Posted by Andreas Köstenberger
When was Jesus born? And how can we know? Could it be that Jesus really was born on December 25, the day we celebrate Christmas? While many have disparaged the traditional date of December 25, J. Stormer, PCC [Pensacola Christian College] Update (Winter 1996), cited by G. E. Veith, “Evidence December 25 is the right day,” has argued for December 25 as a possible date of Jesus’ birth on the basis of the course of temple duties for the clan of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5, 8; cf. 1 Chron 24:10).
The Argument for December 25
The argument goes as follows. The sons of Abijah ministered in the eighth month of the Jewish year (which started with Nisan anytime between early March and early April), that is, sometime between mid-October and mid-November. Luke 1:24 says that after Elizabeth conceived, she kept herself in seclusion for five months. Then, in the sixth month of her pregnancy came Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that the Lord Jesus would be conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26–27). Counting from mid-October to mid-November (see above), the announcement to Mary and Jesus’ conception in her womb would have come sometime between mid-March and mid-April. A normal gestation period of nine months would place Jesus’ birth toward the end of December, making a birth date of December 25 entirely possible. (In addition, Stormer makes an argument from when lambs are born requiring shepherds to be out in the fields at night [cf. Luke 2:8], an argument which is ancillary and which we will not engage here since, unlike the above-described argument from the assigned temple duties, it is not put forward on the basis of Scripture.)
Assessing the Argument for December 25
In principle, we are certainly open to the type of argument presented by Stormer. We do believe that there is nothing in the NT that rules out a winter date for Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless, in the ultimate analysis, we find Stormer’s argument unconvincing for the following reasons. First, his work is too anecdotal and makes some big assumptions that are not adequately documented. More importantly, his argument has some serious problems with regard to their handling of the available sources and evidence. He argues that the 24 courses of the priests each served for one month. However, he did not document that claim, and the OT does not indicate the length of priestly service. Clues in the Mishnah suggest that each course served for one week—not one month—by rotation (see, for example, the note on m. Taanith 2:6 in Danby’s translation of the Mishnah). Josephus and the Talmud confirm that the courses each lasted one week (Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979], 119). If, then, the priestly service lasted one week, not one month at time, this causes their entire chronology to break down. Most likely, therefore, each course of the priests served for one week, from Sabbath to Sabbath, two different times each year. Since we cannot be sure whether the course mentioned in Luke was the first or second annual course, and other difficulties are present as well, the information concerning Zechariah’s temple service in Luke 1 is hardly adequate for pinpointing the time of Jesus’ birth.
An Alternative View
More likely correct are scholars such as Oscar Cullmann, Der Ursprung des Weihnachtsfestes (Zurich/Stuttgart: Zwingli, 1960), who points to the uncertainty regarding the date of Jesus’ birth in the first three centuries of the Christian era and believes the traditional date was determined by the church sometime in the fourth century (Cullmann specifies AD 325–354 as the most likely range, p. 24). The date was most likely chosen as the Christian equivalent to the Roman holiday of sol invictus (“the invincible sun god”), celebrated at the time of winter solstice, the message being that Jesus was Christians’ true invincible “sun” (see also the helpful collection of data in Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, rev. ed. [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998], 320–28).
As mentioned, this does not necessarily mean that Jesus could not have been born in December, or even on December 25, but that the specific argument set forth by Stormer is found wanting. In addition, in light of the argument advanced by Cullmann and others, greater historical probability attaches to the traditional date having been chosen, not primarily on the basis of historical data, but in relation to the surrounding culture. In any case, our Christian faith should not rest on Christmas (which, after all, with all its trappings is only a human tradition), much less on the date of Christmas as December 25, but rather on the reason for the season—the virgin-born, divine-human Son of God, who came to save sinners by dying a sacrificial, substitutionary death on the cross and rose again on the third day (1 Cor 15:3–4).
NOTE: This post was written together with Charles Quarles, co-author of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown.