little complicated during major feasts (during Passover, for example, all twenty-four divisions served at once). So, pinpointing when Abijah was on duty would give us five potential "windows" of eight days each throughout the year from which to extrapolate our Lord's birth.

But when was Abijah, or any order, on duty?

An interesting point of evidence is that, according to Talmudic tradition, the destruction of the first temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. happened while the family of Jehoiarib was on duty. This event was so deeply burned in the Jewish psyche that it is not surprising they would have remembered what family was on duty. Consider the following passages:

"Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, and bad things on an unlucky day. It is reported that the day on which the First Temple was destroyed was the eve of the ninth of Ab, a Sunday, and in the year following the Sabbatical year, and the Mishmar [division] of the family of Jehoiarib were on duty and the Levites were chanting the Psalms standing on their Duchan (platform). And what Psalm did they recite? - [The Psalm] containing the verse, `And He hath brought upon them their own iniquity, and will cut them off in their own evil.' And hardly had they time to say, `The Lord our God will cut them off,' when the heathens came and captured them. The same thing too happened in the Second Temple." (Ta'anith 29a)

"It is said, The day on which the first Temple was destroyed was the ninth of Ab, and it was at the going out of the Sabbath, and the end of the seventh [Sabbatical] year. The [priestly] guard was that of Jehoiarib, the priests and Levites were standing on their platform singing the song. What song was it? `And He hath brought upon them their iniquity, and will cut them off in their evil.' They had no time to complete `The Lord our God will cut them off,' before the enemies came and overwhelmed them. The same happened the second time." (Arakin 11b).

Now, if Jehoiarib was on duty on the 9th of Ab (July 18th), and we consult the order of the priestly divisions of the sons of Aaron as recorded in 1 Chronicles 24, we see that Abijah was the eighth division and Jehoiarib the first. This means Abijah would have been serving eight weeks after Jehoiarib. Since we have a fixed date on which to place the service of Jehoiarib (July 18th), we can extrapolate the whole cycle and figure out when Abijah was on duty.

Unfortunately, there are many complications to this method, the biggest being that the priestly schedule was disrupted several times. For example, it was disrupted at the time of the Babylonian Exile. For seventy years Ezra 6:15-18 tells us that Ezra and Nehemiah had to reconstitute the divisions on a new schedule after the return from Babylon and even had to create four new orders because four of the old orders had been lost. This schedule was again disrupted at the time of the Maccabees.

Fortunately, we have another reference to the order from closer to Jesus' life: the time of the Second Temple. Like the first destruction, the second destruction also occurred in July (28th) and again, according to Josephus, Jehoiarib was on duty. Despite the disruptions and the creation of new divisions, if we presume that each division at least retained its similar place in the order throughout this time, we can use this method, to find at least eight weeks throughout the year when Abijah would have been serving. They are not even intervals of eight weeks, due to the fact that Abijah would have been serving at major feasts besides the regular intervals. These weeks are:

Jan 18-25
March 19-26
April 18-25
May 17-24
Aug 3-10

Sept 3-10
Oct 3-10
Nov 1-8

Zachariah would have been offering incense during one of these weeks. The fact that a "large multitude" was gathered outside the Temple further tells us that the specific day was probably one of the great feasts, either Passover, Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles.

Now, if we presume that Zachariah heard the message of the angel and John the Baptist was conceived during one of these intervals, specifically on one of the great Sabbaths or high feast days, then by extrapolating fifteen more months, we have the following dates as possible times when Christ was born:

Jan. 23
Apr. 10
June 11
July 10
Aug. 8
Oct. 25
Nov. 25
Dec. 25

Note that December 25th is one of the eight possible dates. If this were Christ's birthday, this would place the Annunciation on March 25th (in accordance with Tradition) and the conception of John the Baptist in the vicinity of October 10th. This would place Zachariah's temple service during the week of October 3rd-10th, which actually coincides with the Feast of Tabernacles, which fell during the week of September 29-October 5th in 6 BC.

This explanation is fraught with difficulties. Of course it could have been December 25th, but this explanation also allows for seven other possible dates. And, these dates themselves are all based on extrapolations from some very scanty evidence, mainly a few passages from Josephus. That being said, greater minds than I have certainly came up with this before; it was originated by St. John Chrysostom, though there is even dispute about that (some saying that the work this is found in is spurious). And there is much more reckoning that needs to be done that I omitted for the sake of brevity - calculations of Sabbaths, new moons, etc. spanning centuries, which is why even the Catholic Encyclopedia says such computations based on Zachariah's temple service are "unreliable"  "untrustworthy" and even "hopeless."

Is December 25th really Jesus' birthday? There is no way to tell for certain, but at least we know that the traditional date is not without grounds. We certainly can say that December 25th does have a solid biblical and historic support and allows us to comfortably explain the date of our Lord's Nativity without reference to the Sol Invictus or winter solstice theories.

