by Emily Stone
|Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco, 1614|
Whilst some may find this news shocking, it has been acknowledged that Jesus was not actually born on the 25th December. But why do experts believe that he was not born then, and when was he actually born? Furthermore, why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in mid-December if this date is entirely inaccurate?
Well the first two pieces of evidence as to why Jesus was not born on December 25th comes straight from the Christmas story itself. Within traditional story (Luke 2:7-8) we are told of shepherds tending their flocks by night. This would hardly be feasible in the freezing December evenings. Instead Luke’s account points more towards a Summer, or early Autumn birthday.
The second piece of evidence from the Bible that contradicts what we might previously have thought to have been true, is how Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem in order to be registered in a Roman Census. Similarly, these events would not have occurred in the middle of winter, when temperatures were often freezing and roads were in poor conditions for any form of travelling.
And so, evidence from the bible seems to point away from December as a birth date for Jesus. Why then do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
There are many theories that explain this phenomena. One of these theories is that, in the 3rd century, when it was decided that we should start celebrating Christ’s birthday. It was believed that Christ was the second Adam (as in Adam and Eve), born to cleanse us of the original sin. And so, it was suggested that we should celebrate March the 25th as his birthday, as this is the beginning of Spring and is associated with new birth and fresh starts (all the commodities we now associate with Easter). However one African scholar, Sextus Africanus, decided that this was actually the date of Christ’s conception. Fast forward nine months, and thus we celebrate Christmas on the 25th December.
An additional theory stems from the Jewish Passover, which was when Jesus was believed to have died. Early scholars may have looked to the Jewish lunar calendar, and from there deduced that March 25th was the date of his death. An ancient Jewish belief was that prophets, such as Jesus, were either conceived or born on the same day as their death. This ultimately lead to the conclusion that Jesus was conceived on the 25th March and was born on the 25th December.
It is actually unlikely that we celebrate Christmas then in order to coincide with Pagan festivals, such as the Winter Solstice, or early traditional festivals, such as the traditional Roman Saturnalia. This belief may be considered false due to the fact that Saturnalia was celebrated earlier in December, and there are no records of Christian writers adapting their chapters to fit in with it.
So when was Jesus actually born? Well, as stated earlier, Luke’s account of the Christmas story points to a summer or early autumn birth. Additional evidence from the Bible shows us that Jesus was actually born around the end of September. This has been calculated based on the birth of John the Baptist.
Luke 1:24-36 says that Elizabeth (John’s mother) was sixth months pregnant when Jesus was conceived. John’s father, Zacharias was a priest serving the Jerusalem temple during the course of Abijah. According to historical calculations, this was around June 15th in that year. It was during this time that Zacharias realised he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child. Once he had completed his service in the temple he went home and John was conceived. From this it is assumed that John’s conception took place near the end of June, nine months later, he was born in March. When adding on the age difference between John and Jesus, it leads to the end of September as a likely time for Jesus’ birth to actually have happened.
In conclusion therefore, Jesus was not born on December 25th, but likely around the end of September. The celebration of his birth has been situated on the date due to the theorization of ancient scholars, with regards to what Jesus means to us, and the Jewish traditions at the time. In the present day, Christmas is suitably situated as a holiday in the winter months. As the cold weather brings dreary thoughts and the dark breeds depression, Christmas is the joy and the light we look forward to in these bitter months.