The Invention of Christmas: Was Jesus Really Born on December 25th, 0 A.D.?
The messiah-king feast.
As a child I believed, like most good church-goers, that Jesus was born on December 25th, 0 A.D. This date is 100% inaccurate, for two reasons:
- It can’t be 0 A.D., because the Roman numeral system had no concept of the number zero.
- It can’t be the 25th, because we no longer use the Julian calendar.
This we know for certain:
Hardly any researcher believes Jesus was born on December 25th anymore. Unfortunately, hardly any researcher agrees on an alternate date. And let me tell you, there are quite a few options out there. I’m almost ashamed to admit how many days I’ve happily gotten lost in theories and counter-theories, in star charts and historic timelines and prophecies and Jewish ceremonial calendars.
The amount of research on the subject is absolutely staggering.
People occasionally take things to the extreme, “definitively” stating not only the year and day but the very hour and minute that our Christ was born. (If you’d really like your head to spin, take a gander at the conspiracy-theory-level connections between the Great Pyramid of Giza, September 29, and the prophecy about Egypt in Isaiah 19:19–20.)
I’m actually quite reticent to even write this section of the book, for fear that it will send readers spiraling down a glorious research hole that will waste countless hours of human life. Will you promise not to do as I’ve done? It’s like getting a tattoo or researching your family’s ancestry — once you start, it never stops. Ever. Luckily for me, the birth of Jesus is a course of study I could happily waste my entire life on.
And I’m not the only one.
The Christmas Conundrum has occupied many of our greatest minds, from Clement and Augustine to Kepler and Newton. Christians have been trying to figure out the exact birth date of Jesus since at least the second century. At least eight specific dates over six different months were proposed, with December 25th being one of the last. The first person to discuss the discussion — but not issue his own opinion — was Clement of Alexandria (who lived from 150–215 AD and favored a May 20th birthday for Jesus). He stated in his famous c.194 AD work The Stromata (which, rather delightfully, means the patchwork): “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day… they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus [ruling Egypt], and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon… Others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi.” While we definitely don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole that is Egyptian calendaring, this puts the birth of the Christ somewhere around April 9th or March 9–10, 3 BC, respectively.
Christmas, because… Easter?
Interestingly, the initial motivation for figuring out the Christ’s birthday had nothing to do with inventing Christmas, and everything to do with ironing out the liturgical calendar in time for Easter. The reality is that the first person to even assert a December 25th birth date was Hippolytus of Rome, about 170 years after the death of Jesus.
Sometime around 202 AD, Hippolytus wrote a commentary on the book of Daniel in which he said, “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January, the 4th day of the week, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years.” So, according to Hippolytus, Jesus was born on Wednesday, December 25th, between 2–4 BC.
This is a strange conclusion, considering that his mentor, Irenaeus of Lyon, wrote these words over twenty years earlier: “Our Lord was born about the 41st year of the reign of Augustus.” The early church father Tertullian agreed with Irenaeus that it was during Augustus’s 41st year, but even that isn’t very helpful because no one knows which accession system or nation’s calendar they’re all referring to. Christian traveler-historian Julius Africanus pegs the birth of the Christ at 3 BC, while the ascetic Origen Adamantius reverts to 4 BC. Eusebius of Caesarea believed Jesus was born 28 years after the death of Antony and Cleopatra, so 3 BC. Note that none of these early church leaders, besides Hippolytus, mention December 25th.
Indeed, early Christians simply didn’t celebrate our Christ’s birth on December 25th. Neither Irenaeus nor Tertullian includes Christmas in their lists of Christian festivals. Origen suggests the Acts 2 church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all, because first-century Christians believed only pagans celebrated birthdays: “Of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below.” Why would Jesus be the sudden exception?
Happy belated birthday.
In truth, Christians in the West didn’t start celebrating Jesus’s birth on December 25th until three hundred years after his death. The oldest reference to an annual feast day — the first hard evidence of a December 25th Christmas celebration — doesn’t appear until the publication of Roman calligraphist Furius Dionysius Filocalus’s Chronograph of 354: Eighth day before the kalends of January. Birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. He mentions elsewhere in the almanac that Jesus was born in 1 AD.
