Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jesus' Birthday

I just came across an excellent article about the date of Jesus' birth by Paul Meier, a prominent New Testament scholar. Since it is rather long and technical, I will summarize it here.

We celebrate Jesus' birthday on December 25, but it is quite unlikely that he was born on that day. That date was picked out in the fourth century, most likely as a replacement celebration for the winter solstice or other pagan holidays.

Paul Meier suggests a birthday in November. This is based on two pieces of data. First, Luke's nativity story begins with the account of Zachariah's service in the Temple at the assigned time for his priestly division (Abijah). A few weeks later, his wife conceives; six months later, Mary conceives; nine months after that, Jesus is born. Since Zachariah's priestly division served in late July to early August (according to some educated guesswork based on early rabbinic documents), Jesus would have been born in November.

By itself, that would not be very strong evidence. However, that date is backed up by the very earliest reference to Jesus' birth date. Clement of Alexandria, one of the church fathers, wrote in AD 194 that Jesus was born 194 years, one month, and 13 days before the murder of emperor Commodus - a significant event that occurred on December 31, AD 192. (By the way, Commodus is the same emperor fictionally depicted in the movie Gladiator). Although Clement seemed to get the year wrong, he may well have had the correct day - November 18.

Many people already know that Jesus was, ironically, born BC. The sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus, inventor of our BC / AD system, made two errors. First, he was off by about four or five years; and second, he forgot to include a year zero. Our calendar goes directly from 1 BC to AD 1, which throws off computations.

How do we calculate the correct year? Herod the Great, who figures prominently in Matthew's birth account, died in March of 4 BC (a date pinned down by a lunar eclipse recorded in Josephus' history). Jesus must have been born before then. He may have been born as early as 7 BC, but several details suggest that 5 BC is the most likely year. If so, Herod died only four months after his attempt on Jesus' life.

So Jesus' birthday, by Paul Meier's cautious estimate, is November 18, 5 BC. Any one planning on moving your Christmas celebration to before Thanksgiving? If you do so this year, be sure to put 2012 candles on the cake (AD 2008 + 5 BC - 1 for Dionysius' mistake).

In the end, the day or even the year of Jesus' birth is not certain, like the birthdates of most other ancient people. Nor is that date terribly important. But it reminds us that Jesus is a real historical person; his life can be investigated using the normal methods of historical inquiry. He is not merely a convenient, timeless myth or an artificial object of faith.

The picture: a Korean portrayal of the nativity, by Ki Chang Kim.

6 comments:

  1. Bryan and Jesus share the same birthday week! Cool!

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  2. I thought you would be interested to know that Aunt Ruth has a birthday on Easter Sunday, she will never live long enough to enjoy sharing Easter with her Saviour. Easter will happen this early in the year 2238!
    Enjoy your blog site!
    Uncle Robert

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  3. Wouldn't it be great to celebrate Christmas early so that all of the Christmas "hoopla" would be over in time to really celebrate Thanksgiving. I often feel that Thanksgiving is completely swallowed up by Christmas merchandising.

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  4. Dr. Manning, any thoughts on the commercialization of Christmas?

    Keoki

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  5. It is highly unlikely that Jesus was born in December or November for two reasons below.

    See what the book "What doe the Bible REALLY Teach?" had to say below.

    Nick

    Was Jesus Born in December?

    THE Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born. However, it does give us sound reason to conclude that his birth did not take place in December.

    Consider the weather conditions at that time of the year in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The Jewish month of Chislev (corresponding to November/December) was a month with cold and rainy weather. The month after that was Tebeth (December/January). It saw the lowest temperatures of the year, with occasional snows in the highlands. Let us see what the Bible tells us about the climate of that region.

    The Bible writer Ezra shows that Chislev was indeed a month known for cold and rainy weather. After stating that a crowd had gathered in Jerusalem “in the ninth month [Chislev] on the twentieth day of the month,” Ezra reports that people were “shivering . . . on account of the showers of rain.”

    Concerning weather conditions at that time of the year, the congregated people themselves said: “It is the season of showers of rain, and it is not possible to stand outside.” (Ezra 10:9, 13; Jeremiah 36:22)

    No wonder shepherds living in that part of the world made sure that they and their flocks were no longer out of doors at night when December came around!

    The Bible reports, however, that shepherds were in the fields tending their flocks on the night of Jesus’ birth. In fact, the Bible writer Luke shows that at that time, shepherds were “living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks” near Bethlehem. (Luke 2:8-12)

    Notice that the shepherds were actually living out of doors, not just strolling outside during the day. They had their flocks in the fields at night. Does that description of outdoor living fit the chilly and rainy weather conditions of Bethlehem in December? No, it does not. So the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth indicate that he was not born in December.

    God’s Word tells us precisely when Jesus died, but it gives little direct indication as to when he was born. This brings to mind King Solomon’s words: “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1) It is not surprising, then, that the Bible provides many details about Jesus’ ministry and death but few details about the time of his birth.

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  6. Hi Nick,

    Yes, the weather has often been used as part of the debate over the time of Jesus' birth. However, we can only say that this is a small piece of contributing evidence, not that it makes it "highly unlikely that Jesus was born in December or November." Not that it matters that much! But it's worthwhile to point out the nature of historical evidence. We can't assume that shepherds would not be out of doors in chilly weather - that's just a guess. Might be true, might not. What would constitute actual evidence? Documentary evidence of the practices of shepherds in the ancient Near East. I am unaware of such evidence, but it might be out there somewhere

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