…when Hebrew shepherds historically tended their flocks in open fields and according to the biblical account of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies.
What month was Jesus born in?
As we look at the story of when Jesus was born we often think of the shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks. What can this evidence tell us about the date of Jesus’ birth? Were the flocks in the fields around the time of our modern-day Christmas, December 25?
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Let’s look at what the Bible says in Luke 2:8-9. “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.”
According to Bible commentator Adam Clarke, it was customary for the Jews to send their sheep to pasture from the spring until early October. As the cold winter months began, the flocks would return from the fields for shelter and warmth. Since the shepherds were still tending their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem it can be concluded that the angels announced the news of Jesus’ birth no later than October.
Clues to determine Jesus’ birthday
We can find some additional clues to answer the question of “when was Jesus really born” by looking at the birth of John the Baptist. Luke 1 tells of Zacharias, who was from the priestly order of Abijah, and his barren wife, Elizabeth, becoming pregnant with John the Baptist after his days of service in the temple. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Mary with the news that she would give birth to Jesus. The approximate month of Jesus’ birth can thus be determined by counting from the date of Zacharias’ priestly service until the birth of Jesus.
Jewish priests were divided into 24 courses which ministered throughout the year in the temple. The order of Abijah was the eighth priestly course (1 Chronicles 24:6-19) which served in the temple during the 10th week of the priestly cycle. The start of the 10th week coincided with the second Sabbath in the month of Sivan, which runs approximately from mid-May to mid-June. Soon after Zechariah returned from his priestly duties Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.
Luke 1:24-28, 31 records these events, “Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’ Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’…And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.”
The date of Jesus’ birth?
Therefore, according to the texts above we can approximate the month of Jesus’ birth to be around the time of Tishri (mid to late September). To arrive at this date, start at the conception of John the Baptist, Sivan (June), count forward six months to arrive at Gabriel’s announcement of the conception of Jesus, Kislev (December), then count forward nine more months, the time it takes for human gestation, to reach Tishri (September), when Jesus was born.
Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection
The exact date of Jesus’ birth may not be known, but we can rest assured that Jesus died for our sins (Galatians 3:13), rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3-6), and that He will one day come back to take us to heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Imagine such a sacrifice. Imagine leaving the glory of heaven to save humanity? This year, think upon Jesus, His sacrifice, and His mercy. Ask yourself how can I live like He lived? How can I share His message with those around me?
Although millions of people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25, most scholars agree that he wasn’t born on that day, or even in the year 1 A.D.
Researchers believe the Roman Catholic Church settled on Dec. 25 for many reasons, such as that date’s ties to the winter solstice and Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman deity Saturn. By choosing this day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, the church could co-opt the popular pagan festival, as well as the winter celebrations of other pagan religions.
But nobody really knows exactly when Jesus was born.
Some scholars think that he was born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., based partly on the biblical story of Herod the Great. Not long before Herod’s demise, which is believed to have occurred in 4 B.C., the ruler of Judea supposedly ordered the death of all male infants who were under the age of two and lived in the vicinity of Bethlehem, in an attempt to kill Jesus.
But historians disagree about Herod’s actual year of death. What’s more, the horrific mass infanticide is legend, not fact, Reza Aslan, a biblical scholar and author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (Random House, 2013), told PolicyMic.
To pinpoint Jesus’ birth year, other scholars have tried to correlate the “Star of Bethlehem,” which supposedly heralded Jesus’ birth, with actual astronomical events. For example, in a 1991 article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomer Colin Humphreys proposed that the fabled star was actually a slow-moving comet, which Chinese observers recorded in 5 B.C.
Scholars also debate the month of Jesus’ birth. In 2008, astronomer Dave Reneke argued that Jesus was born in the summer. The Star of Bethlehem, Reneke told New Scientist, may have been Venus and Jupiter coming together to form a bright light in the sky. Using computer models, Reneke determined that this rare event occurred on June 17, in the year 2 B.C.
Other researchers have claimed that a similar conjunction, one between Saturn and Jupiter, occurred in October of 7 B.C., making Jesus an autumn baby.
