Christmas 2016 - Christmas Q & A - 2. When Was Jesus Born

December 11, 2016

Christmas 2016 – Christmas Q & A
2. When Was Jesus Born?
 
 
 
 
Luke 2: 1 - 14
 
 
Let me begin by saying right up front that no one knows exactly when Jesus was born because the Bible does not clearly answer this question. That doesn't mean the question is unimportant, only that it is not essential to our Christian faith. As we approach Christmas this year, it is good to remind ourselves that nowhere does the Bible command us to celebrate Jesus' birth. If the first Christians knew the precise year and day when our Lord was born in Bethlehem, they didn't make an issue of it. Yet it was inevitable that his birth would be remembered. 2 of the gospels contain detailed information about the events surrounding the birth of our Lord. Since his birth happened in a very unusual way, it is not surprising that Christians for 2000 years have done what Mary did as she considered all that happened to her. Luke 2:20 says she treasured up all the events and pondered them in her heart. It is a useful spiritual exercise to think about the how, when and why of the events surrounding our Lord's birth.

Even though we cannot precisely answer this question, it matters because Jesus Christ entered the history of our world. The infinite God humbled himself, taking on the form of humanity. He became one of us. Christianity has an historical basis. God never asks us to blindly believe. There is always enough evidence for those who wish to believe. At Christmas we encounter 2 kinds of truth: Father Christmas is a myth meant to teach lessons about giving. Jesus Christ is truth based on hard facts.

The fact that we don’t know the precise day and year makes the subject all the more interesting. Christianity has nothing to fear from the facts of history. Therefore, let us investigate and see what we find regarding the birth of Jesus Christ.

1. Two Key Texts

A. Galatians 4: 4 “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” “Fully come” - speaks of something that is complete and fully developed - a ripe apple ready to be picked - a pregnant woman feeling labour pains, ready to deliver her baby. It describes the moment in history when the stage was perfectly set. At that moment, God sent forth his Son. It means that God had prepared all of history from the beginning; he had set the stage for the entrance of his Son into the world.

There came a precise moment, ordained from the beginning by God the Father, when he said, "It's time," and his Son stepped out of glory, descended the starry staircase and entered our world wrapped in rags, sleeping in a feeding trough. Among other things, this verse means there was a day and there was a year and it does matter because it mattered to God.

B. Luke 2: 11 “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.” That ties the birth of Jesus to a specific time and place. Jesus was born not just any day, but on "this day," a particular moment in time and space. He wasn't born in some vague place. He was born in Bethlehem, a town that still exists 21 centuries later. You can go there, as I have. It's still exactly where it was in David's day. It hasn't moved. The Holy Spirit gives us the exact place, but not the exact day. But that does not change the fact that there was a day when Jesus was born.

2. The Year of His Birth

A. How did we arrive at December 25?

In AD 525 Pope John I asked Dionysius, a Scythian monk, to prepare a calendar for the Western Church. He dated Christ's birth as January 1Year 754 of Roman time. 754 Roman time became AD 1. Christ's birth was thought to have occurred one week earlier, on December 25. The years before were calculated as BC (Before Christ) and the years after as AD (Year of Our Lord). There was no year zero. The calendar went from 1 BC directly to AD 1. There was only one problem with this scheme. Later research showed that Dionysius missed the date by at least 4 years because he miscalculated the death of Herod. Our present calendar is 4 years off. Thus this should be 2012, not 2016!

B. What Biblical Evidence Do We Have?

There are 2 major time markers we need to consider:

i. Luke 2: 1 - Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus (44 BC - AD 14)

Caesar Augustus was the greatest of the Roman emperors, greater even than Julius Caesar. When he came to Rome it was a city of brick and when he left it was a city of marble. Caesar Augustus was 19 years old when he came to power in 44 BC. He reigned as emperor for 58 years. His greatest single act— have the most lasting effect on world history—was to call for a census of the empire. The purpose of the census was to compile a list of property owners for the purpose of collecting taxes. 

When the time came to take the census in Israel, a compromise was made for Jewish custom. The Romans enrolled men where they were currently living, while the Jews counted families according to their ancestral hometowns. That would explain why Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem at a most inconvenient time—in the 9th month of Mary’s pregnancy.

ii. Matthew 2: 1 - Jesus was born while Herod was still alive

Josephus tells of a lunar eclipse in the spring of 4 BC when Herod died. Astronomers calculate that as happening on 13 March 4 BC. So Jesus must have been born sometime earlier. We know from history that Herod at this point is old and near death. He earned a reputation as a vicious, evil, diabolical, paranoid killer. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people: His brother-in-law, His mother-in-law, His wife.

It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end. Above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. In the year 7 BC Herod has been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn't have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him. They are sons by his late wife. He orders them put to death - by strangling. No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod's sow than his son.”

