It doesn’t come as a surprise to most people that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th in the year 0. But if that’s the case, when was Jesus actually born? Is this a question we can even know the answer to?
To this day, Jesus’ actual date of birth remains unknown, despite numerous historic and scientific efforts. Based on the biblical literature, he was likely born sometime between February and October sometime before the year 4 BCE.
Clearly, there’s no definitive answer to the question. But it’s an interesting topic for speculation! As we continue down the rabbit hole, we’ll examine the historical details in the Gospel, we’ll take a brief look at failed scientific explorations, and we’ll talk about why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday at the end of December.
Why We Can’t Know Jesus’ Birthday
When was Jesus really born? We’re going to explore a lot of rabbit holes in this blog post. But right upfront, I want to give the simplest answer to the question. We just don’t know. The biblical authors were not interested in divulging this information. The few historical details that the Bible does reveal concerning the birth of Jesus are next to impossible to place on a timeline, making it difficult to say with any amount of confidence when Jesus was actually born.
The bottom line is the ancient world just wasn’t as interested in birthdays as we are today. Moreover, the ancient world wasn’t nearly as interested in exact historical details as we are today. So as much as we’d like to know exactly when we should be singing “Silent Night” and hanging stockings over our fireplaces, December 25th is as good as any date.
What Year Was Jesus Born?
Now that we have that voice of reason out of the way, we can get to the fun part of this post. Understand that from this point forward, this is all 100% speculation. But hey, speculating can be beneficial from time to time.
Instead of starting with the exact date, let’s widen our scope a bit. What year was Jesus born? Well, since the calendar centers on the birth of Jesus, we might think that Jesus was born in the year 1. Well, it’s not really that simple. Our year counting system was developed in the year 525 CE by Dionysius Exiguus. We could just take his word for it, or we could try to do some historical digging based on the birth narratives of Christ found in scripture. There are a few details that we can try to use as anchors in our investigation. But here’s a spoiler alert: there are problems with most of them.
Herod is King
This detail is given to us by both Matthew and Luke. Since their birth narratives (and the rest of their books) are so different, it’s unlikely that either author had access to the other author’s work. That being said, the fact that both authors corroborate the fact that the birth of Jesus took place while Herod was king is significant. It doesn’t necessarily mean this is historically accurate. But it does likely mean that neither author invented this information. It was readily accessible in the community’s narratives about Jesus. So where can we place this in history?
Herod the Great reigned as the King of Judea from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. If we are to believe that Jesus was born during his reign (and there’s really no reason to doubt that) then the latest we can date his birth is 4 BCE.
Now, let’s take this a step further. According to Matthew’s gospel, we can assume that Jesus was pretty young when Herod died. Jesus and his family had been living as refugees in Egypt from the time Jesus was born to the time Herod died in the year 4. Unfortunately, Matthew doesn’t tell us how long the young family lived in Egypt. It could have been months. It could have been years. We have very good reason to believe that Jesus spent most of his formative years in Nazareth, so they couldn’t have been in Egypt for very long.
So based on the fact that Herod was probably the king when Jesus was born, and that Herod probably died before Jesus was very old, we can roughly estimate the year of Jesus’ birth to be around 7-4 BCE.
This is the one historical detail that both Matthew and Luke agree upon. Next, we’ll look at one historical detail provided by each Gospel independently.
Slaughter of the Innocents
Let’s start with Matthew. One pretty significant historical detail Matthew discusses in his Gospel is what has often been referred to as the Slaughter of the Innocents. This is the reason why Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt in Matthew 2. Herod, aware of the prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth, decides to slaughter all male children in Bethlehem aged two and under. This should have been a standout event in ancient history, right? So surely there are other sources to corroborate this story and give us a rough estimate on the date. Well, aside from Matthew, there are exactly… zero sources that point to this event.
But that doesn’t mean this event didn’t happen. Here’s the thing. Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was a small village with maybe 300ish people. If we estimate that about 15% of the population were babies, we’re looking at maybe (and that’s a big maybe) 45 babies. Divide that in half to get about 20 baby boys, give or take a few. If a world leader in 2020 were to murder 20 babies, it would be a pretty big scandal. For an ancient ruler to kill 20 babies, especially to protect his royal lineage, no one would really bat an eye. And when you look at Herod the Great, he was apparently a pretty bad dude. Having 20 babies in a small village put to death wouldn’t have been enough to make the news.