Here is a good webpage with some more chronological information on Star of Bethlehem and further support for a winter nativity.


Nick said...

I don't see how the date of 6BC is acceptable, considering that the AD/BC system is even more important to the faith than December 25.

I've liked the simple theory that Zecheriah was doing his service during the Feast of Tabernacles (as you settled upon as well), meaning late September early October and the math works out as you showed: add 15 months.

I like the idea the great crowd signified a feast, and that it is more fitting that this took place on a Feast rather than a random day.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

The Liturgical Year, by Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.

"We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year..." He adds that nothing is "able to distract our Holy Mother the Church from the immense joy of which she received the good tidings from the Angels on that glorious Night for which the world had been longing four thousand years."

With regard to our Savior's Birth on December 25, we have St. John Chrysostom (d.407A.D.) telling us, in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on this day. He is not satisfied with merely mentioning the tradition; he undertakes to show that it is well founded, inasmuch as the Church of Rome had every means of knowing the true day of our Savior's Birth, since the acts of the Enrolment, taken in Judea by command of Augustus, were kept in the public archives of Rome. The holy Doctor adduces a second argument, which he founds upon the Gospel of St. Luke, and he reasons thus: we know from the sacred Scriptures that it must have been in the fast of the seventh month that the priest Zachary had the vision in the Temple; after which Elizabeth, his wife, conceived St. John the Baptist: hence it follows that the Blessed Virgin Mary having, as the Evangelist St. Luke relates, received the Angel Gabriel's visit, and conceived the Savior of the world in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, that is to say, in March, the Birth of Jesus must have taken place in the month of December."

There are also proofs and attempts at specifically identifying the 25th as the correct date; such as the reference to Matthew's Gospel and the generation of Jesus ending with the naming of Jesus in verse 25; "is Matthew leaving a hint that Jesus was named in the 42 year of the inauguration of The Julian Calendar or, more precisely, at the very beginning of the 42 year, which would have been on the first of Jan of the year 4 BC? Then, since the naming of Jewish boys always took place on the eighth day after birth, this would mean that The Nativity of Our Lord took place on Dec 25 of the year 5 BC.

I'm sorry I have no reference for that info. It exists in some old notes that I have.

Love your Blog

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

I think this is where I got the info I posted

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Boniface said...

Thanks "I am not Spartacus." I have heard, however, that the homily of Chrysostom in question is considered spurious by some, so I'm taking it with a grain of salt. The same goes for a sermon of Cyprian "De Pascha Computatus" that purports to identify Christ's birth on March 23rd. This was written around 243, five years before Cyprian's baptism.

Nick - Why is absolute accuracy of BC/AD so important? That dating system wasn't invented until the 6th century and is universally acknowledged to be somewhat off by a few years. Can you elaborate on your thinking here?

Nick said...

I take the 'uncertainty' about the date to be principally due to a form of Modernism which has the goal of 'divorcing' the historical facts from the theological event. If these "scholars" can generate enough doubt, they can make the Church calendar look like a silly and mythical joke rather than true history. Once Christianity has painted itself as an pseudo-historical joke by its own (self-inflicted) admission, the world will have less inclination to trust the Gospel, rightly seeing it as a more advanced form of Mormon "history".

This is precisely why there is an assault on December 25, with an attempt to say "Smart folks know better than to take that date seriously; it was originally a pagan festival the Church wanted stamped out". Well, if Dec 25 is a joke, then what else is a joke?

Consider a parallel example with the writings of the New Testament: the ordinary and universal Magisterium has told us who the authorship or most likely authorship is, but all of the sudden in the last few decades "scholars" are saying we don't know who really wrote this or that, and in fact it was probably second/third generation Christians rather than Apostles. The goal here is to say "See, all this time the Church thought an Apostle wrote this, but we have discovered (not really!) that this is historically impossible".

The underlying motive is undoubtedly that error St Pius X wished so much to condemn explicitly in Lamentabili and The Oath against Modernism:

"I also condemn and reject the opinion of those who say that a well-educated Christian assumes a **dual personality**-that of a believer and at the same time of a historian, as if it were permissible for a historian to hold things that contradict the faith of the believer, or to establish premises which, provided there be no direct denial of dogmas, would lead to the conclusion that dogmas are either false or doubtful."

I hold that the Church in placing the BC-to-AD transition where it did, 2011 years ago, was to ground the Nativity in true world-changing history. It is no small thing to base an entire calendar around an event, which is why modern Liberalism hates "AD" and seeks to change it to "CE" - despite the fact there is no logical grounds for making 1BC/1AD a secular reference point, nor was there anything "common" about the era.

