3 explanations of the origin of the date of Christmas
Why is the birth of Jesus Christ celebrated on 25th December? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, December 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus’ birth by Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160-240) in AD 221. Africanus wrote Chronographiai, a history of the world in five volumes.
As “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Lk. 2:8NIV) when Christ was born, it’s usually assumed that it wasn’t winter because it would be too cold to be living in the fields overnight. So people often assume that the date of Christmas is not connected to the date of Christ’s birth.
But the NIV study bible notes that “the flocks reserved for temple sacrifice were kept in the fields near Bethlehem throughout the year”. According to the NET Bible, “December 25 as the celebrated date of Jesus’ birth arose around the time of Constantine (reigned AD 306-337), though it is mentioned in material from Hippolytus (AD 165-235). Some think that the reason for celebration on this date was that it coincided with the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia, and Christians could celebrate their own festival at this time without fear of persecution. On the basis of the statement that the shepherds were living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night it is often suggested that Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field. This is not absolutely certain, however.” Hippolytus stated that the birth of Christ was 25 December while emperor Augustus was in his 42nd year (2 BC). Moreover Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Eusebius all say Jesus was born 15 years before Caesar Augustus died (AD 14) and 28 years after Cleopatra’s death (30 BC). This would place His birth in 2 BC. In the eastern Roman Empire the nativity was initially celebrated on 6th January, but this was transferred to 25th December by AD 400.
There is a passage in the Jewish Mishnah [Shekalim 7:4] that stated that some sheep were kept outside of the fields of Bethlehem all year round. These sheep were to be used for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore it is possible that the birth of Jesus could have come on any day of the year.
According to Simmons (2015), the origin of the date of Christmas has been explained in three ways.
The history of religions theory
This method argues that Christmas was instituted in Rome by Emperor Constantine (reigned AD 306-337). The first record of this idea is in the 12th century. And it was promoted in the 18-19th centuries. It’s largely based on a codex (Depositio Martirum, dated AD 336) which mentions that on 25th December there was a celebration to the pagan sun god (Sol Invictus) and that it was also the birthday of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is assumed that the birthday of Jesus Christ is derived from the celebration to the pagan sun god. At that time, the winter solstice was on 25th December. However, just because some traditions may derive from pagan sources does not mean they all do.
But this is improbable for four reasons. First, there is no historical evidence for this. Second, the Saturnalia (an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn) ran from 17-23 December, and so is not the source of the Christmas date. Third, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Constantinople (which was named after Emperor Constantine) until AD 380 when it was introduced by Gregory Nazianzus. Constantine rebuilt and dedicated Constantinople (now Istanbul) in AD 330. And fourth, there was strong opposition in the early church toward any form of paganism. Furthermore, the institution of the pagan festival (to Sol Invictus) by the emperor Aurelian in AD 274 on 25 December may have been dated to coincide with a date that was being celebrated by Christians. This is opposite to “the history of religions theory”!
The Depositio Martirum is arranged from 25th December to 25th December, indicating that in Rome in AD 336 the nativity of Christ marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical year.
The calculation theory
This method assumes that Christ was conceived on the same day of the year that He died and that this was 25 March in 2 BC (the spring equinox). Therefore, Christ was born nine months later on 25 December 2 BC (the winter solstice). The first record of this idea is in the 19th century. This approach has some similarities to a (false) Rabbinic tradition that the great patriarchs and prophets of Israel died on the same day as their birth. However, this theory asserts that these dates occurred exactly on the astronomical dates, which is not the case. For example, in AD 33 the Passover was about 1 April, not about 25 March.
But the Bible links Christ’s birth and death, by saying that He was born in order to grow up and die as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of humanity (Appendix A).
The tradition theory
The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. In 63 AD Pliny dated the winter solstice to 25th December. An error in the Julian calendar caused it to lose 1 day in every 128 years. At the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 the Julian calendar was corrected so that the spring equinox was 21 March and the winter solstice was 21 December. Since the nativity was historically associated with the winter solstice, the association must have risen long before the Council of Nicaea, when the winter solstice was 25 December. To have not moved from 25 December, the association must have arisen before ~ AD 125 (63+64). This means that it could have arisen in apostolic times.
According to Augustine, whatever was practiced universally throughout the church in the whole world was presumably set in place by the apostles or by a general church council. But as no council established the feast of nativity, it exists by tradition, presumably passed down from the time of the apostles (1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 2 Th. 2:15; 3:6).
The best explanation of the 25th December as the date for Christmas is that is comes from ancient tradition regarding Christ’s birth. And from this it was inferred that Christ was conceived on 25th March.
Simons (2015) states, “There is no evidence of gaps in the chronology between the birth of Christ and the death of Herod the Great. What evidence we possess shows that the nativity and presentment of the Christ-child, followed by the arrival of the magi, Herod’s final illness, his departure for Callirrhoe, and his death (Appendix B) shortly before Passover, 1 BC, were contiguous events (Appendix C). Laid end to end, they give every indication that the traditional date of Christ’s birth is historically defensible and sound.”
