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What does the Bible actually say about the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth? Is the traditional manger scene, with Christ being born on Christmas Day and the shepherds visiting accurate, or is there more we should understand?
While the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke describe the true story of Jesus’ birth, they do not describe the Christmas story so popular at this time of year.
Luke states in Luke 1:1-4 that he interviewed those who had witnessed, or were knowledgeable of the events of Christ’s life, and that information was the basis for his Gospel.
He begins the story of Jesus’ birth with an account of God’s dealings with Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:6-7). Zacharias was of the priestly “course of Abijah,” with his week of service described by Luke taking place around the time of the feast of Pentecost, which generally falls in late May to mid-June on our calendar. His priestly assignment or “division” helps us determine the general time frame of Christ’s birth.
We are told an angel appeared to Zacharias telling him his wife, Elizabeth, will fall pregnant and bear a son, to be called John. This baby is John the Baptist who played such an important role in announcing the Messiah. Elizabeth probably conceived within a couple of weeks after the angelic prophecy and ‘hid herself’ for five months (Luke 1:23-24) most likely until mid- to late November.
The scene then shifts to the Messiah’s birth, when in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy the angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary and announces she is to give birth to Jesus Christ (Luke 1:26-28).
We see, then, that Mary was probably three months pregnant when John was born, possibly in late March or early April. So as Jesus Christ was born six months later this would take us to late September or early October—in the autumn of the year, not in December, as so many today mistakenly assume.
There is also the additional evidence of the Roman census which indicates Jesus was born in the autumn rather than in winter. Caesar Augustus decreed a census to be taken while Quirinius was governing Syria (Luke 2:2-3) and no rational Roman official would have scheduled a census in winter, when people were required to travel. For an agrarian society such as that of first-century Judea, a census in the autumn, when the crops would be safely gathered in, would have made much more sense.
Continuing in Luke’s account, we find further proof that Jesus wasn’t born in winter. Verse 8 tells us, "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” This shows these events did not take place in winter. The common practice of shepherds was to keep their flocks in the open fields from April to October, but in the cold and wet winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them. The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary (1971) says 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.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary explains that, “as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light upon this disputed point.”
Matthew and Luke reveal the true story of the birth of Jesus Christ and the general timing of when it really occurred. John the Baptist was born in the spring. His cousin Jesus was born six months later—probably in late September, possibly early October.
Have you ever thought it curious that although two of the Gospel writers describe the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, the other two don’t cover the event, and none of the Gospels give a date for the birth of Christ, nor do any of the biblical writers says anything about commemorating His birth?
We do find, however, explicit commands to commemorate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and death on our behalf (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
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