Once we start tampering with things the Church has literally centered worship around for centuries - including the Old Mass - we're playing right into the hands of Modernism. And we forget it's mostly Modernist scholarship that dominates the textbooks and seminaries, so we cannot just repeat any 'scholarly consensus'. With that in mind, my thoughts shouldn't be taken as 'extreme' but rather noticeable moderate resistance to the Liberal dominated status quo.

We've seen the grave damage done to the faith just with the modern revision of the Calendar, creating an "ordinary time" in place of Pentecost Season, shifting Holy Days to Sunday, etc, etc.

Anonymous said...


By head-butting with known and plain fact you're only drawing people away from the faith by making Christians look like morons through your example. You should not try to create infallibility where this is none.

And no, this isn't "just like with evolution."

Boniface said...


Well, I am going to have to take issue with you here on several points:

1) "The Church" did not invent this dating system. It was invented by Dionysius Exiguus, around 525. This calendar was not adopted by secular rulers until the time of Charlemagne and was not adopted by the papacy until the 11th century. In the east, dating was still done by regnal years for some time as well. It's not accurate to suggest that BC/AD is "the Church's" invention. Rather, it was a convention invented by a monk and slowly adopted by the Church.

2) The Modernist danger you allude to regarding 'dual Christianity' is not present just by admitting the chronology is off. Nobody is trying to divorce Christianity from its historical roots here - rather, we are trying ground it in history by pinpointing the events of our Savior's life more accurately.

3) Scripture clearly says that Jesus began His ministry when he was thirty years old, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene" (Luke 3:1). If Jesus was 30 when He began His ministry, and this was the 15th year of Tiberius, that would place the date of His baptism around 26/27 AD, and therefore his birth around 3/4 BC.

4) Scripture says Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died in 4 BC.

5) The consular lists and regnal lists which Dionysius Exiguus woud have used in compiling his history were inaccurate and lists of emperors were confused because of the chaos attending upon the Fall of Rome (multiple emperors at once, etc).

6) Recognizing that a time-honored tradition may be historically inaccurate is not necessarily a sign of modernism. As early as the 17th century, for example, the Benedictine congregation of St. Maur (Maurists)critically examined a lot of the hagiographies of the early middle ages with the intent of purging them of unhistorical or legendary material. This effort was praised by the popes of the day as beneficial to the Church in the interest of making sure the basis of the Church's belief was grounded in historical truth, not fable.

In conclusion, I see the danger you are worried about, but do not think it exists here, especially since, even going by Scripture itself, we must admit that Jesus was born at least in 4 BC or prior.

Anonymous said...

Tiberius began his reign in 14 A.D., so even if we take "fifteenth year" to mean the year leading up to the 15th anniversary, that still leaves us in the year 28/29 A.D., not 26/27.


Nick said...

Sorry for the delay, I've been relatively busy and my computer recently broke down.

I'm still troubled at the idea the Church has been using the "wrong calendar" this whole time. It literally means Jesus was born a few years "Before Christ," and is akin to a student spelling their name wrong the entire academic year.

When it comes to details like the date of Herod's death, I'm always cautious on where such data even came from. For example, if all we have is Josephus saying Herod died in 4BC, how is that definitive by any means? It seems this date doesn't even match up with Luke's mention of Quarinius - which historians say is so 'off' that scholars suggest Luke got his own history wrong.

And with the variances I see, even by just single years, that to me allows some 'fudge-factor' room for making 1BC/AD acceptable. For example, I see two trends that both claim they're based on the best evidence, one that says 3/2BC for Christ's Birth (while the other trend favors 7-4BC). And Anonymous says Baptism is more like 28/29, which means placing Birth at 2/1BC. Such variance suggests there is something not as certain as is being pressed.

Did the Benedictine Monks say anything about the inaccuracy of the Calendar? Do you know when the charge began to be made that the Calendar was wrong?

Boniface said...

Nick, I do not know, but it is prior to the 20th century. I would venture to guess that the objections to the accuracy of the AD calendar come out of the Renaissance or Catholic Reformation period, with its emphasis on study of historical documents and the great advances in astronomy.

I don't think the Maurists addressed this particular issue, but I use them as an example of how popular histories adopted by Catholics are not necessarily historically accurate. Another similar group of scholars were the Bollandists (c. 1596-1650) who produced historically accurate Lives of the Saints and removed (or at least foot-noted) much material that was legendary or unhistorical.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), on the issue of the Anno Domini calednar, says:

It is supposed by many that the calculation of Dionysius was incorrect, and that the birth of Christ really occurred three years earlier than he placed it, or in the year of Rome 750 which he styles 3 B.C. This, however, is immaterial for the purposes of chronology, the first year of the Christian Era being that fixed, rightly or wrongly, by Dionysius.