Theologians have also suggested that Jesus was born in the spring, based on the biblical narrative that shepherds were watching over their flocks in the fields on the night of Jesus’ birth — something they would have done in the spring, not the winter.
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When Was Jesus Born?
Was it really on December 25th?
By Dr. David R. Reagan
According to Luke 1:24-26, Mary conceived Jesus in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. This means that Jesus was born 15 months after the angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zacharias, and informed him that his wife would bear a child.
According to Luke 1:5, Zacharias was a priest of the division of Abijah. Luke 1:8 says that Gabriel appeared to Zacharias while he was serving as a priest in the Temple.
We know from the Talmud and other sources that the division of Abijah served as priests during the second half of the fourth month of the Jewish religious calendar — which would have put it in late June (the Jewish religious calendar begins in March with Passover).
Fifteen months later would place the birth of Jesus in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. That would be in the fall of the year, in either late September or early October. His conception, not His birth, would have occurred in December of the previous year.
The seventh month of the Jewish calendar is the month of the Feast of Tabernacles. John 1:14, speaking of Jesus as the Word, says: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The word “dwelt” that is used here is the Greek word “skenoo” which literally means “to tabernacle”!
So, when God came to earth to tabernacle among Men it appears that He timed His arrival in the Bethlehem manger to coincide with the Feast of Tabernacles. That was only appropriate, for the Feast of Tabernacles is the most joyous of all the Jewish feasts. It is, in fact, their feast of thanksgiving.
The total meaning of that feast will not be fulfilled until the Lord returns again to tabernacle among Men for a thousand years while He reigns over the earth from Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Isn’t the Word of God marvelous?
It’s About Time:
When was Jesus Born?
By Dr. James Ya’akov Hugg
Editor’s Note: James W. Hugg, PhD, has been a disciple of the Messiah since 1971 and has been a member of the Lamb and Lion Board of Trustees since 1982. James has been active in leading worship and teaching youth and adult Bible classes. He has been involved since 1989 in Messianic Judaism, working with Jews for Jesus in street evangelism, and serving as cantor in several Messianic Jewish congregations. James holds dual citizenship in the USA and Israel (where he is called Ya’akov), and dual membership in Northway Fellowship Church, Clifton Park, NY, and Seed of Abraham Messianic Jewish Congregation in Albany, NY. Dr. Hugg is a senior research physicist at the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY, where he designs molecular imaging scanners, including SPECT, PET, and MRI. Dr. Hugg earned his doctorate in nuclear physics from Stanford University. He is married, and he and his wife, Shoshanna, have two children.
I am a research physicist who escaped the slavery of devotion to the atheist religion of secular humanism and the evolutionary worldview. I have investigated a number of biblical topics related in some way to better understanding “time” and I want to share some of my faith-building findings with you.
God created time “In the beginning…” and placed humans into this temporal world to separate the sheep from the goats in preparation for the eternal world where we sheep will live in His presence. So the title of my article “It’s about Time” has a double meaning: I want to write about topics related to questions of time, and the expression “it’s about time” reminds us that our Lord and Savior will soon return to conclude this phase of world history and to establish His Millennial Kingdom on earth.
The Christmas Tradition
We celebrate the birth of Messiah (Christ) on Christmas (from Old English, meaning “coming of Christ”), the 25th day of December. This date was first observed in 336 AD, some 24 years after the Roman emperor Constantine established Christianity as the state religion. Apparently, Pope Julius I chose to replace the pagan winter solstice feast in honor of Mithra, the “Unconquered Sun,” that had been officially recognized by the emperor Aurelian in 274 AD. From Rome, the new feast celebrating the birthday of the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) spread to all other churches (except the Armenian church) over the following century.
As many Christians are aware, the modern Christmas celebration combines many strands of tradition including the ancient Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia (merrymaking, exchange of presents), the old Germanic midwinter customs (Yule log, decorating evergreen trees), the tradition of Francis of Assisi (displaying the crib, or crèche of Jesus), the medieval feast of St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch, hence “Santa Claus”), and the British sending of greeting cards (1840s). The Puritan pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas because of its many unbiblical associations. The holiday was officially recognized in the United States in 1870.