All that said, this gives us no additional information in our quest to determine the year of Jesus’ birth. We’re still at our rough estimate of 7-4.
As we move to Luke, things get a bit more… problematic. Our beloved doctor presents himself as a Greek historian, ready to give us all the facts we need in order to come to an understanding of how Jesus of Nazareth transformed history. Yet as with all biblical literature, we need to read “history” through ancient eyes and not through our own. Luke’s purpose in giving supporting historical details was not for us to nail down the exact date of Jesus’ birth but to establish a sense of ethos. To let us know that the story he’s telling can be trusted.
Unlike Matthew, Luke situates Jesus’ birth in a specific historical event: a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. He even gives more details than that to help us narrow it down. This census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And this was the reason that Mary and Joseph, citizens of Nazareth, traveled to Bethlehem.
Okay cool, so have some more politicians. Maybe that means we can get a more precise date for Jesus’ birth. First, Augustus. He was the emperor in Rome from 27 BCE to 15 CE. So yes, no matter where you put the birth of Jesus, Augustus was the emperor. So what about Quirinius?
Quirinius became governor in the year 6. Boom! There we go. That means Jesus had to be born in the year 6 CE. Yes, you read that right. Common era. Nine years after the death of Herod the Great.
Okay, well the Quirinius detail was a parenthetical note anyway. Perhaps this was added later by scribes trying to pinpoint the census. Or maybe Luke was just wrong about Quirinius being the governor at the time.
Well, hold on. It gets trickier.
Let’s forget about Quirinius and talk about the census itself. According to Luke, the census in question was of the entire empire. There would have been other historical records indicating a census of the entire empire during the reign of Augustus, but Luke is the only source. That tells us there was no Empire-wide census taken by Caesar Augustus.
When Quirinius took over as governor of Syria in 6, he was tasked with conducting a census on a much smaller scale. This was just a census of Judea. That said, had Mary and Joseph been living in Nazareth at the time, as Luke’s Gospel tells us, they would not have been affected by this census.
Okay, let’s just say for the sake of argument that there was an empire-wide census taken by Augustus sometime between the years 7 and 4 BCE. Maybe every other record of the census was just lost forever. If this was somehow the case, Mary and Joseph would not have had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The point of a census was to count population sizes. It would have been pointless to order a census where each person had to go back to the place where they can trace their lineage back to.
Nobody is really quite sure what Luke is doing here. It could be that Luke was trying to take several disparate details that he knew to be true, connect them together, and locate them in a particular point in history. For instance, maybe he knew that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before and after Jesus’ birth, but he also knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It could be (again, this is all speculation) that Luke used a historical event that he knew of (the Judean census conducted by Quirinius) to somehow weave his story together, get Mary and Joseph in the right place at the right time, and create a sense of authority over the subject by pinning it to a historical event.
There’s a lot here that we just can’t know with any certainty. But what we can know is that Luke’s census is anything but helpful when trying to determine the exact year of Jesus’ birth.
So here at the end of that historical exploration, what can we say? Well, we’ve already said it a couple of times, and there’s not much more we can add to it. But for summary’s sake, I’ll say it one more time. Based on available historical data and literary corroboration, the best guess we have for the year of Jesus’ birth is anywhere between 7 and 4 BCE, during the reign of Herod the Great.
What Season Was Jesus Born?
Okay, so we’ve narrowed it down to a year or two. Or three. But can we get even more specific than that? Can we get closer to the exact date of Jesus’ birth? There is one super tiny detail in Luke’s Gospel that might give us a super tiny lead, allowing us to narrow down Jesus’ birthday to a few months. If that didn’t sound very confident, good. It’s not supposed to.
When Jesus was born, Luke tells us that the shepherds that came to visit him had been watching their flocks by night. Why would he tell us that small detail? This likely has more to do with setting the scene for the shepherds to meet the angels and see the heavenly host, which would have been the stars. Luke was not dropping hints for us about what time of the year this scene took place. However, even if that wasn’t his purpose, we can do a bit more speculation based on this fact.