So, we know for sure that Christians in Rome were celebrating Christmas at some point between 336–354 AD, with the first official December 25th Christmas likely being held in Rome in 353 or 354 AD, likely at the direction of Pope Liberius.
It was a wonderfully convenient date for the Catholic church — December 25th did, after all, have several pagan connections that needed stamping out.
There are modern skeptics who believe early Christians deviously chose December 25th to transform a pagan holiday, in the same way they turned Lupercalia into Valentine’s Day and the Gaelic festival Samhain into Halloween. The December 25th holiday in question was Emperor Aurelian’s annual party for the Roman god Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) starting in 274 AD, following Saturnalia, the week-plus festival leading up to it. Aurelian chose December 25th, believing it to be the date each year when the days began to lengthen as sunlight increases. Spring was on the way — the sun was “born again.” (December 25th originally marked the end of the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice in the Julian calendar. With our new calendar, it’s now typically Dec 21st or 22nd). The sun cult lasted for hundreds of years — in fact, there’s still a mosaic of Sol Invictus in the Vatican Necropolis.
But skeptics shouldn’t get too excited, because it’s just as likely that the exact opposite is true: Christians picked December 25th more than seventy years before Aurelian tried to shove Christmas aside, in the same way that a previous emperor, Hadrian, ordered a temple to Venus erected over Golgotha. Either way, the church won out in the end and transformed Sun Day back into the birthday of the Son of God.
December 25th gained more acceptance after Emperor Constantine declared Christmas a permanent celebration in 379 AD, and gained its biggest boost when Pope Sixtus III celebrated the first Christ Mass on December 25th, 435 AD. But these don’t in any way prove that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass celebrated his birthday on February 14th because he didn’t know his actual birthdate — and we don’t even know if Valentine was real.
So what is the most likely date of Jesus’s birth?
Needless to say, I don’t have the page count to get into it — literally dozens of books have been written on the topic — but we can hone it down to a roughly four-year window through a process of elimination.
There is a ton of data to consider. Perhaps the biggest indicator is “who was ruling where at the time?” Matthew and Luke agree Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. Luke says Augustus was Caesar at the time, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. It would be similar to saying “Carlita Black was born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, while Barack Obama was President, and John Carney was Governor of Delaware.” Incredibly, that one sentence narrows Carlita’s birthday window to just three days.
It’s not nearly so easy with Augustus, Quirinius, and Herod. We know when the first two lived and ruled and died, but scholars don’t agree at all on Herod’s death date, and the gospel writers don’t mention which of the three Herod’s they’re referring to. There’s also serious speculation that Luke may have confused which census took place around Jesus’s birth, so Quirinius might not even matter to our equation.
Then there’s the Star of Bethlehem. Matthew reports that some sort of cosmic event convinced a bunch of astrologers from the Orient to travel all the way to Bethlehem. It must have been quite the light show. So what was this celestial event? A conjunction of planets? A comet? A supernova? Astronomers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, split on the issue.
Let’s start with planets lining up. In 1603, German astronomer Johannes Kepler observed the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter and in 1614 he published space math that suggested something similar must have happened in 7 BC. He believed the Star of Bethlehem was actually a nova sent by God to tip off the Magi, saying rather stiffly: “I do not doubt but that God would have condescended to cater to the credulity of the Chaldeans.”
Some today think Kepler’s calculations were off by a gap of several moonwidths, while others think there was probably a conjunction of the planets in the constellation Pisces. Here’s the text from a Babylonian tablet which you can see in the British Museum: “Month VII, the 1st of which will follow the 30th of the previous month. Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces, Venus in Scorpio, Mars in Sagittarius. On the 2nd, equinox.” That’s right- a triple conjunction. According to one theory, this could have been a very big deal: “To the wise men this would have indicated that a Messiah (Venus) was to be born among the Jews (long associated by astrologers with Saturn) with intense persecution (Mars, the symbol of war and opposition; this would be Herod’s reaction).”
