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Jesus’s ‘real’ birthdate?
Dear Father Paul: I am 11 years old. My friend Annie says that Jesus was not born on Dec. 25 and that we don’t really know the exact date of his birth. That’s news to me. Is she right? — Jackie.
Dear Jackie: She is indeed right. But keep in mind that Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago in a small rural town to fairly poor, unimportant parents. Also, back then, paper birth certificates were not issued by the government. In fact, virtually no records of births at all were kept as they are today.
For about the first 300 years after Jesus lived, Christmas was not on the church calendar and was not celebrated at all. Instead, the early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus along with the Feast of Epiphany which always came (and still comes) on Jan. 6. The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance” and Epiphany became the celebration of the manifestation/appearance of Jesus as God’s Son as told in the Gospel of Luke with the visit of the three Magi. Some leaders of the church argued for a long time that it would somehow lower Jesus by celebrating his actual birthday in the same way that birthdays of Roman emperors were honored.
However, these views changed and an eventual choice of Dec. 25 for celebrating the birth date of Jesus came at about the year 273 AD. The date of Dec. 25 had no scriptural significance, but rather was at that time the date of a very popular Roman holiday already being celebrated by and enjoyed by people throughout the Roman Empire. Church leaders essentially decided to “commandeer” the date Dec. 25 and introduce a “new” holiday.
The “real date” of Jesus’s birth is thus unknown. But the Bible does give us at least a few clues.
First, Luke 2 tells us that “shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks” on the day of Jesus’s birth. This strongly suggests that Jesus was probably born, not in the winter (December) when it can be very cold, and even snowy in Palestine (a time when the flocks were not in the fields, but in shelter) but rather he was likely born in the summer or early fall.
Second, Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph, at the time of Jesus’s birth, were in Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. Such censuses were almost never held in the winter when the weather was bad and the roads were often impassable.
Third, Luke 1 tells us that Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, very shortly after the miraculous conception of Jesus and that Elizabeth was already six months pregnant with John the Baptist at the time of Mary’s visit. Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias, was a priest. Luke 1 tells us that Elizabeth and Zacharias learned of Elizabeth’s conception from an angel near the time when Zacharias’ group of priests under Abijah were serving their assigned days in the Temple, June 13 – 19 (dates according to Bible scholars). Add nine months and John the Baptist was probably born in mid to late March. Add the difference of six months in their ages and mid to late September becomes the most likely time of Jesus’s actual birth.
But how important is it for us to know the “exact date” of Jesus’s birth anyway when we know for absolute certainty that he was, indeed, born and that he lived?
The fact is that we don’t know the exact birthdays of lots of famous people but we know for sure that they lived. The fact that their birthdays are unknown does not in any way detract from their lives and their accomplishments. William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg and Anne Boleyn (mother of Elizabeth I) are just three of the many that come to mind in history.
So what did Jesus accomplish? Here, in part, is what Dr. James Allen said in his very famous poem, “One Solitary Life” written in 1926.
“He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place he was born. He did none of the things usually associated with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty three.
“Nineteen centuries have come and gone. And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race. And the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that have ever marched. All the navies that have ever sailed. All the Parliaments that have ever sat. All of the kings that have ever reigned put together. Have not affected the life of mankind on earth as powerfully as this one solitary life.”
Happy Birthday Jesus … And Merry Christmas to all.
Do you have a question? Email me at paul firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to answer your question in the paper.
[Father Paul Massey is Pastor Emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross in Fayetteville, Georgia. More information on the church, directions, service times and recordings of Sunday messages are at: www.holycrosschurch.wordpress.com.]