And an analysis of the evidence regarding the date of the birth of John the Baptist is not inconsistent with the traditional date for Christ’s birth (Simmons, 2015)
Neither the “History of Religions Theory” nor the “Calculation Theory” provide an adequate explanation of the of the origin of the date of Christmas. It appears that the date of Christ’s birth has been handed down from ancient times by tradition. And it’s consistent with information from history and Scripture.
For Christians, believing that God came into the world in the form of a human being to atone for the sins of humanity is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas, rather than knowing Jesus’ exact birth date. Whatever the date of the nativity, an angel declared that it was “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10).
Appendix A: Links between Christ’s birth and death
As indicated by these passages, the Bible links Christ’s birth and death, by saying that He was born in order to grow up and die as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of humanity. After this He rose from the dead and then ascended to be exalted in heaven.
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His [Christ’s] own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness [evident from birth]. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:6-9).
“Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He [Christ] appeared in the flesh [evident from birth], was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” (1 Tim. 3:16)
“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while [evident from birth], now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” (Heb. 2:9)
Appendix B: When did Herod die?
The date of the death of king Herod is often used to determine the likely date of the birth of Christ. Josephus said that King Herod died not long after an eclipse of the Moon and before a springtime Passover of the Jews. Only four lunar eclipses occurred in the likely time frame: 15 September 5 BC, 12-13 March 4 BC, 10 January 1 BC and 29 December 1 BC.
Simmons (2015 reports:
“Herod had placed a large Roman eagle above the gate of the temple, which the Jews considered an affront to their nation and religion. Taking the opportunity of Herod’s impending death, several prominent rabbis moved the young men to cut the eagle down. When rumor came that Herod was dead, the young men assaulted the temple and eagle in broad daylight. However, soldiers came upon them suddenly, capturing many of them. Herod then had the young men and rabbis sent to Jericho, where the leaders were burned alive. Josephus reports that on the night of the rabbis’ execution there was an eclipse of the moon (Ant.17.146—167). This lunar eclipse is important for dating Herod’s death. For many years, it was supposed to be the partial lunar eclipse of 13 March, 4 BC. But this has been challenged in recent years, and the weight of current scholarship now agrees that it was the full lunar eclipse of 10 January, 1 BC.”
The eclipse of 13 March, 4 BC occurred at 5:40 a.m. local time in Jerusalem and was only 36% partial. But this date doesn’t allow enough time for the events that Josephus said occurred between the eclipse and the Passover. An those who use this eclipse to date Herod’s death (and Christ’s birth), fail to recognize that many Hellenistic rulers inflate their lengths of reign by antedating their years of rule (Martin, 1991). In particular, Herod’s sons probably backdated their reigns to ensure Hasmonean dynastic continuance.
In the after-midnight hours of 10 January 1 BC there was a total eclipse of the moon. Totality was unusually long, lasting 1 hour and 39 minutes, and was widely visible throughout the Old World. But how many people would have seen it at this hour of the night? This date is more likely to be linked linked with the death of Herod because it allows enough time for the events that Josephus said occurred between the eclipse and the Passover.
Appendix C: Dates in Christ’s life (Simmons, 2015)
Christ born (Lk. 2:6-7) – about 25 December 2 BC.
Christ circumcised and named (Lk. 2:21) – about 1 January 1 BC.
Christ presented in the temple (Lk. 2:22-38) – about 2 February 1 BC
Joseph, Mary and Jesus travel to Nazareth (Lk. 2:39) – in early February 1 BC
The Magi visit Herod in Jerusalem (Mt. 2:1-2) – in February 1 BC
The Magi visit Jesus in Nazareth (Mt. 2:11) – in February 1 BC
Joseph, Mary and Jesus travel from Nazareth to Egypt (Mt. 2:12-15) – in February-March 1 BC
Herod travels from Jerusalem to the mineral springs at Callirrhoe – in February 1 BC
Herod’s death – about March 1 BC.
Passover – 8th April 1 BC.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus return from Egypt to Nazareth (Mt. 2:19-23) –
Christ’s baptism (Lk. 3:1, 21) – about 8 November AD 29 (from Epiphanius).
Temptation of Christ (Lk. 4:1-13) – November -December AD 29 (at least 40 days).
Commencement of Christ’s ministry (Lk. 4:14; at 30 years of age) – about 25 December AD 29
Miracle at Cana (Jn. 2:1-11) – about 6 January AD 30.
Jesus clears the temple courts during the Passover (Jn. 2:13-25) – 3 April AD 30.
Christ’s death – about 1 April AD 33.
Martin L (1991) “The star of Bethlehem: The star that astonished the world”, Ch 8-9.
Simmons K M (2015) “The origins of Christmas and the date of Christ’s birth”, JETS, 299-324.
Written, December 2019