This wasn’t the only planetary conjunction in the lead-up to Jesus’s conception. In 6 BC, the moon eclipsed Jupiter in Aries, which, according to one Rutgers astronomer, was considered a very big deal because Jupiter at the time was a regal “star” that conferred kingship, doubly so when the moon was present. In 3–2 BC, there were seven more planetary conjunctions, which was the ancient astrological equivalent of all your favorite bands dropping an album on the same day and then performing in your living room.
Up next we have comets.
Halley’s Comet is perhaps the most famous comet in the world and is often associated with the Star of Bethlehem. Though Edmond Halley didn’t actually discover it — astronomers have been making note of it in both the East and West since at least 240 BC — Halley did punch the math and determined it is visible from Earth every 75 years or so. Working backward, we land at a date of 12 BC, meaning it’s almost certainly not what sent the Magi on their journey west. Plus, comets were generally seen as bad omens at the time.
How about a supernova? I love exploding stars just as much as the next guy, and a British astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory thinks maybe this is the best explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. By his team’s calculations, Chinese astronomers of the Han dynasty would have seen a star exploding for more than seventy days in the spring of 5 BC, potentially with zero recorded movement. Indeed, ancient Chinese astronomers recorded exactly that, and a Korean chronicle seems to back it up as well. Did a dying star point the way to a living Savior?
I won’t get into zodiac symbols and double occultation, but if all this astronomy and astrology seems weird and horoscopey, that’s okay — even the early church voiced their squeamish discomfort with the idea of manmade symbolism leading the wise men to Bethlehem. There’s just no way to reasonably square it. Needless to say, there was a ton of super-cool star stuff just prior to the time of Jesus’s conception and birth, and clearly something spectacular convinced a band of professional stargazers to travel across much of the known world to meet this baby king of the Jews. Unfortunately, despite the dearth of astrological data, it only narrows our window to a five-ish year range, and does nothing to cement Jesus’s day and date.
We’ve broadly covered political regimes and a whackload of astrological data, so let’s move on to Jewish customs and traditions.
Tertullian, around the year 200, claimed 14 Nisan (the day of Jesus’s death on the Jewish lunar calendar) would equal March 25th in the Roman equivalent. So if Jesus died on March 25th, add nine months and, voila, you’ve got December 25th. This is all based on the concept of Integral Age, an ancient and somewhat nutty Jewish belief that great prophets died on the same day as their conception or birth. I personally think this is utter nonsense. But early Christians, deeply influenced by Jewish culture, picked March 25th for their Feast of the Annunciation, with an added nine months bringing us to December 25th. This was enough to convince many of the early church fathers, including Augustine.
Like many others, I’m skeptical that Jesus was born on December 25th.
Folks have made arguments that shepherds and their flocks didn’t hang around outdoors at that frigid time of year. No one watched their flocks by night in December. Harvest was well past — there would be nothing for the animals to eat — and they usually brought their flocks into barns by October. People also doubt that the Romans would have scheduled a tax census for the most inclement time of year. December temperatures in Bethlehem can drop below freezing, and arctic thermals and electric blankets weren’t exactly available with one-day shipping. Scholars have also argued it would have been nearly impossible for super-pregnant Mary to travel seventy-something miles through hills averaging 3,000 feet above sea level in the depths of winter, especially with precipitation making many roads impassable.
These are all interesting points, but the most intriguing has to do with Jesus’s cousin, John the baptizer. Luke says that John’s father, Zacharias, served as a priest in the course of Abijah. All the way back in 1 Chronicles we learn that priests were split into 24 courses, and each course served in the Temple for one week, twice each year, from sabbath to sabbath. If you backdate the math, it appears that John was conceived in Elizabeth around June 24, 5 BC. If Mary visited her six months later — in late December 5 BC — and found out she was pregnant, there’s no way she could give birth at Christmas unless she somehow held Jesus in the womb for a full year. What if Jesus was conceived around December 25th, but was actually born on September 29th in 4 BC?