This is basically what I am saying - the accuracy of inaccuracy of the calendar of Dionysius Exiguus (which is, btw, a secular calendar - the "Church's calendar" is the liturgical calendar) is not invested with any sort of divine authority, nor could it be, being not really adopted in the west until the time of Charlemagne. Nobody even knows how he arrived at the date he did, but it is believed to have been based on sketchy "consul lists."

At any rate, I do know what you are saying about having misgivings about so many Catholics being "wrong" about the calendar, but chronology in the time of Dionysius Exiguus was very sketch, and I don't see that we have to invest with infallibility something that was made up by a private chronicler sometime in the 6th century and only adopted centuries later. Until you made this objection about the calendar, I have never met another Christian, Catholic or otherwise, who thought there was any issue admitting the calendar was off.

But, like I said, and like the Catholic Encyclopedia says, it is ultimately "immaterial for the purpose of chronology" in my opinion. Does it put Jesus born in BC? Well, so be it - because the BC designation wasn't invented until centuries after the fact, so I don't see it as a problem.

Nick said...

I've been looking into this more and more and it seems this began with (liberal) Protestant scholars in the late 19th century when they first started believing the Bible had historical errors compared to 'inerrant' secular sources.

What is interesting to me is that when Luke says Jesus "began to near 30" in the 15th year of Tiberius (AD29ish), this is virtually direct proof of the traditional date. Why Herod dogmatically fixed at 4BC is used almost exclusively is a mystery.

Ultimately, I don't want this issue to turn me into an 'extremist', but I do feel liberals and anti-Catholics have a vested interest in seeing historical error in Luke.

Marco da Vinha said...

Boniface, perhaps this might be of interest? (I admit I never read the whole page)

Johannes said...

I noticed a major shortcoming in the post: it does not state the year for which the weeks of Abijah's serving are calculated.

In case you are interested, there is a blog with very good research on NT chronology, with the articles most relevant to the Nativity being:

Personally, I approached the topic from a different starting point: as Jesus' circumcision can be seen as prefiguration of the shedding of his blood in the cross, we could assume, following the view of Jesus as the Lamb of God, that his circumcision took place at the same time of year in the Hebrew calendar as his crucifixion, namely in the afternoon of 14 Nissan, when the Paschal lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.

Notably, the addition of a second hypothesis, namely that the year of Jesus' birth was 7 BC, leads to an interesting, though highly speculative, consequence.

As the link above is a bit long, you might want to have a look just to subsection 7.2, which deals strictly with the subject of your post, quoting two scholarly references.

Boniface said...


Thanks for the links!

I don't know what you mean when you said I did not include a year from which to calculate Abijah's service. I specifically mention both 587 BC and 70 AD as two dates where we can calculate when Abijah was serving - and based on those years as the "anchors", we get Abijah's service on these dates:

Jan 18-25
March 19-26
April 18-25
May 17-24
Aug 3-10
Sept 3-10
Oct 3-10
Nov 1-8

Johannes said...

That's exactly the point! Jan 18-25, March 19-26, etc. of what year? 8 BC? 7 BC?

Boniface said...

Oh, sorry. I think I misunderstood.

Check the paragraph right after I list the possible dates. It says:

Note that December 25th is one of the eight possible dates. If this were Christ's birthday, this would place the Annunciation on March 25th (in accordance with Tradition) and the conception of John the Baptist in the vicinity of October 10th. This would place Zachariah's temple service during the week of October 3rd-10th, which actually coincides with the Feast of Tabernacles, which fell during the week of September 29-October 5th in 6 BC.

Johannes said...

OK, now I see it had been there all the time. Sorry.

So, using date format [dd month year] for clarity, you propose:

3 Oct 6 BC + 6 months = 3 Apr 5 BC

as the latest possible date for the Annunciation, at the end of Elizabeth's 6th month. Taking then the traditional date of 25 Mar for the Annunciation:

25 Mar 5 BC + 9 months = 25 Dec 5 BC

The problem is that this date does not fit historical constraints. We know from Flavius Josephus that King Herod the Great died after a lunar eclipse and before a Passover, and that he had left Jerusalem about 6 months before dying. Based on other historical constraints, the eclipse of choice is the partial lunar eclipse of 13 March 4 BC, for which the following Passover was on 11 April 4 BC, so that he left Jerusalem around 1 Oct 5 BC, which therefore is the latest possible date for his order to execute all babies in the Bethlehem area "two years old and under".

Boniface said...

Yes, I see that problem now. My choosing of 6 BC was based on a inference that Zechariah's Temple service fell during the Feast of Tabernacles. If we allow that it may not have been during Tabernacles, however, I think a later dating would work

Boniface said...

Yes, I see that problem now. My choosing of 6 BC was based on a inference that Zechariah's Temple service fell during the Feast of Tabernacles. If we allow that it may not have been during Tabernacles, however, I think a later dating would work