The Dutch Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) is the origin of the North American Santa Claus. According to legend, Sinterklaas makes his rounds on December 5, Saint Nicholas’s Eve. Dressed in a catholic bishop’s robes, Sinterklaas rides through the streets distributing sweets to the children. According to some versions of the popular legend, another figure accompanies him named Black Peter, who carries a whip with which to chastise naughty children.
The Historical Evidence
I think it is fair and not overly critical for us to admit that the date chosen by Constantine and Pope Julius I to celebrate the birth of Jesus was not based on good historical or biblical evidence. Let’s look for that overlooked evidence in the historical account of the birth of Jesus recorded by Dr. Luke.
1) Our first clue is found in Luke 1:5. Here is how it reads in the Complete Jewish Bible:1“In the days of Herod, King of Y’hudah (Judea), there was a cohen (Jewish priest) named Z’kharyah (Zacharias) who belonged to the Aviyah (Abijah) division.” The service of the Abijah division of priests was scheduled for the last two weeks of the fourth month of the Jewish religious calendar (15-29 Tammuz, June-July), according to the Talmud (rabbinic commentaries) and Qumran sources.2
Dr. Luke tells us that Zacharias was serving in the 2nd Jewish Temple in Jerusalem when he was chosen to enter the holy place to burn incense outside the Holy of Holies. The archangel Gavri’el (Gabriel) appeared to Zacharias and revealed that he and his barren wife Elisheva (Elizabeth) would have a son named Yochanan (John) who would precede and prepare the way for the Messiah. He returned home after his two-week service, then his wife conceived, as Gabriel had prophesied. The earliest date for John’s conception would be the 1st of Av (July).
2) In the 6th month (Kislev-Tevet, December) of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Miryam (Mary) in Nazareth to announce: “You will become pregnant, you will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Yeshua (Jesus, meaning “God’s salvation”)” (Luke 1:31, CJB). Gabriel also revealed to Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, was six-months pregnant. Elizabeth’s sixth month included the celebration of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, the “Feast of the Dedication” (John 10:22) connected with the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean revolt. Without delay, Mary hurried to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39), about a week’s journey on foot from Nazareth.
3) When Mary arrived, Elizabeth greeted her: “How blessed is the child in your womb!” (Luke 1:42). From this, we conclude that there was no delay between the time of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. We can infer that the same was true for the conception of John. At most, only a few days passed between the announcement and the fulfillment of each of these two angelic prophecies.
4) Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, until John was born (probably during Pesach or Passover, 15-21 Nisan, April), circumcised on the eighth day, and given his prophesied name (Luke 1:57-80). One of the long-held Jewish traditions is that the prophet Elijah will return at Passover (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). Gabriel had prophesied to Zacharias that John would come “in the spirit and power of Eliyahu (Elijah)” (Luke 1:17, CJB).
5) Mary returned to Nazareth, where an angel (probably Gabriel again) reassured her betrothed husband: “Yosef (Joseph), son of David, do not be afraid to take Miryam (Mary) home with you as your wife; for what has been conceived in her is from the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Yeshua , because He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21, CJB). Emperor Augustus ordered a census that required Joseph to take Mary to Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) where she gave birth to Jesus (probably during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, 15-21 Tishrei, September-October). “The Word became a human being and lived with us” (John 1:14).
6) The night of the birth of Jesus, an angel (probably the archangel Michael) appeared with the angelic armies of heaven to announce the birth to the shepherds of Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-15). Perhaps there is a long forgotten connection with Michaelmas (“coming of Michael”) Day, the feast of Michael the Archangel, which is celebrated in some traditions (particularly in the United Kingdom) on the 29th of September. Michael is the leader of the angelic armies who hurls Lucifer (Satan, the Devil) down from heaven because of his treachery (Revelation 12:7).
7) Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the Jewish Temple on the 40th day after His birth (probably late Cheshvan, early November) for the ceremony of Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the firstborn son). There He received the blessings of Shim’on (Simeon) and Hannah, two righteous Jewish prophets (Luke 2:22-38).
8) Magi from the east came (probably in Winter) to inquire of King Herod about the birth of Jesus. The head cohanim (Jewish priests) admitted that Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, so the Magi went there (three miles from Jerusalem) and found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living in a house. They worshipped Him and gave Him gifts, then obeyed an angelic warning (probably Gabriel) to avoid revealing to King Herod the location of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).
9) After the Magi departed Bethlehem, an angel (probably Gabriel) warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to murder Jesus. They left that same night (Matthew 2:13-15). King Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem up to age two, but Joseph escaped with his family to Egypt (possibly the Sinai peninsula), where they remained until Herod’s death (Matthew 2:16-18). I assume that Herod included a margin of error in calculating how old the newborn Messiah, King of the Jews, would be when he ordered the murder of all Bethlehem boys less than two years old.
10) After King Herod’s death, an angel (probably Gabriel) appeared to Joseph to tell him it was safe to return home to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23). The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded the death of the evil King Herod in the spring of 4 BC.3 I assume that Herod did not live long after the slaughter of the innocent boys of Bethlehem, and thus that the family of Jesus did not stay long in Egypt. Therefore, we can place the birth of Jesus on a fairly well constrained timeline.
Determining the Date
If Jesus was born during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, (which began the 29th of September) in 5 BC, as we deduced from the evidence above, then His conception was probably during Hanukkah, possibly as late as the 25th of December in 6 BC. It is also possible that the Magi visited Bethlehem around the 25th of December in 5 BC, when Jesus would have been almost 3 months old.
‘Anno Domini’ (AD) dating was adopted in Western Europe during the 8th century. In 525 AD when the monk Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little, meaning humble) calculated the year of Jesus’ birth, he missed by about 3 years. We now have evidence that Herod died in 4 BC, probably less than a year after Jesus was born.
Does it really matter when Jesus was born or when we celebrate Christmas? In some ways, no, it doesn’t matter — after all, if it was critically important to know precisely when Jesus was born, God would have told us He was born on a particular day and month and year. We have the freedom as believers to celebrate, or not to celebrate, the birth of our Lord and Savior on any day of our choosing (Romans 14:1-12).
Christmas is not a commandment. It is far more important HOW we celebrate (“remember the reason for the season”) than WHEN. Let us not give or receive condemnation for observing the 25th of December, rather let us celebrate that God’s Son became fully human and lived a perfect life so that He could become our perfect sacrifice and conquer sin and death in our place.
But, in another way, it IS important to consider the evidence God gave us and to place it in a proper Jewish context so that we can better understand the foundation of our faith. For example, the information I have presented in this article makes it clear that an important prophecy about the Messiah was fulfilled in the life of Jesus. That prophecy is found in Genesis 49:10 — “The scepter will not pass from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his legs, until Shiloh comes, and it is He whom the peoples will obey.” Second Temple rabbis understood this as a Messianic prophecy.
In about 7 AD, the Romans abolished the power of the Jewish Sanhedrin Council in Judah to pronounce the death penalty.4 Furthermore, Herod was the first king of Israel who was not a descendent of the tribe of Judah. However, Jesus had already been born in 5 BC, before the scepter and staff (power) departed from Judah.
There is a deeper meaning and real significance to the conclusion that Jesus was probably born during the Feast of Tabernacles, thus bringing partial fulfillment to the prophetic type of that important feast established by God. Tabernacles (booths) are temporary, insecure dwellings and emphasize our reliance on God’s grace. So also the temporary human body in which the Son of God dwelled among us demonstrated what total reliance on God can accomplish.
The ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic significance of the Feast of Tabernacles will occur when Jesus returns in glory and majesty to tabernacle among us as King of kings and Lord of lords. Maranatha!
- Dr. David H. Stern, Complete Jewish Bible, 1998, available from Lederer/Messianic Jewish Communications, 6120 Day Long Lane, Clarksville, MD 21029, 1-800-410-7367, www.MessianicJewish.net.