If the shepherds really were watching their sheep by night out in the field, it’s unlikely that this scene took place in December, or in any of the winter months. So Jesus’ birthday, based on the shepherd activity, most likely took place sometime between March and early October.
What Can The Stars Tell Us About Jesus’ Birth?
There’s an exciting documentary I watched one time called The Star of Bethlehem. It’s an interesting journey that Rick Larson took in order to find the birth date of Jesus based on celestial activity. Essentially, Larson uses Matthew’s description of the Star of Bethlehem and searches the movement of the stars throughout history to try to come up with an exact date of Jesus’ birth. Based on his calculations, Larson dated the birth of Jesus to December 25th, in the year 2 BCE. However, others have used a similar approach and determined April 17th in 6BCE to be more likely.
While this is an interesting topic of discussion, that’s really all it is. A topic of discussion. Matthew was not historically or scientifically describing the Star of Bethlehem event in his Gospel. Any attempt to extract historical or scientific data is simply a modern imposition on an ancient text. Any attempt to use science in this way to come to a conclusive date for Jesus’ birth should be taken with several large grains of salt.
Why Do We Celebrate Jesus’ Birthday On December 25th?
So far we’ve spent a lot of time talking about when Jesus might have been born. We haven’t gotten very far, but it’s been a fun conversation to have. Now I want to take this post down another turn. If Jesus probably wasn’t born in the winter, why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
As with everything we’ve talked about, there’s a lot of speculation here. Christians began celebrating Christmas some time in the third or fourth century and no one really wrote down the reason for the December 25th date.
The argument I’ve heard my whole life is that Christians decided to start celebrating Christmas on the 25th because of a few different pagan holidays. The Christians wanted to Christianize the Roman culture. This theory does have some credibility, but only because it makes sense rationally. There’s nothing in the writings of the ancient church that lead us to believe this was the reason. So before we jump to the pagan tradition conclusion, I’d rather try to see what the early church says about the December 25th date for Christmas.
Again, there’s not much here. But there are some hints that can get us going in the right direction. But to get to those hints we have to forget momentarily about Jesus’ birthday and back the truck up about nine months. That’s because the early church was not nearly concerned with Jesus’ birth as they were with his conception. This makes sense. The miracle of Jesus’ birth wasn’t necessarily his birth. It was his conception. The incarnation event didn’t happen the day that Jesus emerged from Mary’s womb. God embodied himself in creation the day he was conceived. So what did the early church believe about the timing of Jesus’ conception?
I will warn you, it gets a little weird and hard to follow here. It’s not important that we believe the early church was right on all these points. This is just our attempt to understand how December 25th came to be celebrated as the day of the Christ mass.
In order for the early church to come up with a date for Jesus’ conception, they first had to come up with a date for his death. Why? I really don’t know. The best I can tell is that it was Jewish tradition that a prophet died on the same day that he was conceived. Perhaps this started with the belief that, since the Bible says things like “Moses lived 250 years,” he must have been born on the same day that he died. Otherwise, it would have said “Moses lived 249 years, 4 months, 13 days, 4 hours, and 48 minutes. Somewhere through the centuries, that belief changed to focus on conception. Perhaps due to the obvious fact that there were some prophets who did not die on their birthday. Whatever the reason for the belief, it was clear there was some kind of connection between the conception of Jesus and the birth of Jesus. For the most part, the ancient church accepted March 25th as the date of Jesus’ death. Therefore, it must also have been the date of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her conception of Jesus.
So now we can better understand the date of the Christ mass. Had Jesus truly been conceived on March 25th, we can count forward nine gestational months and land on… drum roll please… December 25th. In other words, Christmas is more precisely a celebration of Jesus’ due date than it is his actual birth date.
But, as we’ve already discussed in this post, Jesus was likely not born in the winter, which means he probably wasn’t born on March 25th. Which, by the way, is also the traditional day of Day 6 of creation, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and a whole slew of other important events in salvation history. Perhaps we can understand these ancient attempts at finding connections through all these dates more symbolically than anything else.
Here we are, at the end of this post. And I’m not sure anyone is any better off than we were at the beginning. But that was fun. Thanks for speculating with me and taking this strange journey through church history. If you’re reading this around Christmastime, I wish you the best this holiday season. Drop a comment below and let me know your thoughts! Grace & peace.
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