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It is commonly believed that December 25 was chosen as the day of Christ’s birth in an effort to absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival, which celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus). A careful analysis of Scripture, however, clearly indicates that Dec. 25 is an unlikely date for Christ's birth.
History convincingly shows that Dec. 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas not because Christ was born on that day, but because it was already popular in pagan religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun.
But is it possible that Dec. 25 could be the day of Christ's birth?
"Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus's birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement . . . picked November 18. Hippolytus . . . figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday . . . An anonymous document[,] believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus's birth on March 28" (Jeffery Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, "In Search of Christmas," Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58).
A careful analysis of Scripture, however, clearly indicates that Dec. 25 could not have been the date for Christ's birth. Here are two primary reasons:
First, we know that shepherds were "living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night," at the time of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:8). In that area, shepherds simply were not out in the fields at night with their flocks during December.
The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary, for example, explains that this passage argues "against the birth [of Christ] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted" shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night. It was simply too wet and cold for these events mentioned in connection with Christ's birth to have taken place in December.
Second, Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). The Romans were highly efficient administrators, and such a census would never have been undertaken in winter when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition. Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating.
The Bible makes no mention of Christmas, nor does it anywhere encourage any sort of celebration of Christ's birth. History records no such celebration until at least several centuries later, when the Catholic Church essentially adopted the pagan midwinter Saturnalia festival and the Dec. 25 celebration of the birthday of the pagan sun god Mithra as the supposed birthday of Jesus Christ in an effort to make Christianity more appealing to pagans.
Given the difficulties and the desire to bring pagans into Christianity, writes author William Walsh, "the important fact then which I have asked you to get clearly into your head is that the fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism" (The Story of Santa Klaus, 1970, p. 62).
If Jesus Christ was not born on Dec. 25, does the Bible indicate when He was born? We do find scriptural clues that point to the autumn of the year as the most likely time of Jesus' birth, based on the conception and birth of John the Baptist.
Since Elizabeth (John's mother) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36), we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. John's father Zacharias was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple during "the division of Abijah" (Luke 1:5)— designating a particular rotation in priestly service. Historical calculations indicate that this course of service corresponded to June 13-19 in that year (The Companion Bible, 1974, Appendix 179, p. 200).
During this time of temple service, Zacharias learned that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived (verses 23-24). Assuming John's conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John's birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus) brings us to the end of September as the likely time of Jesus' birth.
In any event, nowhere in the New Testament did Jesus tell us to observe His birth. Instead, He personally commanded us to commemorate annually His sacrificial death on our behalf (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).
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