Dating Christ’s Birth

At this time of year the usual stuff comes out from anti-Christians arguing that since Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th of December (the Church stole that date from the pagan Saturnalia) the whole Christmas thing is a load of bunk. Of course, most of us Jesus Freaks already realise that the 25th of December is probably not the date of Jesus’ birth, but what day was it?

To start us going answering this, have a listen to this snippet from the BBC Radio 4 series “Making History”, broadcast last January (2007)

[display_podcast]

So let me summarise that:

  • May 7BC – Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the Constellation of Pisces
  • Feb 6BC – All the bright planets conjoin in Pisces (including an occultation)
  • 20th Feb 5BC – The moon and Jupiter and Mars and Saturn are close, again in Pisces
  • March 5BC – A SuperNova in the sky – the “Star of Bethlehem”

Pisces is important because in Babylonian astrology it signifies Judea.

So this leaves us with a date after March 5BC for the Wise men to set off on their trek to Jesus. That still doesn’t help us work exactly when Jesus was born. For this we turn to Luke’s Gospel. Luke 1:5 tells us that John the Baptist’s father Zechariah belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. We know that this division was the 8th of 24 to serve in the temple and this information helps us put a date on when Zechariah was in the temple – roughly the ninth or tenth week of the Jewish year or to put it another way (if this chart is right) towards the end of May 6BC. He goes home, has sex with his wife and they conceive (Luke 1:24). This would have been around early to mid June.

Now let’s leap forward to Luke 1:26. In the sixth month (after John’s conception) Gabriel visits Mary. Now if John was conceived early to mid June then this takes us to early – mid December 6BC. What’s important about this date? Well it’s bang smack during Channukah, the festival of lights. Channukah celebrates the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean revolt. During Channukah candles are lit every day to remind Jews that though there was only enough oil to light the flame in the Temple for one day, the flame lasted eight days allowing a full consecration of the Temple to take place.

Why is this important? Well, without a proper consecration YHWH couldn’t return to the Temple. The fact that the flame lasted eight days meant that YHWH would have returned to dwell in the Holy of Holies.

Let’s now look at what Gabriel says to Mary in Luke 1:28 – “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” These last 5 words are not insignificant. Just in the same way that YHWH returned to the Temple after the consecration to be with his people, so Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary on the last day of Channukah signifies that YHWH is once again with his people, but this time he is living inside a human, not a stone building. Jesus’ conception at the climax of Channukah, the Festival of Lights, is a clear sign that he is indeed the Light of the World.

And now we simply need to count 40 weeks forward from the end of Hannukah in 6BC. This takes us to the 14th of September 5BC which is the first day of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, surely the perfect day for the one who “dwelt (tabernacled) amongst us” (John 1:14) to be born. Sukkot remembers the Israelites in the wilderness before they entered Canaan, when YHWH was with them in the Ark. In the same way Jesus was born so that God would finally be with us forever (Immanuel).

Not convinced yet? Each day during Sukkot the worshippers in the Temple would have walked around singing Psalm 118:25-27:

O LORD, save us;
O LORD, grant us success.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.

The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine upon us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.

Assuming Jesus was born on the first day of Sukkot, that would have meant that these words would have been sung in the Temple every single day up until he was brought by Mary and Joseph for the customary offering, at which point Simeon would have taken him in his arms and said:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

Pop Psalm 118:25-27 and Luke 2:29-32 next to each other and you see even more the context of Simeon’s prayer:

O LORD, save us;
O LORD, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine upon us.
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
and for glory to your people Israel.

Of course Psalm 118 itself is a great messianic Psalm, full of prophecy of Jesus.

What about the shepherds? Well the one objection some might raise to this dating is that they wouldn’t have been shepherding lambs at that time of year (“What can I give him, poor that I am? If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb) but if you read Luke 2:8-20 carefully you’ll see that we only have “flocks”. There is no suggestion that there would have been baby lambs present so we can safely say it was highly reasonable for their to be shepherds in the hills at that time, especially given that it was coming up to a feast when the mutton would be needed.

And that just leaves us with the Wise Men. Assuming they had seen the super-nova of March 5BC (static in the sky) they would have got off their backsides when it faded in June / July to be replaced with a comet (moving across the sky) signifying that they should follow. This means they would have set off some time in the summer of 5BC, perfect timing to arrive in Jerusalem mid September just after the birth. This also give King Herod a few more months of life (he died in 4 BC) so the context of the murder of the Innocents fits as well.

So there we have it. Popping together the signs in the skies, the temple service of Zechariah and the Jewish festivals we can make an educated guess that Jesus was born approx the 14th of September 5BC. Not only that, we can see how such a date isn’t just a coincidence but rather is packed full of significance.

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