- Shmuel Safrai, “A Priest of the Division of Abijah,” www.jerusalemperspective.org/%5Cdefault.aspx?tabid=27&ArticleID=1847.
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chapter 8, www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-17.htm.
- George A. Barton, “On the Trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 41, No. 3/4 (1922), pp. 205-211, www.jstor.org/pss/3260096.
More From This Category
The Christmas story has become synonymous with the date, December 25. Whether you’re listening to carols or looking at nativity scene imagery, the idea that Christmas is His birthday is everywhere. But what has become popular belief isn’t exactly true to history.
The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only two accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament, and both gospels show different angles of the story. Luke begins in Nazareth and Matthew focuses solely on events in Bethlehem. Both aren’t particularly detailed in terms of a calendar date, which makes determining Jesus’ birthday quite tough. The writers of the gospels rarely tell you when things happened and the time of year.
“The Bible does not specify a date or a month when Jesus was born.”
The Bible does not specify a date or a month when Jesus was born. There are many different theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. A very early Christian tradition said that the day when Mary was told that she would have a very special baby, Jesus (called the Annunciation) was on March 25 – and it’s still celebrated on the day. Nine months after that date is December 25. Others believe Christmas is celebrated on this day because it was already popular in ancient religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun. The Winter Solstice and the ancient festival day celebrating the return of the sun ‘Saturnalia’ and ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ took place in December around this date. While December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas, it was not because Jesus was born on that day. If you take a close look at Scripture, it indicates that this is an unlikely date for Christ’s birth. Although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that Jesus was really born on December 25. Here are several key reasons.
We Know That Shepherds Were in the Fields Watching Their Flocks at the Time of Jesus’ Birth
Scripture tells us that, “ gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:7-8). But shepherds were not in the fields during December. Luke’s account suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. In December, Judea is cold and rainy, so it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night. The weather would not have permitted shepherds watching over their flocks in the field at night.
Jesus’ Parents Came to Bethlehem to Register in a Roman Census
The census or enrollment which according to Luke 2:1 was the occasion of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where Jesus was born, is connected with a decree of Augustus, embracing the Greek-Roman world. Luke carefully distinguishes the census at the time of Jesus’ birth as “first,” in a series of enrollments connected wither with Quirinius or with the imperial policy inaugurated by the decree of Augustus. Because temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor conditions, the census was not taken in winter. This time of year didn’t permit it.
Winter Would Be a Difficult Time for Mary to Travel
Mary was traveling the long distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem which was about 70 miles. Winter would likely be an especially difficult time for a pregnant Mary to travel such a long distance. The world of Mary and Joseph was a difficult and dangerous place, one whose harsh conditions were not fully chronicled in the Gospel accounts of their travails. Writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke “are so laconic about the event because they assume the reader would know what it was like,” said James F. Strange, a New Testament and biblical archaeology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “We have no idea how difficult it was.” Strange estimates that Joseph and Mary likely would have traveled only 10 miles a day because of Mary’s impending delivery.
The time of year that Jesus was born continues to be a huge subject of debate, particularly the month of Jesus’ birth. Many biblical scholars believe Scripture points to the fall of the year as the most likely time of Jesus’ birth. In 2008, astronomer Dave Reneke argued that Jesus was born in the summer. Reneke told New Scientist the Star of Bethlehem may have been Venus and Jupiter coming together to form a bright light in the sky. Using computer models, Reneke determined that this rare event occurred on June 17, in the year 2 B.C. Other researchers have claimed that a similar conjunction, one between Saturn and Jupiter occurred in October of 7 B.B., making Jesus an autumn baby.
Theologians have also suggested that Jesus was born in the spring, based on the biblical narrative that shepherds were watching over their flocks in the fields on the night of Jesus’ birth – something they would have done in the spring, not the winter. The Bible nowhere points to Jesus being born in mid-winter. Unfortunately, nobody really knows exactly when Jesus was born.