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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: Was Jesus Born on December 25th?

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Was Jesus Born on December 25th?

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 10

Not only is the exact year of Jesus Christ’s birth a matter of debate, the exact date of the birth of Jesus is also something that is debated. In the Western world, December 25th is the date set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The early church in the West seems to have celebrated the birth of Christ on December 25th while the church in the East observed January 6th.

While we cannot be certain of the exact date there are a number of things that we do know. They include the following.

Was the Date of the Birth of Christ Substituted for a Pagan Festival?

During that time in history, the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia festival on December 25th. This marked the date of the winter solstice; the time when the sun would turn northward again. The feast was called Sol Invictus, the “Unconquerable Sun.” It is alleged that the Christians at that time wanted to replace the pagan festivals with Christian festivals. Since the phrase “Son of Righteousness” was a common designation for Jesus, it seemed natural to celebrate this date as the birth of the Son of Righteousness rather than celebrating the Unconquerable Sun in the sky. Therefore, it is argued, that the selection of December 25th, as the date of the birth of Jesus Christ, was a matter of substitution of the Christian festival for a pagan festival.

The Christians Held This Date Earlier

Yet this does not seem to be the case. In fact, there is compelling evidence that Christians celebrated December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth before the pagans adopted this date. This would mean that the Romans actually used December 25th to counteract the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

Joseph Kelly writes the following:

In 274 Aurelian [the Roman emperor at that time] instituted the cult of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun...Aurelian made December 25, the winter solstice, the birthday of Sol Invictus and thus a major feast day throughout the Roman Empire...

In 336 the local church at Rome proclaimed December 25 as the dies natalis Christi, “the natal day of Christ,” that is, his birthday. The document which says this does not justify or explain it. It merely says that this is the day, that is, the date had been accepted by the Roman church some time before and since everyone knew about it, discussion of the date was not necessary.

But how long before 336 was the date for Christmas accepted? Historians have wondered whether the Christians in the late third century had waged a propaganda war against Aurelian, promoting their Sun of Righteousness [this refers Jesus in the context of Malachi 4:2], the Sol Iustitiae against his Unconquered Sun, the Sol Invictus...

We should also recall that Sextus Julius Africanus [a Christian author who wrote during the first half of the third century] had already proposed December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth. Aurelian’s opponents may have plausibly reasoned that if the date already existed [in Christian circles], why not use it against the imperial cult of the Sun?...

The second piece of evidence for a third-century propaganda struggle is a work of art, a mosaic on the ceiling of a tomb of the family Julii and now preserved in the necropolis (Greek for “city of the dead”) under St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It portrays Christ driving a chariot through the heavens, just as the pagan sun god Helios did, and Jesus, like the god, has rays of light emanating from his head...

They date the mosaic to the late third century, that is, at the time when the emperor Aurelian was promoting the cult of the Unconquered Sun. Significantly, this is the only ancient portrayal of Christ as the sun. Historians find it impossible to believe that this portrayal was just coincidentally produced in the city of Rome at the very time when the pagans were promoting the cult of their sun. (The Origins Of Christmas [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004], pp. 65-68)

Therefore, the common conception that the church took December 25th as the birth of Christ from an already established pagan holiday seems itself to be a myth.

It Was Commonly Believed That Christ Was Born in Mid-Winter

What we do know is that the exact date of Jesus’ birth is not stated in the New Testament. It is most commonly believed that Jesus was born sometime during either the fall, or winter, with mid-winter being a popular view.

Thus December 25th could have been the exact date when Jesus was born since December is winter in the northern hemisphere. However, there is simply not enough evidence to be certain. In the ancient world, there was no universal system of chronology, so precision as to when Jesus was born seems to be impossible.

Objection: What about the Flocks Being outside in Winter?

One objection to the date of December 25th is that the shepherds are tending their flocks by night when the announcement comes of the birth of Christ. It is argued that it would be too cold for them to have their flocks outside in the winter. Therefore, it must have been some other time of year. However, this often-used argument does not hold much weight. There is evidence, both ancient and modern, that flocks stayed outside year round.

There Is Ancient Evidence That Flocks Were outside All Year Round in Bethlehem

There is a passage in the Jewish Mishnah 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—including December 25th.

There Is Modern Evidence of Flocks Outside in Winter

Shepherds in the Bethlehem area, to this very day, keep their flocks out at night during all times of the year. Anyone visiting Bethlehem around Christmas time can still see the sheep outside with the shepherds.

Conclusion: The Birth of Christ Could Have Been in Winter

It would, therefore, not be impossible for the birth of Jesus to have occurred during the winter season. Based upon the present evidence, a mid-January date somewhere around the year 3/2 B.C. is a preferred time for the birth of Jesus. However this is by no means certain and is subject to change if more evidence is discovered.

Summary – Question 10
Was Jesus Born on December 25th?

As there is a question as to the exact year Jesus was born, the exact day of His birth is also uncertain. December 25th was chosen as the date in the West while January 6th is the day it is celebrated by the Eastern Church.

It is commonly argued that the date December 25th came from substituting the pagan Roman festival around the winter solstice with the celebration of the birth of Christ. The Christians, it is alleged, substituted the birth of the “Son of Righteousness” for the “Unconquerable sun.” However, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. The Christians actually celebrated December 25th as the date of Jesus birth before the Romans adopted that date.

Therefore, it is not the Christians that substituted the date of a pagan Roman holiday for the birth of Christ but rather the Romans adopted December 25th to counteract the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.

While it is certainly possible that Jesus was born on that date, there is not enough evidence to be precise. We do know however, that He was born sometime in the past, with mid-winter somewhere around 3/2 B.C. being a possible date suggested by modern scholars. As to the objection that mid-winter would be inappropriate because the flocks were kept outside at night, we find that even today the sheep are kept outside year-round in the Bethlehem area. Thus, mid-winter remains a possible time for His birth.

While we may never know the exact date of His birth we do know for certain that Christ was indeed born in the city of Bethlehem as the prophet had said.

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What Do We Know of Jesus' Earlier Years? Next Section →
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