When was Jesus born? December 25th? Some other time? What about all of the celebrations? Aren’t they just borrowed from pagan festivals?
Today we started our min-sermon series called “The Cradle to the Cross” and examined one phrase from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son,
We talked in depth about “the fullness of time” and in a throwaway comment, I said that December 25th was probably as good as any date for the birth of Jesus. Some of you questioned this (well done) and so here’s my rationale:
No one really knows
The truth is we can’t be certain when Jesus was born. Compare this to when Jesus died, where we have very conclusive proof of the day He died, when He was born is really up for conjecture.
There is a very popular theory that the Roman mid-winter Saturnalia festival and the “Feast of the Birth of Sol Invictus” that took place on December 25 were substituted for more Christian ideas when the Roman Empire became Christianised in the early part of the 4th Century. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a cultural spin-off from these pagan solar festivals.
I have a few problems with this:
- Within scholarly circles, there is a great deal of scepticism surrounding this view.
- A December 25 date for the birth of Jesus was written about before the 4th Century (making the “cultural substitution” impossible).
- This idea is not found in any early Christian writings, indeed they spoke about Jesus being unlike any other (not a copycat substitution for paganism)
- It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that the birth of Jesus was deliberately set at the same time as pagan festivals. (Dionysius bar-Salibi seems to be the first to claim that the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday).
- Many of the traditions we have don’t actually come from Italy. The Christmas tree, for example, is late medieval druidic rather than Roman.
Whilst it could be true that elements of both festivals found their way into Christian celebrations, the actual date might really derive more from Judaism than from Roman paganism. For example, in the 7th Century Pope Gregory the Great instructed pagan temples to be converted into churches and their festivals turned into feasts for Christian martyrs.)
So, when was Jesus born?
Well, again it’s hard to be sure, but here’s what we do know:
- the first mention of a date for the birth of Jesus was at the turn of the first century (a time when Christians were counter-cultural and not borrowing from pagan traditions). Yet none of those dates was actually 25th December.
- The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from around 300AD where Christmas Day is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae, meaning: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”
- In about 400 AD, Augustine of Hippo mentions a group of Christians called the “Donatists”. Now, these really interest me because in the 4th century they were Donatist Christians already celebrating Christmas on the 25 December in Northern Africa. Why this interests me is because these Christians were what we might be called “traditionalists”. They didn’t like change! What happened to this group is that they fled Rome in around 320 AD and, because they were stubborn traditionalists, seemed that whatever tradition they held to in Rome, they took with them to Africa. This means that among the Donatists at least, in Rome, the 25 December date was already being celebrated as early as the third century.
Jesus Death and Birth are linked
So here’s where it gets really interesting. In around 200 AD Tertullian (160-220AD) wrote that the Roman calendar date for Jesus execution was 25th March – which is, of course, exactly nine months before December 25 – and that there was a belief prevalent among the Jews that Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25. Again, this idea appears in the 4th century in Northern Africa. Augustine (354 -430AD), too, was familiar with this belief stating that Jesus was born on December the 25th.
No none. For me the fact that the early church Fathers wrote about a Jesus birthday as 25th December isn’t conclusive, just interesting. I don’t buy the popular misconception that Christmas is Saturnalia or Sol Invictus in disguise. The idea that the death and birth of Jesus are linked is a possibility (particularly if you read Scripture through more Eastern lenses). In the end, we are still left with the question: When was Jesus born? We cannot be entirely sure. What we DO believe is that at the right time, at the appointed time, God sent forth his Son to save us from our sins.