Wednesday, December 25

The Date of Christmas Revisited

Two years ago I posted regarding what was then my new-found realization that the widely held notion that the specific day of the year upon which Our Lord was born is unknown and that the prevailing celebration of that birth on 25 December owes more to pre-Christian pagan custom is incorrect, that there is indeed solid Biblical evidence, based on the Archangel's appearance to Zachariah, that the Nativity did take place some time in what according to the current Gregorian Calendar would be late December.  As has, in my mind at least, according to good medieval thinking, become a custom ("twice makes a custom"), I re-present that post, followed by a few notes and further references.
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This post was directly inspired by something I read on Frank Weathers' great blog, Why I am Catholic, "Because Tradition Says December 25 is When Christ Was Born" [link].  When I read that, I immediately thought about what I've pretty much accepted all my adult life, that we don't really know at what time of the year Jesus was born, that the 25 December date is just tradition that owes more to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia as well as the feast of the sun-god Mithras than anything specifically Christian.  In that entry for 23 December, Weathers doesn't really give much in the way of argument, but does give some good links, one in particular dealing with just that question of pagan antecedents:  In "The Dating of Christmas" [link], his entry for 18 December, the blogger for Roma Locuta Est reports on some of Pope Benedict XVI's attempts to reinstill some of the cosmic significance to our understanding of the events of Our Lord's life and death and effectively refutes the idea.  But it's the first Anonymous comment [link] to that blog entry that I found particularly intriguing, that there is indeed Biblical evidence to support tradition and the customary date. 

I've done a little more Internet research and come across the following article, which I'll briefly outline:  "Christmas Day:  Was Jesus Really Born on December 25th," by John J. Parsons. [link].

Consider the event of the Archangel Gabriel appearing to the priest Zechariah, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist: 

"In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah....  Now while [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.  ... And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord...."  (Luke 1:5, 8-9, 11 Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition). 

"The division of Abijah" was one of 24 groups of priests entrusted with fulfilling temple duties according to a rotating schedule through the year, on a weekly basis from Sabbath to Sabbath.  Each would serve twice a year according to a set schedule.  (Three major festivals would round out the year.)  The division of Abijah served during the eighth course, which because of the major festivals of Passover and Shavuot occurred during the tenth week of the Jewish year beginning round about the Spring Equinox.  It would then come around again 24 weeks later.  Remember that the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar depending on the nearest Sabbath to the Spring Equinox, so the specific dates vary in our modern calendar.  In any case, Gabriel appeared to Zechariah sometime around June or December according to our modern calendar. 

After receiving the message of the Archangel (and being rebuked for his hesitance in believing, but that's not important here), 

"[W]hen [Zechariah's] time of service was ended, he went to his home.  After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived...."  (Luke 1:23-24 RSV-CE). 


"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin ... and the virgin's name was Mary" (Luke 1:26-27 RSV-CE), 

and announced the birth of Jesus.  

Of course, we don't know how long "after these days" Elizabeth conceived, but the sense is that it wasn't very long.  I imagine that, long childless plus having already been rebuked by the angel, Zechariah would set about getting things in motion pretty quickly....  So, more than likely, Zechariah's encounter with the angel was about six months before Mary's.  We know that by the time Mary has gone "with haste" (verse 39) to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she already carries Our Lord in her womb (verses 42-43). 

John the Baptist was then born three months later, Jesus six months after that. 

We therefore have two possible time-lines: 


June:  Gabriel appears to Zechariah
December:  Gabriel appears to Mary
March:  Birth of John the Baptist
September:  Birth of Jesus Christ 



December:  Gabriel appears to Zechariah
June:  Gabriel appears to Mary
September:  Birth of John the Baptist
March:  Birth of Jesus Christ  

Huh-- Wha--? (B) is not what Parson presents as his second possibility, rather jumping directly to ancient tradition that John the Baptist was conceived just after Zechariah's temple service at Yom Kippur -- for which he gives excellent references, which ultimately results in the timeline given as (C) below.  But Yom Kippur is on the tenth day of the Jewish month Tishri -- usually September! -- not during the 34th week from the Spring Equinox, which would place it as I do above more like December.  (This seems to be a common error -- see these articles/blogs:  "Christmas, Pagan Romans, and Frodo Baggins" by Fr. Dwight Longenecker [link] and "Was Jesus Really Born on December 25th," by Dr. Taylor Marshall [link], and "Swade's" comment to the latter [which no longer seems to be there -- kgh 2013 -- in fact I think this post has been revised overall so the inconsistency is no longer there].)  How are we to reconcile this inconsistency?  Would Zechariah possibly have been serving during Yom Kippur? 

Well, as best I can figure based on what I find in another article ("The Biblical Case for a Late December Christmas," by one "Dr. Billy" [link]), Parsons conflates the initial counting of the priestly courses, established during the age of the First Temple, with the reality of what was the practice during the age of the Second Temple, assuming that there had been uninterrupted courses from the beginning.  There had, however, been the major interruption of the Babylonian Captivity. 

