Every December 25, Christians around the world come together to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Christians and historians who have looked into the dates and times and records believe that this is not actually the date of Jesus’ birth. It is a replacement or alternative celebration to another pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice. Winter solstice was celebrated with a feast called Saturnalia where it was common to give gifts and decorate homes.
So, when was Jesus born? There is a great debate around the topic of the date of Christ’s birth. Between calendars changing, questionable record-keeping, and lost records, it's hard to get pinpoint specific dates. Some have used Scripture to follow the stars and others have used historical records combined with Biblical accounts and cultural traditions to narrow it down. The most widely accepted month is September (the general assumption is in the middle of the month) and the year is most commonly estimated to be around 3 B.C.
The calculations can be difficult because B.C. (Before Christ or Before Common Era) counts backward and A.D. (Anno Domini, invented by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century) counts forwards, but there’s no year zero which can throw off calculations.
What does the Bible say about Jesus' birth?
There are several facts laid out in Scripture that must have taken place.
Herod must have been king.
There must have been a census taken, ordered by Caesar Agustus who was the nephew and adopted heir to Julius Caesar.
It must have been a time of year where shepherds would have been out with their flocks (Luke 2:8) in the fields at night (it’s too cold in the winter to do this).
Elizabeth must have been pregnant with John the Baptist and in her sixth month before Mary became pregnant.
When he visited Mary, the angel Gabriel announced Elizabeth’s pregnancy as proof of miracles because of her age.
Based on this schedule and the story of John the Baptist’s conception in Luke 1, we can estimate his conception was in June or the second half of Sivan according to the Jewish calendar (Julian calendar, lunar calendar).
The criteria for the Messiah birth is that it must have been a virgin conception and virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14).
He must be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
Jesus was younger than 2 when Herod ordered all male babies under the age of 2 be killed (Matthew 2:16-18).
Herod died in the year 1 BC, according to more recent studies and understanding. Josephus, Herod's record keeper, was regularly off by a few years (he was not good at his job). It was previously thought and still argued that Herod died in 4 B.C.
According to the Magi and other biblical accounts, Jesus was younger than 2 years old when He, Mary and Joseph fled from Bethlehem and went to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23) Hosea 11:1 prophesied Jesus would be called out of Egypt.
Jesus was about 30 years old when he started His ministry according to Luke 3:23.
The Gospel of John describes 3 Passovers in the time of Jesus’ ministry, indicating His ministry lasting 3 years.
According to research Jesus’ estimated crucifixion date is April 3, 33 A.D. during Passover time.
Given all of this Scriptural data being backed by historical evidence we can fairly confidently say Jesus was born in the middle of September in the year 3 B.C.
Why do we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December?
In part, it is assumed that this is the date that the Magi met the baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and some support may be given from Rick Larson’s Star of Bethlehem to back this idea.
But in addition to that, in the year 336, Roman emperor Constantine declared December 25th the day for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in place of the Indo-European god of light, Mithra, whose cult was becoming popular amongst Roman soldiers.
It is unknown whether or not Constantine knew of the potential significance between that date and the day the Magi met baby Jesus and presented him with fine gifts or if we was simly competing with pagan festivals.
Jesus’ birth was never widely celebrated before December 25, 336 A.D. (Anno Domini). So Constantine, a Roman Emperor, is officially responsible for how and why we celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas day and the reason why it’s a Christian celebration.
Why is the date of Herod’s death important?
The date of King Herod’s death is important in discovering the date of Jesus’ birth because of all the things that happened within that time frame and what Luke recorded as the age Jesus began his ministry and the date Jesus died.
For example, if Herod had died in 4 B.C. that would mean Jesus would have been born at least in 5 or 6 B.C, possibly 7 B.C. to correspond with the information the Magi gave to Herod and his decree to kill all the male babies under the age of two, just to be sure the Messiah was killed.
The event was called the Massacre of the Innocents. It is estimated that between 12-20 baby boys were killed that day, but Josephus failed to record it because, allegedly, it wasn’t worth recording since “so few died”.
This gives you a glimpse into the level of wicked Herod “the Great” was and how much the Roman world despised the Jewish people. Some Orthodox Christians commemorate the day on December 28 for Western churches or December 29 for Eastern churches with a feast called Holy Innocents Day. Which could also give credibility to the idea that we celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December because of the Magi presenting gifts to Jesus mere days before the massacre.
We know from the Gospel of Matthew, that once Herod was dead, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph once again and told them it was safe to return home because “those who were trying to kill him here dead”.
It is estimated that this time frame was between a few months and up to 2 years. If we reach all the way up to the 2 year mark, this would have placed Jesus between the age of 3-5 at 4 B.C. This would make Jesus nealry 40 years old when he was crucified, causing Luke’s account of Christ Jesus’ age when he began his ministry way off base.
Why is the age of Christ when started his ministry important?
It’s important becuase that’s what was recorded in the Bible. In Numbers 4:3, it says that a priest must be of 30 years old in order to hold the senior office of priest.
Additionally, Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding of Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine at his mother’s insistence, Jesus hesitated telling her that “it was not yet time.”
Traditionally, Jewish weddings are held in Spring-Summer because they don’t conflict with any major holidays, plus flowers would be in bloom. Most agree Jesus’ birth month is in September. Perhaps the reason for his hesitation being due to timing was literally the timing. Perhaps Jesus was 29 at that point. There isn’t hard evidence backing that claim, but it does stand to reason given the other data we have been collecting.
Why doesn’t the Bible give the date of Jesus’ birth?
Also, in Jewish culture, birthdays are a huge celebration aside from the Bar and Bat Mitzva celebrated at age 13 for boys and 12 for girls.
Jesus probably didn’t talk much to his disciples about his birth day or have birthday parties, as it simply wasn’t a common celebration.
Additionally, when Luke, the scholar, was tasked with interviewing eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life for the man that hired him, the only person who would have really known the date of Jesus’ birth was Mary, His mother, who had died at that point.
Luke’s account was written between 63 and 68 AD, 30-35 years after His crucifixion. He had plenty of eye witness accounts for other events in the life of Christ and His teachings.
Does the exact date of Christ’s birth really matter?
No. What matters is that He was born of a virgin, lived a perfect and sinless life and gave Himself up for us, dying on the cross and rising again 3 days later so that everyone who believes in Him, won’t perish, but will have eternal life. Debates are fine, research is good, but we cannot lose sight of what is truly important, the reason for His birth, death and resurrection.