The practical and political math potentially makes sense. It’s more likely that the shepherds would still be tending their flocks by night. It definitely makes more sense for a Roman census and the possibility of a pregnancy pilgrimage. It certainly doesn’t conflict with the astrological data, and it seems to jive with the Jewish priestly traditions. It’s downright delicious from a symbolic perspective; Jesus entered the world to atone for our sins, and September 29 4 BC in the Jewish calendar may have been Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest date — the day of atonement.
Let’s suspend disbelief and pretend for a moment that Jesus was conceived on December 25th and born September 29th. If this were truly the case, how in the world did we mix it up for so long?
Perhaps we just screwed up our theology of the Incarnation.
If that’s the case, then perhaps our birthdate confusion is simply a clash between Roman and Jewish worldviews, of Eastern and Western thought. For Romans, the day of conception mattered more than the date of birth. In some parts of the East even to this day, our birthday derives from our date of conception, not our date of birth. If we believe life begins at conception, then Jesus may have “appeared in the flesh” as a zygote on December 25th, though he wouldn’t take his first breath for another nine months.
This, of course, brings us to Michaelmas.
“Michael-what?” Evangelicals ask. In Luke 2:9, our doctor friend tells us that an “angel of the Lord” (commonly thought to be Michael the Archangel from Daniel and the Revelation) visits a bunch of shepherds and announces the birth of Jesus: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Take a lucky guess at which day Catholics and Anglicans celebrate Michaelmas.
And here’s the really strange thing: No one knows when or why Christians started celebrating Michael’s announcement on this particular day. We do know that Christians have been celebrating Michaelmas since at least the fourth century, and that the word “Michaelmas” means “Michael sent.” The feast of Michael may very well have started as a mass commemorating the heavenly host sending shepherds the announcement of Jesus’s physical birth. At the very least, we can all agree it seems quite strange to celebrate the announcement of the day of the Christ’s birth at a completely different time of year than the day it happened. If you declared your wedding vows on July 12th, and got married on July 12th, it would be strange to celebrate your anniversary every year in mid-October, wouldn’t it?
Here’s another interesting coincidence:
According to one calculation, September 29 4 BC was the start of the epic weeklong Feast of Tabernacles, a kind of annual thanksgiving harvest celebration where all the pre-exile people of Israel dwelled in tent-like booths called tabernacles.
When the Apostle John pens his gospel, he starts with a wild, evocative, esoteric eighteen-verse prologue that includes the phrase: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the monogene who came from the Father.” What’s weird is that John doesn’t use the usual Greek word for “dwell” (κατοικέω) here. Instead, he uses the word ἐσκήνωσεν… tabernacle.
What if Jesus was conceived and “begotten of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 1:18) on December 25th, and then born and “tabernacled with us” (John 1:14) on September 29th? What if, on December 25th, we celebrate not only Jesus’s true birth-day into the world, but more so His incarnation? What if Michaelmas is actually Christmas, and the two are one and the same?
Heaven only knows.
We have a lot of data to work with, but not quite enough to peg an exact D.O.B for the long-form birth certificate. If I was a betting man (which I am), I’d put my money on September 29, 4 BC. If I had to hedge my bet, I’d go with September 29, 2 BC. But too much is unknown to gamble anything more than a poutine and root beer on these interesting possibilities. I could easily write a strong counter-argument to either of these dates, and every other date proposed in the history of this particular boy’s birthday. What we know for absolute certain is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, 0 BC.
Will we ever know Jesus’s birthday for sure?
Unless someone discovers a verifiable trove of ancient census documents or the right Bethlehemic barn rental agreement, probably not. For now, I agree with the wisdom of researcher Melda Eberle: “We can safely conclude Christ was born from 5 to 2 BC and most likely in the autumn. Anything more dogmatic than this would make us vulnerable to spiritual attack.”
Thankfully, the birth date of Jesus was of absolutely zero concern to the authors of the New Testament. There are more important fish to beer-batter and deep-fry. The gospel writers place much higher importance on theology than chronology, and so should we. Whether Jesus was born or conceived on December 25th, when we celebrate Christ-mass we celebrate the fact that the light of life really has entered the world.
This is an excerpt from Jared Brock’s upcoming book. Subscribe for more free content and to get notified when the book’s available.