During the summer of 586 BC, on the 9th day of Av (late July), the First Temple was destroyed and the priestly courses ended.  When they were reestablished about seventy years later in the rebuilt Second Temple, the courses seem to have been restarted from that date -- 9 Av -- to commemorate that catastrophe.  So the cycle assumed above would be offset by about three months. 

This accords with evidence presented by the Jewish historian Josephus that when the Second Temple was itself destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 -- on 9 Av again! -- this second destruction occurred during the service of the first course of priests.  Therefore, it is likely that during the first century BC/AD, Zechariah's division of Abijah would indeed have seen service in September -- coinciding with Yom Kippur --  and again in March. 

Which gives us two more possible timelines:

September:  Gabriel appears to Zechariah
March:  Gabriel appears to Mary
June:  Birth of John the Baptist
December:  Birth of Jesus Christ 



March:  Gabriel appears to Zechariah
September:  Gabriel appears to Mary
December:  Birth of John the Baptist
June:  Birth of Jesus Christ 

I know of no sure way to prefer any one of these possibilities over another, outside of tradition which clearly favors (C).  But I think that traditional timeline linked to Yom Kippur is also supported by what Zechariah was doing during his temple service: 

"[I]t fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. ... And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense" (Luke 1:9, 11 RSV-CE).  

It's my understanding that the Jewish priests would enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple considered the dwelling place of the Most High, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  If that is what is being described here, that would indeed be the time, generally in late September, when Zechariah would have been fulfilling his temple service.  And what time would be more appropriate for the proximate events leading up (over thirty-odd years) to the greatest Atonement of all to be set into motion? 

Now, I'm not a specialist in any of these matters and I'm making assumptions that what I'm finding on the Internet is valid (a dubious scholarly method, but this is a blog, not a formal publication).  For me at least, however, this little exercise has brought a new understanding of how the Church's most ancient traditions that are 
in recent years  often dismissed as being no more than that have truly deep foundations and indeed support in scripture. 

Cheers -- Merry Christmas! -- and remember that this is just the first of twelve days of Christmas ... not the end! 

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Here are a couple more sources discussing this issue:  

  • Regarding the common assertion that Christians chose 25 December to co-opt pre-existing pagan custom, Jon Sorenson's post, "Why December 25" [link] points out that there's no evidence for any pre-existing pagan celebration specifically on 25 December before it is mentioned in AD 354, while Hyppolitus of Rome attests to the belief that Christ was born on 25 December as being current at least a full century and a half earlier (ca. AD 204).
  • I have just received as a perq for membership on his blog what appears to be a draft copy of Taylor Marshall's newest short book, God's Birthday:  Why Christ Was Born on Dec 25 and Why It Matters.  It appears to be an expanded version of his blog post linked above [link].  It's an interesting little book that very briefly draws on a variety of sources, both scholarly and traditional/spiritual, to argue strongly not just for a 25 December Nativity but also for the year being what we today call 1 BC.  That latter depends on a revision to the wide consensus (based on the testimony of AD 1st c. Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus) that Herod the Great died in what we today call 4 BC, necessitating an earlier (5, 6, or even 7 BC) birth-year for Our Lord.  While I am very sympathetic to such a revision I don't see the modern consensus for 4 BC being overturned any time soon.  It's not something I'm knowledgeable enough to render a scholarly opinion on -- oh, heck, this is a blog, not a scholarly paper, so I will say even more strongly that my gut feeling is Marshall and the revisionists are right and Josephus was wrong -- Herod did not die until our AD 1.
  • Dealing with the same issues, the weekly Bible Study group that my wife and I kind of unofficially oversee recently viewed a fascinating DVD presentation by Rick Larsen regarding the Star of Bethlehem [link].  Using modern planetarium computer software and a close reading of Scripture, Larsen fits that event into a much larger scale Cosmic "Starry Dance" that spans the very history of the Universe and ties into the events of the Crucifixion.  It's compelling stuff, but my main comment here is that while Larsen nails down the Christmas Star "stopping" over the village of Bethlehem (from the perspective of Jerusalem) on 25 December, his determination of the year is 2 BC.  He, of course, also believes Herod lived on past 4 BC.  Larsen also does not believe that event signifies the Birth of the Savior, but rather -- as hinted above -- the Magi in Jerusalem being led to where the Child was, a Child that was approximately six months old at the time, having been born the previous June.  That's his interpretation of various stellar conjunctions leading up to the "big event," conjunctions which over a span of months led the Magi to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem, one which I don't share.  But the compelling presentation of the cosmic events is fascinating enough to warrant deep consideration.

Again, I don't know if there is a way to reconcile the diverse evidence and different interpretations, but my belief has grown even stronger that Our Lord was indeed born at the very least sometime in late December, and several years later than usually considered.  This truly is "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

Cheers! -- and Merry Christmas!

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