It was during those turbulent, bloody final years of Herod's reign that Augustus ordered a census taken of the entire Roman Empire. Looking at the evidence, we know that Jesus must have been born sometime before March - April 4 BC. The census itself could have been taken any time in the previous 2 years, giving us a likely date of 6 - 4 BC for the birth of Christ. Other key biblical indicators:

a. Matthew 2: 16- Herod ordered all the babies under 2 years of age to be killed. Does this mean that Christ had been born 2 years earlier? Possibly, but not necessarily. When the Magi arrive with their gifts, Jesus is in a house in Bethlehem, not a manger. But Mary and Joseph would have moved to a house as soon as possible. Herod tried to make sure that he got Jesus. After all, he didn’t know precisely when he had been born, only that it had happened before the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. Herod was a cruel killer. It was no big deal to slaughter the baby boys of Bethlehem. But if Jesus was less than two years old at the time, it means he must have been born 6 - 4 BC.

b. Luke 3: 23- Jesus was “about 30 years old” when he began his ministry. We know that Jesus began his ministry soon after John the Baptist began his, and John began in the 15th year of Tiberius (Luke 3: 1) - AD 26 - 29. The word "about" could indicate that Jesus was 27 - 33 years old. That means the earliest likely date for the birth of Jesus would be around 5 BC.

The one key date in all of this is the death of Herod in March 4 BC. We are not far from the mark if we conclude that Jesus was born shortly before that—within 6 months to a year at the most. A birth date in late 5 BC or early 4 BC is possible.

3. The Day of His Birth

More difficult to determine. Christians in the early centuries disagreed among themselves about the exact date. 2 dates came to be accepted as the most likely dates for the birth of Jesus:

A. December 25

Hippolytus (165 - 235) and Chrysostom (343 - 407) agreed.

B. January 6

This date was put forth by the Eastern Church as the likely date of Jesus' birth. It is regarded by some as the date the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. Both of these are “midwinter dates.” Not surprisingly, there have been several objections to these dates.

i. Since in the Roman calendar December 25 marked the Feast of Saturnalia, it is said that Christians simply took over a pagan holiday, with no historical connection to the birth of Christ. It's true there was a pagan feast on that day. So it is widely assumed that Christians "took over" the pagan holiday and made it their own. But the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance. If Christ was indeed born on December 25, it might have been a message to the world that Christ was greater than the pagan gods. A theologian - in 320 - “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

ii. Since Luke 2 says the shepherds were watching over their flocks outdoors, the birth of Jesus could not have happened in the wintertime because sheep don't graze in December in Israel. That's not always true. It could have been a mild winter. Since sheep were kept in the wilderness and only brought in during the winter, the fact that the shepherds were near Bethlehem may indicate that it was in fact winter time. One Jewish source says that sheep were kept outside year-round in Bethlehem to provide animals for the sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, a December date is at least possible.

4. A Tentative Conclusion

It is true that the Bible doesn’t tell us the exact date of Christ’s birth, which means that it is not an essential element of our faith. However, it does give us enough historical markers so that we can make an educated guess. Christ had to have been born before Herod’s death and after the Roman census was announced. His birth likely took place in the last few months before Herod’s death when the deranged ruler, wracked with pain, his evil mind churning out plot after plot, feared nothing more than the report of a child born who was “King of the Jews.” It makes perfect sense to believe that Herod’s vicious slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem was one of the final official acts of his horrific career. It all fits. Therefore, I would suggest that a date late in the year 5 BC or early in 4 BC is a possible time for the birth of Christ. It is not impossible that Christ was indeed born on December 25 in the year 5 BC.

Having said that, you may ask, “Does all of this really matter?” In one sense, of course, the answer is no. No doctrine of the Christian faith rests upon knowing the exact day and year of Christ’s birth. No stress is put upon the date of his birth in the New Testament. No one is ever told to celebrate Christmas.

The emphasis always rests on the fact of his birth, not the date.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Christianity is a faith based on historical facts. If Christ was truly born, if his birth is not a myth or a legend, if the story is really true, then the date of his birth does indeed matter. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour," - “There was a day, there was a place, and there was a baby who was the Saviour.”

Let us this Sunday rejoice in this great truth: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given. On that day so long ago, a very real day in a very real year—even if we can’t pinpoint it exactly--the eternal Son of God entered humanity, the Word Became Flesh and dwelt among us--God himself joined the human race!

It happened, it really happened. Christmas really happened. Because it happened, Good Friday really is good and Easter is even better. We celebrate the very real birth of a very real Saviour whose name is Jesus Christ. Let the party begin! Break out the drinks, open the presents, sing the carols, hug each other. This is our day, brothers and sisters. We were born for Christmas because on Christmas, Christ was born for us.

Joy to the world, the Lord is Come!

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